THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

1013 posts categorized "Medieval"

03 September 2020

The Holy Kinship

Add comment

The brief references to the family of the Virgin Mary and Christ in the Bible inspired the development of extra-biblical traditions that were popular in the Middle Ages. In his account of the birth of the Virgin Mary in The Golden Legend, the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine described the Virgin’s immediate family in some detail, in relationships that have come to be known as the Holy Kinship.

One of the most intriguing and rare depictions of these connections occurs in the extensive prefatory material to the Queen Mary Psalter (Royal MS 2 B VII). In a recent study, only four other Gothic manuscript images of the Kinship were identified (Stanton 1996). This lavish manuscript was made probably in London in the first quarter of the 14th century, and illustrated by one very talented artist.

A page from the Queen Mary Psalter, featuring an illustration of the Holy Kinship on multiple registers.
The Holy Kinship in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

According to Voragine’s account, the Virgin Mary’s mother, St Anne, had three husbands, Joachim, Cleophas and Salome, and had a daughter with each of them, all called Mary. In the Psalter, Anne with each of her husbands appears in the lowest register of the image.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing St Anne and her husbands.
Detail of St Anne and her husbands, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

Directly above are the daughters of each marriage together with their husbands, in this case identified with their names written in the bar below that separates the two registers. Here St Joseph and the Virgin Mary are on the left, Alphaeus and the second daughter Mary (known as Mary Cleophas) in the centre, and Zebedee and the third Mary (known as Mary Salome) are the right.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing the daughters of St Anne and their husbands.
Detail of the daughters of St Anne and their husbands, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

The figures in the top two registers are the sons of these unions. In the second, the Virgin is shown again, holding the Christ Child on her lap. Next to them is St James the Less, one of the four sons of Mary Cleophas, and next to him St James the Great, the son of Mary Salome.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing the figures of the Virgin and Child, St James the Less and St James the Great.
Detail of the Virgin and Child, St James the Less and St James the Great, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

In the top register Christ appears on his own to the left, here in Majesty, holding a globe of the world. Next to him are Sts Simon and Jude, two further sons of Mary Cleophas who became apostles, and St John the Evangelist, the other son of Mary Salome.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing the figures of Christ and Sts Simon, Jude, and John the Evangelist.
Detail of Christ, Sts Simon, Jude, and John the Evangelist, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

The caption written in Anglo-Norman French below confirms the relationships:

Seint anne fu mariez a iii mariz a Joachim a Cleophe a Salomee. E ele enfaunta les iii maries. Joseph out la p[ri]mère. Alpheus la ii Zebedeus la iii. La p[ri]mère marie aporta ih[esu] c[ri]st. La secu[n]de porta seint Jake alphei e sent symo[n]. e seint Jude la iii porta seint Jake de galice Zebedeie seint Johan evvangeliste.

Saint Anne was married to three husbands: to Joachim, to Cleophas and to Salome. And she bore children, the three Marys. Joseph married the first [Mary], Alpheus the second, Zebedee the third. The first Mary carried Jesus Christ. The second carried St James the son of Alphaeus [the Less] and St Simon and St Jude. The third carried St James of Galicia [the Great] by Zebedee and St John the Evangelist.

(Transcription and translation by Chantry Westwell)

This French summary is similar to a Latin poem given in the Golden Legend:

Anna solet dici tres concepisse Marias,
Quas genuere viri Joachim, Cleophas, Salomeque.
Has duxere viri Joseph, Alpheus, Zebedeus.
Prima parit Christum, Jacobum secunda minorem,
Et Joseph justum peperit cum Simone Judam,
Tertia majorem Jacobum volucremque Johannem.

Anna is usually said to have conceived three Marys,
Whom her husbands Joachim, Cleophas, and Salome begot.
These [Marys] the men Joseph, Alpheus, and Zebedee took in marriage.
The first bore Christ; the second bore James the Less,
Joseph the Just, with Simon [and] Jude;
The third, James the Greater and the winged John.

(Translation by Ryan 1993, II, chapter 131, p. 150)

An opening from the Queen Mary Psalter, featuring illustrations of the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship.
The Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinsip miniature, the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, ff. 67v-68r

This diagrammatic presentation emphasises the importance of the Virgin and Christ by picturing each twice. Perhaps this also relates to the image on the facing page, which is a large Tree of Jesse. The four registers of the Holy Kinship correspond with the levels of the Tree. At the bottom the recumbent Jesse, the ancestor of David, is at the same level as Anne, the ancestor of the Virgin. Unlike most representations of the Tree of Jesse, this one doesn’t feature the Virgin or Christ who appear instead in the Kinship diagram.

A page from a 12th-century English miscellany, featuring he earliest known account of the Holy Kinship written in Old English.
The earliest known Old English account of the Holy Kinship: Cotton MS Vespasian D XIV, f. 157v

The text of the Golden Legend as it relates to the Holy Kinship is derived from earlier commentaries. The earliest known account in Old English is included in a 12th-century copy, now Cotton MS Vespasian D XIV:

Anna 7 Emeria wæron gesustre. Of Emeria wæs geboren Elisabeth, Johannes moder þæs fulhteres. Of Anna wæs geboren Maria Cr[is]tes moder. 7 þa þa hire were Joachim wæs forðfaren, þa genam Anna æfter Moyses æ oðerne were, þe wæs genæmd Cleophas. Of þan heo hæfde an oðre dohter, seo wæs eac genæmd Maria æfter þære ærre dohter, þas man cleopeð Maria Cleophe for heo wæs his dohter. Ða beweddede Cleophas Iosephe his broðre Marian þæs hælendes moder þe wæs his steopdohter. 7 his age ne dohter Mariæn he geaf Alpheon, of þære wæs geboren Jacob se læsse, 7 se oðer Joseph. Ðes Jacob wæs geclypod Jacobus Alphei for he wæs Alphees sune. Ðaget æfter Cleophas deaðe Anna æft[er] þære lage genam þone þridde were, þan wæs to name Salomas, of him heo hæfde þa þridde dohter, 7 þa heo genæmden eac Marien, for þære deorewurðnysse of þære forme dohter, 7 forþan þe se ængel brohte þone name. Seo wæs bewedded Zebedeo, of þære wæron geborene Jacob se mycele, 7 Joh[ann]es se godspellere. Maria wæs læsse Jacobes moder, 7 Maria wæs mare Jacobes moder 7 Joh[ann]es þæs gospelleres, 7 Maria seo Magdalenissce sohton urne Drihten mid smerigeles inne his þruge þa þa he bebyriged wæs.

Anna and Emeria were sisters. Of Emeria was born Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Of Anna was born Mary, mother of Christ. And when her husband Joachim had passed on, then Anna according to the law of Moses, took another husband, who was named Cleophas. From him she had another daughter, who was also named Mary after the older daughter, whom her husband called Mary Cleophas because she was his daughter. Then Cleophas married Mary, mother of the Saviour, who was his step-daughter, to his brother Joseph. And he gave his own daughter Mary to Alpheus, from whom was born James the Less, and another Joseph. This James was called James Alpheus, because he was Alpheus’ son. After the death of Cleophas, Anne following the law took a third husband, who was named Salome, from whom she had a third daughter, and she was also named Mary, because of the preciousness of her first daughter, and because an angel brought her the name. She was married to Zebedee, from whom were born James the Great and John the Evangelist. Mary was the mother of James the Less, and Mary was the mother of James the Greater and John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene sought our Lord with ointment inside his tomb when he had been buried.

(Transcription and translation by Calum Cockburn)

A page from a 12th-century commentary, featuring marginal drawings of three pairs of busts of the Holy Kinship.
Busts of the Holy Kinship, Arundel MS 36, f. 13r

The earliest English depiction of the Kinship has been identified by Park and Naydenova-Slade as marginal drawings in a 12th-century commentary from Kirkham Priory in Yorkshire, now Arundel MS 36. This manuscript was digitised as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 project, available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, and on the Bibliothèque nationale de France project website.

Here the images are limited to busts of three couples, each labelled with their names below: at the top, Joachim and St Anne, in the centre, St Joseph and the Virgin with the dove of the Holy Spirit, and at the bottom, Alpheus and Mary Cleophas. The images appear in the margins of a prologue to the following text entitled De Nativitate Sanctae Mariae. This letter or prologue does not describe the Holy Kinship. Instead, Park and Naydenova-Slade suggest that its inclusion is a visual commentary on a passage in the Nativitate on the children of St Joseph.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. by William Granger Ryan, 2 vols (Princeton: University Press, 1993), II, chapter 131.

Anne Rudloff Stanton, 'La Genealogye Comence: Kinship and Difference in the Queen Mary Psalter', Studies in Iconography, 17 (1996), 177-214.

David Park and Mellie Naydenova-Slade, ‘The earliest Holy Kinship image, the Salomite controversy, and a little-known centre of Learning in northern England in the twelfth century’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 71 (2008), 95-119.

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

30 August 2020

Elizabeth Elstob, Old English scholar, and the Harleian Library

Add comment

Elizabeth Elstob (1683–1758) is considered to be the first female scholar of Old English and one of the earliest advocates of women’s education. She was supported in her scholarly pursuits by Robert Harley (1661–1724), 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, the founder of the Harley collection, and his Library-Keeper Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), another renowned scholar of Old English. 

The youngest of eight siblings born to a merchant family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Elizabeth initially received private education under her mother’s tutelage. When her mother died in 1691, she was sent to her uncle Charles Elstob, Prebendary of Canterbury, who was opposed to the education of women. Despite his disapproval, Elizabeth began studying ancient and modern languages. She subsequently moved in with her brother William, a clergyman and scholar in Oxford, who introduced her to the leading Old English scholars of their day. In 1702, they moved to London where she began publishing major works on the Old English language.

An engraving of a woman’s portrait representing Elizabeth Elstob

An engraved portrait of Elizabeth Elstob: Add MS 29300, f. 39r

Among Elizabeth’s publications were an edition of the Latin Athanasian Creed with an Old English interlinear gloss (1708); an edition and translation of the Old English Life of Pope Gregory the Great by the Benedictine monk Ælfric of Eynsham (1709); and The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715). The latter was the first grammar of Old English published in modern English. Up to that point, scholarship on Old English had been mostly in Latin, so this was an important publication for making the study of Old English more accessible to students and amateur female scholars alike. While preparing a complete edition of Ælfric’s Homilies, she worked with her brother William on his editions of the Old English adaptation of Orosius’s History of the World and Old English legal texts.  

The initials ‘W. E.’ and ‘E. E.’ drawn in and decorated with penwork in red ink

The initials of William Elstob and Elizabeth Elstob from a transcript of Textus Roffensis which they collated with the original manuscript in 1712: Stowe MS 960, f. 3r

During her career, Elizabeth received the support of Robert Harley at a time when he practically was Prime Minister and enjoyed great proximity to Queen Anne (1665–1714). On two occasions, she petitioned Harley for financial support from Queen Anne in order to publishing her edition of Ælfric’s Homilies. She was successful in her second attempt, as evidenced from a letter in which she thanked him ‘for so great a Favour’.

A letter written in brown ink in the hand of Elizabeth Elstob

Elizabeth Elstob’s letter to Robert Harley: Harley MS 7524, f. 30r

During her career, Elizabeth was in close contact with Humfrey Wanley, Library-Keeper of the Harleian collection. Aside from consulting manuscripts herself at the Bodleian Library and the Cottonian Library, she made ample use of Wanley’s catalogue of Old English manuscripts that he had published in 1705 with the support of Robert Harley. Her respect for his work is clear from a letter dated 1709, in which she explained that she abandoned her plan to make an edition of the Psalms in Old English after learning that Wanley was already working on an edition of the Bible in Old English:

‘I had a design upon the Psalms, but since that, Mr. Wanley tells me he is preparing the whole Bible: of which the Psalms make a part, I cannot allow myself to interfere with so excellent a person, tho’ he has been so generous as to offer me, all the assistance he can give’

A letter written in brown ink in the hand of Elizabeth Elstob

Elizabeth Elstob on Humfrey Wanley: Add MS 29300, f. 40r

Wanley also greatly valued Elizabeth’s scholarly work. He transcribed a manuscript at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, for her publication on the Old English Life of St Gregory, and he incorporated a number of her works into the Harleian Library. Elizabeth sent him a genealogy of the Elstob family to the year 1710, and a separate descent of her mother’s family, which traced her ancestry back to Brochwel Ysgithrog, a 6th-century king of Powys. Wanley was clearly impressed with the genealogies that she had expanded by researching and citing Old English and Latin sources. He inserted them into a 17th-century manuscript with pedigrees from the Palatinate of Durham; in cataloguing the manuscript, he attributed them to ‘that ingenious virgin gentlewoman Mrs Elstob’ (A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, London, 1808–12), II, p. 29).

A drawing of a Roman pillar, including roundels with the names of Elizabeth Elstob’s mother’s ancestors. Next to the pillar are citations from historical sources in Latin and Old English, and a coat of arms in colours

The ancestry of Elizabeth Elstob’s mother Jane Hall, drawn up by her for Humfrey Wanley: Harley MS 1397, f. 238r

Wanley also expressed his appreciation when, in 1712, Elizabeth presented him a facsimile reproduction on parchment of an early 12th-century manuscript containing the 'Annals of Rochester' (Textus Roffensis), an important source for the study of law in early medieval England. Wanley paid her five guineas and catalogued the manuscript, noting that 'Mrs Elstob hath finely imitated the Hand-writing of the [...] Textus Roffensis' (Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts, II, p. 272).

A page with a medieval script copied by Elizabeth Elstob, featuring an introduction in red, initials in green and red, and a decorated initial featuring Christ and a dragon in green, purple, and red against a yellow background.

Elizabeth Elstob’s facsimile of Textus Roffensis, featuring an initial decorated with Christ and a dragon: Harley MS 1866, f. 9r

The Harleian Library also obtained a second parchment manuscript with a facsimile of Textus Roffensis written and decorated by Elizabeth Elstob.

Elizabeth Elstob’s reproduction of King Alfred’s law texts, written in minuscule script, organised in two columns, and featuring numerals in red ink, and initials in red and purple

Elizabeth Elstob’s facsimile of King Alfred’s laws: Harley MS 6523, f. 9r

In 1715, Elizabeth’s scholarly career came to an abrupt end when her brother died suddenly. She was left with financial debts from their joint publishing projects and without any support, since Queen Anne had died before sending her the funding secured by Robert Harley. Perhaps in an attempt to flee her creditors, Elizabeth left London for Evesham (Worcestershire) where she lived in relative anonymity as a teacher at an elementary school for girls. She never returned to her scholarship and left her magnum opus, the complete edition of Ælfric’s Homilies, unfinished: her manuscript volumes survive at the British Library as Lansdowne MSS 370–374 and Egerton MS 838. However, Elizabeth Elstob did remain attached to the Harley collection in some small way. From 1739 until her death in 1758, she was governess to the children of Margaret Cavendish Bentinck (1715–1785), duchess of Portland, who, as granddaughter of Robert Harley, had inherited the Harley collection. Perhaps Elizabeth felt some comfort in returning to the family who had supported her scholarly pursuits, and whose collection, formed under her friend Wanley's direction, preserved her work.

 

Mechtild Gretsch, 'Elizabeth Elstob: A Scholar's Fight for Anglo-Saxon Studies', Anglia, 117 (199), 163–300, 481–524.

Jacqueline Way, '"Our Mother-Tongue": The Politics of Elizabeth Elstob's Antiquarian Scholarship', Huntington Library Quarterly, 78:3 (2015), 417-440.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 August 2020

Digitisation of the Sherborne Missal

Add comment

Weighing as much as the average 5-year-old child and containing more paintings than most art galleries, the Sherborne Missal is a titan of a manuscript. The breath-taking quality of its artwork has inspired art historians to declare it, 'the unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), and 'beyond question the most spectacular service book of English execution to have come down to us from the later Middle Ages' (Janet Backhouse).

It is particularly exciting, then, to announce that this exceptional manuscript is now available to view in full as a pilot project in our Universal Viewer.

Feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin, with miniatures of the Virgin Mary and Benedictine monks
Feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin, with miniatures of the Virgin Mary and Benedictine monks: Add MS 74236, p. 524

The Sherborne Missal (Add MS 74236) is a service book containing all the texts required for celebrating Mass on the different feasts, holidays and saints’ days throughout the year. It was made for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, Dorset, between approximately 1399 and 1407.

We know a surprising amount about the people responsible for creating the Sherborne Missal, largely because it calls attention to its patrons and makers at every opportunity. The book was probably commissioned by Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne from 1385–1415, whose image appears in the manuscript about a hundred times. It is hard to think of another medieval person for whom such a remarkable number of portraits survive. These portraits may also provide some insight into Brunyng’s tastes and personality. In two instances he is depicted with a group of small hunting dogs, which scholars have suggested may be his personal hounds. On many of the feast days he is shown wearing exceptionally fine vestments of brocade, embroidery and jewels.

A collage of detail pictures of Abbot Brunyng with his dogs (left) and in a selection of fine vestments
Portraits of Abbot Brunyng with dogs, p. 492 (left), and wearing a selection of fine vestments, pp. 220, 266, 279 (upper), pp. 262, 264, 51 (lower) (details)

On a number of occasions Brunyng is depicted together with Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury from 1396–1407, who may also have played a role in the patronage of the manuscript or was perhaps included to emphasise Sherborne Abbey’s close relationship with the bishopric.

Portraits of Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury, with his personal arms, and Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne, with the arms of Sherborne Abbey, on the page for Christmas Day
Portraits of Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury, with his personal arms, and Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne, with the arms of Sherborne Abbey, on the page for Christmas Day: Add MS 74236, p. 36 (detail)

The principal artist, a Dominican friar named John Siferwas, included his portrait and coat of arms several times in the manuscript. In one extraordinary instance, he depicted himself floating in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the branch of a rose bush which forms the lower border to the page, in the same way that angels are represented throughout the manuscript. Another of his surviving works is the Lovell Lectionary (Harley MS 7026), commissioned by John, Lord Lovell, for presentation to Salisbury Cathedral.

Self-portrait of John Siferwas, the artist of the manuscript, floating in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the border of roses
Self-portrait of John Siferwas, the artist of the manuscript, floating or kneeling in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the border of roses: Add MS 74236, p. 225 (detail)

The Sherborne Missal also provides portraits of the master scribe, John Whas, who was probably a monk of Sherborne Abbey. Whas recorded his name in several colophons, for example, emphasising the physical effort of scribal work: 'John Whas the monk has worked to write this book, and rose early, his body becoming much wasted in the process' (Librum scribendo Ion Whas monachus laborat, Et mane surgendo corpus multum macerabat, p. 661).

Colophon of John Whas the scribe
Colophon of John Whas the scribe: Add MS 74236, p. 661 (detail)
Portraits of John Whas, the scribe, and John Siferwas, the artist, on the page for Easter Day
Portraits of John Whas, the scribe, and John Siferwas, the artist, on the page for Easter Day: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

With decoration on nearly all of its 694 pages, the Sherborne Missal contains thousands of images. It is particularly famous for its series of 48 highly illusionistic depictions of British birds in the margins of the Ordinary and Canon of the Mass, most of them inscribed with their names in Middle English. These birds are unique in medieval manuscript illumination both for their ornithological accuracy and for the rich variety of species shown.

Details of birds: kingfisher, robin, skylark, female house sparrow, starling, spotted woodpecker
Kingfisher (kyngefystere), robin (roddock), skylark (larke), female house sparrow (sparwe hen), starling (stare), spotted woodpecker (wodewale): Add MS 74236, pp. 383, 382, 369, 377, 385, 373 (details)

Local pride in Sherborne and its venerable history is a running theme throughout the manuscript. The Preface of the Mass features a series of portraits of 25 bishops of Sherborne from the creation of the diocese in 705 to the transfer of the bishopric to Salisbury in 1075. Clearly the Abbey was eager to emphasise its historic significance as the original site of the bishop’s seat.

Details of bishops: St Aldhelm, Forthere and Asser
St Aldhelm and Forthere, the 1st and 2nd bishops of Sherborne, and Asser, 11th bishop of Sherborne, from the Preface of the Mass: Add MS 74236, pp. 363 and 366 (details)

There is also a series of roundels in the lower borders of the Ordinary and Canon of the Mass that contain portraits of historic benefactors of the Abbey. They hold charters recording their gifts, the large seals hanging down into the margins.

Details of kings Cenwalh and Cynewulf holding charters
Benefactions of kings Cenwalh and Cynewulf, from the opening of the Canon of the Mass: Add MS 74236, p. 381 (detail)

Local Dorset saints are similarly prominent in the manuscript, such as St Juthwara, a pious virgin of the 6th century whose relics were housed at Sherborne Abbey. It is said that after being beheaded by her stepbrother, St Juthwara picked up her head and put it back on.

The martyrdom of St Juthwara, with a praying Benedictine
The martyrdom of St Juthwara, with a praying Benedictine: Add MS 74236, p. 489 (detail)

Select pages of the Sherborne Missal were previously published online as part of the Library's Turning the Pages project in 2002. We are now delighted to make the entire manuscript available to view through a pilot project on the Library’s Universal Viewer, a new viewer which offers a range of improved features. This pilot will be extended to include further collection items in due course.

The Sherborne Missal was purchased by the British Library in 1998 with generous support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 August 2020

Online resources for medieval manuscripts

Add comment

In November 2018, we launched The Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 Project. This ground-breaking collaboration between the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France digitised a total of 800 medieval manuscripts from our two collections. The British Library’s curated website, Medieval England and France, 700–1200 now includes its own downloadable list of all 400 British Library manuscripts that were featured in the project, in spreadsheet format and as a PDF. This list can be accessed from the website’s About page.

An author portrait of St Dunstan writing at a desk, holding a quill pen and knife, with a background made of gold leaf
An author portrait of St Dunstan: Royal MS 10 A XIII/1, f. 2v

The bilingual site (available in both English and French) also offers our readers a wealth of resources on the early medieval period, including:

  • Six broad themes covering art, history, science, religion, making manuscripts, and medieval manuscript collections today.
  • 30 articles on a variety of subjects, from medieval science and maths to early medical knowledge, bindings, and monastic libraries.
  • 148 collection items, providing short introductions to some of the most stunning manuscripts digitised during the project.
  • Ten people pages, focusing on a selection of the major figures and authors active in England and France during the Middle Ages, from Bede and Anselm of Canterbury, to Emma of Normandy and William of Malmesbury.
  • A video series that explores all the steps needed to make a manuscript, narrated by Patricia Lovett MBE, as well as two additional videos discussing scribal culture and the role of law in early medieval England, featuring Professors Julia Crick and Nick Vincent.
  • Two animations based on accounts of the crane and the whale from an early medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751).
  • A glossary that defines important terms relating to medieval culture and art.
  • An overview of the project itself and the collaboration between the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France.
A detail from a medieval collection of texts on computus and astronomy, featuring diagrams that demonstrate the technique of finger-counting
Diagrams used to demonstrate the technique of finger-counting: Egerton MS 3314, f. 73r

We hope you enjoy exploring the Medieval England and France 800-1200 site and all the manuscripts digitised in the project!


Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

08 August 2020

Ludicrous figures in the margin

Add comment

‘Hours of the Virgin, decorated with shields of arms, and ludicrous figures in the margin’, was the description of Harley MS 6563 provided in the 1808 catalogue of the Harley Collection. Our catalogue records have come on a long way since then, but the lively marginal antics in this little Book of Hours still stand out. Already popular with viewers on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, they can now be appreciated in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Harley MS 6563 was made around 1320-1330 in Southern England, perhaps London, probably for a woman owner. Originally the manuscript must have been extensively illuminated, but sadly all the pages containing decorated initials or miniatures were removed in the early modern period. Yet almost all of its remaining pages feature drawings from the topsy-turvy world of medieval marginalia. In honour of its digitisation, let’s dive down the parchment rabbit hole to explore some of its marginal subjects and their possible meanings.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit running into a hole and emerging the other side.
A rabbit runs into a hole on one side of the page and emerges on the other side: Harley MS 6563, f. 33r-v

While endlessly inventive, this kind of playful marginalia found in manuscripts of the 13th-14th centuries tended to draw on certain reccurring themes which were common to medieval art of other media such as stained-glass windows, wall paintings, misericords and stone carvings, as well as popular literature of the time. The meanings of these themes are much debated and there are no definite answers, but this uncertainty makes marginalia all the more fun to puzzle over.

Crafty foxes

One much-loved character who makes a prominent appearance in the margins of this Book of Hours is the crafty fox, trickster and master of disguise, who was well-known to medieval audiences from the Renard the Fox stories and other animal fables. Two double-page scenes in the manuscript show a fox preaching to a flock of birds. The fox leans on a pilgrim’s staff and gestures emphatically while the birds gaze on in gullible wonder. Later in the manuscript we see the conclusion of the tale: a fox running away with an unlucky member of the congregation in his jaws.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox preaching to a flock of birds.
A fox preaching to a flock of birds: Harley MS 6563, ff. 54v-55r
A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox running with a bird in its mouth.
A fox runs away with a bird: Harley MS 6563, f. 6v

In another double-page scene the fox appears as a schoolmaster, birch and rod in hand, teaching a dog pupil who holds a book up to his face as though attempting to read. As with his preacher guise, the fox once again assumes a position of authority to misguide the ignorant and unwary.

Such scenes might be understood as social satires commenting on the corruption and folly of the human world. There may be a lesson to be learned here, as the Nun’s Priest concludes his retelling of a Renard the Fox story in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘Taketh the moralite, goode men’ (take up the moral, good men)—although he is conveniently vague about what the moral actually is.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox teaching a dog.
A fox teacher instructs a dog pupil: Harley MS 6563, ff. 22v-23r

Animal musicians

One particularly well-represented subject in this Book of Hours is animal musicians. A whole musical troupe of cats, pigs, dogs and rabbits is shown in concert over a series of five leaves in the Penitential Psalms, and others also appear throughout the manuscript.

The animal musicians probably belong to the popular theme in medieval marginalia of ‘the world turned upside down’. The idea that animals are unable to appreciate music was commonplace in the Middle Ages. A proverb inherited from classical antiquity via Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy referred to someone who fails to understand something as ‘the ass which cannot hear the lyre’. Similarly, a Middle English poem listing impossibilities includes, ‘whan swyn be conyng in al poyntes of musyke’ (when swine are knowledgeable in all points of music), as we might say ‘when pigs might fly’. The animal musicians might therefore represent the impossible becoming reality.

Details of animals playing musical instruments from the marginalia of Harley MS 6563
A cat playing a fiddle (f. 40r), a cat playing bagpipes (f. 40v), a boar playing a portative organ (f. 41r), a boar playing a harp (f. 41v), a dog playing a hurdy gurdy (f. 43r), a cat playing a psaltery (f. 43v), a rabbit playing a drum (f. 44r), a rabbit playing a trumpet (f. 44v): Harley MS 6563

Fighting snails

Another example of the inversion of reality is the ever-popular subject of figures fighting snails. In medieval marginalia, snails are notoriously hostile, as we see in this Book of Hours where a man attempts to fend off a large advancing snail with a club. On the following page, another man has cast down his sword and shield and begs for mercy before a ferocious mollusc.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man with a club fending off a snail.
A man with a club fends off a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 61v-62r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of an armed man surrendering to a snail.
An armed man surrenders to a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 62v-63r

Warrior women

But if anyone is able to triumph over such a formidable adversary, it is probably this naked woman warrior who is shown charging with a lance towards a snail. As part of the reversal of the social order in medieval margins, women, who were often expected to be subservient in medieval society, are sometimes shown as powerful militants and victors. Similarly, on another page a man surrenders to an armed woman.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a naked woman fighting a snail.
A naked woman warrior vs a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 86v-87r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man surrendering to an armed woman.
A man surrenders to an armed woman: Harley MS 6563, ff. 63v-64r

Battle of the cats and mice

Role reversal is also the theme of the series of images for which this manuscript is best known: the battle of the cats and the mice. Over an eight-page narrative sequence, an epic war unfolds. First the mice besiege the cats’ castle, hurling rocks from a trebuchet and attempting to scale its walls. Then the cats attack the mouse castle, one firing a crossbow and another being crushed by a falling rock from the battlements. Next, a cat archer and a mouse lancer go head-to-head, and finally the mouse succeeds in impaling the unfortunate cat.

This triumph of the mice over the cats may also be understood as social commentary. In Boccaccio's Decameron, the artist and trickster Bruno paints a fresco of a battle of cats and mice in the house of the foolish doctor Simone. The doctor considers it a very fine piece, little knowing that Bruno and his friend Buffalmacco are actually swindling him. In the story, the cat’s defeat by the mice may reflect the wealthy doctor’s humiliation by the artists.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of mice besieging a cat in a castle.
Mice besiege cat castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 71v-72r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a crossbow attacking mice in a castle.
Cats besiege mouse castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 72v-73r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a bow and a mouse lancer taking aim at each other.
Cat archer and mouse lancer take aim at one another: Harley MS 6563, ff. 73v-74r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat impaled by a mouse lancer, begging for mercy.
Mouse warrior has impaled the cat who begs for mercy: Harley MS 6563, ff. 74v-75r

Rabbit huntsmen

The idea of the hunted becoming the hunter also underlies the manuscript’s images of a rabbit huntsman, who in one instance takes aim at a very sorry-looking spotty dog. The same theme of killer rabbits taking revenge on the hounds is found in the margins of the Smithfield Decretals.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit setting out and returning from a hunt.
A rabbit hunter sets out with a full quiver of arrows and returns with his quarry: Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit hunter aiming at a dog with a bow and arrow.
A rabbit archer takes aim at a spotty dog: Harley MS 6563, ff. 96v-97r

The rich man and Lazarus

Yet there is also religious imagery with serious moral messages, such as scenes of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar from the Gospel of Luke (16:19–31). First we see three fashionably dressed diners at a feast shooing away a beggar on the facing page while dogs lick the sores on his legs. On the following pages, the rich man is shown on his deathbed accompanied by a devil, while the beggar is shown dying outdoors with an angel at his side.

This parable is also an instance of role reversal in that the rich man suffers torments in death, whereas the beggar is received into comfort, yet here the message is clearly sincere. That at least one of the manuscript’s owners found it disturbingly real is suggested by the way in which they attempted to rub out the figures of the devil and angel.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the rich man's banquet and the beggar Lazarus.
The rich man’s banquet and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 10v-11r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the death of the rich man and Lazarus.
The death of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 11v-12r

To us it may seem strange to place scenes of cartoon violence alongside religious imagery with such urgent moral messages. But for medieval audiences, perhaps this was all part of a visual culture in which the sacred and profane, the entertaining and didactic, and the ludicrous and meaningful were more intricately intertwined than today.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 August 2020

Treasures on Tour: an Armagh gospel-book on display in Belfast

Add comment

Last year we announced the digitisation of two of the Library's most important medieval Irish manuscripts, the Harley Irish Gospels. This year we're loaning one of them, the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), to the Ulster Museum in Belfast as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme.

Medieval manuscript miniature of an ox surrounded by a patterned border
The ox symbol of the evangelist St Luke, Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

As we discussed in the previous blog post, the manuscript has a number of  fascinating features. Its detailed colophons reveal that it was made by a 28-year-old scribe named Máel Brigte, working in Armagh in 1138. Máel Brigte also mentioned contemporary events in his colophons, including a great storm that happened two years earlier and the killing of King Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, which he called 'a great crime'.

Medieval manuscript miniature of a lion surrounded by a patterned border
The lion symbol of the evangelist St Mark, Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

The main texts of the manuscript are the Gospels, which are splendidly illustrated with evangelist symbols and decorated initial letters painted in vibrant colours. Unusually, the animal symbols of the evangelists are depicted sideways, as though standing on a vertical ground. Perhaps this was designed to make the figures fill the space, or to remind the viewer to mentally reorient themselves before beginning to read the Gospel text.

Medieval manuscript page containing a poem
Irish poem on the Three Magi, Harley MS 1802, f. 5v

In addition to the Gospels, the pages of the manuscript are filled with other rare and interesting texts, including commentaries, poems and exegesis. A particularly intriguing example is an Irish poem on the names and descriptions of the Three Magi (f. 5v), which seems to be one of the earliest texts that describe one of the magi as being black. According to the poem, Melcho was the elder magus, who had grey hair, wore a yellow mantle, a green tunic and speckled sandals, and presented gold; Caspar was youthful and beardless, wore a purple mantle, yellow tunic and green sandals, and presented Frankincense; while Patifarsat was a dark-skinned man (fer odor) who wore a white-spotted mantle and yellow sandals, and presented myrrh.

On f. 9v another Irish poem describes the appearance of Christ and the Apostles, stating that Christ had brown hair and a long red beard.

Medieval manuscript page with a decorated XPI initial
Chi-rho initial, Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

The Gospels of Máel Brigte is now on display in the Saints and Scholars gallery at Ulster Museum for the next three months. The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries across the UK to share our collections with thousands of people every day, and the Library will be announcing additional loans as part of Treasures on Tour over the coming months.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

01 August 2020

The maps of Matthew Paris

Add comment

Matthew Paris (b. c. 1200, d. 1259) was a monk at the Benedictine Abbey of St Albans in Hertfordshire who was renowned for his work as a chronicler, scribe, and artist. His entry in the St Albans Benefactor’s Book (Cotton MS Nero D VII), produced a little over a century after his death, describes him as an ‘incomparabilis monographus et pictor peroptimus’ (a writer without equal and an excellent artist). Numerous surviving books show evidence of his hand and the influence of his distinctive style of drawing and painting. His notable works include the Chronica Maiora, a universal history of the world, and Historia Anglorum, a history of England, both of which he copied and illuminated himself.

A portrait of Matthew Paris writing at a desk, from The St Albans Benefactor’s Book.
A portrait of Matthew Paris (Matheus Parisiensis), from The St Albans Benefactor’s Book (Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 50v detail)

In addition to his other accomplishments, Paris is also widely regarded as one of the greatest cartographers of his time. All of the British Library’s examples of his maps have now been digitised and can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Maps of Britain

Paris’ maps of Britain are significant in the history of medieval cartography as they represent some of the first attempts to depict the actual physical appearance of the country. Earlier maps more commonly represented the relationship between major regions or cities in schematic diagrams that provided little indication of distance or topography. Four of Paris’ maps of Britain survive, three housed at the British Library, and the fourth in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 16.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, showing Scotland, Wales, and much of Northern England.
Matthew Paris’ Map of Britain, 1250-1259, St Albans (Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 5v)

The first map appears in a manuscript containing copies of the Chronica maiora and Historia Anglorum written in Paris’ own hand (Royal MS 14 C VII). Though it is simpler than other surviving examples, the map still includes a number of significant geographical features, such as the River Thames, the Isles of Man and Wight, Snowdon in North Wales (with a drawing of the mountain), and the Orkneys off the coast of Scotland. Paris also features a route running across the country from the south coast all the way up to Durham. The major cities of Dover, London, and York (here known by its Latin name Eboracum) are accompanied by small drawings of castles or forts, with crenellated battlements.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, partly damaged in the Cotton Fire 1731.
Matthew Paris’ Map of Britain, formerly part of the Collectanea of John of Wallingford (Cotton MS Julius D VII/1)

The second of Paris’ maps was originally drawn on a single parchment leaf that was then folded, cut, and inserted into another volume, known as the Collectanea of John of Wallingford (d. 1258). The map was damaged in the Cotton Fire of 1731 and is now bound separately (as Cotton MS Julius D VII/1).

John of Wallingford was the infirmerer of St Albans Abbey and a contemporary and friend of Paris. His Collectanea is a miscellany that includes a huge variety of material: medical recipes in Middle English, copies of charters and historical texts, and even a table for predicting the time of high tide at London Bridge, as well as a number of drawings by Paris himself. John added his own additions and annotations to the map of Britain in black ink, and he used the reverse of the leaf for the text of his Chronicle, which features a number of tables and diagrams.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, with the surrounding seas in turquoise, landmarks and place names in blue and red, and rivers in dark blue and red.
Matthew Paris’ Map of Britain, from a collection of historical works, c. 1255-1259, St Albans (Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1)

By far the most detailed of Matthew Paris’ surviving maps of Britain once belonged to a manuscript of Paris’ Abbreviatio compendiosa chronicorum Anglie (Brief Abridgement of the Chronicles of England), a summary of his Historia Anglorum that covers the period in English history from the end of the first millennium to around 1255. It is now bound separately (as Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1).

The map effectively provides a visual complement to Paris’ Historia. Over 250 named places appear – all of which are mentioned in the text itself – including over 80 cathedrals and monasteries, 41 castles, and at least 30 ports, as well as most of Britain’s major mountain ranges and rivers. Paris included depictions of both Hadrian’s Wall, captioned 'murus dividens anglos 7 pictos olim' (the wall once separating the English and the Picts), and the Antonine Wall, or 'murus dividens scotos 7 pictos olim' (the wall once dividing the Scots and the Picts).

You can explore all the map’s details in this wonderful interactive annotated copy designed by Dr John Wyatt Greenlee (Cornell University).

The Road Map of Britain

A page from Matthew Paris’ Book of Additions, showing a drawing of map, marked with four Roman roads running across Britain during the 13th century.
A road-map of Britain in the 13th century, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum, 1250-1259, St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 187v detail).

An altogether different type of map is found in Paris’ Liber additamentorum (Book of Additions), a collection of original literary treatises and historical documents he assembled to support his research. It is orientated with Occidens (West) at the top and Oriens (East) at the bottom, and instead of marking topographical features, it outlines four major military roads established during the Roman occupation of Britain, which were still in use during Matthew Paris’ lifetime: Fosse Way (running from Exeter to Lincoln), Ermine Street (London to York), Ickneild Way (Bury St Edmunds to Salisbury) and Watling Street (Dover to Chester).

Itineraries

An opening from Matthew Paris’ Book of Additions, featuring an itinerary map of the route between London and Naples.
An itinerary map, showing the route between London and Naples, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum, 1250-1259, St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D I, ff. 183v-184r)

Paris also created a number of expanded road maps known as itineraries, which detail the routes undertaken by travellers going on pilgrimage to Italy and the Holy Land. There are two housed at the British Library, the first also appearing in Paris’ Book of Additions. Drawn across a single opening in the manuscript, this itinerary outlines a potential route that could be taken between London and Naples. It features the various cities, ports, abbeys and monasteries, and other major sites that a pilgrim might expect to encounter on their journey. These are all connected by a series of lines drawn in red, with accompanying inscriptions that indicate how long it would take between each stop on the way. A particularly notable inclusion is a drawing of the hospital found at the top of Mount Cenis, the main Alpine pass that pilgrims would take to reach northern Italy.

A detail from an itinerary map designed by Matthew Paris, showing a drawing of a hospital at the top of Mount Cenis in the Alps.
The hospital marked at the top of Mount Cenis in Paris’ itinerary map from London to Naples, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum, 1250-1259, St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 184r detail).

The second itinerary depicts the route between London and Palestine. It is organised according to the same principles as the Nero map, but it is also far more complex and ambitious in its design, running across multiple leaves, with numerous detailed representations of the different sites featured on the pilgrimage route. Parchment flaps have also been stitched to some of the pages, to allow for additional drawings and provide alternative routes and information for travellers. The final section of the map is dominated by a large outline of the city of Acre – one of the only remaining Crusader strongholds in the region by Matthew Paris’ time – and other important sites in the Holy Land, such as Jerusalem (labelled ‘CIVITAS IERUSALEM’), Mount Sinai, and Bethlehem, which appears with its star shining in the sky above.

An opening from an itinerary map designed by Matthew Paris, showing an outline of the city of Acre, with added parchment tabs.
The final section of an itinerary map of the route between London and the Holy Land, showing an outline of the city of Acre, as well as the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem (Royal MS 14 C VII, ff. 4v-5r)
 
A detail from an itinerary map designed by Matthew Paris, showing an outline of the city of Acre in the Holy Land.
A detail from an itinerary map designed by Matthew Paris, showing an outline of the city of Acre in the Holy Land (Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 4v detail).
 

We hope you enjoy exploring all the Matthew Paris maps as much as we have on our Digitised Manuscripts site!

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further Reading

Connolly, Daniel K., The Maps of Matthew Paris: Medieval Journeys Through Space, Time and Liturgy (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2009).

Gilson, J.P., Four Maps of Great Britain Designed by Matthew Paris about A.D. 1250, Reproduced from Three Manuscripts in the British Museum and One at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (London: British Museum, 1928).

Harvey, P. D. A., 'Matthew Paris's maps of Britain', Thirteenth Century England, 4 (1992), 109–21.

Harvey, P.D.A., Medieval Maps of the Holy Land (London: The British Library, 2012).

Lewis, Suzanne, The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica majora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

28 July 2020

Picturing the Old Testament in the Rochester Bible

Add comment

So far in this series of posts on the great Romanesque Bibles held by the British Library, I have focused on those made on the Continent: the Worms Bible, Arnstein Bible, Stavelot Bible and Floreffe Bible. Today’s blog is about an English example, from the former cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester, in the second quarter of the 12th century. Unlike the others, which are all in two huge volumes, only part of the Rochester Bible survives, now divided between the Royal collection in the British Library and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Both portions are fully digitised and available online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site (Royal MS 1 C VII), and on the Walters Art Museum's site (MS W.18).

Together these two parts constitute one of only eleven known extant English Romanesque display Bibles. Although it is slightly smaller than the Continental manuscripts featured, measuring 395 x 265 mm, the Rochester Bible is still a larger format than most other manuscripts from the period. The Royal portion of the Bible includes only the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth and I–IV Kings (I–II Samuel and I–II Kings in modern Bibles), while the Walters portion contains the New Testament. Four of the seven books have historiated initials (letters containing identifiable scenes or figures) depicting events described in the first chapters of these books. These historiated initials occur only in the Royal portion of the Bible, at the beginning of four of its seven books: Joshua, and I, II and IV Kings.

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial F with an illustration of the Old Testament figure Elkanah and his wives.
Historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives at the beginning of I Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 58r
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Peninnah.
Historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives at the beginning of I Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 58r (detail)

In contrast to the incredibly complicated theological artwork of the Stavelot Bible and Floreffe Bible, the illustrations of these books initially appear to be more straightforward. For example, I Kings (I Samuel) begins with a discussion of Elkanah (Elcana in the Vulgate) and his two wives. Each is labelled in the initial with their names above. To his left, Peninnah (Phenenna) holds two children, and in contrast, the childless Hannah (Anna), to his right, holds one hand to her face, perhaps in a gesture of sorrow. This is a succinct summary of the first verses: ‘There was a man of Ramathaimsophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elcana, . . . And he had two wives, the name of one was Anna, and the name of the other Phenenna. Phenenna had children: but Anna had no children’. (I Kings 1: 1-3).

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial P with an illustration of Elijah's Ascension.
Historiated initial of the Ascension of Elijah at the beginning of IV Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 154v
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of Elijah's Ascension, with the Old Testament prophet depicted riding a chariot.
Historiated initial of the Ascension of Elijah at the beginning of IV Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 154v (detail)

Similarly, the initial at the beginning of IV Kings illustrates the second chapter of the text, which describes how, after seeing ‘a fiery chariot’ with ‘fiery horses’, Elias (Elijah) ‘went up by a whirlwind into heaven’ (IV Kings 2:11). Yet as C.M. Kauffmann has noted, the choice of this subject for the illustration rather than an event from the first chapter of the book underlines the significance of the Ascension of Elijah as a prefiguration of Christ’s Ascension.

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial E with an illustration of two men with a book, perhaps Moses giving the book of law to Joshua.
Historiated initial of Moses and Joshua at the beginning of Joshua, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 2v
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of two men with a book, perhaps Moses giving the book of law to Joshua.
Historiated initial of Moses and Joshua at the beginning of Joshua, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 2v (detail)

The imagery for the book of Joshua may be viewed as another layered interpretation of the text. The initial shows two men conversing: one young and beardless, and the other with grey hair and beard. The older man is handing the younger man a book. In order to fit the figures into the initial ‘E’, the artist presented the scene sideways—a relatively rare solution—and used the bar of the ‘E’ as a column, creating a setting within a building. Unlike Elkanah and his wives, the figures are not labelled. Nevertheless, it seems likely that this scene represents the transmission of the law from Moses to Joshua, as set out a few verses later:

Take courage therefore, and be very valiant: that thou mayst observe and do all the law, which Moses my servant hath commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayst understand all things which thou dost. Let not the book of this law depart from thy mouth: but thou shalt meditate on it day and night, that thou mayst observe and do all things that are written in it: then shalt thou direct thy way, and understand it. (Joshua 1:7-8).

So this too, could have Christian significance as a reference to the Old Law that will be fulfilled in the New. It also echoes the actions of the blessed man of Psalm 1, who meditates on the law day and night, and who was understood by some Church Fathers to be a prefiguration of Christ. Further, as Lucy Freeman Sandler remarked, this verse begins next to the decorated initial in the right-hand column of the page, and the word ‘law’ (legem) appears only three lines lower than the image of the book in the initial (private communication).

Together, therefore, these initials enhance not only the elegant presentation of the Word, but also its interpretation.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading:

Walter Cahn, Romanesque Bible Illumination (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982), no. 33.

C. M. Kauffmann, Romanesque Manuscripts 1066-1190 (London: Harvey Miller, 1975), no. 45.

C. M. Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery in Medieval England 700-1550 (London: Harvey Miller, 2003), pp. 87, 94, pl. 62, Appendix 2.

And our earlier blog post on the Rochester Bible.