Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

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

03 February 2020

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution

The exhibition Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution opens at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent this week, aiming to bring the medieval world of the Flemish court painter to life and contextualise his ground-breaking developments in oil painting. Around twenty works by Jan van Eyck (b. before 1390, d. 1441) have survived to the present day and are now housed at institutions around the world. Over half of these will be displayed in the museum for the next two months, most notably ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, a 15th-century altarpiece from St Bavo’s Cathedral that has recently undergone extensive restoration. The exhibition will display these items alongside pieces by Van Eyck’s contemporaries from France, Spain, Italy and Germany, gathering together numerous examples of late medieval painting, miniature art, sculpture and drawings.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a panel painting showing a sheep standing on an altar with a stream of blood emitting from its breast into a chalice, surrounded by praying angels
Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (detail), at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK) in Ghent, Belgium (Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP via Getty Images)

The British Library has loaned to the exhibition two medieval manuscripts that particularly highlight the artistic environment in which Van Eyck was working. The first is a beautifully illuminated Book of Hours produced in Paris in around 1410 for a French aristocratic or possibly royal patron (Egerton MS 1070). Around 1440 it came into the possession of the bibliophile René of Anjou, King of Naples (b. 1409, d. 1480) and subsequently five full-page illustrations were added at key points in the manuscript, apparently at the request of the Neapolitan king who wanted to customize it for his own use. Most recent scholars have attributed these added illustrations to Barthélemy d'Eyck (b. c. 1420, d. after 1470), a Netherlandish artist known to have worked for René in the middle of the fifteenth century. He also seems to have been a member of Jan van Eyck’s family, though the exact nature of their relationship remains unclear.

The additions to the manuscript include a painting of René’s coat of arms, followed by a view of Jerusalem, showing two of the city’s most sacred sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock.

The coat of arms of René of Anjou
The coat of arms of René of Anjou, King of Naples, added to a French Book of Hours (Paris, c. 1410): Egerton MS 1070, f. 4v

 

A view of the city of Jerusalem, showing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock
A view of the city of Jerusalem, showing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, added to a French Book of Hours (Paris, France, c. 1410): Egerton MS 1070, f. 5r

Another addition is a macabre personification of Death wearing a golden crown, which was added directly before the Office of the Dead. It might be a portrait of the king himself, a reminder to René to live wisely. The worm-eaten corpse clasps a scroll inscribed ‘Memento homo quod sinis es et in sinere reverteris’ (Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return), while in front of him a textile is displayed, bearing the king’s arms.

A personification of Death wearing a golden crown
A personification of Death wearing a golden crown, added before the Office of the Dead in a French Book of Hours (Paris, c. 1410): Egerton MS 1070, f. 53r

The exhibition also features the first volume of a five-part Latin Vulgate bible, made in Liège in around 1430 and later housed at the Benedictine monastery of St Jacques in the city. This volume has been recently digitised and now can be viewed online (Add MS 15254). The first page of the Book of Genesis (f. 13r) opens with a decorated initial letter I(n Principio), containing illustrations of the days of Creation. At the side of the initial is a column of angels holding scrolls with quotations from the writings of St Augustine of Hippo (b. 354, d. 430). Beneath them is a kneeling cleric, who possibly represents the manuscript’s patron. 

The opening of the Book of Genesis, with a decorated initial I including representations of the days of Creation, and marginal illustrations of angels, philosophers, and Old Testament prophets
The opening of the Book of Genesis, with a decorated initial I including representations of the days of Creation, and marginal illustrations of angels, philosophers, and Old Testament prophets. (Southern Netherlands, c. 1430): Add MS 15254, f. 13r

 

St Augustine and Aristotle, and Albertus Magnus and Averroes debate the creation of the world
St Augustine and Aristotle, and Albertus Magnus and Averroes debate the creation of the world, in marginal illustrations at the beginning of the Book of Genesis (Southern Netherlands, c. 1430): Add MS 15254, f. 13r detail

Other illustrations were added to the page at a later date, and these display a close resemblance to a style typically used for panel painting during this period. In the lower margin, two pairs of Christian and pagan scholars are shown debating the creation of the world: St Augustine and the Greek philosopher Aristotle (b. 384 BC, d. 322 BC) on one side, and Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) and the Arabic philosopher Averroes (b. 1126, d. 1198) on the other. Meanwhile, in the right-hand margin appear representations of three Old Testament prophets. Though the identity of the manuscript’s illuminator remains unknown, the style of the added illustrations has been closely compared with that of Van Eyck and it is likely that the two artists were working in the same circle in the Meuse region (now covering parts of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands).

We strongly recommend that you go to see both these manuscripts on display at Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution which runs at the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK), Ghent, from 1 February until 30 April 2020.

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

31 January 2020

The Trees of the Sun and the Moon

In modern times, ‘Moon Trees’ are trees that grew from the seeds that were taken into the Moon’s orbit by Apollo 14, which launched for the third manned mission to the Moon on 31 January in 1971. Medieval people, in contrast, would have associated ‘Moon Trees’ with an entirely different undertaking: the campaign begun in 326 BC by Alexander the Great (353–323 BC), king of the Greek empire of Macedon, with a view to conquering the world. The fictional 4th-century Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem (Letter of Alexander to Aristotle) tells that Alexander, during his expedition to India, visited a grove with two holy trees. Inside the grove, he met a high priest of more than ten feet tall who explained that one tree was male, could speak the Indian language, and foretold one’s future at the rising of the Sun; the other tree was female, could speak Greek, and foretold one’s future at the rising of the Moon. After Alexander prayed at the feet of the holy trees, they answered him that he would conquer the world but die from poisoning in Babylon before he could return home.

Alexander the Great, wearing a crown, with three of his men behind him, kneeling with his hands lifted in prayer at the foot of two trees. The trees feature symbols of the sun and moon, and are flanked by a tall figure wearing a red tunic, representing a high priest.

Alexander and his followers praying at the Trees of the Sun and the Moon guided by a high priest (England, 1333c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 32r

The oracle trees feature in several Alexander narratives. One of these is the Roman d'Alexandre en prose, a French translation of a 10th-century Latin version of a Greek Alexander romance, spuriously attributed to the historian Callisthenes (c. 360–c. 327 BC). In illustrated copies of this narrative, the oracle trees are sometimes conflated with the ‘Dry Tree’, another tree that Alexander visited and in whose branches he found the phoenix, a legendary self-resurrecting bird.

Alexander the Great, wearing a crown, with three of his men behind him, kneeling and with his hands lifted in prayer at the foot of two trees, featuring symbols of the sun and moon among their leaves. Between the two trees is another tree which has no leaves, but features a large bird (a Phoenix) with purple and gold colours in its branches. The trees are flanked by an old man in a grey robe, representing a high priest.

The Trees of the Sun and the Moon and the Dry Tree (Rouen, 14441445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 18v

The oracle trees were well-known to medieval encyclopaedists and chroniclers. In the 13th-century L’Image du monde (Mirror of the World), Gautier de Metz referred to them as reference points. In the 13th-century Speculum Historiale (Mirror of History), Vincent of Beauvais stated that the balm of the trees allowed the priests at the grove to live for 300 years. The 14th-century Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden attributed their longevity to the trees’ apples. A unique Middle English translation of the Polychronicon in Harley MS 2261 (f. 25v) describes the trees as follows:

‘The Trees of the Sun and the Moon are in India, and by their apples priests live for 500 years’

[‘The trees of the sonne and of the moone be in ynde, by the apples of whom prestes lyffede by vc yeres’]

John Mandeville, the supposed author of a fictional travel memoir describing the wonders of the Holy Land, Africa, and Asia, located the ‘Trees of the Sun and the Moon that spoke to King Alexander’ (‘tres of þe sunne and of þe monne þat spak to kyng alysaundre’) in a desert beyond the unidentified river ‘Beaumare’, but noted that he was unable to visit the trees because of the dangerous animals in the desert, such as dragons, serpents, lions and elephants.

Two priests, one wearing a red tunic, picking and eating apples in the grove of the Trees Sun and the Moon with wild animals emerging from its bushes below, including a lion and an elephant in the right lower corner.

Dangerous animals surrounding the grove of the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, in Mandeville’s Travels (England: 1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 3954, f. 64r

The Trees of the Sun and the Moon were also included on medieval world maps (mappaemundi). The Higden map (Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v), for example, marks the spot where ‘Alexander prayed for an answer from the trees’ (‘hic alexander petebat responsum ab arboribus’). Other mappaemundi, such as the 12th-century Tournai Map of Asia (Add MS 10049, f. 64v) and the 13th-century Psalter world map (Add MS 28681, f. 9r), also illustrate the oracle trees.

Christ wearing a blue and red robe, lifting both arms, and holding a small red orb of the world, while being flanked by two angels swinging censers above a circular map of the world. The upper half of the world map that is here visible features roundels with human faces representing the twelve winds of Aristotle in a green ring that goes around the map. Immediately below the roundel with the human face at the very top of the map is another roundel, representing the Garden of Eden, that features two figures facing a tree against a dark background. On the right side of this roundel, are drawn two yellow trees, representing the Trees of the Sun and the Moon.

The Trees of the Sun and the Moon (Arbor Solis and Arbor Lunae) close to the Garden of Eden on the Psalter world map (London, 12621300): Add MS 28681, f. 9r

Two trees with curled branches or leaves drawn in brown ink at the top of the map and on the left side of the Red Sea, which is here highlighted with a yellow colour.

The ‘Oracle of the Sun and the Moon’ (Oraculum solis et lunae) next to the Red Sea (Rubrum Mare) on the Tournai Map of Asia (possibly Tournai, 12th century): Add MS 10049, f. 64v

With increasing expeditions into Asia, mapmakers began to prefer Africa as the location of legendary sites. It is for this reason that the Harleian Mappemonde (Add MS 5413), which was produced around 1540, does not locate the oracle trees in India but in sub-Saharan Africa. Their name has been changed as well, and they are now simply referred to as ‘The Trees of the Moon’ (‘Les arbres de la lune’). These changes suggest that the mapmaker conflated these trees with the equally legendary ‘Mountains of the Moon’. According to the Greek geographer Ptolemy (c. AD 100–c. 170)’ in his  Geographia, these mountains were the source of the river Nile. A certain merchant named Diogenes who was crossing East Africa discovered them and observed that their snow-melt created two lakes from which the Nile originates. On the Harleian Mappemonde, the Trees of the Moon are placed exactly below the Mountains of the Moon.

Two groups of trees with a crescent moon above them, below green hills from which rivers flow that form two lakes from which two larger rivers originate that form the river Nile.

The Trees of the Moon on the Harleian Mappemonde (possibly Dieppe, c. 1540): Add MS 5413

The Mountains of the Moon highlighted in yellow, from which small rivers flow into two lakes. From these lakes flow larger rivers that join and form the river Nile.

The Mountains of the Moon in Ptolemy’s Geographia (Florence, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley 7182, f. 85r

As people continued to explore the world , belief in the existence of the Trees of the Sun and the Moon waned. Ironically, it is because of continued explorations — namely, the Apollo 14 mission, which gave us the Moon Trees — that their name continues to this day.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

21 January 2020

Animals on coats of arms

We invite you to explore some of the wildlife that can be found in our heraldic manuscripts. Medieval and early modern coats of arms — visual designs symbolising the heritage and achievements of individuals and families — are teeming with animal life. These animals are depicted according to heraldic conventions, but sometimes they also display fabulous features originating from medieval illustrated ‘books of beasts’, known as bestiaries.

It can sometimes be difficult to understand what these borrowings from the bestiary tradition represent. Luckily, we have a guide book at our disposal, namely the 15th-century Middle Scots Deidis of Armorie (found in Harley MS 6149). This ‘heraldic bestiary’ explains what the behaviours and appearances of animals on coats of arms indicate about the origins of specific families. The manuscript containing the Deidis of Armorie has recently been digitised and can be found on our Digitised Manuscripts site. In this blogpost we'll study some extraordinary heraldic animals up close.

An opening from The Deidis of Armorie, showing coats of arms with animals on them in the margins

The Deidis of Armorie (Scotland, c. 1494): Harley MS 6149, ff. 16v–17r

We start with the heraldic ostrich, happily chomping on its staple food: horseshoes and keys. This imagery originates from the bestiary tradition, which supposed that the animal had remarkable digestive abilities, enabling it to consume and process iron. What does the ostrich's presence on a coat of arms mean? According to the Deidis of Armorie, it signified that the first bearer of these arms ate hard things — in other words, they were as tough as nails — and that they had a defiant nature (‘eite hard thingis and [wes] diffailland of natur’).

An ostrich with a large iron key in its beak

The ostrich as a heraldic crest (England, 17th century): Harley MS 4926, f. 8v

Tigers are often depicted on coats of arms gazing into mirrors. According to bestiaries, this imagery illustrated the method by which robbers could steal a tigress’s cub. The cub-nappers would be pursued by the tigress, but could deceive her by dropping a mirror on the ground. The tigress would stop to look into the mirror, mistake her own reflection for her stolen cub, and start nursing it, allowing the thieves to get away. The Deidis of Armorie claims that those who first bore the tiger on their coats of arms were feigning, cunning and deceitful (‘dissimilit, wyly, and double in his dedis’).

A tiger looking down into a mirror

The tiger on a coat of arms (England, 4th quarter of the 16th century-1st quarter of the 17th century): Harley MS 6106, f. 68v

The heraldic elephant typically sported a tower or castle on its back. This imagery corresponds with the bestiary tale that male elephants were used in battle, and that men built castles filled with armed soldiers upon them. The Deidis of Armorie interprets a coat of arms inhabited by such an elephant as a sign that its first bearer was large and virtuous, and carried great burdens during their life (‘gret of body and of vertu, berand gret birdingis’).

An elephant with a castle with three towers on its back

The elephant on a coat of arms (England, c. 1632): Harley MS 6060, f. 109r

The heraldic pelican is found sitting on its nest while feeding its young with its own blood. Bestiaries told that the father pelican killed his young when they struck him with their wings, and that the mother subsequently revived them with her blood. The Deidis of Armorie explains that whoever first adopted a pelican on his coat of arms took vengeance on his neighbours when they harassed him, but that they were subsequently restored through him as well (‘[þai] wald have vengeance of his nixt nychtpuris quhen þai did oppressioun [bot] nychtburis scalit his blud for till heill þaim of his vengeance’).

A pelican with outstretched wings, piercing its breast with its beak to feed its young, below in a nest, with its own blood

The pelican on a coat of arms (England, 16th century): Harley MS 709, f. 22r

The heraldic panther is another wonderful sight. In line with the bestiary descriptions, coats of arms present it as a friendly animal with multi-coloured spots, issuing ‘flames’ out of its mouth and ears. The latter represent the sweet-smelling belch that the animal was wont to issue after a meal. Although the panther is not part of the Deidis of Armorie, Rodney Dennys (The Heraldic Imagination (Fakenham: Cox & Wyman, 1975), pp. 143–44) has pointed out that heraldic manuscripts sometimes interpret the animal’s multi-coloured spots as symbols for the many virtues of the arms’ bearer.  

A panther with a white fur featuring blue, green, red, and yellow spots, and flames coming out of its mouth and ears

The panther as a heraldic supporter (England, c. 1600-1609): Harley MS 6156, f. 24r

We end our tour with the heraldic salamander. Bestiaries claimed that the salamander was a fire-resistant animal, and so we find it basking in flames of fire on coats of arms. The salamander is not covered by the Deidis of Armorie , but Dennys suggested that its presence on a coat of arms signified that its first bearer had survived great danger. James Douglas (1426–1488), 9th Earl of Douglas and 3rd Earl of Avondale, was among the first to display the animal on his coat of arms, perhaps alluding to his surviving a failed insurrection against King James II of Scotland, and subsequently escaping to England.

The head of a green salamander surrounded by flames of fire

The salamander as a heraldic crest (England, 17th century): Harley MS 5818, f. 13v

If you would you like to see more heraldic animals, and to explore the symbolism behind them, we would encourage you to look out the Deidis of Armorie on Digitised Manuscripts.

The text quoted here can be found in Luuk A. J. R. Houwen, The Deidis of Armorie: A Heraldic Treatise and Bestiary, I, The Scottish Text Society, Fourth Series, 22 (Edinburgh: The Scottish Text Society, 1994).

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

01 January 2020

New year, new manuscripts

Long-term readers of this Blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts (our last list was published in June 2019). As a special treat to celebrate the New Year, today 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.

The aftermath of a jousting scene in which the knight Jean de Saintré has knocked his opponent from his horse. Lords and ladies watch the joust from separate pavilions.
Jean de Saintré beats his opponent Enguerrand in a joust, from an illustrated copy of Antoine de La Sale’s French romance Le Petit Jean de Saintré, 4th quarter of the 15th century, Paris: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 40r 

There are now over 2900 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on our Digitised Manuscripts website and more are being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this PDF: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-dec-2019. This is also available as an Excel spreadsheet: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-dec-2019 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

An illustration of a lion
The zodiac sign Leo (Lion) depicted in an illustrated astrological treatise, Georgius Fendulus, Liber astrologiae (Book of astrology), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century, France or Southern Netherlands: Sloane MS 3983, f. 40r

The Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever over the last 6 months, working to make more manuscripts available online. All the images included in this blogpost are from manuscripts that we have digitised since June 2019. To admire our most recent additions to the Digitised Manuscripts site, take a look at this list of manuscripts published since June 2019. PDF: Download Digitised_mss_jun_2019_dec_2019. Excel: Download Digitised_mss_jun_2019_dec_2019.

On the left-hand side, demons torture the souls of the dead in Hell. On the right-hand side, the Egyptian Pharaoh and his soldiers drown in the Red Sea.
Illustrations of the punishments of Hell (left) and the drowning of Pharaoh and the Egyptian army in the Red Sea (right), from a 15th-century copy of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis (Mirror of Human Salvation), England, S. E. (London): Harley MS 2838, f. 44r

You can find out how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts in this previous blogpost. 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.

An illustration of the Annunciation, showing the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, with a cat and a dog playing in the centre of the image and borders filled with birds, plants, and the figures of infants.
An illustration of the Annunciation at the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin Mary, early 15th-century Book of Hours, France: Add MS 29433, f. 20r


We hope you have a very Happy New Year and enjoy exploring Digitised Manuscripts!

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine, monastic libraries and more.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 December 2019

Knight v griffin

You may have heard about the medieval knight’s rivalry with the snail, which we featured in this famous blogpost. But knights also had a more fearsome natural adversary, a fabulous creature from Ethiopia or India, with the body of a lion and the wings, head and (occasionally) talons of an eagle. That beast was none other than the griffin.

Images and descriptions of knights fighting griffins abound in medieval art and literature. They range from the woodcarvings on the benches of Norwich Cathedral and St Botolph’s Church at Boston (Lincolnshire) to the margins of medieval manuscripts, such as this Psalter (Add MS 24686), originally intended as a wedding gift for Prince Alphonso (d. 1284), son of King Edward I.

A knight in combat with a griffin

A knight spearing a griffin, in the Alphonso Psalter (England, late 13th century to early 14th century): Add MS 24686, f. 18r

The notion of knights and griffins in combat was influenced by the accounts found in bestiaries and natural encyclopedias. In the English translation of De proprietatibus rerum (‘On the Properties of Things’) by Bartholomaeus Anglicus (Harley MS 614, f. 104v), it was claimed that the griffin ‘greven boþe hors and man’ (‘harms both horses and men’). Another account is found in a fictional travel memoir attributed to Sir John Mandeville, describing the wonders of the Holy Land, Africa and Asia. This evokes the image of the creature carrying a knight on horseback back to its nest:

‘þe gryffoun hath a body gretter þan viij lyonys and gretter and strangere þan C. Eglys for he wyl bere to hys nest flyande a gret hors and a man on hym’

(‘The griffin has a body that is larger than eight lions and larger and stronger than a hundred eagles, since he will carry to his nest a large horse with a man on top of it.’)

A griffin carrying a horse to its nest

A griffin carrying a knight and horse to its nest (eastern England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 3954, f. 54v

In the Roman d’Alexandre, a 12th-century romance describing Alexander the Great’s legendary exploration and conquest of the world, it was recounted that, after leaving the legendary country of ‘Tradiaque’, Alexander lost many men in a battle with griffins. Eventually, his archers managed to shoot them out of the air. The artist who decorated one manuscript of the Roman d’Alexandre in the late 13th-century (Harley MS 4979) depicted a griffin lifting a knight in full armour into the air, thereby demonstrating its great strength.

Alexander the Great stabbing a griffin with his sword

Alexander the Great slaying a griffin (northern France or southern Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 A V, f. 67v

A very early representation of a knight fighting a griffin features on a 12th-century wax seal attached to a charter (Harley Charter 44 E 19) in which William Basset, abbot of St Benet of Hulme (1127-1134), Norfolk, granted the lease of the manor of Heigham in Norwich to Richard Basset (I) of Weldon. The seal of Richard Basset features a knight in full chain armour with a Norman helmet and shield, and striking with his sword a griffin holding a naked man in its jaws.

The original Basset seal

Richard Basset’s seal (England, 1127–1134): Harley Charter 44 E 19

This seal once belonged to Sir Simonds D’Ewes (1602–1650), an antiquary whose collection formed the cornerstone of the Harleian library. In his autobiography, D’Ewes mentioned viewing it on 4 August 1632, and considering it ‘the oldest [seal] that I ever saw’ (J. Halliwell-Phillipps, The Autobiography and Correspondence of Sir Simonds D'Ewes (1845), II, p. 76). Seeing its fragile state, he had it ‘three times tricked out [i.e. outlined] by a most skilful hand, and [I] had two of those copies or draughts very exactly depicted or coloured’.

After acquiring the seal, D’Ewes referred to it as ‘the most precious monument in my library’. Great was his dismay, therefore, when he discovered that a portion containing the griffin's wings and the top of the tail had broken off in 1636. Luckily, he found consolation in the colour copies he had made of it:  

‘[M]y vexation and trouble would have been much the greater had I not preserved the true form and colour of the same seal in those exact draughts I had caused to be identically delineated and coloured from it.’

So far, scholars have known of only one early modern hand-drawn copy of the seal — when it was still more or less intact — made by Sir William Dugdale (1605–1686), antiquary and herald, for Sir Christopher Hatton’s Book of Seals, begun in 1640. We have now discovered an older and possibly more accurate copy while cataloguing the Harley manuscripts. This copy of the seal features in Harley MS 6152, at the end of several hand-drawn reproductions of charters related to the Basset family. According to Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), Keeper of the Harley collection, the reproductions were made by or at the instruction of Sir Simonds D’Ewes. Next to the copy, someone has added a note in which they testify to its accuracy by comparing it with the original seal. As the note is dated to 15 September 1632, it was made shortly after D’Ewes viewed the seal. All of this suggests that the version in Harley MS 6152 is one of the two colour copies that D’Ewes referred to in his autobiography.

Drawing of the Basset seal

A copy of Richard Basset’s seal (England, before or in 1632): Harley MS 6152, f. 12r

The seal’s symbolic meaning is unknown, but the image of a fabulous creature — such as the dragon or wyvern — devouring a naked man became more common on coats of arms designed during the age of heraldry, from the middle of the 12th century. The knight fighting the griffin may refer to the Basset family’s military valour or expeditions in faraway countries — where griffins were thought to live — during the Crusades. At the very least, we can deduce that medieval artists and heralds were drawing upon centuries-old precedents whenever they illustrated knights and griffins in combat.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

25 December 2019

Christmas at Sainte-Chapelle

It is midnight on 24th December in the great city of Paris, sometime in the last quarter of the 13th century. Paris is the most populous city in Europe with around 200,000 residents, and it is the centre of learning, government and commerce in France. Tonight all is quiet in the city's many ports, markets, workshops, lecture halls and council chambers, but the sound of chanting is rising from the churches, filling the cold night with warm music. Within the walls of the royal palace on the Île de la Cité, the clergy of the royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle are celebrating the feast of the Nativity from a beautiful new book.

A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. In the lower half of the left column is a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10r

The book is a Gospel Lectionary, a collection of the Gospel passages to be read during the mass throughout the year. They are arranged in calendar order, beginning with the season of Advent. The Gospel readings for each day of the year were established in the early Middle Ages and, with a few local variations, were traditional throughout the churches of Western Europe. Like the entire service, the readings are all in Latin.

At Christmas, three masses are performed throughout the day. The reading for Midnight Mass is Luke 2:1-14, which tells how Joseph and Mary travelled to the city of Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable and laid him in a manger. Meanwhile, shepherds watching their flocks were visited by an angel, who announced to them the birth of Christ and explained where to find him.

As the deacon reads the words, he can see the events delicately illustrated in the decorated letter that opens the reading. Almost every one of the readings in this luxurious lectionary begins with an illustrated letter, 262 in total. The letters, known as ladder initials, are slender and towering, divided into horizonal tiers and topped with gothic architectural features, much like the magnificent building for which the manuscript was made.

A close-up of the decorated initial from the last picture. It contains a Nativity scene in the upper half and the annunciation to the shepherds in the lower half.
Decorated initial for the reading for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10r (detail)

The upper level of the letter shows the Nativity scene—Mary reclining in bed, Joseph sitting behind, the baby Jesus lying in a high altar-like manger being nuzzled by the ox and the ass. The lower level shows the surprised shepherds and equally surprised sheepdog encountering the angel, who points urgently up to the Nativity above. The top of the initial features alternating Gothic pinnacles and gables, similar to the distinctive exterior of Sainte-Chapelle (below).

The exterior of Sainte-Chapelle, a magnificent chapel with elaborate Gothic architecture.
Sainte-Chapelle, north facade with alternating pinnacles and gables. (François Deneux / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0)
A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. The right column contains a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Dawn Mass on Christmas Day, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10v

After Midnight Mass, the clergy and congregation of Sainte-Chapelle go to bed, their heads filled with the joyful words and bright images. Later, the community returns to the church for the second service of the day, the Dawn Mass. The reading continues with Luke 2:15-20, in which the shepherds go to Bethlehem, find the Holy Family and glorify God.

A close-up of the initial from the previous image. The upper half shows the Nativity scene and the lower half shows the shepherds praising God.
Decorated initial for the reading for Dawn Mass on Christmas Day, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10v (detail)

The decorated letter shows the Nativity in the upper scene, almost but not quite the same as before. Mary has now crossed her arms, and with her wistful expression she seems to illustrate the line of Luke 2:14, 'Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart'. She is also now covered by a blue quilt with a red lining, perhaps Joseph's cloak from the previous scene. On the lower level, the shepherds are praising God, two of them reverently raising their arms and one clutching his hands to his heart. Their arrival is signified by the gothic architectural structure under which they now stand. With its pointed arch containing two trilobe arches and a quatrefoil medallion, the structure closely resembles a design that is repeated along the lower walls of Sainte-Chapelle's upper chapel (below).

An interior wall of Sainte-Chapelle decorated with a row of pointed arches.
Sainte-Chapelle, upper chapel, dado of pointed arches each containing two trilobe arches and a quatrefoil medallion (Guilhem Vellut / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0)
A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. The entire height of the right column is filled with a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Christmas Day Mass, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

The third and most important mass of Christmas, distinguished with the largest and most elaborate decorated initial in the lectionary, was celebrated during the day. The reading is John 1:1-14, 'In the beginning was the Word', which describes how the Word of God created the world and then became flesh in the person of Christ.

In the decorated initial, the six days of Creation, the seventh day of divine rest and the Crucifixion are represented inside barbed quatrefoils. The scenes emphasise the message of the Gospel reading, adding the solemn reminder that Christ's human birth meant that he could die a human death, and so achieve salvation for humanity. The slender column of quatrefoil medallions is reminiscent of Sainte-Chapelle's soaring windows with their panels of geometric glasswork (below).

Interior view of Sainte-Chapelle, a magnificent gothic chapel with very high windows featuring geometric stained glass.
Sainte-Chapelle, interior facing east with soaring windows (Pierre Poschadel / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

As the service comes to an end, the clergy and congregation of Sainte-Chapelle gaze around the chapel. The winter sunshine is streaming through the stained-glass windows and the lofty vaults are pointing the way to heaven. Those within sight of the book can see sacred history minutely represented inside letters that echo the architecture of the building. For a moment, the events of the Christmas story seem be to present within the gothic splendour of Sainte-Chapelle. Everyone is filled with wonder as they leave the chapel and head to their Christmas feasts.

A detail of the previous decorated initial, showing a barbed quatrefoil medallion containing a Crucifixion scene.
The Crucifixion in the decorated initial for the reading for Christmas Day Mass, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

The Sainte-Chapelle Gospel lectionary is currently on view as part of the Sacred Texts display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery, open on the readings for the dawn and daytime masses on Christmas Day. Visit us to see this festive treat in person (check our seasonal opening hours).

Merry Christmas from the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Section of the British Library!

Eleanor Jackson

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21 December 2019

Two Peters of Notre-Dame

It has been eight months since tragedy struck Notre-Dame, the iconic cathedral of Paris, when fire broke out on its roof on 15 April 2019. The cornerstone of Notre-Dame was laid in 1163 (though construction on the site may have begun as early as 1160) and it was fully completed around 1250. But the presence of a religious community headed by the Bishop of Paris on the Île de la Cité – the island in the Seine at the heart of Paris – was already long-established. There had been a church or a cathedral there since possibly as early as the 4th century.

Moreover, at the time of the building of the new Gothic cathedral, the cathedral school of Notre-Dame enjoyed a far-reaching reputation, largely due to outstanding scholars such as Peter Lombard (d. 1160) and Peter Cantor (d. 1197). This resulted in close connections between the influential intellectual sphere of Paris and the English ecclesiastical and scholastic elite. Some of these connections are evident in surviving manuscripts that have been digitised as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project

Large decorated initial C on a blue, square background, within which are two male human figures. The man on the left is seated, bearded and holding a scroll, and the other person is standing to his left and facing him.
Initial 'C(um omnes)', with a seated figure possibly representing Peter Lombard teaching a student, introducing the prologue to his Gloss on the Psalms: South-eastern England (Canterbury?), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 54229, f. 3r

12th-century Paris was celebrated throughout Europe as the leading place for the study of theology and the liberal arts. One of the personalities that inspired this acclaim was the theologian Peter Lombard (d. 1160) . It was also largely due to him that the cathedral school of Notre-Dame became one of the main schools of the emerging University of Paris.

Originally from Lombardy in north-western Italy, Peter initially lacked any influential French contacts or relations. But by 1145 he had made such a name for himself as a teacher of theology that he was invited to be the magister (‘master’ or ‘teacher’) of the cathedral school of Notre-Dame, and was appointed as Bishop of Paris shortly before his death.

A page of text in two columns, with text in red ink in both the outer and inner margins.
Peter Lombard’s commentary for Psalm 97 (98) beginning with a large blue initial 'C(antate Domino)', while the text of the Psalm itself is written in the margin in red: England, second half of the 12th century, BnF, Latin 17271, f. 189r

Peter’s most influential work, the Four Books of Sentences, became the standard theology textbook for much of the Middle Ages, but his commentaries on the Psalms were also exceptionally widely circulated. The speed with which his works were disseminated is illustrated by the two copies of his commentary on the Psalms digitised by the Polonsky England and France project (Add MS 54229 and BnF, Latin 17271) which were made in England, possibly during Peter’s own lifetime or shortly after his death. You can read more about the innovations in page layout that Peter Lombard’s commentary inspired in this article about the tradition of Glossed Psalters.

A page of text in two columns, beginning with a large, red, decorated initial.
Decorated initial 'V(erbum)' beginning the Verbum abbreviatum of Peter Cantor: Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire, 1st quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 35180, f. 3r

During the first phase of the building of the new Notre-Dame cathedral, another exceedingly influential theologian called Peter became closely associated with the cathedral chapter. It is unclear when he arrived in Paris to teach, but around 1183 he had become the Cantor of Notre-Dame, and is therefore known as Peter Cantor, or Peter the Chanter (d. 1197). The position of Cantor was the second highest in rank of the members of the cathedral chapter. The Cantor’s work involved managing the activities of the choir: for example, supervising liturgical services and teaching the choristers. However, based on documentary evidence of his activities, it seems that Peter mainly focused on teaching theology and engaging in church government.

In the 1190s Peter assembled his teachings on practical morality developed during his long career as a theology lecturer into the work Verbum abbreviatum (roughly ‘Abridged sayings’). This text quickly became popular throughout Europe and almost 100 copies are known to have been in circulation during the medieval period.

Detail of a page of text in two columns, focusing on the explicit (that is, ending statement) written in red in the right-hand column.
The explicit of the Verbum abbreviatum written in red; southwestern England (Tewkesbury?), 4th quarter of the 12th century-1st quarter of the 13th century, Cotton MS Claudius E I, f. 173v

Two manuscripts containing the Verbum abbreviatum (Add MS 35180 and Cotton MS Claudius E I) were copied in England and are especially early examples of the text. Indeed, the oldest of the two (Cotton MS Claudius E I) might have been copied as early as the year of Peter Cantor’s death. This early date is suggested by the ending statement, or explicit, of the text:

‘[Here] ends the Verbum abbreviatum of Master Peter, the foremost Chanter of Paris, afterwards a novice of Longpont, in which place he died [as a] novice.’ 

(Explicit verbum abbreviatum magistri Petri primus cantoris Parisiensis, postea novicii Longipontis, in quo novicius defunctus est.)

This refers to the fact that Peter Cantor was elected dean of the cathedral chapter of Reims in 1196, but on his way there he stopped at the Cistercian abbey of Longpont.  While there he became ill and died in January 1197. The precise details are unclear, but this explicit seems to suggest that shortly before his death he joined the Cistercian community at Longpont but died before he could take his vows.

Perhaps this news had been recently received by the scribe of the manuscript. In any case, it shows that details about the author, as well as copies of his texts, could spread quickly across the Channel to England.

          Emilia Henderson
          @minuscule_eth

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19 December 2019

Renard the Fox, rebel and mischief-maker

The British Library's new family-friendly exhibition, Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature's Young Rebels, features some of the most lovable young hell-raisers in fiction. They include Matilda, Max (from Where the Wild Things Are) and a host of animal characters, from Zog the Dragon to the beast in Billy and the Beast.

Literary rebels and mischief makers have been around for a very long time and one of the best known is an animal — Renard the Fox. He is a cunning prankster who delights in creating mayhem for its own sake, but who sometimes falls victim to his own tricks.

A fox and a crow in a tree, dropping its piece of cheese

A fox persuading the crow to drop its cheese, in an illuminated manuscript of the Roman de Renart

Renard persuades the crow to sing and drop the cheese he is holding, in Le Roman de Renart: Add MS 15229, f. 33r

The Renard stories are part of a long tradition of animal fables across Indo-European cultures and languages, from Afghanistan to Zaragoza. Other famous examples include the Sanskrit Panchatantra (around AD 300) and the classical Aesop’s Fables. The Roman de Renart, a French cycle of poems, became so popular that the original word for fox, ‘goupil’, was replaced by ‘renart’ in Middle French (it derives from the German ‘Raginhard’, meaning brave). An expression of the comical and satirical spirit of the time, the Roman de Renart parodies aspects of courtly literature, aristocratic refinement and religious hypocrisy. One of the British Library's illuminated copies, containing 14 of the tales and 13 colour miniatures, has recently been digitised and is now available online.

A crowing cockerel, on a page from an illuminated manuscript of the Roman de Renart

Chanticleer the cockerel, in Le Roman de Renart: Add MS 15229, f. 13r

In one of the most popular medieval tales, Renard manages to sneak into a chicken enclosure. The hens see him and scatter, but Chanticleer the cockerel, whose bravado exceeds his common sense, ignores the threat. Renard immediately sets about flattering him, calling him ‘Master Chanticleer’ and ‘cousin’, and persuading him to demonstrate his beautiful voice. Stretching his neck, both eyes closed, Chanticleer crows with all his might, a perfect opportunity for Renard to seize him by the throat and run off. However, the wily fox is caught out when Chanticleer encourages him to shout insults at the farmer giving chase. He opens his mouth and the cockerel escapes. Renard later plays a similar trick on the crow. The story of Chanticleer was later adapted by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales as the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’.

Scenes of foxes and cockerels are sometimes found in the margins of religious and scholarly manuscripts, like this volume of scholastic texts produced in a Paris workshop.

A detail of a fox with a cockerel in its mouth

The whole page of the manuscript, with the fox holding the cockerel in its mouth in the upper margin

A fox with a cockerel in his mouth, in the upper margin: Burney MS 275, f. 336r

In the lower margin of a Psalter, a cockerel sings from a book on a music stand, watched closely by a fox. This mirrors the religious scene above it, showing three monks singing at a lectern.

A cockerel singing to a fox, below a decorated initial of three monks singing

‘Let us sing to the Lord a new song’, Psalm 95 in the 'Oscott Psalter': Add MS 50000, f. 146v

In another famous episode, Renard the Fox is present at the court of King Noble, the Lion, and is accused of serious crimes against his fellow animals. He is sentenced to be hanged. But Noble falls seriously ill and Renard sets out to try to redeem himself by finding a cure. He steals a bag of herbal remedies from a sleeping pedlar and, having performed an examination on the king, promises to heal him provided he is given the skin of a wolf, the antlers of a stag and the fur of a cat. The outcome is that Noble is cured, Renart is restored to favour, Isengrin the wolf is skinned, Brichemer the stag is de-horned and Tibert the cat is lucky to escape. This story is illustrated in the margins of a book of canon law known as the Smithfield Decretals, a medieval masterpiece decorated with over 600 illustrations on subjects varying from saints’ Lives to romances.

A fox feeling the lion's pulse

A wolf being skinned by two foxes

Royal_ms_10_e_iv_f055r

(1) A fox with a staff and pouch feels the pulse of a lion; (2) a wolf is skinned by two foxes; (3) above, a fox with a pilgrim bag and staff; below, a smiling fox sets off, leaving slaughtered creatures behind him (right); the fox bows to a lion, offering him a dead goose and money bag (centre), in the ‘Smithfield Decretals’: Royal MS 10 E IV, ff. 54r, 56v, 55r

Likewise, in Spiegel der Weisheit, a collection assembled in German for Albrecht IV, Duke of Austria (1395–1404), there is a story of a fox going on a pilgrimage, illustrated in this manuscript from Salzburg.

A fox and other animals, about to set off on pilgrimage

A fox, setting off on a pilgrimage, refusing the companionship of the watch-dog, lion, peacock and others, and instead choosing the panther, ape, lamb, hare, hedgehog, ox, young hound, and the ant, Spiegel der Weisheit: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r

Our free Marvellous and Mischievous exhibition abounds with tales of young literary rebels, following in the tradition of Renard the Fox. It is on at the British Library until 1 March 2020, and is well worth a visit this holiday season.

 

Chantry Westwell

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