Medieval manuscripts blog

1062 posts categorized "Medieval"

30 July 2021

Chroniclers of History at St Albans Museum

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During the medieval period, the monastery of St Albans was recognised throughout England for the quality of its chroniclers. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, monks from the foundation recorded the events of English history, especially those that affected the Abbey and its holdings in the surrounding area. They included such figures as Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), William Rishanger (b. 1250), Matthew Paris (d. 1259), Thomas Walsingham (d. c. 1422).

A new exhibition, Chroniclers of History, has opened at St Albans Museum, which explores the lives and works of these men and the importance of their monastery. The British Library is delighted to be one of the major lenders to the exhibition, and the following six books from our collections will all be on display at the museum’s Weston Gallery from 30 July - 31 Oct 2021.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a pen-and-ink drawing depicting the construction of St Albans Abbey.
The construction of St Albans.s Abbey, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 23v (detail)

The Benefactors’ Book

One of the highlights is a work known as the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D VII). In a previous blogpost, we described the manuscript as a who’s who of medieval England. It represents an invaluable source for our understanding of the history of the monastery and its influence throughout the country. Initially compiled by the Abbey’s precentor, Thomas Walsingham, the book is a register of all the people who made gifts to St Albans throughout the Middle Ages, as well as the abbots, monks and laypeople who made up its vibrant community. The manuscript preserves their names, details about their lives and occupations, and for many even their portraits, which might otherwise have been lost to us. The page on display shows the artist, Alan Strayler, who is responsible for these portraits. 

A page from the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans, showing three portraits of figures recorded in the manuscript.
Portraits of benefactors, including the artist Alan Strayer (the lowermost figure), from the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 108r

A St Albans Calendar

St Albans was responsible for the production of hundreds of manuscripts between its foundation and dissolution in the 16th century. This copy of the Latin work De Trinitate (On the Trinity) by St Augustine, for example, was made at the monastery during the second half of the 12th century (Egerton MS 3721). It is prefaced by a calendar, commemorating the feast days of important saints throughout the year. Feast days for local saints connected with the Abbey are also recorded here, most notably St Alban himself, as well as several of the monastery’s former abbots.

A page from a medieval manuscript of St Augustine’s De Trinitate, showing a calendar page for June, arranged in a table, with important feast days marked in red and green ink.
A calendar page for June, from a manuscript of St Augustine’s De Trinitate (On the Trinity), made at the monastery of St Albans: Egerton MS 3721, f. 4v


A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing part of a calendar page for June, with feast days for saints marked.
Feast days for two abbots and St Alban recorded in the calendar: Egerton MS 3721, f. 4v (detail)

The Collectanea of John of Wallingford

Among the many chroniclers represented in the exhibition is the monk John of Wallingford (d. 1258). John was the infirmarer of St Albans (responsible for looking after the Abbey’s sick) and a friend and contemporary of Matthew Paris, another chronicler based at the Abbey. John is mostly known to us because of his Collectanea, surviving in a single manuscript, which comprises a huge variety of material, some written in his own hand (Cotton MS Julius D VII). Medical recipes in Middle English, copies of charters and documentary texts, John’s own chronicle of English history, and even a table for predicting the time of high tide at London Bridge, all appear in the collection. In addition to these works, the manuscript features a map of Britain and several drawings made by Matthew Paris, including a portrait of John of Wallingford himself, sitting before an open copy of the Book of Psalms. You can read more about the manuscript and Paris’ map in our previous blogpost, The Maps of Matthew Paris.

A page from the Collectanea of the chronicler and monk John of Wallingford, showing a portrait of him sat before an open book on a stand.
A portrait of the chronicler John of Wallingford, made by Matthew Paris, from a copy of Wallingford’s Collectanea: Cotton MS Julius D VII, f. 42v

Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum

Matthew Paris was renowned for his work as a chronicler, cartographer, artist, and scribe, both during his lifetime and for centuries after his death. Numerous surviving books show evidence of his hand and the influence of his distinctive style of drawing and painting, many of which are now housed at the British Library. 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.

Paris’ Liber additamentorum (Book of Additions) is one of the manuscripts that can be found on display at the exhibition at St Albans Museum. The volume (now Cotton MS Nero D I) is a collection of original literary treatises and documents he assembled to support his research. Among the various texts, notes, tracts, and drawings it contains is his Gesta abbatum monasterii sancti Albani, a record of the lives and deeds of the abbots of St Albans. Paris drew a portrait of each of the subjects of his work, which appear as illustrations in the margins beside each of their respective entries. The page below, for example, features a portrait of Leofric, who served as abbot towards the end of the 10th century, and whom Paris identifies in an accompanying inscription in red ink, written in his own distinctive hand.

A page from Matthew Paris’ Books of Additions, showing his work on the deeds of the abbots of the monastery of St Albans, arranged in two columns, with marginal illustrations and a portrait of Abbot Leofric.
Matthew Paris’ Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani (Deeds of the Abbots of the Monastery of St Albans), with a marginal portrait of Abbot Leofric, also painted by Paris: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 32v

Ralph of Diceto’s Chronicles

Another of Paris’ contemporaries was Ralph of Diceto (d. c. 1200), a chronicler and dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Ralph was particularly known for a Latin chronicle, written and arranged in two parts. The first is called the Abbreviationes chronicorum (Abbreviations of chronicles) and it constitutes a summary of existing chronicles already circulating in England during the 12th century. It covers the history of the world from the birth of Christ to around 1147. The second part, meanwhile, is entitled the Imagines historiarum (Images of History) and records events that occurred during Ralph’s own lifetime .

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing the opening of a chronicle by Ralph of Diceto, arranged in three columns, with two large decorated initials in gold.
The opening of Ralph of Diceto’s chronicle Imagines historiarum (Images of History): Royal MS 13 E VI, f. 49r

One manuscript in the British Library (Royal MS 13 E VI), made between 1199 and 1209, contains copies of both these chronicles, complete with an innovative pictorial indexing system that Ralph invented. It has been suggested that this volume was made for the Abbey of St Albans and that it was copied from an original housed in St Paul’s, believed to have been Ralph’s personal copy of his works. Numerous additions related to St Albans have been inscribed in the margins of the text: a shelfmark identifying that it was part of the Abbey’s monastic library, marginal notes concerning important events in the Abbey’s history, the obits (or dates of death) of some of its abbots, and even notes and a drawing made by Paris himself.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a marginal illustration of King Lucius being baptised in a tub, identified by an inscription in red ink.
A marginal illustration of Lucius, a legendary King of the Britons, added into a manuscript of Ralph of Diceto’s chronicles, made by Matthew Paris: Royal MS 13 E VI, f. 11r (detail)

The Chronicles of England, printed by the Schoolmaster Printer

While the monastery of St Albans was known for its production of handwritten books and manuscripts, in the later medieval period the city also housed a printing press, notable for being one of the first to operate in England outside of Westminster and London. The name of the printer remains unknown, and many have speculated about his true identity. One of the only hints we have originates from the famous English printer Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1534), who once described him as a ‘Sometime schoolmaster’. Since then, he has typically been referred to as the ‘Schoolmaster Printer’.

This particular volume was made by the St Albans press around 1486 and contains the Chronicles of England, written in Middle English and one of the very first chronicles to be printed in the country (C.11.b.1*). It features a number of woodcut illustrations throughout the text, and on the final page, there appears a printer’s device (or emblem), bearing the arms of the Abbey and the town of St Albans, in red ink.

The final page of a printed copy of the Chronicles of England, made by the Schoolmaster Printer, showing a device in red ink, of a saltire cross on a shield.
The Chronicles of England, made by the ‘Schoolmaster Printer’, showing the printer’s device with the arms of the abbey and town of St Albans: C.11.b.1*, p. 575

The records of the chroniclers featured in this exhibition are the basis for much of our understanding of England during the Middle Ages, and without their work, our knowledge of early English history would be far poorer. Their texts and manuscripts provide an insight not only into the major events that affected the Church and the Crown in this period, but also how these events affected people at a local level.

You can visit Chroniclers of History at The Weston Gallery, St Albans Museum, from 30 July until 31 October 2021. The exhibition catalogue Chroniclers of History: The Medieval Monks of St Albans and their Books. An Exhibition is edited by James Clarke and published by St Albans Council.

Calum Cockburn

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21 July 2021

Miniature books

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Medieval manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes: handy books for personal reading, mid-size volumes for the library or classroom, staggeringly huge tomes for the choir or lectern. But manuscripts that are extra tiny are especially rare and fascinating. Miniature books wow us with the skilfulness of their delicate script and puzzle us with the question of "why so small?". What motivated people to make books with pages so petite that they take all your dexterity to turn, and script so minute that you have to strain your eyes to read? Inspired by the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition, we thought we'd explore some of our teeny tomes.

A papyrus leaf, a frame containing nine parchment leaves, a book in a red binding, a book in a gold binding, and a walnut
A scale image of some of the manuscripts included in this blogpost next to a walnut: Papyrus 2556, Papyrus 120 (3), Add MS 58280, Stowe MS 956

Definitions vary, but books measuring under 3 or 4 inches (76 or 101 mm) on their longest side are generally considered miniature. The earliest books of these dimensions in the British Library are leaves which once formed part of miniature codices from Roman Egypt, written in Greek. A papyrus example, dating from the 3rd century and containing a fragment of the Psalms, measures 73 x 56 mm (Papyrus 2556). Discussing why miniature books appealed to Christian owners in the late Roman Empire, scholars have suggested that they might have been particularly useful for carrying on travels, or for wearing close to the body as religious amulets, or for discretely hiding in times of persecution.

A page from a papyrus miniature codex
A fragment of the Psalms from a miniature codex. Egypt, 3rd century. 73 x 56 mm. Papyrus 2556

Nine parchment leaves, each measuring about 68 x 45 mm, once formed a complete codex from 6th century-7th century Egypt (Papyrus 120 (3)). These diminutive pages of Greek writing contain a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Its small dimensions, short length and texts which were believed to have particular potency suggest that it may have been used as an amulet.

Nine parchment leaves from a miniature codex
Nine leaves from a miniature codex containing a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Egypt, 6th-7th century. 68 x 45 mm. Papyrus 120 (3)

Miniature books had a novelty value, prompting writers to comment on them as marvels. For example, Pliny the Elder, citing Cicero, reports in his Natural History (AD 77) that there was a copy of Homer's Iliad written on a piece of parchment so small that it could fit inside a walnut shell. Later scribes were inspired to try and match this ancient achievement, including the 16th-century English calligrapher Peter Bales. A note written in 1586/7 describes ‘A most strange and rare piece of worke brought passe by Peter Bales, an Englishman, a Clerke of the Chauncery of the proofe and demonstracioun of the Whole Bible to be written by hym everie word at length within an English Wallnut no bigger then a hennes egg’ (Harley MS 530, f. 14v). Sadly Bales’ tiny Bible doesn’t survive. None of our miniature books can rival these impressive walnut-sized feats (see the image at the top of this blogpost).

A note in a manuscript describing a miniature manuscript written by Peter Bales
A note describing a Bible manuscript that could fit inside a walnut written by Peter Bales. England, 1586/7. Harley MS 530, f. 14v.

Display of scribal skill might have motivated the creation of an illuminated 15th-century Book of Hours measuring only 54 x 40mm (Add MS 58280). Unusually, the scribe, Roger Pynchebek, signed his name at the end of the book: 'Scriptori merita mater pia redde Maria. Amen. Nunc finem feci. Da mihi quod merui. Quod Rogero Pynchebek þe writer of þis boke. In þe yere of our lorde MoCCCC.lxx iiiio' (Affectionate Mother Mary, give to the writer his just reward. Amen. Now I have made an end, give me what I deserve. That is, Roger Pynchebek the writer of this book. In the year of our Lord 1474). Perhaps with this tiny volume, Roger Pynchebek hoped to advertise his impressive scribal skills to prospective clients.

An inscription naming Roger Pynchebek as the scribe
Scribal note by Roger Pynchebek, in a Book of Hours. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, f. 373v

Miniature Book of Hours held open on an illuminated page
An opening from the Book of Hours written by Roger Pynchebek, with a miniature of Christ as Man of Sorrows. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, ff. 323v-324r

In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world. They are sometimes included in medieval portraits of the period, such as that of Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth.

Portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book by Hans Eworth
Hans Eworth, portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book, c. 1553. The Fitzwilliam Museum, PD.1-1963

A girdle book made in Paris around 1520 which belonged to a lady at the court of King Henry VIII of England measures a dainty 35 x 20 mm (Sloane MS 116). The book, which contains devotional texts, even includes tiny painted pictures the size of postage stamps, here showing St George slaying the dragon.

Girdle book held open on the page with a picture of St George slaying the dragon facing a prayer
St George and the Dragon, from a girdle book. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116, ff. 69v-70r
Girdle book shown closed with elaborate metal openwork cover over red velvet
Girdle book with elaborate metal openwork cover over velvet. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116

A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree that measures a diminutive 40 x 30 mm (Stowe MS 956). It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning. The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.

Girdle book held open on the page with Henry VIII's portrait
Portrait of Henry VIII, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r


Girdle book shown closed with gold filigree cover
Elaborate gold filigree covers, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956

The tradition of miniature books continued into the modern era and up to the present day. You can visit the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition for free in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The exhibition includes Sloane MS 116 described above, displayed alongside other miniature manuscripts and printed books from the Library’s historical collections, as well as books created especially for the project by contemporary children’s authors and illustrators, and miniature books submitted by children in response to the British Library's lockdown callout. You can also find out more in the British Library's online event The Magnificent World of Miniature Books (Thursday 22 July 2021, 19:30 - 20:30 BST).

Eleanor Jackson
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10 July 2021

Euro 2020: the medieval manuscript version

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One thousand years. That's how long Euro 20 seems to have been running. It's the summer when football officially came home — provided, that is, you live in Baku, St Petersburg or Budapest.

In time-honoured fashion, we have selected our European XI of the best medieval manuscripts at the British Library. We've gone for a traditional 3-2-3-1-1 formation because, quite frankly, we haven't got a clue, either. We think you'll agree that our line-up is more happy than Mbappé, less immobile than Immobile, and as apocalyptic as a Spanish defender's back pass.

When they're not representing their nation, all of these manuscripts can be viewed online on Digitised Manuscripts.

(1) The Cnut Gospels (DEN)

The decorated opening of St John's Gospel, with the words 'In principio erat verbum' written in gold ink

Canterbury, early 11th century: Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 111r


(2) The Portuguese Genealogy (POR)

A decorated genealogy of the rulers of Portugal, with the city of Lisbon depicted in the lower border

Lisbon and Bruges, 1530–34: Add MS 12531, f. 7r


(3) The Carmina Regia (ITA)

A crowned Robert of Anjou sitting on his throne, with gold fler-de-lys on a blue background

Tuscany, c. 1335: Royal MS 6 E IX, f. 10v


(4) The Harley Golden Gospels (GER)

A manuscript portrait of St Matthew the Evangelist

?Aachen, early 9th century: Harley MS 2788, f. 13v


(5) The Silos Apocalypse (ESP)

Noah's Ark in the Silos Apocalypse

Silos, 1091-1109: Add MS 11695, f. 79v


(6) Christine de Pizan's 'The Book of the Queen' (FRA)

Christine de Pizan presenting her book to queen Isabeau of Bavaria

Paris, c. 1410: Harley MS 4431, f. 3r


(7) The Middle Dutch Historie van Jason (NED)

A naval scene from the Dutch History of Jason and the Argonauts

Haarlem, c. 1470-80: Add MS 10290, f. 118r


(8) The Theodore Psalter (GRE/TUR)

The decorated opening page of the Theodore Psalter, illuminated in gold, red, blue and other colours

Constantinople, 1066: Add MS 19352, f. 1r


(9) The Luttrell Psalter (ENG)

Sir Geoffrey Luttrell mounted on his charger, in a decorated page of the Luttrell Psalter

Lincolnshire, c. 1325-40: Add MS 42130, f. 202v


(10) The Harley Froissart (BEL)

A decorated page with a jousting scene

Bruges, c. 1470–72: Harley MS 4379, f. 23v


(11) The Gospels of Máel Brigte

A text page with a decorated initial 'X' for 'Christi'

Armagh, 1138: Harley MS 1802, f. 10r


Julian Harrison

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09 July 2021

Murder most foul in the Cotswolds

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Opening the door of a pretty Norman church down a country lane in the Cotswold village of South Newington, I was shocked to be confronted by two rather violent murder scenes painted on the wall. The first is of a man being viciously cut down while he raises his hands in prayer; his head is split in two by a sword, and blood spurts over his forehead. Though the paintings are rather fragmentary and difficult to make out at first, the figure in the red cloak, his hands raised in prayer is unmistakeably Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, an event that caused a great scandal throughout Christendom.

Beside it is another violent scene that has been identified as the execution in 1322 of Thomas Plantagenet, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, who led a rebellion against King Edward II (r. 1307-1327). He is also shown kneeling while his executioner towers over him, using all his force to chop off his head. Drops of blood spurt from his neck – by one account it took several blows to decapitate him. Both paintings have been dated to the 1330s.

Two fragmentary wall paintings. Left, a kneeling man is hit on the head with a sword. Right, a kneeling man is attacked by a standing soldier from behind.
Wall Paintings in St Peter ad Vincula church, South Newington, Oxfordshire, of the murder of St Thomas Becket and the execution of Thomas Plantagenet. Photos by Chantry Westwell

While attempts to canonise Thomas Plantagenet were, not surprisingly, unsuccessful, Thomas Becket was made a saint not long after his martyrdom, and Canterbury became a popular destination of pilgrimage. Two hundred years later, Henry VIII did his utmost to stamp out the cult of Becket and ordered all representations of him to be destroyed. Becket’s face in this painting only survived because it had an image of St George, another popular English saint, painted over it at a later date. It was uncovered and restored in the 20th century.

Had the full scene in the wall painting survived, it may have looked a little like one of the two scenes below. Both are dated to the early part of the 14th century and are in the margins of personal prayerbooks probably made in south-eastern England. The Queen Mary Psalter contains a whole series of more than 20 images from the life and afterlife of St Thomas Becket. 

Two knights from a group of four attack a kneeling saint with swords, while a man holds a cross over him. The word Thomas is written beneath
The murder of Thomas Becket in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 237r (detail)
Two knights from a group of four attack a kneeling bishop with swords, while a man holds a cross out from behind an altar
The murder of St Thomas Becket in the Taymouth Hours: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 85v (detail)

The Taymouth Hours has numerous scenes of the torture and murder of saints across the lower margins. On the other side of the page from Becket is an even more gruesome scene: the martyrdom of St Lawrence, who was burned on a brazier. 

A tonsured, nude figure is burned on a brazier over red flames, while a figure uses bellows to stoke the fire
The martyrdom of St Lawrence in The Taymouth Hours: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 86r (detail)

A finely painted miniature from the 15th century of the scene in Canterbury Cathedral shows details of Thomas’s ethereal gaze, the grim facial expressions of the attackers and the elaborately decorated backdrop of the sanctuary. This is from a rather small prayer book (about the size of a Kindle), but the digital images allow us to zoom in and see the exquisite details clearly.

A churchman in robes with a halo kneels at an altar, looking upwards, while two knights attack him with weapons and two watch; behind are statues and the apse of the cathedral; the border has flowers and gold foliate decoration
The murder of Thomas Becket at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral in the Hastings Hours: Add MS 54782, f. 55v

As one of the most popular English saints, Becket was frequently depicted alongside other well-known saints. Here in a Psalter from northern England he is shown with two much-venerated female martyrs of the early Church: St Catherine of Alexandria and St Margaret of Antioch.

Four knights on the left of the upper image, one hitting the kneeling saint with a long sword, while a monk holds a cross over him; in the lower image, Saints Margaret and Catherine
The Murder of Thomas Becket (above); St Margaret emerges from the belly of a dragon, and beats a demon with a whip (lower left); St Catherine prays amidst the dead bodies of the men who attempted to martyr her by breaking her over a wheel, while an angel breaks the wheels with clubs (lower right); in the Huth Psalter: Add MS 38116, f. 13r

My encounter with the image of Thomas Becket in the Cotswolds was timely, as the 850th anniversary of his murder is being marked this summer by an exhibition at the British Museum (postponed from 2020), Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint. Included among the objects on display are other British Library manuscripts with scenes from his life and death, featured in our recent blogpost, Thomas Becket: manuscripts showing the making of a saint. There's also more about saints in medieval manuscripts, including Becket, on the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project website.

You can also discover amazing images from British Library manuscripts for yourself using the 'Advanced Search' page in the our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. If you search for ‘Becket’ in the 'Image description' field, twenty-five results are displayed, some from manuscripts in this blogpost. For example, the Queen Mary Psalter (seen above) includes this scene of Thomas Becket being brought into the Lord’s presence by two angels. It is beneath a full-page image of the Trinity in the section containing the Canticles. 

Drawing of Thomas Becket, supported by two angels, kneeling before the Lord
A bas-de-page drawing of Thomas Becket, supported by two angels, kneeling before the Lord, in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 299r (detail)
The Trinity, surrounded by four angels, with a bas-de-page drawing of Thomas Becket
A miniature of the Trinity, surrounded by four angels, with a bas-de-page drawing of Thomas Becket, in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 299r

Chantry Westwell

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27 June 2021

Prefacing the Psalms

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From a relatively early date in the Latin West, luxury Psalters featured cycles of introductory or prefatory full-page images. Very often these focused on the life of Christ, although other subjects such as the Creation and King David were also featured. It is likely that these cycles of images grew out of the interpretation of the Psalms as a prefiguration of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. This concept reflects Jesus’s comment that ‘all things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me’ (Luke 24:44).

Prefatory images before the Psalms, showing Two miracle scenes
Two miracle scenes from the Life of Christ, from a Psalter, Oxford, c. 1200: Arundel MS 157, f. 7v

One large and impressive Psalter features twenty full-page prefatory images. It was probably made in Oxford because the calendar following the miniatures includes a reference to the translation (or reburial) of St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford, in 1180. The absence of another important event, the translation of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury into a new shrine in 1220, suggests that this manuscript may have been made before that occurred.

In this Psalter each illuminated page contains two scenes that illustrate events from the life of Christ. Sometimes the images include scrolls with biblical quotations that supplement and interpret the paintings, perhaps indicating that the original owner of the book may have been able to read Latin or would have viewed it with someone who could. For example, in the upper register of this image Christ walks on water and St Peter attempts to follow, but he is starting to sink into the sea. The banner proclaims ‘Modice fidei quare dubitasti’ (O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?) (Matthew 14:31).

Detail of miniature showing Christ walking on water as St Peter attempts to follow
Christ walks on water and St Peter attempts to follow, from a Psalter, Oxford, c. 1200: Arundel MS 157, f. 7v (detail)

In the lower register of the same image is the Transfiguration, during which Christ, flanked by Moses and Elijah, is ‘transfigured’ to appear in glory to Sts John, Peter and James, all kneeling below. Christ is enclosed in an almond shape mandorla, which was often used to frame and signify Christ in Majesty. Moses, to his left, is identifiable by the horns on his head. This attribute is based on the account of Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai in the Latin Vulgate Bible, which says that ‘he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord’ (Exodus 34:29), where the Hebrew word ḳaran was mis-translated as horned (the word can also mean ‘to radiate’).

Detail of miniature showing the Transfiguration of Christ
The Transfiguration, from a Psalter, Oxford, c. 1200: Arundel MS 157, f. 7v (detail)

Another interesting aspect of the cycle in this manuscript is the use of silver, which unlike many medieval examples has not tarnished to black. This is particularly apparent in the sword and armour of the soldier who raises his sword to murder a young boy in the illustration of the Massacre of the Innocents. The mail of the soldier’s helmet, body armour and greaves (leg armour) is all carefully delineated and the silver retains its sheen.

Miniature of the Flight into Egypt above, and the Slaughter of the Innocents below
The Flight into Egypt above, and the Slaughter of the Innocents below, from a Psalter, Oxford, c. 1200, Arundel MS 157, f. 5r

The vivid images that preface the Psalms thereby enhance the devotional experience of reading and meditating on the Psalms, as well as providing a visual commentary on the biblical text. This beautiful Psalter was digitised as part of the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project and you can find out more about English manuscript illumination on the project website.

Kathleen Doyle

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24 June 2021

A medieval midsummer

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To mark Midsummer's Day (24 June), we're taking a look at one of the sources for William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as illustrated in some of the British Library's manuscripts — the legend of Pyramus and Thisbe. 

You may be familiar with Shakespeare's play-within-a-play in Act V of The Dream, in which a band of 'mechanicals', played by Bottom and others, re-enact the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. A Midsummer Night's Dream was written most probably in the 1590s — the First Quarto was published in 1600 — but the 'mini-play' featuring the parts of Pyramus, Thisbe, the Prologue, the Lion, Moonshine and the Wall has much older origins. 

The story of the ill-fated lovers first emerges in its 'modern' form in Ovid's Metamorphoses, completed in AD 8. Pyramus and Thisbe lived in adjoining houses in Babylon, but were able to communicate only through a crack in the wall, due to their parents' rivalry. They arranged to meet near a mulberry tree, by the tomb of Ninus (the mythical founder of Nineveh), but Thisbe was disturbed by a lioness and fled, leaving behind her blood-stained cloak. When Pyramus discovered it, he assumed that Thisbe had been killed by a wild beast and fell on his sword, staining the white fruits of the mulberry tree with his own blood; Thisbe then returned and killed herself in turn with her lover's sword. The gods heard her dying lament and changed the mulberry fruits to their new dark shade in honour of the lovers.

In this 15th-century French translation of Ovid's text, known as Ovide moralisé, Thisbe is shown standing over Pyramus's body, in front of a mulberry tree and beside a fountain, stabbing herself with his sword.

An illustration of the death of Pyramus and Thisbe in an illuminated manuscript. Thisbe wears a red and white dress and stabs herself in the neck. Pyramus wears a blue tunic and lies before her. A fountain stands behind them.

Thisbe kills herself in despair at finding Pyramus dead, in a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Southern Netherlands, 15th century): Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 55r

Shakespeare's deliberately muddled version of the legend is perhaps the best-known adaptation, but a number of medieval authors also recounted the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. It turns up in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, completed in the 1350s, and in his De claris mulieribus (On Famous Women), dating from 1361–62. In this 15th-century French translation of De claris mulieribus (Des cleres et nobles femmes), a red-gowned Thisbe is shown piercing her neck with the sword (this tale is not for the squeamish), with the walls of Babylon in the background.

An illustration of the death of Pyramus and Thisbe in an illuminated manuscript. Thisbe wearing red pierces her throat with a sword. Pyramus wearing brown lies dead on the ground to her right.

The death of the lovers, in a translation of Boccaccio's On Famous Women (Paris, c. 1410): Royal MS 20 C V, f. 22r

Geoffrey Chaucer in The Legend of Good Women (1380s) and John Gower in his Confessio Amantis, composed at the request of King Richard II (1377–1399), rendered the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe for the first time in English. But it is Christine de Pizan's The Book of the Queen (Harley MS 4431) which supplies perhaps our favourite medieval image of this story. Illustrating her L'Épître Othéa is this miniature depicting the suicide of the lovers. To the rear, a lion is tearing with its teeth at Thisbe's cloak. In the foreground Pyramus lies prostrate beside a fountain, clutching his heart, while an ashen-faced Thisbe has plunged the sword through her chest, penetrating her back, and is about to fall to the earth. Behind them grows the mulberry tree and to their rear is what may be taken for the wall through which they communicated. Christine herself was the scribe of part of this manuscript, which was made for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (d. 1435), the wife of King Charles VI of France (1380–1422).

An illustration of the death of Pyramus and Thisbe in an illuminated manuscript. Thisbe wearing an orange-red cloak kneels in the left foreground and has pierced her chest with a sword. Pyramus in blue lies to her right, clutching his heart. There is a fountain behind them and to the rear a lion rips at Thisbe's cloak with its teeth.

The death of the lovers in the Book of the Queen (Paris, c. 1410-14): Harley MS 4431, f. 112v

William Shakespeare's rendering of this episode in A Midsummer Night's Dream is more comical than tragic. The guests at the wedding of Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta are highly amused by the performance. Theseus turns down the chance to hear the prologue, 'for your play needs no excuse', and the actors finish with a dance. Happy ever after ... but far removed from the original macabre fate of Pyramus and Thisbe.


Julian Harrison

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20 June 2021

Caption competition June 2021

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It's time to let the creative juices to flow. We'd love you to come up with a witty caption for this image from one of our medieval manuscripts. You can either make your suggestion using the comments box below or play along via Twitter (we are @BLMedieval). No prizes, just the kudos of showing off your wit in front of thousands of our readers!

A medieval manuscript illumination, showing a lady seated and holding a sword, with her son before her and armed men standing behind her

A miniature of Semiramis seated, with a sword, and her son, Ninus, before her, with armed men behind her: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 8v

16 June 2021

Medieval killer rabbits: when bunnies strike back

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Vengeful, merciless and brutally violent... yes that’s right, we’re talking about medieval bunnies. Rabbits can often be found innocently frolicking in the decorated borders or illuminations of medieval manuscripts, but sometimes, for reasons unknown, these adorable fluffy creatures turn into stone-cold killers. These darkly humorous images of medieval killer bunnies still strike a chord with modern viewers, always proving a hit on social media and popularised by Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s Beast of Caerbannog, ‘the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!’.

While re-cataloguing the Arnstein Passional, made at Arnstein Abbey in Germany around the 1170s, for the Harley cataloguing project, we spotted a particularly early example of killer bunny imagery (could it be the earliest known?). This decorated letter ‘T’ is being used as a gallows on which two rabbits or hares hang a human hunter. His identity is made clear by the hunting horn slung over his shoulder. The rabbits stand on their hindlegs and point with their front paws as if jeering in sinister glee.

Rabbits hang a hunter from a decorated letter ‘T’
Rabbits hang a hunter from a decorated letter ‘T’. The Arnstein Passional, Arnstein, Germany, c. 1170s: Harley MS 2801, f. 151r

This image gives us a clue about why medieval artists showed rabbits behaving so violently. In real life, rabbits and hares are docile prey animals. But in decorated initials and marginalia, medieval artists often depicted ‘the world turned upside down’, where roles are reversed and the impossible becomes the norm. So here, rabbits are violent hunters hellbent on punishing anyone who has committed crimes against rabbit-kind.

Perhaps the most elaborate example of the killer bunny theme appears in the Smithfield Decretals, illuminated in London in the 1340s. This manuscript contains multiple series of marginal scenes in which stories unfold over consecutive pages like a comic strip. In this series of scenes, we see how a group of giant beefy rabbits get their gruesome revenge on a hunter. First a rabbit archer shoots the hunter in the back, then the rabbits tie him up and haul him before a rabbit judge to be tried. After a guilty verdict is delivered, the ruthless rabbits drag the hunter away and behead him.

Collage of images from the Smithfield Decretals in which rabbits capture, try and execute a hunter
Rabbits capture, try and execute a hunter. The Smithfield Decretals, decorated in London, England, in the 1340s: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 59v-61v

Not content with inflicting punishment on the hunter, the fluffy ruffians then set their sights on a hound. Hounds were widely used for hunting rabbits and hares, making them prime targets for bunny vengeance. In a series of scenes mirroring the previous ones, the rabbits are shown shooting the hound with arrows, tying him up, trying him at rabbit court, carting him away and then hanging him.

Collage of images from the Smithfield Decretals in which rabbits capture, try and execute a hound
Rabbits capture, try and execute a hound. The Smithfield Decretals, decorated in London, England, in the 1340s: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 62r-64r

Another rabbit goes hunting for hounds in this Book of Hours made in England in the 1320s. On one page the rabbit sets out with a full quiver of arrows, blowing on a hunting horn. On the other side of the page he returns triumphant with his arrows used up and a small hound strung up on the end of his bow.

A rabbit huntsman sets out and returns with his quarry
A rabbit huntsman sets out and returns with his quarry. A Book of Hours, England, 1320s: Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v

Some rather more chivalrous rabbits engage in knightly combat with hounds in the margins of the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, made in Metz in France between 1302 and 1303. Here they take up lances, swords and shields and do battle. In one instance a bunny rides on the back of a snail while the opposing hound rides on the back of a bunny who looks like he’s just noticed with some puzzlement that he’s fighting on the wrong side.

A hound riding on a rabbit and a rabbit riding on a snail battle with shields and lances
A hound riding on a rabbit and a rabbit riding on a snail battle with shields and lances. The Breviary of Renaud de Bar (Winter portion), Metz, France, 1302-03: Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 294r
A rabbit and a hound fight with swords and shields
A rabbit and a hound fight with swords and shields. The Breviary of Renaud de Bar (Winter portion), Metz, France, 1302-03: Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 181r

But the rabbits don’t stop at conquering their traditional foes. Having got a taste for warfare, they are ready to take on any adversary. Like the Beast of Caerbannog, these savage rodents could strike fear into the heart of even the bravest knight.

A knight swings his sword at a rabbit which rears up on its hind legs
A knight swings his sword at a rabbit which rears up on its hind legs. The Gorleston Psalter, East Anglia, England, 1310-24: Add MS 49622, f. 149v
A man and a rabbit approach one another with swords and shields
A man and a rabbit approach one another with swords and shields. The Maastricht Hours, Liège, Belgium: : Stowe MS 17, f. 240v

They rampage through the manuscript margins, wielding axes and taking on anyone unfortunate enough to cross them.

An axe-wielding rabbit approaches a king
An axe-wielding rabbit approaches a king. The Gorleston Psalter, East Anglia, England, 1310-24: Add 49622, fol. 13v
An axe-wielding rabbit riding on the back of a hound
An axe-wielding rabbit riding on the back of a hound. John le Breton, Treatise on the Laws of England, England, c. 1305: Harley MS 324, f. 3v 

Given the murderous reputation of medieval rabbits, the demonic expression on the face of this bunny baker raises alarming questions about the nature of his baked goods. Surely those aren’t human pies... are they?

A rabbit pushes a tray of baked goods into an oven
A rabbit pushes a tray of baked goods into an oven. Pontifical, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Lansdowne MS 451, f. 6r 

Luckily, unlike their counterparts in medieval marginalia, 21st-century rabbits are sweet and harmless. But these medieval images remind us to always treat rabbits with respect – you never know when they might decide it’s time to strike back!

For more medieval rabbits, check out our previous blogpost on Medieval rabbits: the good, the bad and the bizarre. If you’d like to read more about the strange world of medieval marginalia, take a look at past blogposts such as Ludicrous figures in the margin, 'Virile, if somewhat irresponsible' design, and the ever-popular Knight v Snail.

Eleanor Jackson

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