Medieval manuscripts blog

1071 posts categorized "Medieval"

19 October 2021

Antoine de Lonhy and the Saluces Hours

Long celebrated for its superb illuminations, the Saluces Hours (Add MS 27697) has been described by the art historian John Plummer as ‘one of the finest and most inventive manuscripts illuminated during the 15th century’. Yet it was only in 1989 that the art historian François Avril identified most of its miniatures as the work of Antoine de Lonhy, a prolific, multifaceted and well-travelled artist of the 15th century.

Antoine de Lonhy is the subject of a new exhibition, Il Rinascimento Europeo di Antoine De Lonhy (The European Renaissance of Antoine De Lonhy), which opened at the Palazzo Madama—Museo Civico d’Arte Antica in Turin on 7 October 2021, and will run until 9 January 2022. The Saluces Hours is a focal point of the exhibition, appearing in the first room together with a painting of Lonhy in the collection of the Palazzo Madama. Other works by Lonhy and his contemporaries include manuscripts, panel paintings, stained glass, sculptures and textiles. Visitors to the exhibition will also be able to view other miniatures from the manuscript shown digitally beside it. 

Miniature of the Virgin and Child with an owner portrait of a woman
The Virgin and Child with an owner portrait of a woman, presented by two monastic saints, perhaps St Bernardino and St Anthony of Padua, by Antoine de Lonhy: Add MS 27697, f. 19r

The Saluces Hours is a manuscript with a complicated genesis. It was produced in Savoy, which in the 15th century was in independent duchy, and today comprises an area of southeast France and northwest Italy. The manuscript was originally begun around the 1440s, several decades before Lonhy’s involvement in the project. In this first stage, the text was probably completed and the process of illuminating the book begun. Some of the pictures and borders from this phase are attributed to Peronet Lamy (d. before 1453), an artist who worked for the court of Savoy from around 1432 to 1443, whose work is particularly apparent in the miniature of St John the Evangelist (f. 13r).

Miniature of St John the Evangelist
St John the Evangelist writing his Gospel on the island of Patmos, by Peronet Lamy, retouched by Antoine de Lonhy: Add MS 27697, f. 13r

Another contemporary artist, known as the Master of the Hours of Louis of Savoy (after Paris, BnF, MS Lat. 9473) also contributed eight miniatures, as well as the historiated initials which accompany them. He might have done this concurrently with the original campaign of work, or perhaps he took over when Peronet Lamy stopped working on the book.

Miniature of the Wedding at Cana
The Wedding at Cana, by the Master of the Hours of Louis of Savoy, retouched by Antoine de Lonhy: Add MS 27697, f. 49r

But for some reason, the project stalled and for over a decade the beautiful book was left unfinished. Then in around 1460-1470, Antoine de Lonhy took it up and completed it. As well as adding lots of new pictures, he also retouched the earlier artworks to increase the impression of stylistic coherence, and in some cases he may have painted on underdrawings made by the previous artists.

Although the book was originally intended for a male owner, as suggested by the inclusion of prayers which are grammatically phrased for the use of a man, Lonhy seems to have completed the new work for a woman. He painted her in an owner portrait, kneeling before the Virgin and Child and followed by two monastic saints, perhaps St Bernardino and St Anthony of Padua. She is gorgeously dressed in a fur-trimmed dress, a weighty gold collar, and a towering conical hat (know as a hennin).

Detail of the Virgin and Child with an owner portrait of a woman
The Virgin and Child with an owner portrait of a woman, presented by two monastic saints, by Antoine de Lonhy: Add MS 27697, f. 19r (detail)

Yet the identity of this glamorous owner has proved puzzling. The borders of the manuscript regularly feature the coat of arms of the Saluces family of Piedmont (argent a chief azure), as well as in two places the coat of arms of the d'Urfé family (vair a chief gules). Based on this heraldic evidence, it used to be thought that the owner was Aimée (or Amadée) de Saluces (b. 1420, d. 1473), daughter of Mainfroy de Saluces of Piedmont. Aimée married Guillaume-Armand de Polignac around 1441, and their daughter Catherine married Pierre d'Urfé in 1489.

However, scholars no longer agree with this identification because the manuscript does not contain the Polignac arms, despite dating stylistically from the period after Aimée’s marriage. Further, the coats of arms appear to be later additions to the manuscript, and probably do not refer to the woman who Lonhy worked for at all. It is more likely that both the original and later patrons of the Book of Hours, with its close similarities to the Hours of Louis of Savoy, were members of Savoy's Ducal family. It is now thought that the woman is possibly Yolande of France (b. 1434, d. 1478), wife of Duke Amadeus IX of Savoy. 

Illuminated Arms of Saluces
Arms of Saluces, argent a chief azure: Add MS 27697, f. 19r (detail)

We know more about the artist, Antoine de Lonhy, thanks to the work of art historians who have meticulously identified his works and reconstructed his career, now further elucidated in the exhibition and exhibition catalogue. Apparently French by birth, he seems to have started his career in the Duchy of Burgundy in the 1440s. By the 1450s he was documented working in Toulouse, and in 1460-62 he was working in Barcelona. He seems to have settled in Piedmont around 1462, and he worked on commissions in Savoy and Piedmont in around 1470-90. Dozens of his attributed artworks survive in a surprisingly wide variety of media, including panel paintings, illuminated manuscripts and stained glass.

Despite his wide-ranging travels, Antoine de Lonhy’s style is closely linked to the northern European Gothic art in which he was trained. The ornamental architecture in his pictures is always Gothic rather than Classical, although Classical architecture was flourishing in Italy at the time. His pictures show a depth of space and an interest in sweeping landscapes that suggests he was well versed in the work of great Flemish artists of the first half of the 15th century such as Jan Van Eyck and Roger Van der Weyden. His figures are softly modelled with sensitive faces, draperies that fall into elaborate deep folds, and sometimes strikingly lifelike anatomy, as illustrated in the picture of the naked Adam and Eve in the Saluces Hours.

Miniature of God with Adam and Eve
God speaking to Adam while Eve sleeps: Add MS 27697, f. 213r

To discover more about Antoine de Lonhy and see a great range of his works, visit the exhibition Il Rinascimento Europeo di Antoine De Lonhy at the Palazzo Madama—Museo Civico d’Arte Antica in Turin, from 7 October, 2021 to 9 January, 2022.

You can read more about the subject in exhibition catalogue, Il Rinascimento europeo di Antoine De Lonhy, ed. by Simone Baiocco e Vittorio Natale (Genova: SAGEP, 2021), and you can find further bibliography in our catalogue record. You can also view the Saluces Hours online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. 

Eleanor Jackson

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01 October 2021

The travelling Bibles

What would a manuscript tell us if it could recount its travels and describe the places where it lived? The Locating a National Collection project, led by a team at the British Library, is exploring what place references can reveal about the ‘biography’ of historic objects. Does knowing that a precious manuscript is linked to a particular medieval abbey make it more interesting and relatable to us? Similarly, does knowing that a castle or a palace is connected to a rare medieval book help us to see it in a different light, and ultimately maybe even make us want to visit it?

To test this idea, and to discover how far following the footsteps of a manuscript can take us, the Locating a National Collection project has joined forces with the British Library’s medieval manuscript curators to dive into the Library's records and explore an exceptional story filled with great journeys, fortuitous discoveries and joyful reunifications. We thought that the best way to tell it was to use a map, or, better, an interactive one: a StoryMap. Scroll down to follow the tales of the travelling Bibles, click on the dots on the map to find more information about the places we mention along the way, and, if you are left wanting more, follow the links to other articles and resources.

We hope you enjoy your (virtual) journey.

Valeria Vitale and Gethin Rees

Locating a National Collection

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27 September 2021

A figured poem

The poem De Laudibus sancte crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross) is the work of Rabanus Maurus (b. 780/781, d. 856), one of the greatest teachers and scholars of the Carolingian age. Rabanus Maurus was in charge of the imperial abbey school of Fulda in central Germany, and he was later archbishop of Mainz. While in Fulda, he composed this poem which comprises a set of verses where the words both embody and celebrate the cross, drawing on an Antique tradition of arranging words and phrases within figures.

A number of copies of this work survive, including one made in the Premonstratensian Abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas, Arnstein, in around the 1170s, now in the Harley collection in the British Library (Harley MS 3045). In all but one copy, the figured poem or carmina figurata is on the left, with an explanatory commentary in prose on the right-hand page. Most of the figures are in the form of a cross.

Figured poem in the shape of a cross from De Laudibus sancte crucis
The sixteenth figural poem of book 1, bordered by a twining pattern, depicting a cross composed of overlapping quatrefoils in yellow and blue, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 21v

Rabanus Maurus dedicated one of his copies to Louis the Pious, King of the Franks and Emperor of the West from 814 to 840, and this dedication and image of the king is preserved in later copies. In the Harley copy, for example, Louis is depicted as a miles Christi (soldier of Christ), at the beginning of the work, with a cross, a shield and a halo. The inscriptions place the Emperor under the protection of Christ, while recalling his role as a defender and promoter of the Faith.

Figured poem with an image of Emperor Louis the Pious
Figural poem with foliate border dedicating Hrabanus's work to Emperor Louis the Pious, shown with nimbus, shield, and cross, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 2v

Some of the figures are in the form of letters rather than images, as in this one, which includes the words ‘Crux’ (cross), reading downwards, and ‘Salus’ (salvation), reading across. This poem is about angels, and the names of some of them are included in the figured letters. For example, the ‘u’ (shaped as a ‘v’) of Crux is formed from the word ‘arcangeli’ (archangels).

Figured poem spelling out 'Crux salus' in the shape of a cross
The third figural poem of book 1, bordered by foliage and coloured roundels, depicting the epigram, 'Crux salus' (The salvific Cross) in blue, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 8v

The author included an image of himself as well, portrayed as a kneeling monk below an image of a cross. His identity is made clear by the inclusion of his name ‘Rabanus’ in red letters visible on his face and habit.

Figured poem with a cross and a portrait of Rabanus Maurus
The twenty-eighth figural poem of book 1, bordered by an inhabited vine scroll with birds, animals, and human figures, depicting Hrabanus Maurus kneeling beneath a gold cross, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 33v
Detail of the portrait of Rabanus Maurus
Hrabanus Maurus kneeling beneath a gold cross, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 33v (detail)

Another elegant copy of De Laudibus sancte crucis was made in the abbey of St Germain des Prés in Paris around the middle of the 11th century (now Paris, BnF, MS latin 11685). This manuscript was digitised recently as part of The Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France 700-1200 project.

Figured poem with an image of Emperor Louis the Pious from BnF MS Lat. 11685
Figural poem with an image of Emperor Louis the Pious, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 11685, f. 5v

You can can also find out about some of the other manuscripts made in Arnstein in our previous blogpost about the Arnstein Bible.

Kathleen Doyle

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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23 September 2021

Dragons, heroes, myths and magic

Legends and stories have always been part of our human experience – tales of terrifying creatures, star-crossed lovers and impossible quests have been adapted and invented by storytellers and bards across cultures and millennia. The Middle Ages was no exception and manuscripts containing stories are among some of the most beautifully illustrated in our collections. A number of these are currently on display in our Treasures Gallery - which is once again open to the public - and are the subject of a new book, Dragons Heroes Myths and Magic by Chantry Westwell, published this week by the British Library.

A love story

One of the most famous literary love stories is between Dante Alighieri, Italian poet and author, and his muse Beatrice. To commemorate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, a magnificent copy of the Divine Comedy is displayed, open to an illumination in the third book, Paradiso, showing Dante and Beatrice floating upwards to heaven. Very little is known about their relationship, but it seems they met only once or twice before Beatrice died aged only 24. In his poem to her, the Vita Nuovo, Dante promises to create a work that will be worth of her memory. He achieves this in the Divine Comedy, one of the greatest poetic works of all time.

Beatrice leading Dante up towards the spheres of heaven
Beatrice leading Dante up towards the spheres of heaven, with the earthly paradise beneath, Divina Commedia (Italy, Tuscany, c. 1445): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 130r

Having experienced the torments of hell and the suffering of purgatory, Dante is guided through the realms of heaven by Beatrice, finally reaching the Celestial Rose, where the Holy Trinity is surrounded by the nine orders of angels. Dante looks into the Eternal Light and his soul becomes one with God. To discover more, see our recent blogpost on Dante in our collections

Dante and Beatrice before the Celestial Rose
Dante and Beatrice before the Celestial Rose, with the Holy Trinity and the orders of angels among the petals, Divina Commedia (Italy, Tuscany, c. 1445): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 185r

Stories of famous women

In the display case beside Dante is Christine de Pisan’s ‘Book of the Queen’, a collection of works by one of the few women to make her living from writing in the Middle Ages. The manuscript was produced under her supervision for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen Consort of Charles VI of France. It is open at an illustration of Venus teaching a group of women at the beginning of 'L'Épître Othéa'. This is a letter imagined by Christine de Pisan from the fictional Othéa, personification of wisdom, to the Trojan prince, Hector. Each short epistle is followed by a commentary giving advice to women on how to follow the example of famous characters from history and mythology. A number of episodes from the Trojan legends are illustrated, including this miniature of Circe changing Ulysses and his men into swine. Christine uses this example to encourage her audience to make use of the medical expertise of physicians rather than the charms and dark arts practised by Circe.

Circe changing Ulysses and his companions into swine
Circe changing Ulysses and his companions into swine, with ships in the foreground, in Christine de Pizan, 'L'Épître Othéa', The Book of the Queen (France, Paris, c. 1410-c. 1414): Harley MS 4431, f. 140r

Travellers’ tales

Far-fetched accounts of exotic, unknown lands have always captured the popular imagination, and a work of English origin, known as the Travels of Sir John Mandeville is one of these. The copy on display contains illustrations of encounters with strange and wondrous creatures to be found in faraway places. The ‘author’, Mandeville, probably never existed, and the stories are thought to have been collected from other travellers’ accounts and presented as a real journey. Whatever its origins, this work may have been more popular than The Travels of Marco Polo at one time – it is thought that Christine de Pisan and Leonardo da Vinci owned copies of it.

Scenes of legendary people
Cyclops eating raw fish, blemmyae watched by Mandeville who is writing in a book, and men with eyes and mouth in their backs, Mandeville’s Travels (England, 1400-1450): Harley MS 3954, f. 42r

A tale of magic and mystery from the court of King Arthur

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in only one handwritten copy, currently on display beside the Mandeville manuscript. In this well-known story, the Green Knight issues a challenge to Arthur’s knights, a challenge that is taken up by Gawain. This leads him on a quest through the wilderness of Wirrall, where he overcomes dragons, wodewoses, bears and ogres. No spoilers here - the strange outcome of these events will be revealed in a film, The Green Knight, to be released in the UK this weekend (watch this space for a forthcoming blogpost!). The late 14th-century manuscript contains a series of full-page illustrations and three other Middle English poems, Pearl, Cleanness and Patience, believed to be by the same author, about whom nothing more is known.

Illustrations from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Gawain, King Arthur and Guinevere at table; below, Gawain holds an axe and the Green Knight, on a green horse, holds his own severed head, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (England, Midlands, 1375-1424): Cotton MS Nero A x/2, f. 94v

A lovable rogue

Storytellers have always loved a mischief-maker, an individual who delights in creating mayhem for its own sake, but who sometimes falls victim to his or her own tricks. Animal rogues in traditional folk tales, from Anansi, the spider in West Africa, to the crow in the Indian Mahabharata and the medieval Renard the fox are the precursors of our much-loved Jerry (nemesis of Tom), Bugs Bunny and the Wild Things. Surely the best-known animal character of the Middle Ages is Reynard the Fox, hero of the French Roman de Renart. This beloved rascal was so famous that the French word for fox changed from ‘goupil’ to ‘renard’. A manuscript in French in our collections contains illustrations, including one of the well-known story of Renart and Chanticleer the cockerel, adapted by Chaucer as the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Renart distracts the foolish and self-important cockerel by asking him to demonstrate his singing prowess, seizing the opportunity to grasp him by the neck and carry him off as dinner for his family.

Reynard seizing Chanticleer the cockerel by the neck
Reynard seizing Chanticleer the cockerel by the neck, Roman de Renart (France or England, 14th century): Add MS 15229, f. 13r

Though this manuscript is not on display in Treasures, there is a William Morris Kelmscott Press edition of the tales of Reynard the fox in the section on Printed Books, where Morris adapts the medieval foliate border to create a beautiful opening to the collection of stories in English. The text is a reprint of Caxton’s 1481 English translation of the Dutch prose version, Reinaerts Historie.

Frontispiece to The History of Reynard the Foxe, with the title and floral borders
Frontispiece to William Caxton (transl.), The History of Reynard the Foxe, with woodcut borders and ornamental initial letters designed by William Morris (Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1892): British Library C.43.f.3.

Discover more medieval stories

Intrigued by medieval stories? A new book, Dragons Heroes Myths and Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, by Chantry Westwell, is published this week by the British Library, and is now available to buy from the Library’s online shop and St Pancras bookshop. It features stories with images from some of the most gorgeous medieval manuscripts in our collections. The stories are divided into 7 sections, including Quests, Love Stories and Epic Battles, each with details of its origins and history and how it was perceived by medieval audiences. Illuminations from British Library manuscripts are beautifully reproduced on almost every page.

Dragons heroes myths and magic cover

But there is no substitute for seeing the real thing, so come and visit our Treasures Gallery at the St Pancras site, which is once again open for visitors and contains a wealth of materials from our collections, in addition to the medieval manuscripts featured here. 

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14 September 2021

700th anniversary of the death of Dante

14 September 2021 is the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (14 September 1321), author of one of the greatest works of medieval poetry, the Divine Comedy. This epic poem in Italian narrates the poet's spiritual journey from the frozen depths of hell to the cosmic heights of heaven, while exploring themes such as sin, virtue and transcendent love.

The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the Middle Ages right up to the present day, which you can find out about in the following video made especially to celebrate this anniversary. The video has been made by European and American Collections in collaboration with Western Heritage Collections.

Who was Dante?

Dante Alighieri was born in around 1265 into a prominent family in Florence. 13th-century Florence was an up-and-coming metropolis, with a growing economy based largely on the textile trade and banking. Yet the politics of the city was torn apart by conflict between two rival factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Dante’s family sided with the Guelphs. This political setting played an important part in shaping both Dante’s life and poetry.

Dante encountered another of his great influences when, at the age of nine, he went to a party at the house of an eight-year-old Florentine girl, Beatrice Portinari. By his own later account, Dante instantly fell in love with her. But Dante’s love for Beatrice could never be realised: both were placed in arranged marriages by their families, and Beatrice died when she was only twenty-five. Although they only met a few times, Beatrice held a tremendous power over Dante’s imagination. His love for her would remain a central theme in his poetry throughout his life.

Beatrice in a mandorla carried by angels
Beatrice in a mandorla carried by angels, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Naples, c. 1370: Add MS 19587, f. 111v

As a young man, Dante started writing poetry. His first collection of poems, the Vita Nuova (New Life), completed around 1293, narrates the story of his love for Beatrice. He also became involved in Florentine politics, serving as a soldier, public office holder and ambassador in support of the Guelph cause. However, in 1302 he fell foul of the city’s political intrigues and was sentenced to exile from Florence. Banished from his home city, Dante began writing the Divine Comedy, an epic poem in Italian in which he wove together his ideas about philosophy, theology, politics and love into an incredible cosmic journey.

Dante being expelled from Florence and writing the Divine Comedy in exile
Dante being expelled from Florence and writing the Divine Comedy in exile, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Siena, 1444-c. 1450: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 159r

What is the Divine Comedy about?

The Divine Comedy recounts Dante’s visionary journey through the realms of hell, purgatory and heaven to reach God. The poem is divided into three books, one for each of these afterlife realms. It begins with Dante wandering lost and downhearted in a forest, a metaphor for his exile. There he encounters the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil, who reveals that he has been sent by Beatrice to help Dante by guiding him on a spiritual journey.

First Virgil takes Dante through the nine circles of hell, where they see all kinds of gruesome punishments inflicted on sinners. Many of the sinners are identified as real people. For example, in the second circle of hell, Dante and Virgil witness the whirlwind of lovers, people guilty of the sin of lust being battered around by a ferocious wind. There Dante speaks to Francesca da Rimini, a woman who had an adulterous affair with her lover Paulo before they were both murdered by her jealous husband in around 1285. Dante is so moved by Francesca’s story that he faints with pity.

Dante and Virgil witness the whirlwind of lovers
Dante and Virgil witness the whirlwind of lovers, with Francesca and Paulo at the right, and Dante fainting in the centre, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Siena, 1444-c. 1450: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 10r

Many of the souls that they encounter belong to people who Dante regarded as corrupt political figures. For example, in the ninth circle of hell, where treacherous souls are imprisoned in a lake of ice, Dante and Virgil witnesses Count Ugolino gnawing on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri. Both were major political players in 13th-century Pisa. After Ruggieri seized power in 1289, he imprisoned Ugolino with his children and grandchildren in a tower where they starved to death. Dante regarded both men’s abuse of power as leading to this horrific event, for which they now suffer eternal torment.

Dante and Virgil witness Count Ugolino gnawing Archbishop Ruggieri's scalp
Dante and Virgil witness Count Ugolino gnawing Archbishop Ruggieri's scalp, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Emilia or Veneto, c. 1340: Egerton MS 943, f. 58v

At the centre of hell, Dante and Virgil encounter Satan, a three-headed speechless monster. In his three mouths he chews on the three greatest traitors of human history who, according to Dante, are Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Julius Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, betrayor of Christ.

Dante and Virgil encounter Satan, with traitors frozen in a lake of ice below
Dante and Virgil encounter Satan, with traitors frozen in a lake of ice below, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Naples, c. 1370: Add MS 19587, f. 58r

After they leave hell, Dante and Virgil move on to purgatory, which is represented as a mountain which souls must climb. Here, the souls work to purge themselves of the sins they have committed in life so that they can enter heaven. The mountain of purgatory is divided into seven terraces, one for each of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Dante and Virgil follow a group of souls towards the mountain of Purgatory
Dante and Virgil follow a group of souls towards the mountain of Purgatory, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Naples, c. 1370: Add MS 19587, f. 63r

At the top of the mountain they reach the earthly paradise, or Garden of Eden. Here Dante witnesses a procession of biblical figures and a chariot drawn by griffins, in which Beatrice rides. She and Dante have an emotional reunion and she chastises him for letting his life go off course.

The heavenly procession of biblical figures and griffins pulling a chariot
The heavenly procession, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Siena, 1444-c. 1450: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 119r

From here, Beatrice takes over from Virgil as Dante’s guide and together they ascend into heaven. Following the classical and medieval astronomic model, Dante’s heaven is divided into concentric spheres with the earth at the centre. The first seven spheres are each governed by one of the seven classical ‘planets’, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In each of these spheres, Dante and Beatrice meet blessed souls and learn about different kinds of virtue.

Diagram of the spheres of heaven
Diagram of the spheres of heaven, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Emilia or Veneto, c. 1340: Egerton MS 943, f. 128v

After making their way through the spheres of the planets, Beatrice and Dante come to the sphere of the fixed stars, followed by the sphere of the moving stars or Primum Mobile, and then the highest heaven, the Empyrean. Here they leave the physical world behind and enter a heaven of pure radiant light, filled with intellect, love and happiness. The Empyrean contains a huge celestial rose, where all the blessed souls reside, and where Dante witnesses a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Dante and Beatrice before the Virgin and Child, who are seated within the Celestial Rose, surrounded by various saints
Beatrice (in pink) and Dante (in blue) before the Celestial Rose, which contains the Virgin and Child surrounded by various saints, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Siena, 1444-c. 1450 : Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 187r

Finally, Dante is able to witness the eternal light of God, the ultimate goal of his journey. He feels himself powerfully moved by God’s love, the same love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Dante witnessing God
Dante witnessing God, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Emilia or Veneto, c. 1340: Egerton MS 943, f. 186r

Dante completed the Divine Comedy in 1320, and died only about a year later in 1321. His work quickly gained popularity and survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, some of which are richly illustrated like the ones pictured in this blogpost. The tradition of illustrating the Divine Comedy continued into the modern period as you can discover on the British Library’s European Collections blog.

If this has whetted your appetite, you can read The Divine Comedy in both the original Italian and in English translation on the Digital Dante website. You can also find out more about our amazing holdings of Dante material at the online event Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30). And you can come to the British Library to see the Divine Comedy manuscript Yates Thompson MS 36, which is currently on display in The Sir John Ritblat: Treasures Gallery.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

22 August 2021

Richard III: fact and fiction

On 22 August 1485, the last English king to be killed in combat died at the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was none other than Richard III, a monarch whose reputation is still debated, known variously as the King under the Carpark, Shakespeare's hunchback ruler, and the (alleged) murderer of his young nephews, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. In this blogpost, we set out some of the manuscript evidence for the reign of this controversial sovereign.

One of the earliest notices of the Battle of Bosworth is found in the calendar of an early 15th-century Book of Hours known as the 'Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours'. This calendar contains a number of added notices of births, deaths and other notable occurrences, extending as far as the deaths of Queen Jane Seymour in 1536 and Elizabeth Lucar in 1537. In the margin of the calendar page for August, the same scribe has made retrospective notes of two significant events:

7 August: 'This day landed King Harry the viith at Milfoord Haven, the yere of our Lord m.cccc.lxxxv.'

22 August: 'This day King Harri the viith wan the feeld wher was slayn King Richard the third. Anno domini 1485.' 

A calendar page in a Book of Hours, with added notices in the left-hand margin

The calendar page for August in the 'Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours', with added notices of the landing of Henry Tudor at Milford Haven and the death of Richard III at Bosworth: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 31v

We can tell immediately that these notes were made after the Battle of Bosworth Field, since Henry Tudor is described prematurely at his landing as 'King Harry the 7th'. Richard is styled 'king' in the notice of his death, which does at least acknowledge the legitimacy of his rule. The lack of space in the margins of this calendar doubtless prevented the annotator from recording a more detailed description of Richard's personality and achievements.

Another posthumous report of Richard III's reign is found in an early 16th-century chronicle that extended originally as far as the rule of Henry VII. This chronicle supplies a dispassionate account of Richard's life, set out as part of a genealogical tree of the English rulers:

'Richard that was sonne to Richard Dewke of Yorke and brother unto Kyng Edward the iiiith was Kyng after hys brother and raynyd .ii. yeres and lyth buryd at Lecitor.'

A page from a geneaological chronicle, with coloured roundels containing illustrations of members of the English royal family

A genealogical chronicle of the rulers of England, including an account of the reign of Richard III: King's MS 395, f. 33r

Richard is also illustrated in a roundel that accompanies the text, wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre in his right hand. This cannot be considered a realistic likeness, since all the portraits in this manuscript are similar in style and have the same palette of colours. But it is an antidote to the conventional image of King Richard, represented in the more famous painting held at the National Portrait Gallery. What is also noteworthy in the same manuscript is that no mention is made of the succession and brief reign of Edward V, Richard's nephew, or of the mysterious disappearance of the young princes.

A manuscript portrait of King Richard III, wearing a crown and with the English coat of arms to his right

The portrait of Richard III in the genealogical chronicle: King's MS 395, f. 33r

So what can we glean about Richard III from other manuscript sources? Like his predecessors, Richard was renowned as a law-giver. In one English statute book made in 1488 or 1489, just a few years after his death, Richard is shown in an historiated initial crowned and robed, holding a sceptre and orb, and surrounded by leading clerics and other courtiers. There is nothing to suggest here that his rule was considered illegitimate in any way. Indeed, at the time that this manuscript was produced, Henry VII's position on the throne was still precarious, since he was being challenged first by Lambert Simnel and then, in the 1490s, by Perkin Warbeck. Henry is illustrated in the same volume in exactly the same way as Richard III (f. 339v). You could not tell from this book alone that one of these kings had overthrown the other in battle.

A page from an illuminated lawbook, with a decorated initial R enclosing Richard III surrounded by his courtiers, and a decorated border

The statutes issued by King Richard III in a legal manuscript made in London: Hargrave MS 274, f. 328v

A detail of the portrait of King Richard III, throned and crowned

Detail of the portrait of Richard III in this legal manuscript: Hargrave MS 274, f. 328v

Another visual statement of the legitimacy of Richard III's rule, this time dating from his own reign, is found in a manuscript of the English translation of De re militari by Vegetius. The decorated initial that opens this volume contains the royal coat of arms supported by two boars (Richard's emblem) and surmounted by a crown. At the foot of the same page is the griffin of Salisbury, perhaps to denote that the book was made for Edward of Middleham, prince of Wales and earl of Salisbury, Richard's son and heir apparent until his untimely death in 1484. On another page of the same manuscript is the coat of arms of Anne Neville, Richard's wife and queen of England (f. 49r).

A page from an illuminated manuscript, with a decorated initial H containing two boars and the English coat of arms, a griffin in the lower border, and a decorated border enclosing the text

The royal arms of King Richard III in a manuscript of De re militari: Royal MS 18 A XII, f. 1r

A final and contemporary indication of Richard's own personality is provided by books that belonged to him, including before he became king. One manuscript of the Romance of Tristan bears the inscription 'Iste liber constat Ricardo Duci Gloucestre'. After his death it passed into the hands of his niece, Elizabeth of York, who was married to Henry VII in order to unite the two dynasties. Her inscription, 'sans remevyr Elyzabeth', is found at the bottom of the page. This evidence reminds us that Richard was styled 'duke of Gloucester': in the wake of the discovery of his skeleton, York and Leicester waged claims to being the appropriate home for his reburial, while Gloucester was largely overlooked. It also suggests that he may have had an interest in courtly literature, some indication of the circles in which he moved and what was required of a Renaissance prince. This would also have extended to having knowledge of ancient and more recent history. Among the other manuscripts known to have been owned by Richard is a copy of the Chroniques de France, from 1270 to 1380, which is inscribed part-way down one page 'Richard Gloucestre'.

A manuscript page containing the ownership inscription of Richard, Duke of Gloucester

'This book belongs to Richard, duke of Gloucester', in a manuscript of Roman de Tristan: Harley MS 49, f. 155r

A page from an illuminated manuscript, in 2 columns, with a miniature of knights fighting in the right-hand column, and the name Richard Gloucester added part-way down the left-hand column

A manuscript of the Chroniques de France owned by 'Richard Gloucestre': Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 134r

The name 'Richard Gloucestre' added to a medieval manuscript

Detail of Richard's name in Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 134r

Of course, there are other aspects of Richard's rule that we have not considered here. One of these is the sinister removal from power of his nephew, King Edward V, and the subsequent (assumed) deaths of the two princes in the Tower. To be accused of regicide and infanticide, even in an era when rulers were prepared to do anything to secure their position, is a massive stain on Richard III's reputation. The fate of Edward and his younger brother must always be set against attempts to rehabilitate Richard, and cannot be easily argued away. Equally, we are lacking a full understanding of Bosworth Field itself, and of how Richard's fortunes swayed on the battlefield. It is sometimes difficult to dislodge Shakespeare's account of the battle, and of Richard himself, from the popular memory. But the surviving manuscripts from his lifetime do at least provide us with a much more rounded vision of this most disputed of English monarchs.


Julian Harrison

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21 August 2021

Giant ants, golden apples and a killer cat

A letter from Heaven, fantastic voyages, mythical battles. All of these can be found in the recently digitised 16th-century Irish manuscript Harley MS 5280, which can now be viewed in full online. Is cúis áthais dúinn a fhógairt go bhfuil an lámhscríbhinn Ghaelach, Harley LS 5280, le fáil ar líne anois.

The volume in question was written in Ireland in the 16th century by Gilla Riabach son of Tuathal son of Tadhg cam Ó Cléirigh, and is an excellent example of medieval Irish scribal and literary culture. It is written mostly in a single column on parchment, and it contains over thirty different texts and a number of beautiful decorative initials. 

A page from a 16th-century Irish manuscript with a large decorative initial ‘R’, formed out of a twisting animal at the beginning of the text. Coloured in red and yellow.

A zoomorphic initial ‘R’, coloured in red and yellow, in Airce menman Uraird maic Coisse: Harley MS 5280, f. 59r

The manuscript is visually striking. Some of the shorter poems and notes have been wrapped into intricate shapes on the page and others form borders running along multiple margins.

Alt text: A page from a 16th-century Irish manuscript on which a series of marginal verses are written in an interwoven diamond pattern.

Four quatrains interwoven into a strange pattern: on disqualifying properties; on the location of the deaths of Aaron and Moses; on secrecy; on a wicked woman: Harley MS 5280, f. 24r

Ownership inscriptions reveal that this manuscript passed through the hands of Hugo Casserly and Henry Spelman in the 17th century. It was then acquired by Robert Harley and his son Edward Harley, Earls of Oxford, in the late 17th or 18th century. The Harley manuscripts were sold to the British government by Edward’s widow, Henrietta Cavendish Harley, and his daughter, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, in 1753, under the Act of Parliament that established the British Museum, and they form one of the foundation collections of the British Library. You can read more about the Harley collection here.

a page from a 16th-century Irish manuscript with the ownership inscription of Henry Spelman

The ownership inscription of Henry Spelman (d. 1641) above a zoomorphic initial at the opening of The Voyage of Mael Dúin’s Currach: Harley MS 5280, f. 12r

The texts contained in this manuscript are equally exciting and diverse. Stories of apples miraculously growing on alder trees, of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and a commentary on the Psalter are found alongside accounts of mythical figures from Ireland’s past. The manuscript includes two Immrama or voyage tales: The Voyage of Máel Dúin’s Currach (Immram curaig Mail Dúine) and The Voyage of Bran (Immram Brain). Máel Dúin sets off to avenge his father’s murder and ends up travelling to a number of wondrous islands, encountering giant ants, golden apples and a killer cat. Bran’s travels take him to the eerie Island of Joy and a paradisiacal island inhabited by otherworldly women.

Many of the texts discuss incredible events to happen on the island of Ireland. The only extant Middle Irish version of the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh (Cath Maige Tuired) is preserved in the manuscript. It is an account of the conflict between the Túatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians culminating in Lug Lámfhada killing Balor, his grandfather. The story contains more than the battle between the Túatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians. One example is the account of Dían Cécht giving Núadu a fully functioning hand of silver. When his son, Míach, outperforms him by turning the silver hand to flesh, Dían Cécht kills him out of jealousy. It also tells of the Dagda putting gold coins in the satirist Cridenbél’s food as part of a cunning plan to kill him without facing punishment.

A page from a 16th-century Irish manuscript. The space for the initial is left unfilled.

The opening page of Cath Maige Tuired: Harley MS 5280, f. 63r

This exciting manuscript also contains stories of love, like Créde’s lament for Dinertach (the unique copy), a legal text known as Cáin Domnaig, and The Story of Mac Da Thó’s Pig (Scéla Muice meic Da Thó), in which deciding how to carve a pig leads to chaos. A medieval Irish tale list is included in The Stratagem of Urard mac Coise (Airec menman Uraird maic Coisse). A full list of the manuscript's contents can be found in the updated online catalogue record.

Harley MS 5280 is an invaluable source for early Irish literature and we are delighted that it is now available to view online. Táimid thar a bheith sásta go mbeidh daoine ar fud na cruinne in ann breathnú ar an lámhscríbhinn iontach seo. Tá súil againn go mbainfidh sibh tairbhe agus taitneamh aisti ('We are delighted that people all over the world will be able to look at this wonderful manuscript. We hope that you find benefit and pleasure in it').


Seosamh Mac Cárthaigh

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14 August 2021

Caption competition August 2021

Periodically we ask our lovely readers (that's you) to come up with a witty caption for an illustration in one of our manuscripts.

This month we have selected a page from a 13th-century copy of the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Add MS 15268, f. 242v). So what exactly is going on here?

Send your suggestions to us via Twitter (@BLMedieval) or using the comments box below. We'll publish the best. It's that simple.


An illustration in a medieval manuscript, showing the city of Rome with a two-headed statue on a plinth and people feasting


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