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

17 July 2021

A library under lockdown

How would you cope if your library was under lockdown? That is the situation Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) found himself in late in his life. We can all probably sympathise — most of us would never have anticipated the events of the past year — but the treasures denied to Cotton, by order of King Charles I, were astonishing. They included the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and a copy of Magna Carta issued in 1215 with King John's seal intact; for Cotton had assembled one of the greatest private libraries ever known. At a time when the British Library's own Reading Rooms and galleries have now reopened, and remembering of course that we have always remained open online, we look back in this blogpost to the events of the 1620s–30s and consider what lessons can be learned from them. 

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, with his hand resting on the Cotton Genesis

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson, reproduced from the collection of The Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L.

The temporary closure of Cotton's library is summarised by Colin Tite in The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton (The British Library, 1994). Cotton, a Member of Parliament for Huntingdonshire and advisor to King James I (reigned 1603–1625), as well as a prominent antiquary and manuscript collector, had aroused suspicion over a number of years. Cotton's London residence was at Westminster — Members of the House of Lords had to pass through his garden in order to enter their chamber — and his habit of amassing state papers for antiquarian and political purposes (what we would now call 'preserving them for posterity') had earned the mistrust of the new king, Charles I (reigned 1625–1649), and his favourite, the Duke of Buckingham.

As early as 1616 Cotton had been suspected of communicating 'secretts of state' to the Spanish ambassador, for which he was threatened with the confiscation of his papers. Cotton frequently loaned his manuscripts or allowed others to consult them, what we may consider a charitable act but which curried disfavour in certain quarters. One of those borrowers was Francis Bacon (1561–1626), the Lord Chancellor of England, until he was impeached, barred from office, fined £40,000 and imprisoned for three days. (Bacon's disgrace, ostensibly for taking bribes, was ultimately the result of a scandal relating to monopolies and patents, for which he was made the scapegoat.) In 1621, as part of his extended punishment, Bacon was forbidden access to Cotton's library, but we know that the two men remained close. Two years later, in 1623, Bacon presented to Robert Cotton the benefactors' book of St Albans Abbey (Cotton MS Nero D VII), as is evidenced by an inscription on its opening page.

A page from the Benefactors Book of St Albans, with a decorated initial P, and at the foot an inscription recording that Francis Bacon gave the book to Robert Cotton

The Benefactors Book of St Albans, presented to Robert Cotton by Francis Bacon in 1623: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 1r

The year 1626 witnessed another two incidents that suggested all was not well between Sir Robert Cotton and the new king. First, at Charles's coronation in 1626, Cotton attempted to present him with a gospel-book on which the early kings of England had reputedly sworn their oaths (Cotton MS Tiberius A II). Charles refused the gift and ordered that the royal barge be rowed past Cotton House, where Sir Robert was waiting, book in hand, as a result of which the king had to wade onshore, hardly a good omen for his own rule. Around the same time, the Duke of Buckingham urged that the famous Cotton library be closed, most probably because it contained the historical precedents on which his Parliamentary critics often relied. The library, in other words, had become a battleground for political debate.

A page of the Coronation Gospels with a decorated initial B followd by display script and the signature of Robert Cotton

A page of the so-called Coronation Gospels, with the signature Ro: Cotton Bruceus: Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 3r

Buckingham may have been assassinated by a discontented soldier at Portsmouth in 1628, but his untimely demise did not remove the heat from Sir Robert Cotton. After an allegedly seditious tract was found among Cotton's papers in 1629, Sir Robert and his associates were arrested and his library was ordered to be closed, with a guard placed on its door. The full impact of its closure may never be known, but the denial of his books to Cotton and his fellow antiquaries cannot be underestimated. The Privy Council appointed commissioners to search the library for state papers and other records that Cotton was suspected of having appropriated, and they drew up a catalogue of its contents (now Add MS 36789) to aid them in that process. The catalogue reveals that the manuscripts were arranged in presses named after the Roman emperors, and also that many of the papers were unbound. Tite also surmised that some items may have been confiscated from the library at this very time, since they are named in that catalogue but no longer form part of the Cotton collection. An example is the 'Survey of the Anne Royall 1626', a reference to the naval ship the Ark Royal, named after Queen Anne of Denmark, that sank in the 1630s.

Sir Robert Cotton was granted only limited access to his own library for the remainder of his life. He died on 6 May 1631, and it remained for his son and successor, Sir Thomas Cotton (1594–1662), to petition the king for the library to be re-opened. But the Cotton collection did not remain dormant in its final years. We know that Robert Cotton continued to receive new acquisitions even after 1629 — one wonders where he kept them — among which was the copy of Magna Carta we cited at the beginning of this blogpost, sent to him by Sir Edward Dering from Dover Castle on 10 May 1630. So the Cotton library may have been physically closed, but it remained an intellectual entity, cherished by Sir Robert Cotton, his family and the leading scholars of his day. It had been Cotton's ambition, essentially, to create a national collection, and his wish was fulfilled when his library was bequeathed to the British nation in 1702 'for Publick Use and Advantage', as confirmed by Act of Parliament (12 and 13 William III, c. 7). The Cotton manuscripts formed one of the foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753, and more recently, in 2018, they were inscribed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register.

A letter addressed to Robert Cotton by Edward Dering, dated at Dover Castle, 10 May 1630

The letter of Edward Dering, informing Robert Cotton that he was sending him 'the charter of K. John dated att Running Meade', now Cotton Ch XIII 31 A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

So what can we learn from this sorry episode? First of all, you should never give up, even if you lose access to your books due to circumstances beyond your control. We know that the last sixteen months and counting have been very difficult for so many of our readers, as well as the staff and supporters of the British Library, but we hope sincerely that with time we'll be able to recommence our studies with the benefit of the Library's collections and those of our sister-institutions around the world. Secondly, knowledge is precious. The attempts by the government of King Charles I to suppress the Cotton library were founded on jealousy, mistrust and abuse of process, but ultimately they proved unsuccessful. Finally, Sir Robert Cotton did not have the benefit of having digital surrogates made of his precious books, but today you can view some 312 of his manuscripts, 51 of his charters and 2 of his rolls on our Digitised Manuscripts site, with more items being added on a regular basis. Once again, we hope that Robert Cotton would have approved.


Julian Harrison

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15 July 2021

The lost miracles of Wulfsige of Evesham

Little is known about Wulfsige (d. 1104 or 1105), also known as ‘Wulsinus’, an important figure of the Benedictine abbey of St Mary the Virgin and St Egwin at Evesham (Worcestershire). Wulfsige reputedly lived at the abbey for 75 years, and was venerated as a saint after his death. According to the Peterborough Chronicle, an Evesham monk named Thomas of Northwich (d. 1206 or 1207) wrote three books about the miracles that had taken place at Wulfsige’s tomb. Until now, no trace of Northwich’s work has been found. However, while cataloguing the Harley manuscripts, we have discovered what seems to be a fragment of this lost miracle collection. 

An entry from the Peterborough Chronicle, written in brown ink, about the three books that Thomas of Northwich wrote about Wulfsige

Wulfsige’s miracles in the Peterborough Chronicle: ‘[Wulfsige] at whose tomb many miracles are made by the Lord, which Master Thomas of Northwich wrote down in three books’ (‘ad cujus tumbam multa miracula a domino facta sunt que iij libris scripsit magister Thomas Norwicensis’): Cotton MS Claudius A V, f. 19r (England, 2nd half of the 14th century)

Wulfsige lived at Evesham Abbey as an ‘anchorite’, a recluse who separated himself from the monks in an enclosure. This was either a cell or, according to one source, an underground cavity. Despite his secluded lifestyle, Wulfsige engaged actively with worldly affairs. He allegedly wrote to King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066) urging him to re-found Westminster Abbey, provided spiritual advice to Leofric (d. 1057), Earl of Mercia, and his wife Godgifu (d. ?1067), better known as ‘Lady Godiva’, and persuaded St Wulfstan (c. 1000–1095) to accept the bishopric of Worcester in 1062. Wulfsige’s importance to Evesham is evident from the fact that he was buried in the middle of the choir of the abbey church. The monks celebrated his feast on 24 February.

A text written in early modern script and red ink, recording the feast of Wulfsige

The feast of Wulfsige in an early 18th-century transcript of a 14th-century Evesham Calendar in Cotton MS Vitellius E XVII, that is now illegible due to fire damage: ‘Wulfsige, a monk and anchorite of this place’ (‘Wlsinus Monachus et Anachorita istius loci’): Lansdowne MS 427, f. 4r

We can now get a glimpse of Wulfsige’s miracles through the discovery of two fragmentary parchment leaves in a 13th-century English manuscript — Harley MS 4242. The leaves record the miracles of a certain ‘Wlsinus’. The old printed catalogue of the Harley manuscripts published in 1808 calls him ‘Walsinus’, but closer examination makes clear that he is none other than Wulfsige. All the miracles are set in or close to the Vale of Evesham. Moreover, in one of them a woman from the village of Wick, who was suffering from a severe headache, identified him as an anchorite: ‘St Wulsinus, anchorite, help me’ (‘Sancte Wlsine anachorita adiuva me’).

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which a woman of Wick calls Wulfsige an anchorite (‘anachorita’) in line 10

Wulfsige heals a woman of Wick who invokes him as an anchorite: Harley MS 4242, f. 65v

Wulfsige’s miracles typically involved supernatural healing. One tells of a certain Helewisa of Badsey whose entire body was seized by pain. When she was brought to Wulfsige’s tomb to ask for his help, her husband forced her to return to their village. She complied reluctantly, regretting that she had not dared to stay at the tomb for longer. But Wulfsige clearly heard her prayers as she was completely relieved of her pain.

A text beginning with a large initial in red and written in black ink in which Wulfsige heals Helewisa of Badsey

Wulfsige heals Helewisa of Badsey: Harley MS 4242, f. 65v

Another miracle concerned a boy of Evesham who suffered from bloody diarrhoea and constantly had to go to the latrine, day and night. When his mother took holy water and dedicated it to Wulfsige, the boy was cured within the same hour.

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which a woman dedicates holy water (‘aqua benedicta’) to Wulfsige in lines 8 and 9

Wulfsige heals a boy of Evesham from bloody diarrhoea: Harley MS 4242, f. 65v

Wulfsige also aided those who prayed for their animals. One miracle tells of a man of Evesham who had been searching for his sow and her piglets for a long time. After he vowed to venerate Wulfsige if his pigs would reappear, he found them the next day.

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which Wulfsige returns a sow with piglets (‘Sus cum porcellis’ in line 1) to a man of Evesham

Wulfsige reunites a man of Evesham with his sow and her piglets: Harley MS 4242, f. 66r

In other miracles, the diseased recovered when their bodies were measured in dedication of Wulfsige. One woman was unable to breast-feed her baby, but when she used a cord to measure her breasts in veneration of Wulfsige, they started to lactate. Similarly, a calf of Hugh of Ullington did not eat or walk for two days, but when Hugh used a cord to measure it in Wulfsige's honour it suddenly revived.

A text beginning with a large red initial and written in black ink in which a calf is healed by measuring it in dedication to Wulfsige in lines 6 and 7: ‘ad honorem sancti Wlsini mensuratus’ (‘having been measured to the honour of Saint Wulsinus’)

A calf in Ullington is healed after it is measured in dedication to Wulfsige: Harley MS 4242, f. 66r

After measuring, these cords were typically used as wicks for votive candles that were offered at a saint’s shrine, in this case Wulfsige’s tomb. An example is featured on the 800-year old ‘Miracles Windows’ of Canterbury Cathedral that are currently on display at the British Museum’s exhibition Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint. They show a woman who had recovered from abdominal problems at the tomb of Thomas Becket (d. 1170), archbishop of Canterbury. She offers Becket a coiled wick, known as a ‘trindle’, which she had probably used to measure herself in his honour. 

A woman in a white robe and a green mantle kneels before the tomb of St Thomas of Canterbury to place a coiled wick on top of the tomb

A woman offers a coiled wick to St Thomas of Canterbury on the Miracle Windows, 1200s: © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral & Trustees of the British Museum

Wulfsige was also associated with Becket by an owner of Harley MS 4242. The leaves with his miracles are later additions to the manuscript. Originally, it only contained a 13th-century copy of the Quadrilogus, an account of Becket’s life and martyrdom that was compiled by an Evesham monk in 1198–1199. Whoever added the fragments of Wulfsige’s miracles to the manuscript — an Evesham monk perhaps — may have linked the anchorite with the archbishop because of the many healing miracles that were performed at their tombs.

A marginal drawing showing Thomas Becket bowing his head and lifting his hands in prayer with a cross behind him and a bishop’s mitre to his right. The drawing shows how the bishop was given a fatal blow to the head with a sword while he was in prayer

A marginal drawing of the murder of Thomas Becket: Harley MS 4242, f. 6v

While hundreds of Becket’s miracles survive, the leaves with Wulfsige’s miracles only contain seventeen complete stories. However, the fragments clearly originate from a larger collection, and their compiler suggests that there were many more miracles that they did not write about: ‘These are a few of the many things that Christ performed for his saint Wulfsige’ (‘Hec pauca de multis que pro sancto suo Wlsino est operatus Christus’).

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which the compiler of Wulfsige’s miracles comments on their multitude. The Latin quotation in the main text above starts on line 1: ‘Hec pauca de multis que pro sancto suo Wlsino est operatus Christus’ (‘These are but a few of the many things that Christ performed for his saint Wulsinus’).

The compiler refers to the multitude of Wulfsige’s miracles: Harley MS 4242, f. 66r

Do the leaves with Wulfsige’s miracles come from the original books compiled by Thomas of Northwich? Possibly. First, the script is datable to the early 13th century, which corresponds with the time when Northwich was active. Moreover, Wulfsige was venerated primarily at Evesham and his miracles may not been widely distributed.

Our fragments add to the small number of surviving books attributable to Evesham Abbey. The MLGB3 website lists twenty-seven surviving manuscripts and fragments from that abbey, which is only a fraction of the library at the monastery until it was dissolved in 1540. Whether or not the fragments originated from Northwich’s manuscript, they shed new light on the miracles that enhanced Evesham’s reputation as a site of sanctity and wonder during the Middle Ages.

Keep an eye on this Blog for more discoveries from the Harley collection.


Clarck Drieshen

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10 July 2021

Euro 2020: the medieval manuscript version

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

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

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

(1) The Cnut Gospels (DEN)

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

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


(2) The Portuguese Genealogy (POR)

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

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


(3) The Carmina Regia (ITA)

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

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


(4) The Harley Golden Gospels (GER)

A manuscript portrait of St Matthew the Evangelist

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


(5) The Silos Apocalypse (ESP)

Noah's Ark in the Silos Apocalypse

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


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

Christine de Pizan presenting her book to queen Isabeau of Bavaria

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


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

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

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


(8) The Theodore Psalter (GRE/TUR)

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

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


(9) The Luttrell Psalter (ENG)

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

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


(10) The Harley Froissart (BEL)

A decorated page with a jousting scene

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


(11) The Gospels of Máel Brigte

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

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


Julian Harrison

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09 July 2021

Murder most foul in the Cotswolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chantry Westwell

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27 June 2021

Prefacing the Psalms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathleen Doyle

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24 June 2021

A medieval midsummer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Julian Harrison

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20 June 2021

Caption competition June 2021

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

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

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

16 June 2021

Medieval killer rabbits: when bunnies strike back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eleanor Jackson

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