Medieval manuscripts blog

15 posts categorized "Music"

23 January 2014

Sex and Death in the Roman de la Rose

Where can one go to witness the pursuit of the opposite sex, music and dancing, violence and beatings, and gratuitous nudity?  No, not a British town centre on a Friday night, but in the Roman de la Rose, obviously!

An exquisite copy of this important medieval verse romance – Harley MS 4425 – has now been digitised and is available for you to browse in its entirety on the BL’s Digitised Manuscripts website.  The Roman de la Rose was written in Old French by Guillaume de Lorris from the late 1220s up until his death in 1278, and completed some forty years later by Jean de Meun.  This manuscript was made for Count Engelbert of Nassau (1451-1504), a wealthy courtier and leader of the Duke of Burgundy’s Privy Council.  The artist to whom the decoration is attributed is known as the Master of the Prayer Books, and he and his studio were active around 1500.  He portrayed the author in one of the column miniatures: he is shown sat at a writing desk with his book before him, in the act of composition (see below for an image which will be familiar to those of you who follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval).  Note how the artist has set out the text in the author’s book in two columns, with spaces left for illustrations, exactly resembling this manuscript in a conceit that emphasises the figure’s status as author. 

Detail of a miniature of Jean de Meun writing his book, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 133r

The Roman de la Rose is an allegorical poem about courtship, love and a gentleman’s pursuit of ideal love (represented by the rose), experienced in a dream by the narrator.  However, just in case you thought it was all ‘paddling palms and pinching fingers’, the miniatures that accompany the text reveal some darker elements to the story.

Running alongside all the displays of sophisticated, wealthy, aristocratic life, are rather more violent images, relating to stories and events in the text.  For example, there is quite a lot of fighting in the Roman de la Rose – a virtual panoply of brawls and murders (and it isn’t just the men slugging it out!):

Detail of a miniature of Franchise fighting Danger, Harley MS 4425, f. 134v

Detail of a miniature of a jealous husband beating his wife, while neighbours look on, Harley MS 4425, f. 85r

Detail of a miniature of Beaute (‘Beauty’) and Laideur (‘Ugliness’) beating Chastete (‘Chastity’), now sadly damaged, Harley MS 4425, f. 81v

Detail of a miniature of the Lover being beaten by Honte (‘Shame’), Peur (‘Fear’) and Dangier (‘Danger’), Harley MS 4425, f. 131v

Below we can see two characters, Abstinence Contrainte (‘Forced Abstinence’) and Faux Semblant (‘False Seeming’) travelling in disguise: one as a Beguine nun (medieval cross-dressing!) and the other as a Franciscan friar.

Detail of a miniature of Abstinence Contrainte (‘Forced Abstinence’) and Faux Semblant (‘False Seeming’) travelling in disguise, Harley MS 4425, f. 108r

Detail of a miniature of Abstinence Contrainte (‘Forced Abstinence’) and Faux Semblant (‘False Seeming’) killing Malebouche (Evil Tongue), and cutting out his tongue, Harley MS 4425, f. 111r

These two are on a mission to kill off Malebouche (‘Evil Tongue’, literally ‘Bad Mouth’) and, appropriately, cutting out his tongue before slitting his throat (above).

Detail of a miniature of Virginius beheading his daughter Virginia, Harley MS 4425, f. 54v

In another scene (above), we see a story relating to Appius Claudius Crassus, a member of the decemviri (a council of ten men established to institute new laws) of the Roman Republic around 451 BC.  In a tale originally related by Livy, Appius lusted after Virginia.  However, since the girl was thoroughly repulsed by his lechery, Appius had one of his men claim that she was his slave, in the very court over which Appius himself presided.  Predictably, Appius upheld the claims (which would allow him to then buy the girl and have his wicked way with her) – but her father, to defend her liberty and protect her from this sorry fate, decided it would be better to kill her, and so chopped off her head without further ado…which all seems a bit rough for poor, young Virginia!

Detail of a miniature of Nero watching while his mother Agrippina is dissected, Harley MS 4425, f. 59r

Elsewhere, we see the grisly fate of Agrippina the Younger.  Having failed to murder his mother by means of a ship deliberately designed to sink, Nero pursued his matricidal ambitions by ordering Anicetus (Nero’s boyhood tutor and commander of the fleet at Misenum) and his men to murder her in person.  According to Tacitus, before she was stabbed to death, and realising her son was responsible, Agrippina cried, ‘Smite my womb!’.  The image here shows Anicetus or one of the others rummaging around in Agrippina’s viscera, while Nero looks on.  Tacitus noted that some accounts related that Nero wished to see the place where he had been conceived, and also looked upon his mother after her death and praised her beauty.  Those Roman emperors didn’t really go in for filial devotion.

Detail of a miniature of Seneca committing suicide as Nero watches, Harley MS 4425, f. 59v

The verso of this folio depicts Seneca’s suicide (above).  Having charged Seneca with involvement in the Pisonian plot to assassinate him, Nero ordered Seneca to kill himself, which he did by opening his veins whilst in a bath.  The inclusion of Nero in the image may be derived from the account of his presence at Seneca’s death in the Golden Legend.

Other suicides – people literally falling on their swords – are shown as well:

Detail of a miniature of Nero committing suicide, Harley MS 4425, f. 61r

Detail of a miniature of Lucretia committing suicide in front of her family (and an attentive dog), Harley MS 4425, f. 79r

Detail of a miniature of Dido committing suicide as Aeneas sails away, Harley MS 4425, f. 117v

There’s also some nudity thrown in for good measure:

Detail of a miniature the painter Zeuxis painting nude models, Harley MS 4425, f. 142r

Detail of a miniature of Pygmalion and the statue, Harley MS 4425, f. 177v

Perhaps after the reading the Roman de la Rose – what with all the courting and wooing, birds and bees, flowers and fruit trees, and the like – you find yourself with a few questions about the procreative act.  Well, the Medieval Manuscripts Blog brings you Sex Education, Medieval-Style. 

Q. How are babies made? 

A. By Nature, with a hammer, on an anvil. 

Detail of a miniature of Nature forging a baby, Harley MS 4425, f. 140r [see our post Royal Babies and Celebrated Infants for more on this miniature]

And there’s another depiction of people being created elsewhere in the manuscript…can you find it?

This manuscript also contains a number of extraordinary images of medieval dress and clothing styles, as well as a variety of depictions of the social classes.  Check out the blog next Tuesday for a post on these subjects, and still more from the magnificent Roman de la Rose.

- James Freeman

27 May 2013

Rejoice Now!

Our newest upload to the Digitised Manuscripts site is a gorgeous example of a rare early medieval liturgical document known as an Exultet roll.  Exultet rolls contain the hymns and prayers said during the blessing of the Easter (or Paschal) candle; their name comes from the opening exhortation: Exultet iam angelica turba caelum ('Rejoice now, all you heavenly choirs of angels'; see below).

Detail of a decorated initial 'E'(xultet) at the beginning of the prayer for the lighting of the Paschal candle, Italy (Monte Cassino), c. 1075-1080, Add MS 30337, membrane 2

Our Exultet roll, Add MS 30337, comes from the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino in southern Italy. This region of Italy was strongly influenced by Byzantine practice, and by the 11th century had developed a distinct style for the Easter vigil, continuing to use liturgical rolls in the ceremony; such rolls had largely fallen out of favour elsewhere in Europe.

Exultet rolls were read aloud from an ambo, or elevated pulpit, which faced the congregation.  As the deacon chanted the words, he would allow each finished section to hang over the edge of the ambo so that the gathered people could see the accompanying pictures.  This courtesy to the audience required, of course, that the images be painted upside-down on the roll.  We have published the online version of Add MS 30337 with the 'correct' orientation so that the text can be easily read, but as a courtesy to all of you, please see the images in all their splendour (and right-side-up) below.

Detail of Christ enthroned between two angels, Add MS 30337, membrane 1

Detail of four angels ('Angelica turba caelorum'), Add MS 30337, membrane 2

Detail of Tellus, the personification of Mother Earth, with a cow and a serpent suckling her breasts, and in the lower register, a personification of Ecclesia between a group of lay people and a group of clerics, Add MS 30337, membrane 3

Detail of a deacon reading and unrolling the Exultet roll from the ambo and the Paschal candle being lit, Add MS 30337, membrane 4

Detail of the Crucifixion, Add MS 30337, membrane 6

Detail of the Crossing of the Red Sea, and Christ's Harrowing of Hell, Add MS 30337, membrane 7

Detail of the Noli me tangere, and below, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Add MS 30337, membrane 8

Detail of the Paschal candle being censed inside a church, Add MS 30337, membrane 9

Detail of bees gathering nectar, and a bee-keeper collecting wax to create the Paschal candle, Add MS 30337, membrane 10

Detail of the Virgin Mary enthroned, with two figures excised on either side, Add MS 30337, membrane 11

You can check out the fully digitised roll here, and don't forget to follow us on Twitter @blmedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs

26 October 2012

What's on Digitised Manuscripts? The Top 10

The British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, launched in September 2010, is now over two years old. You may not have noticed everything that has appeared online so far, so here are our medieval and early modern highlights, in approximate chronological order:

The St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000)

Add MS 89000, f. 34r

The Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV)

The Old English Hexateuch (Cotton MS Claudius B IV)

The Theodore Psalter (Add MS 19352)

Add MS 19352, f. 57v

Gerald of Wales (Royal MS 13 B VIII)

Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum and Chronica maiora (Royal MS 14 C VII)

Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

Sumer Is Icumen In (Harley MS 978)

The Gorleston Psalter (Add MS 49622)

The Smithfield Decretals (Royal MS 10 E IV)

The Psalter of Henry VIII (Royal MS 2 A XVI)

Royal 2 A xvi f. 30
Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 30r

More content is being added on a regular basis, and updates will appear on this blog and via our Twitter feed, @blmedieval. Which highlights would you have chosen?

25 June 2012

Sumer Is Icumen In

A page from a 13th-century miscellany, showing the Middle English canon 'Sumer is icumen in'.

"Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu!" (Summer has come in, Loudly sing, Cuckoo!), Harley MS 978, f. 11v

One of the world's most famous medieval music manuscripts, Harley 978, is now available in full online on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. Written in 13th-century England, and belonging at one stage to the monks of Reading Abbey, the book in question contains the fables of Marie de France and the poems of Walter Map plus, most importantly to musicologists, the Middle English canon "Sumer is icumen in", written in square notation on a five-line red stave. The manuscript also contains medical texts and recipes and a glossary of herbs, and for that reason was included in our Harley Science Project.

"Sumer is icumen in" is found on f. 11v of Harley MS 978. Here are the lyrics in full with a translation into modern English.

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;

Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!


Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don't ever you stop now,

Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!


The logo of the British Library's Harley Science project.

26 April 2012

Medieval News and Views

Did you know that the British Library has its own e-journal, which regularly publishes articles relating to medieval and early modern manuscripts? The Electronic British Library Journal (eBLJ for short) has been in existence since 2002, and to date it's published more than 20 articles on pre-modern manuscript culture, ranging from Greek gospel-books and Anglo-Saxon prayerbooks to the collecting activities of 17th- and 18th-century antiquaries.

A page from an illustrated pharmacopoeial compilation, discussed in Laura Nuvoloni's article "The Harleian medical manuscripts" (London, British Library, MS Harley 1585, f. 48v).

A full list of these articles is given below. We'd like to draw your attention to two particular groups of items on a specific theme, both of which originated from projects at the British Library. In 2008 the Electronic British Library Journal published four articles by Laura Nuvoloni and others, relating to medical manuscripts in the Harley collection; and in 2011 the same journal published a further eleven articles on various aspects of the Harley collection, following a highly successful conference on the same subject.

A page from the Splendor Solis, discussed by Jörg Völlnagel in eBLJ 11, article 8 (London, British Library, MS Harley 3469, f. 18r).

If you wish to consider writing an article for the Electronic British Library Journal, please see the notes for contributors.

Julian Harrison, The English reception of Hugh of Saint-Victor's Chronicle (2002, article 1)

Barbara Raw, A new parallel to the prayer "De tenebris" in the Book of Nunnaminster (2004, article 1)

H. R. Woudhuysen, Writing-tables and table-books (2004, article 3)

Eileen A. Joy, Thomas Smith, Humfrey Wanley, and the "little-known country" of the Cotton library (2005, article 1)

Peter Kidd, A Franciscan Bible illuminated in the style of William de Brailes (2007, article 8)

Judith Collard, Effigies ad regem Angliae and the representation of kingship in thirteenth-century English royal culture (2007, article 9)

Constant J. Mews and others, Guy of Saint-Denis and the compilation of texts about music in Harley MS 281 (2008, article 6)

Laura Nuvoloni, The Harleian medical manuscripts (2008, article 7)

Peter Murray Jones, Witnesses to medieval medical practice in the Harley collection (2008, article 8)

Klaus-Dietrich Fischer, A mirror for deaf ears? A medieval mystery (2008, article 9)

Linda Ehrsam Voigts, Complementary witnesses to Ralph Hoby's 1437 treatise on astronomical medicine (2008, article 10)

Peter Kidd, Codicological clues to the patronage of Stowe MS. 39 (2009, article 5)

Pamela Porter, A fresh look at Harley MS. 1413: "A book ... fairly written in the German or Switz language" (2009, article 10)

John Spence, A lost manuscript of the "Rymes of [...] Randolf Erl of Chestre" (2010, article 6)

Antonia Fitzpatrick, A unique insight into the career of a Cistercian monk at the University of Oxford (2010, article 13)

Frances Harris, The Harleys as collectors (2011, article 1)

Deirdre Jackson, Humfrey Wanley and the Harley collection (2011, article 2)

Maud Pérez-Simon, Aesthetics and meaning in the images of the Roman d'Alexandre en prose (2011, article 3)

Sarah Pittaway, Visual rhetoric and Yorkist propaganda in Lydgate's Fall of Princes (2011, article 4)

Kathryn M. Rudy, Kissing images, unfurling rolls, measuring wounds, sewing badges and carrying talismans (2011, article 5)

Hanno Wijsman, Good morals for a couple at the Burgundian court (2011, article 6)

Anne D. Hedeman, Advising France through the example of England (2011, article 7)

Jörg Völlnagel, Splendor Solis or Splendour of the Sun -- a German alchemical manuscript (2011, article 8)

Alison Tara Walker, The Westminster Tournament Challenge and Thomas Wriothesley's workshop (2011, article 9)

Catherine Yvard, The metamorphoses of a late fifteenth-century Psalter (2011, article 10)

Francesca Manzari, Harley MS. 2979 and the Books of Hours produced in Avignon by the workshop of Jean de Toulouse (2011, article 11)

Mika Takiguchi, Some Greek Gospel manuscripts in the British Library (2011, article 13) 

03 February 2012

Musical Illuminations: Medieval Music with The Sixteen

We are very pleased to tell all our readers about an upcoming special concert by the noted choral ensemble The Sixteen, who will perform at the British Library on 10 February. The Sixteen, led by their conductor and founder Harry Christophers, have been recording and performing worldwide for more than thirty-two years, and they are particularly noted for their interpretations of early English polyphony and other masterpieces of the medieval and Renaissance periods. 

The event on 10 February will include the opportunity for an after-hours visit to our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, which has inspired The Sixteen's new CD, 'The Genius of Illumination.'  Following this, the ensemble will present a programme of late medieval music entitled 'Musical Illuminations', which will include pieces by William Cornysh, Robert Davy, and even King Henry VIII himself.  A download of the full programme, including texts and translations, is available here.

This concert has unfortunately already sold out, but those who are unable to come to the performance can buy the CD in the British Library shop or online here.

Those who are fortunate enough to have tickets should be aware that the concert will be held in the Entrance Hall of the British Library (rather than the Conference Centre, where events are usually  hosted).  This will be an unseated performance; doors will open at 19.30 and time will be allowed to visit the Royal exhibition.  The Sixteen will perform from 20.30 until 21.20. 

On a related note, there are only about 6 weeks remaining to see the exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, which will close on 11 March.  Last weekend saw record numbers of visitors, and we expect it to be even busier in the final days, so please plan your visit accordingly!

You can also now follow us on Twitter:  @blmedieval

05 December 2011

More Royal events

From now until March 2012, the British Library is hosting a series of events to celebrate our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. You can see the full list and make your bookings here.

SOLD OUT 12 December The Story of a Book Television presenter Michael Wood tells the story of one manuscript's journey from France to Italy and Anglo-Saxon England. Please note: this event is already sold out.

12-13 December Royal Manuscripts Conference An international conference featuring 18 speakers over 2 days, offering fresh insights into some of the manuscripts displayed in the exhibition. 


SOLD OUT 13 December The English Castle Expert John Goodall narrates the history of the use and development of castles in medieval England. Please note: this event is already sold out.

16 December The King of Beasts Author and researcher Deirdre Jackson presents a lavishly illustrated talk on the lion, a symbol of royalty for millennia.


9 January The Death of King Arthur Join acclaimed poet Simon Armitage as he reads from his new translation of The Alliterative Morte Arthure, in discussion with Erica Wagner, Literary Editor, The Times.

13 January Sacred Monarchy in Medieval England Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge, considers the nature of medieval holy kingship and its implications for the sixteenth-century Reformation of the Church.


20 January Royal Manuscripts: The Making of an Exhibition Curators Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle discuss their experiences of mounting this major exhibition. Please note: this event is free of charge.

20 January Monarchs and their Books A rare opportunity to visit the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, and to visit the Royal bindery, where the sovereign's books have been repaired for many centuries. Please note: this event should be booked directly via Windsor Castle, where it takes place.

30 January Towton 1461 and the Destruction of Medieval Kingship George Goodwin, author of Fatal Colours: Towton 1461, charts Henry VI's tragic reign, culminating in medieval England's most brutal battle.


3 February Sublime Words, Ridiculous Images During the Middle Ages books containing sacred texts often featured playful and shocking images, as Alixe Bovey explains.

10 February The Royal Library: Old and New Discover the stories of the royal libraries now housed at the British Library and Windsor Castle, in conjunction with Kathleen Doyle, John Goldfinch and Jane Roberts.


10 February The Sixteen: Musical Illuminations Internationally-renowned choir The Sixteen, led by their founder and conductor Harry Christophers, present a programme of late medieval music, including pieces by King Henry VIII. Please note: this will be an unseated performance.

17 February Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination Study Day A day of fascinating talks and workshops related to the exhibition, including a demonstration by Patricia Lovett of how to make a medieval manuscript. Please note: includes entry to the exhibition.

2 March Late at The British Library: Illuminate! A late event showcasing graphic novelists, cartoonists, children's books illustrators, calligraphers and contemporary illuminators, with a bar, DJs and VJs.


9 March New Learning Out of Old Books: Henry VIII and the Invention of the Royal Library Celebrated historian David Starkey explains how Henry VIII turned the Royal collection into a working library, laying the foundations for a national book repository.

Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs