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1018 posts categorized "Medieval"

21 August 2020

Online resources for medieval manuscripts

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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!


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08 August 2020

Ludicrous figures in the margin

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‘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

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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

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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

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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.

07 July 2020

The 800th anniversary of the translation of Thomas Becket

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On 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. The event shocked Christendom, and Becket was canonised as a martyr just three years later. On this day 800 years ago his body was translated (moved) from the crypt in Canterbury Cathedral to a new shrine in the Trinity Chapel.

Medieval manuscript illustrated with the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket
The earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket: Cotton MS Claudius B ii, f. 341r

Becket’s murder was recorded in a letter written by John of Salisbury (d. 1180), who was an eyewitness to the event. A copy of this letter is included in an early collection of letters assembled by Alan, the prior of the Cathedral from 1179 –1186 and later abbot of Tewkesbury (d. 1202), where it is illustrated by the earliest known representation of the murder (Cotton MS Claudius B ii).

Becket rose from relatively humble beginnings as the son of a London merchant to serve as chancellor to Henry II (r. 1154–89) from 1154, before becoming archbishop in 1162. Thereafter, he clashed with the King in defence of the autonomy of the Church. Thomas fled into exile in France in 1164, returning to England in early December 1170. Upon his return, tensions with the King still were unresolved, and a few weeks later, four knights left Henry’s court in Normandy and forced themselves into the Archbishop’s presence.

Detail of the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket
Detail of the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket: Cotton MS Claudius B ii, f. 341r

The images included in this manuscript narrate the sequence of events. In the upper register the Archbishop is at table when a messenger announces the arrival of the four knights, outside the door to the right. Below, having taken up arms, the knights enter the cathedral and attack Becket while he is kneeling before an altar. The knight wielding the sword may be Reginald Fitzurse, if the small animal head on his shield can be identified as a bear (ursus is ‘bear’ in Latin). To the right are four prostrated figures who venerate St Thomas at his tomb, perhaps representing the later penitence of the knights.

Calendar entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’ in the Luttrell Psalter
Calendar entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’ in the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 7r

In many English medieval calendars this translation date is included as a feast day. For example, the Luttrell Psalter made for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell features an entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’. This entry escaped later censorship following the November 1538 Proclamation issued jointly by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell by which Becket was characterised as a ‘rebel and traitor to his prince’ rather than a saint, and accordingly that ‘his name, shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphons, collects, and prayers in his name read, but rased and put out of all the books.’ The date of Becket’s martyrdom on 29 December in the Luttrell Psalter, however, was struck out by a single, rather discreet, line.

Calendar entry for ‘St Thomas, archbishop and martyr’ struck out in the Luttrell Psalter
Calendar entry for ‘St Thomas, archbishop and martyr’ struck out in the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 12v

Another calendar in which the translation survives on 7 July is an early 15th-century example from the diocese of Norwich. Here the image is of Becket as a young man in a bishop’s mitre, holding a sword representing the weapon of his martyrdom together with a cross-topped staff.

 Represtation of St Thomas Becket in a calendar
Representation of St Thomas Becket from a folding calendar: Egerton MS 2724, f. 1r

To discover more about Thomas Becket, you can read our earlier blogposts about Becket’s translation, Becket's martyrdom and erasing references to Becket in manuscripts. The letter collection (Cotton MS Claudius B ii) was digitised thanks to funding from The Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 project, and you can view the manuscript's collection item page or read more about medieval saints in manuscripts on the project website.

Kathleen Doyle

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04 July 2020

Our latest list of digitised manuscripts

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Long-term readers of our Blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in January 2020. With the arrival of summer, we are releasing a new update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for you to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 13th-century Book of Hours, showing an historiated initial of a man watching the sunrise from an open doorway.

An historiated initial 'D'(eus) with a man watching the sunrise, from a Book of Hours, c. 1260-70 (England, Oxford or West Midlands?): Egerton MS 1151, f. 38r (detail)

There are now over 3,600 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of July 2020:

PDF:  Download Full-list-digitised-mss-jun-2020

Excel: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-jun-2020 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A page from the Prayer-book of Archbishop Arnulph II of Milan, featuring an illustration of St Michael impaling a dragon and pulling a soul from its mouth.

St Michael the Archangel defeats the dragon and rescues a soul from its mouth, from the Prayer-book of Archbishop Arnulph II of Milan (998–1018): Egerton MS 3763, f. 104v

During this period of Covid-19 lockdown, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available online. All the images included in this blogpost are from manuscripts that we have digitised since January 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions published over the last 6 months:

PDF: Download Digitised_mss_jan2020_june_2020

Excel: Download Digitised_mss_jan2020_june_2020

A fragment of a papyrus made in the 2nd century BC, featuring a petition in Ancient Greek from a group of soldiers complaining about low pay.

A petition of soldiers, complaining to their commander about pay (Diospolis Parva (Hiou), Egypt, 169–168 BC): Papyrus 638, f. 1r

A 16th-century print of the Colosseum in Rome, featuring a cross-section of the oval amphitheatre, with a winged figure in the clouds holding a banner with a Latin inscription.

A print of the Colosseum in Rome from the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (Italy, 1538): Cotton MS Augustus III/2, f. 53r

You can also read about some of the most significant items that have been published online in the following blogposts:

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of Statius’ Thebais and Achilleis, featuring an illustration of the arrival of Ulysses and Diomedes at Scyros, with decorated borders and an initial with ivy leaves in gold, red and blue.

The arrival of Ulysses and Diomedes at Scyros, from an illustrated manuscript of Statius’ Thebais and Achilleis (Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century): Burney MS 257, f. 239v

We hope you enjoy exploring our digitised manuscripts!

 

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24 June 2020

Chyryse: a midsummer night's recipe

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Coinciding with the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist (24 June), midsummer was a time for celebrations both religious and secular in medieval society. These included church-going, holding pageants, lighting bonfires, singing, dancing, gathering flowers and feasting.

A taste of these medieval festivities survives in a recipe for chyryse, or cherry pudding, found in several medieval culinary collections. Some versions of the recipe specify that the cherries are to be picked on the feast of St John the Baptist, when they are at their best. The cherry harvest was closely associated with the festivities of midsummer and in medieval literature, the expression 'cherry time' was often used to signify short-lived good times.

Medieval manuscript illumination of a boy stealing cherries from a tree, with an angry club-wielding man coming to punish him, from the Luttrell Psalter
A boy stealing cherries from a tree, with an angry club-wielding man coming to punish him, the Luttrell Psalter, Add MS 42130, f. 196v

For midsummer this year, I am experimenting with recreating chyryse from the British Library's copy of the Forme of Cury (Add MS 5016, m. 5), a recipe book composed by Richard II’s chief cook around 1390. Medieval recipe books are not quite as user-friendly as modern ones, often providing no quantities, obscure ingredients and bafflingly vague instructions. This, however, is all part of the fun.

Medieval recipe for chyryse from the Forme of Cury
Recipe for chyryse from the Forme of Cury, Add MS 5016, membrane 5

The recipe

Take almaundes unblanched, waisshe hem, grynde hem, drawe hem up with gode broth. do þerto thridde part of chiryse. þe stones take oute and grynde hem smale. make a layour of gode brede & powdour and salt and do þerto. colour it with sandres so that it be stondyng, and florissh it with aneys and with cheweryes, and strawe þeruppon and serue it forth.

Take unblanched almonds, wash them, grind them, draw them up with good broth. Add a third part of cherries, take out the stones, and grind them small. Make a layour (thick sauce) of good bread and powder (spice mix) and salt and add. Colour it with sandalwood so that it is standing (thickened) and flourish it with aniseed and with cherries and strew on top and serve it forth.

Method

To make this recipe, I mixed together 100g ground almonds and 150ml red wine (the recipe calls for 'gode broth', i.e. animal stock, but some alternative versions use wine instead, which seems like a better option). I heated them gently in a pan. After removing the stones, I roughly pureed a large punnet of cherries with a hand blender and added them to the pan. I grated a slice of wholemeal bread to make breadcrumbs, which I added to the mixture along with a spice mix of ginger, cinnamon, cloves, sugar and salt (the recipe does not specify which spices, but this is an authentic medieval blend). Not having any sandalwood to dye it, I left out that step. I gently simmered the mixture for about 20 minutes until it thickened, then refrigerated it overnight. I served it with a garnish of aniseed and halved fresh cherries.

A photo of a bowl of chyryse, a purple mushy pudding garnished with cherries and aniseed
My modern recreation of chyryse, photo by the author

The verdict

Chyryse is like nothing I've eaten before, but I really like it. The mixture itself is not very attractive, although the garnish certainly helps. Its grainy texture is unlike most modern puddings, with semolina probably being the closest comparison. The strong fruity cherry flavour is warmed by the earthy spices. The aniseed is an especial winner, its liquorice kick perfectly complementing the mellow sweetness of the cherries. Once I'd got over its initial strangeness, I found chyryse to be a bewitching midsummer delight.

Medieval manuscript illumination of people harvesting cherries, with boys standing in the branches of the tree and throwing cherries down to a woman below
The cherry harvest, with boys standing in the branches of the tree and throwing cherries down to a woman below, Sloane MS 4016, f. 30r

 

Eleanor Jackson

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***disclaimer: this recipe was made in my own time and at my own expense. No Library resources were used in the making of this chyryse! ***