Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

14 January 2016

A Belated Holiday Gift from Us: a Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks!

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It's that time of year again, friends, and we're pleased to (belatedly) celebrate the holidays by giving you a magnificent gift.  This gift is certainly worth the wait, though - a massive list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks!  We're mixing it up a little bit this time, though, as the list is now a PDF, but fully searchable and with working hyperlinks.  You can download it here:  Download BL AMEM Digitised Manuscripts Master List.  There are 1429 manuscripts on this list now, we are staggered to report.

Illuminated frontispiece of the marital arms of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford (created 1st Duke of Somerset, and Lord Protector in 1547) and his second wife, Lady Anne Stanhope, with the Seymour family motto ‘Foy pour Devoir’, from the Taverner Prayer Book, England (London), c. 1540, Add MS 88991, f. 2v

In honour of our biggest ever list of hyperlinks, we're pleased to share one of our smallest manuscripts, the Taverner Prayer Book (see above), which recently went online.  We've also added quite a few manuscripts from our Anglo-Saxon project, along with many from the illuminated collections in general.  We have some big plans for the coming year and many more manuscripts to share with you, so watch this space!

-   Sarah J Biggs

12 January 2016

Aelred of Rievaulx

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Are any readers taking on new endeavours as part of New Year’s Resolutions? If so, you might consider the example of Aelred of Rievaulx, who died on this day in 1167. Aelred (also spelled Ailred and Æthelred) was a saint, scholar, friend, diplomat, abbot, traveller, mentor, property manager, and more!

Royal 5 B IX f 51
Detail of initial from Aelred of Rievaulx's Sermons on Isaiah, England, 13th century, Royal MS 5 B IX, f. 51 r

Aelred was the son of the last hereditary priest of Hexham, who in turn was descended from a long line of churchmen who had tended the shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham. However, Aelred did not immediately follow in the family’s footsteps: after training at Durham, he went to the court of the king of Scotland. There he befriended the future king David I of Scotland, with whom he conducted several diplomatic missions. On David’s death in 1153, a grief-stricken Aelred wrote a eulogy for David, which became the first chapter of his Genealogia regum Anglorum. His Genealogia survives in several British Library manuscripts, including Cotton MS Cleopatra B III, Cotton MS Vespasian B XI, Cotton MS Vitellius F III, Cotton MS Vespasian A XVIII, Cotton MS Julius A XI, Cotton MS Otho D VII, Cotton MS Domitian A VIII, Royal MS 13 D V, Arundel MS 161, and others.

Page from Aelred of Rievaulx's Genealogia regum Anglorum, England, c. 1275-c.1325, Cotton MS Domitian A VIII, f. 122r 

By that stage, Aelred had been persuaded to become a Cistercian monk at the abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire.  Aelred would go on to become abbot first of Revesby, also in Yorkshire, and then of Rievaulx itself. Even while he was a monk and abbot, Aelred’s political and diplomatic talents came in handy, as he was involved in discussions during the war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, managing and expanding his abbeys’ property, negotiating a peace between Fergus of Galloway and his sons, persuading Henry II to support the papacy of Alexander III, travelling to Cîteaux every year, and doubling the number of monks at Rievaulx.

In between all this activity, Aelred was a prolific writer, and the British Library possesses manuscripts of several of Aelred’s best known works, like his Speculum Caritatis, written at the request of the leader of the Cistercian order, Bernard of Clairvaux.

Royal 5 B IX f 159v
Opening of Aelred of Rievaulx's Speculum Caritatis, Royal MS 5 B IX, f. 159v

Additionally, the British Library possesses manuscripts of his vita of Edward the Confessor, which continued to be popular into the later Middle Ages, and his tract De spiritali amicitia, in which he mused, ‘Friendship is its own reward’. 

Stowe 104, ff. 119v-120r
Pages from Aelred of Rievaulx's Vita S Edwardi, England, 4th quarter of the 12th century, Stowe MS 104, ff. 119v-120r

Harley 4976 f. 1
Opening page from Aelred of Rievaulx's Vita S Edwardi, England, 1st half of the 15th century, Harley MS 4976, f 1r.

The British Library also has several copies of Aelred’s  De institutione inclusarum, including one which was owned by Henry VII (Cotton MS Vitellius E VII). Aelred had originally written De institutione inclusarum for his sister.

Regular readers of this blog will know that we are in the long process of digitising our medieval manuscripts. To find out more about Aelred from some of the manuscripts that we have already digitised, please click on the links above.

-Alison Hudson

09 January 2016

Until We Meet Again

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As my time here in the British Library ticks away, I have very much to be grateful for.  It has been a massive privilege and pleasure to work with my marvellous colleagues in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts department, and to be able to have daily contact with such a spectacular collection of manuscripts.  One of my greatest joys has been this blog, which I will continue to contribute to, albeit from across the pond.  But as a way to mark the end of this particular era, I thought I would share some of my favourite posts from the past 5 years.  Without further ado, the Sarah J Biggs Top Ten (chosen via the totally unscientific process of me picking what I liked):


10.  Erasing Becket:  a post spurred by a number of reader enquiries about the practice of removing references to St Thomas Becket from medieval manuscripts

Erasing Becket
Miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, and excision of the suffrage of Thomas Becket, Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), South Netherlands, 3rd  quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2985, ff. 29v-30r


9.  An Old World View of the New: a rare opportunity for me to work on material concerning the Americas, based on a miniature fraught with a legacy of slavery and genocide.

Old World
Miniature of cannibals attacking the members of a Spanish expedition to America in 1530, from the Triumphs of Charles V, Italy or the Netherlands, c. 1556-c. 1575, Add MS 33733, f. 10r


8.  The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts: what it says on the tin.  Although now that I think about it I never did write the promised follow-up about medieval artists.

Detail of a miniature of a hermit at work on a manuscript, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315 – 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 6v


7.  ‘Virile, if Somewhat Irresponsible’ Design: The Marginalia of the Gorleston Psalter and More Gorleston Psalter ‘Virility’: Profane Images in a Sacred Space:  this glorious two-part post was great fun for me to research and even more fun to write, and firmly established my interest in rude medieval monkeys.

Detail of a marginal creature pulling a face, from the Gorleston Psalter, England, 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 123r


6.  Marginali-yeah! The Fantastical Creatures of the Rutland Psalter:  Marginalia, monsters, and monkeys!  How could anything be better?

Bas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid with a panotii (a monstrous race of men with enormous ears), from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 88v


5.  The Anatomy of a Dragon: another examination of fantastical medieval creatures (a bit of a theme here); this post was apparently very popular amongst video game aficionados and developers, for some reason.

Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against two-headed, eight-legged, crowned dragons with multiple eyes along their torsos, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 78v


4.  Dress Up for Halloween, Medieval Style: I actually attempted a memento mori costume the year I wrote this post.  It was not entirely successful.

Detail of an historiated initial 'D'(ilexi) with a woman (Duchess Dionora?) with a skull for a face admiring herself in a hand mirror, from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino, Italy (Florence or Mantua), c. 1480, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 174r


3.  Bugs in Books: I’ll just quote Pliny here on the subject of insects: ‘Nature is nowhere to be seen in greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works.  For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.’ 

Detail of a miniature of bees guarding their hives against a marauding bear, from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), Italy (Padua?), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3448, f. 10v


2.  Knight v Snail: a casual conversation in our manuscripts store led to one of the most popular blog posts across the British Library, and a lot of interest in this enduring mystery. 

Knight and snail from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), with marginal scenes added in England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r


1.  Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library:  there's nothing else that deserves the number one spot!

Detail of a unicorn on the grill in Geoffrey Fule's cookbook, England, mid-14th century (London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, f. 137r)

Thank you all for everything, and here’s to many more happy years exploring medieval manuscripts!

-  Sarah J Biggs

07 January 2016

The Case of the Disappearing Ships

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In 2013 we were pleased to tell you about a ‘new life’ for one of our Royal manuscripts:  a banner-sized detail of a 15th century mappa mundi, which originally greeted visitors to our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, was repurposed to brilliant effect by Turner prize-winning artist Mark Leckey.

Installation View:  detail of a Mappa mundi from Bartholomaeus Angelicus' De proprietatibus rerum, Royal MS 15 E III, f. 67v, behind Double Dome, 1967 by Derek Boshier, courtesy the Arts Council Collection from The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things curated by Mark Leckey, a Hayward Touring exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary 27 April – 30 June 2013. Photo: Andy Keate

But the story doesn’t end there.  Following its sojourn in the heady realm of contemporary art, the banner came home with me.  It made its way onto the wall of my infant daughter’s nursery, so that from a very early age she would be able to contemplate the important things in life (mappae mundi and medieval manuscript illumination, basically). 

BA Map in Eleanor's room
Over the course of the many many hours I spent in the nursery, I spent a lot of time staring at this vastly magnified painting.  And I soon noticed something interesting. 

But first a bit of background.  This miniature can be found at the beginning of Book 15 of a French translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ encyclopaedia, De proprietatibus rerum.  Angelicus’s text, a compliation of theology, natural history, and science, was a bestseller, by medieval standards.  A century after it was written, De proprietatibus rerum  was translated into French, and illuminated copies began to be produced.  Royal MS 15 E III is a lavish copy, produced in Bruges in 1485, which may have once belonged to Edward IV.

Detail of a tripartite mappa mundi, from a French translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ De proprietatibus rerum, Bruges, 1482, Royal MS 15 E III, f. 67v

Book 15 of Angelicus’s text is called ‘On the provinces and countries’ and discusses Isidore of Seville’s division of the world into three parts: Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Most maps depicting this division show east at the top of the map (the origins of our term ‘to orient’), but the miniature above is interesting in that Asia shares the top space with Africa.  It is also unusual amongst maps of its type by depicting the three lands as mountainous landscapes, full of castles and rivers. 

It is in these rivers, though, that we can begin to see something odd – at least, the rivers in the Africa section.  At first glance it appears that there are no ships to be found in Africa, unlike Asia and Europe.  But a closer inspection reveals that there are ships, or rather, there were ships at one time.

G70018-05a_detail with circles
Detail of the Africa section of the tripartite mappa mundi, with ‘disappearing’ ships circled in red.

Three of these ships are visible (circled in red above), ghostly and barely present.  Examining the manuscript itself indicates that what we are seeing are most likely the original underdrawings, which were strangely emphasised in pigment but never fully painted.  The outlines of these ‘disappearing’ ships were painted over with the river landscapes, but are now visible. 

Detail of the Africa section of the tripartite mappa mundi, with two black figures.

Also of interest in the Africa section are the only two inhabitants of the map: the outsized figures of two black men standing against a rocky outcrop.  Both figures appear to have been repainted (at least in part) to alter their positions; this is particularly visible in the way their arms are depicted.  It is possible, though far from certain, that these two men were not part of the original design but were added when the miniature was painted.

It is always a challenge to interpret such manuscript mysteries.  Were the Africa ships included in the original design in error and then corrected by the painter?  Was this only a simple design change?  Or were the ships removed at some point during the design process as part of an effort to make Africa appear more foreign, less civilised?  And how do the figures of the two black men – the only humans in evidence on the map – relate?

As always, we’re grateful for any ideas or suggestions you may have.  You can comment below, or reach us at Twitter @BLMedieval

-   Sarah J Biggs

05 January 2016

Bald's Leechbook Now Online

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The current Anglo-Saxon Digitisation project covers a wide range of manuscripts, from Psalters to letters to lawcodes to schoolbooks to medical remedies. We are pleased to announce that, for the first time, Bald’s Leechbook—a collection of medical remedies, recipes, diagnostic guides, and charms, copied in the mid-10th century—is now available online.  Bald’s Leechbook has long fascinated scholars, and it recently made headlines after a team in Nottingham discovered that one of its recipes—for a poultice for an infected eye— can combat the superbug MRSA. For more information on this discovery, read our blogpost 'A Medieval Medical Marvel'.

A page from Bald's Leechbook, showing a recipe for an eye salve.
Recipe for an eye salve, from Bald’s Leechbook, England (Winchester?), mid-10th century, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 12v

Bald’s Leechbook is also interesting for its references to elves (about which more later), its prognostic about the ‘Dog Days’, and its compiler[s] use of Greek medical sources and more local medical sources, among other things.  It even includes a discussion of an early plastic surgery to fix a cleft palate, as well as cures for both impotence and lustfulness – very useful, indeed.

A page from Bald's Leechbook, showing a cure for a harelip or cleft palate.
Cure for a harelip (haer-sceard), or cleft palate, involving a description of early plastic surgery, from Bald's Leechbook, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 20v

A page from Bald's Leechbook, showing cures for overly lustful and impotent men.
Cures for an overly lustful (wraene) man and for an impotent man, from Bald's Leechbook, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 54v

An expanded discussion of the subject can be found in our post Anglo-Saxon Medicine, and please click over to Digitised Manuscripts to have a closer look at Bald’s Leechbook!

01 January 2016

A Calendar Page for January 2016

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Many thanks to all of you who voted to help us choose our 2016 calendar; we are pleased to present you with the winner – the Bedford Hours.   The Bedford Hours is a particularly apt choice for the beginning of the year, as it was originally intended as a Christmas gift; on 24 December 1430, the manuscript now known as Add MS 18850 was presented to the newly-crowned king of England, the 8-year-old Henry VI, by his aunt, Anne of Burgundy, the duchess of Bedford. 

John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford, before St George, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 256v

It was indeed a magnificent gift for the young king, containing 38 large miniatures and more than 1,200 smaller paintings, produced by the best Parisian workshops of the day.   We have highlighted this glorious manuscript before on our blog; more information on the Bedford Hours can be found in our posts A Royal Gift for Christmas and What a King Should Know.

Calendar page for January, from the Bedford Hours, Add MS 18850, f. 1r

The calendar in the Bedford Hours is suitably sumptuous.  The saints’ days for each month stretch across two pages, which are surrounded by lush foliage and ornately decorated letters.  At the beginning of each month are two miniatures that indicate the labour of that month, as well as the relevant sign of the zodiac.  But the Bedford calendar doesn’t stop there; also included on each folio are one or two medallions, which contain very unusual paintings for a calendar.  At the bottom of each folio are verses, written in blue and gold, which explain the scenes above.

Detail of the miniatures for feasting and the zodiac sign Aquarius, from the calendar page for January, Add MS 18850, f. 1r

On the bottom of f. 1r we can see two adjacent miniatures.  On the left is the standard ‘labour’ for January, that of feasting – although in this case the gentleman is able to utilise his triple face for maximum eating and drinking.  Next to this is a nude figure of a man pouring out water, corresponding to the zodiac sign for Aquarius.

Detail of a marginal roundel  with January opening the door to the year, from the calendar page for January, Add MS 18850, f. 1r

To understand the roundel on the middle right we must turn to the rubrics (and here I am indebted to our resident expert in medieval French, Chantry Westwell).  The two lines at the bottom of the folio explain how January ‘holds the key to daylight’, opening the door to the four seasons.  This is, of course, exactly what we can see happening above. 

Calendar page for January, Add MS 18850, f. 1v

The following folio continues the saints’ days for the month, and include two additional roundels.  These illustrate how we are to greet the first day of the year, giving our hands to one another ‘as a sign of love’. 

Detail of a roundel with figures greeting the new year, Add MS 18850, f. 1v

Happy New Year!

-  Sarah J Biggs 

31 December 2015

Party Like It's AD 999 (or 980)

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This week, many people are planning parties. In the late 10th century, some reforming monks took their cues from the Romans when it came to partying. In a dedicatory letter to his bishop, Ælfheah, the writer and poet Wulfstan the Cantor remembered the party that the monks of the Old Minster, Winchester, had held after the rededication of their church on 20 October 980. The sole copy of this letter is preserved in a nearly contemporary manuscript, which has just been uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts. Translated from the original Latin, the account of the party reads:

‘There were many other bishops… nobles and ealdormen, as well as the great majority of the English royal thegns… [T]hey rejoice in the sumptuous delights which the bishop [Æthelwold of Winchester] decided to lay on for everyone. Course is joined to course, every sort of food abounds: no one is sad, all are joyful. There is no hunger here, where food is in all abundance, and the table stands piled high with a variety of victuals. Circulating wine-stewards delve into the cellars and urge the revellers to begin drinking. They set up great drinking bowls and spice the wine, pouring out innumerable cups of the beverage. And abundant are the cups when the thirsty boor has drained the frothing bowl, honey-sweet in its stream! – in the end he soaks himself from the full drinking bowl itself, jamming it against his bristly chin.’ [Wulfstan of Winchester, Narratio metrica de Sancto Swithuno, in The Cult of St Swithun, trans. and ed. by Michael Lapidge (Oxford, 2003), pp. 378-79.]

Passage describing the festivities after the rededication of the Old Minster, from a dossier of materials pertaining to the cult of St Swithun, England (Winchester), c. 1000, Royal MS 15 C VII, f. 52 v

Admittedly, Wulfstan’s account is not a straightforward description of the event: rather, he modelled the section about the wine stewards on the Latin poet Virgil’s account of Dido’s feast in the Æneid (Virgil, Æneid, i.723-47). Wulfstan may have been quoting Virgil to show off his learning. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Wulfstan thought that the party Virgil described was a suitable point of reference to describe a celebration at a reformed monastery led by his beloved teacher, St Æthelwold, whom Wulfstan was urging Bishop Ælfheah to emulate.

Miniature of a dedication of a church, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, England, c. 963-984, Add. MS 49598, f. 118v

Additionally, there is other evidence for an abundance of alcohol at monasteries refounded by Æthelwold. At Abingdon Abbey, where Æthelwold had been abbot between about 954 and 963, 12th- and 13th-century chroniclers claimed Æthelwold had permitted a generous daily allowance of beer, known as Æthelwold’s bowl, which was supplemented with mead on feast days. Both manuscripts of the Abingdon Chronicle are held at the British Library as Cotton MS Claudius C IX and Cotton MS Claudius B VI.

Detail of a steward pouring drinks and drinkers, from a calendar, England, second quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, f. 4v

Wishing you equally memorable festivities wherever you are!

 Alison Hudson, Project Curator, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

29 December 2015

Abraham and the Angels: The Cotton Genesis at the British Museum

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The miniature of Abraham and the angels from the Cotton Genesis is one of the first items on display in the exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs currently taking place at the British Museum. The Cotton Genesis is a landmark in the history of biblical illustration. Produced probably in Egypt during the 5th or 6th century, it contains a copy of the Book of Genesis written in Greek. This extensively illuminated codex once contained a sequence of over 300 illustrations, but tragically it was severely damaged in the fire of 1731 at Ashburnham House, where it was stored together with the rest of the library of Sir Robert Cotton. In the fierce heat of the fire, the parchment leaves shrank and were partly burned or charred. Despite its poor state of preservation, the Cotton Genesis remains an exceptional witness of early biblical illustration and of the highly accomplished technique of late antique book painting.

Cotton MS Otho B VI f. 26v C7910-05
Fragment of a miniature of Abraham and two angels, from the Cotton Genesis, Egypt(?), 5th or 6th century, Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 26v

In this scene, Abraham greets, or possibly pleads with, the angels sent by God to destroy Sodom. Parts of the Greek text are legible above and below the image.

Fragment of the miniature of the butler before Pharaoh (Genesis 41:9-13), Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 87r

Here the butler with knees bent extends his arms towards the enthroned Pharaoh, and recounts how Joseph interpreted his dreams when he was in prison.

The two miniatures on the page below depict more unusual scenes. The first miniature probably features the Death of Shelah. The second miniature has been interpreted as portraying the Death of Eber or the Begetting of Peleg, or perhaps both.

Fragmentary miniatures of the Death of Shelah and the Death of Eber and/or the Begetting of Peleg (Genesis 11:14-17), Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 16v

The figure of Abraham from the Cotton Genesis introduces the three religions at the centre of the British Museum exhibition, as the shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The exhibition tells the complex story of religious co-presence and conflict in Egypt from 30 BC under the rule of the Roman Empire up to the decline of the Islamic Fatimid dynasty in 1171. Yet, the exhibition looks beyond these twelve centuries, recognising the reverberations of the Pharaonic past on this period. At the same time it provides a broader context for understanding life in Egypt today.

Codex Sinaiticus, Luke 3:21-4:18, on display at the British Museum from 29 October 2015 to 7 February 2016 (British Library Add MS 43725, f. 230v)

The miniature of Abraham from the Cotton Genesis is displayed opposite copies of the three great books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, including the New Testament volume of Codex Sinaiticus on loan from the British Library. For the next few months, both volumes of Codex Sinaiticus are on display in London: one in the exhibition, and the other in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery. Read more about Codex Sinaiticus here.

Other British Library loans to Egypt: faith after the pharaohs include a papyrus in Greek with the manumission of a 40-year-old female slave and her children, dated 14 April AD 291. There is also a number of Arabic, Coptic and Hebrew items from the British Library’s African and Asian collections. These include the First Gaster Bible (Or MS  9879) , a Coptic spell to cast out demons (Or 6796), and a 14th-century illuminated copy of Abu Al Qasim Al-'iraqi’s Kitab al-aqalim Al-saba'ah (Add MS 25724).

The British Museum exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is open until 7 February 2016.

-  Hannah Morcos