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

20 April 2020

The Holy Helpers

Medieval men and women often sought help from saints — holy figures who were considered to be miracle workers. Thousands of saints were venerated across Europe, and some of the most popular were known as the Holy Helpers. Written accounts of their lives typically told that, just before they died, they had asked God to grant their future worshippers specific forms of protection or rewards, and that a voice from Heaven or an angel had confirmed their requests. Their legends suggested that venerating them was a sure-fire method to obtain divine aid.

A cult of ‘Fourteen Holy Helpers’ was founded in the 14th century. It originated in the Rhineland (western Germany), before spreading to other European regions. The group’s number and members varied regionally but often included early Christians who had been martyred during Roman persecutions, such as Saints Christopher, Dorothy, Blaise, Apollonia, and Cyricus and Julitta.

The Fourteen Holy Helpers with the Virgin Mary in a blue robe (centre), holding the Christ Child, and with a female patron in a black robe and displaying her coat of arms kneeling at her feet. The group features many familiar saints who can be easily recognised from their attributes, such as St George (first row, second from the left, in grey armour and with a green dragon at his feet), St Barbara (first row, third from the left, holding a golden chalice), St Katherine of Alexandria (first row, third from the right, with a sword in her hand and standing on top of a broken torture wheel), and St Margaret of Antioch (first row, second from the right, holding a a staff and standing on or emerging from a green dragon).

The Fourteen Holy Helpers with the Virgin Mary and Christ Child (south-western Germany, 1509): Add MS 24153, f. 190v

Groups of Holy Helpers were also venerated in England. In Harley MS 2255 (ff. 70r-71v), the poet John Lydgate (c. 1370–1449/50) praised ten of them for securing a special boon for their followers:

‘God granted you while that you were here

to each of you remarkable privileges:

whoever prays to you wholeheartedly and sincerely,

to hear all their requests graciously

[and] remedy worldly dangers and misfortunes

Because of this remember in your special prayers

all those who have you devoutly in memory’

(‘God grauntyd you whil that ye wer heere

to ech of you synguler prerogatives

who prayeth to you of hool herte and enteere

Alle ther requestys graciously to heere

Geyn worldly tempestis and troublys transitorye

For which rembemrith in your special prayeere

On alle that have you devoutly in memorye’ (f. 71r))

Three stanzas written in brown ink and opening with gold initials against blue and purple grounds with foliate penwork decoration. They contain John Lygate’s Middle English prayers to St Denis, St George, and St Christopher whose names are written in red ink in the right margin.

John Lydgate, Prayers to Ten Saints (Bury St Edmunds, c. 1460–c. 1470): Harley MS 2255, f. 70r

Late medieval English religious manuscripts often detailed how and what forms of protection could be obtained from individual Holy Helpers. An example of this is the prayer to St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, added to the 13th-century Mostyn-Psalter Hours (Add MS 89250). The prayer states that ‘wherever Christopher is venerated, snow, famine or plague, and evil death will not prevail there’ (‘ubi Christoforus memoratur / Vix fames aut pestis mala mors ibi non dominatur’ (f. 159v)). The 14th-century Neville of Hornby Hours (Egerton MS 2781) specifies that one needed to look at an image of St Christopher so as not to faint on that day:

‘Whoever shall behold the image of St Christopher shall not faint on that day’

(‘Christofori sanctam speciem quicumque tuetur / illo nempe die nullo languore tenetur’ (f. 37r))

St Christopher in a pink robe and holding a staff in his hand while standing in a river with fish in it, carrying the Christ Child, clad in a red robe, on his shoulders.

St Christopher carrying the Christ Child in the Neville of Hornby Hours (London, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Egerton MS 2781, f. 36v

St Dorothy, patron saint of gardeners, was believed to have secured protection for the homes of her followers. Those who wanted to gain her protection, according to a Latin poem added to a Middle English rendering of her life in Arundel MS 168, had either to write her name in or to place an image of her in their houses:

‘In whatever house the name or image of the excellent virgin Dorothy will be: no dead [or premature or stillborn] child will be born there, nor will the house experience fire, thievery or destruction, nor can anyone in there die from an evil death and the dying shall die with heavenly bread’

(‘In quacumque domo nomen fuit vel ymago / Virginis eximie dorothee virginis alme / Nullus abortivus infans nascetur in illa / Nec domus nec ignis furtique pericula sentit / Nec quisquam poterit ibi mala morte perire / Celestique pane moriens quin moriatur’ (f. 6v))

St Dorothy, kneeling in prayer and directing her gaze at an angel descending from heaven (upper right corner), wearing a golden crown, and a red and gold dress partially covered by a blue mantle. To her left stands a Roman torturer who is drawing his sword in order to execute her. To her right stands a boy carrying a basket with red flowers and fruits.

St Dorothy petitioning God for protection for her followers (south-western Germany, 1509): Add MS 24153, f. 117v

The protection of the Holy Helpers could also be invoked in medical contexts. St Blaise, according to the South English Legendary, had asked God that whoever venerated him and requested his help would be protected against obstructions in the throat. This explains why medical practitioners such as Thomas Fayreford (Harley MS 2558) added prayers for the saint to their recipes for throat ailments:

‘Lord Jesus Christ, true god, our father, through the virtue of the name and the prayer of St Blaise, your servant, deign to liberate your worthy male or female servant of the infirmity of the gullet, of the throat, of the uvula and of their other limbs, who lives and reigns, God throughout all ages. Amen. For this reason it is recited and say three Paternosters and Aves.’

(‘Dominus ihesus christus verus deus noster per virtutem nominis tui oracionem sancti blasii servi tui liberare digneris famulum tuum vel fa[mulam] tuam de infirmitate gule gutteris uvule et aliorum membrorum suorum qui vivis et regnas deus per omnia saecula · saeculorum · Amen [igi]tur dicatur et iij pater noster et Ave maria’ (f. 87r))

  A prayer to St Blaise written in brown ink in the lower margin of a page of Thomas Fayreford’s medical manuscript.

Thomas Fayreford’s prayer to St Blaise (South-West England, 1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 2558, f. 87r

St Apollonia can also often be found in medical manuscripts. It was believed that, while her own teeth were being smashed by her persecutors, she requested God to give her followers relief from toothache. Her protection is invoked in a spell against toothache (‘charme for þe tothache’) in Harley MS 1600:

‘St Apollonia endured a grave martyrdom for the Lord by a tyrant who shattered her teeth with iron hammers and in this torment she prayed to the Lord, that whosoever will wear her name on him will have no toothache’

(‘Sancta Appollonia pro domino grave sustinuit martirium tyranni eius dentes cum malleis ferreis fregerunt et in hoc tormento oravit ad dominum ut quicumque nomen eius portaverit secum dolorem non habuerit in dentibus’ (f. 39r))

A charm for toothache that invokes St Apollonia with a title in Middle English, written in red ink, and text in Latin, written in brown ink.

A charm for toothache invoking St Apollonia (England, 15th century): Harley MS 1600, f. 39r

St Jullita and St Cyricus, a mother and son who had been martyred together, were believed to offer protection for women in labour. Because of this, they were invoked on amulet rolls that pregnant women used as birthing girdles. Harley Ch 43 A 14 and Harley Roll T 11 both explain that the two saints had asked God to protect pregnant women who carried amulets of the Holy Cross on their bodies while giving birth:

‘þe childe schall have cristendom [be baptized] and þe moder schall have purificacion [be blessed] ffor Seynt Cerice and Seynt Julitt his moder desirid þise graciouse gyftis [gifts] of god which he grauntid un to þem’ (Harley Ch 43 A 14, f. 1br)

A green Tau cross on a red ground flanked on the right by a Middle English text in brown ink that explains that it is an amulet that protects pregnant women. The illustration and text are badly damaged, presumably from having been used as a birthing girdle.

A birthing girdle invoking St Cyricus and St Julitta (England, 15th century): Harley Roll T 11, f. 1r

The requests for protection that the Holy Helpers were believed to have made to God for their followers formed the foundation for their joint cult. In England, it flourished during the 15th and 16th centuries when prayers dedicated to them identified more than 25 saints as Holy Helpers. This suggests that, whatever the effect of the prayers, spells and amulets that invoked them, their promises were important sources of hope, comfort and solace for those in need.


Clarck Drieshen

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17 April 2020

Henry VIII: the possessions of a Tudor monarch

King Henry VIII of England (1509–1547) was an extraordinary collector of beautiful and expensive things. Portraits of this Tudor monarch attest to the richness of his wardrobe and possessions. Cloth of gold and crimson velvet, jewelled fabrics, feathered caps, embroidery and fur all feature prominently in these illustrations. We can see evidence of this in a tiny girdle book (Stowe MS 956) that is thought to have been owned by Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn (d. 1536), containing an English translation of the Book of Psalms.

A small portrait of Henry VIII, from a 16th-century girdle book possibly owned by Anne Boleyn

King Henry VIII’s portrait from a girdle book possibly owned by Anne Boleyn: Stowe MS 956, f. 1v

Surviving manuscripts from the height of the Tudor period give an insight into the enormous scale and variety of Henry’s possessions. In September 1547, 6 months after the King’s death, commissioners were appointed to compile an inventory of all his moveable goods and the contents of his 55 palaces. The task was so monumental and the administrators were so meticulous that it took them 18 months to complete.

A page from a 16th-century manuscript, showing the opening of the second part of the inventory of Henry VIII’s moveable goods

The opening of the second part of the inventory of Henry VIII’s moveable goods, compiled after his death in 1547: Harley MS 1419/1, f. 4r

The finished inventory records thousands of objects that present a detailed picture of the splendour and opulence at the heart of the Tudor court. It consists of two parts. The first (now Society of Antiquaries MS 120 A and B) includes lists of money, jewels, books and plate, the munitions in the King’s forts and the King’s ships, as well as the contents of his armouries and stables. The second (now bound in two volumes as British Library Harley MS 1419/1 and Harley MS 1419/2) details the contents of each of the King’s palaces and the various specialist wardrobes in his possession, as well as those of his children and successors, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth. This second part of the inventory has been recently digitised and is now available to view in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

A tapestry of the story of Abraham

A tapestry of the story of Abraham from Henry VIII's Great Bedchamber at Hampton Court Palace, now housed in the Royal Collection

The inventory records some extraordinary items that belonged to the royal household. These include:

  • One of the largest collections of tapestries and wall hangings ever recorded, comprising over 2000 items, made from silver, gold, silk and wool.
  • Around 800 carpets, over 200 of which were housed at Hampton Court alone.
  • A stockpile of textiles, including expensive silk cloth of gold and linen, embroidered damask, satin and taffeta, as well as velvet and sarsenet. Their combined value amounted to well over £50,000.
  • A variety of animal furs, from squirrel and lynx to sable and mink, and even leopard, is mentioned in the inventory. These were principally used to line and decorate gowns and robes for members of the king’s household.
  • Collections of brightly coloured feathers to adorn hats and bonnets.
  • Theatrical props and costumes for performances at court, belonging to the Master of the Revels.
  • Huge quantities of jewellery.
  • Numerous items of furniture: chairs, four-poster beds, footstools and dining tables.
  • Musical instruments: cornets, flutes, a harpsichord, portative organs (small handheld pipe organs), viols, virginals, a taberde and bagpipes, including one made of purple velvet and four fashioned out of ivory. Many of these instruments were additionally embellished with gold and fabric, or painted.

A miniature in an illuminated manuscript showing a group of 3 musicians playing their instruments

A miniature of musicians with a pipe and tabor, trumpet, harp and dulcimer, in the Henry VIII Psalter (London, c. 1540–1541): Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 98v

As part of their work, the commissioners of the 1547 inventory also provided lists of the books and manuscripts that Henry housed in his palaces. Many of Henry’s books were transferred to the Old Royal Library after his death, and subsequently became part of the British Library’s collections when they were presented to the nation by King George II (1727–1760) in 1757. Excitingly, it is possible to identify several of the books mentioned in the inventory from the descriptions provided.

The crimson velvet binding of a manuscript, which belonged to Henry VIII

A manuscript with a crimson velvet binding, recorded in the 1547 inventory of Henry VIII’s moveable possessions: Royal MS 20 A IV

One item, for example, is recorded in the inventory as:

a description of the holy lande and a boke covered with vellat enbrawdred with the kings armes declaring the same, in a case of blacke leather with his graces Armes.

The text referred to here is in fact a French work entitled ‘Tresample description de toute la Terre Saincte’, written by a man who identifies himself as Martin de Brion of Paris. The manuscript is now housed in the British Library (as Royal MS 20 A IV), along with its beautiful crimson velvet binding, embroidered with the arms of England and France with fleur-de-lis, roses and crowns, and the letters H. H. on either side.

An illuminated page from a 16th-century manuscript, showing a dedicatory letter to Henry VIII, written in gold ink on a red background.

A dedicatory letter to Henry VIII, from a 16th-century manuscript once part of the king’s possessions: Royal MS 20 A IV, f. 2r

In addition to the description of the Holy Land, the book also includes a dedicatory letter and poem addressed to Henry, which begins:

Au tres illustre Prince Henry huyctiesme de ce nom Roy d’Angleterre et de France, seigneur d’Hybernie, & defenseur de lay foy, Martin de Brion Parisien donne salut immortel.

'To the most illustrious Prince Henry eighth of this name, King of England and France, lord of Ireland, and defender of the faith, Martin de Brion of Paris sends immortal greetings.'

A chemise binding for a 16th-century manuscript, made of burgundy velvet, with five painted enamel badges pinned its covers and a small tassel attached to its top left-hand corner.

The original chemise binding of a manuscript once belonging to Henry VIII: Harley MS 1498, upper cover

Another fascinating manuscript that was in Henry’s possession and still survives was originally made for his father, Henry VII (1485–1509). It is listed in the inventory as 'Item a booke of Kynge Henry the viith his foundacion of his chappell at Westminster'. The book was apparently stored in the little study next to the king’s old bedchamber in the palace there. The small volume (Harley MS 1498) has an original chemise binding, made of burgundy velvet and pinkish gold damask, with five painted enamel badges pinned to its upper and lower covers. A small tassel is affixed to the top left-hand corner, made from gold and burgundy thread.

A detail from a 16th-century manuscript, showing an enlarged decorated initial with a representation of Henry VII bestowing a manuscript a group of kneeling monks.

Henry VII bestows the manuscript to a group of kneeling monks from Westminster Abbey: Harley MS 1498, f. 1r (detail)

The manuscript preserves a series of four agreements (indentures) made on 16 July 1504 between Henry VII and the abbot and monks of Westminster Abbey, concerning the planned construction of the King’s new burial chapel. This copy seems to have originally belonged to the abbey, but probably became part of Henry VIII’s personal library after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The volume opens with an enlarged decorated initial, containing a representation of a crowned and enthroned Henry VII bestowing the manuscript to a group of monks kneeling before him. If you look closely, you can see that the book in Henry’s outstretched hand shows the same five enamel badges and the burgundy and gold tassel that remain part of the manuscript’s binding to this day.

A sketch of the Palace of Whitehall made in 1544

A sketch of the Palace of Whitehall in 1544 by the Flemish artist Anton van den Wyngaerde

For more insights into life at the Tudor court during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, we recommend this blogpost. You can read more about the libraries of King Henry VIII in James Carley, The Books of King Henry VIII and his Wives (London: The British Library, 2004). The inventory itself has been edited by David Starkey, The Inventory of Henry VIII. Society of Antiquaries MS 129 and British Library MS Harley 1419: The Transcript (London: Society of Antiquaries, 1998).

We hope you enjoy searching the inventory of Henry VIII’s moveable goods online, and that you can spot more treasures recorded in its pages.


Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 April 2020

Medieval rabbits: the good, the bad and the bizarre

As this year’s Easter egg hunt is over, join us in a hunt through the pages of British Library manuscripts for some seasonal rabbits. Searching in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts yielded an amazing 80 images – they are everywhere! We found rabbits in the margins of prayer books and law books, in the borders of romances and chronicles, and even playing a supporting role in saints’ lives. Here are some of our favourites: from the cute and cuddly, to the dangerously criminal and the wonderfully weird.

Natural beauty

Each page of the Cocharelli Codex is decorated with features of the natural world, such as foliage, flowers, insects, birds, animals and seashells. The glorious meadow on this page includes a caterpillar, a dragonfly and two life-like hares.

 Detail from the ‘Cocharelli codex’, showing insects and two hares in the margin
Detail of insects and two hares from the Cocharelli codex, Italy, N. W. (Genoa); c. 1330 - c. 1340, Add MS 28841, f. 6v

Beasts of the earth

Medieval bestiaries are works containing images of animals with descriptions their attributes. The rabbit is described as ‘a wild and lithe beast’. In this image, Adam is naming a group of animals, including the rabbit, showing that man was considered lord over beasts.

Miniature from the Rochester Bestiary showing Adam naming the animals
Adam naming the animals in the Rochester Bestiary, England, S. E. (possibly Rochester); 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 34v

Useful to humans

The British Library has a number of highly decorated books containing scenes from rural life in the Middle Ages. Such scenes often contain images of rabbits, showing how important these creatures were in the rural economy: they were farmed for their fur and meat and hunted with hounds or ferrets.

The Taymouth Hours contains a series of images of a lady hunting rabbits; here she sends a hound or ferret into a warren to flush out the rabbits inside.

A woman catching rabbits in the Taymouth Hours
A woman catching rabbits in the Taymouth Hours, England, S. E., c. 1260, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 70v

A lordly rabbit

This Jewish liturgical book, the Barcelona Haggadah, contains the Haggadah, as well as liturgical poems and biblical readings for Passover. A colourful miniature shows the Israelites building a tower, supervised by an Egyptian master, at the beginning of the passage, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh’. Above is a rabbit seated on a throne, being served wine in a golden goblet by a dog.

The Barcelona Haggadah image of Israelites being forced to build a tower by the Egyptians, with a marginal image of a dog serving a rabbit
The Israelites in captivity, with a marginal scene of a dog serving a rabbit in the Barcelona Haggadah, Spain, N. E., Catalonia (Barcelona), c. 1340, Add MS 14761, f. 30v

Rabbits in exile

Rabbits are not always in the margins – sometimes they take part in the action, as in this illuminated Book of Revelations. At the beginning, the Angel appears to St John while he is exiled on the Island of Patmos, with rabbits and a deer watching, in a lush, green landscape

the Angel appears to St John on the Island of Patmos, with rabbits and a deer watching
St John is visited by the angel on Patmos, Apocalypse with commentary, England, early 14th century, Royal MS 2 D XIII, f. 1r

Rabbits and the saint

John Lydgate’s Life of St Edmund tells the story of his martyrdom and how his severed head was looked after by a friendly wolf until it was found in a thicket by monks with hunting dogs. This miniature shows St Edmund's head being found and reunited with his body, still pierced with arrows. The dogs have now begun hunting rabbits, who scamper to their burrows.

The discovery of St Edmund's body, with dogs and rabbits in the foreground
The discovery of St Edmund's body, Lives of St Edmund and St Fremund, England, Bury St Edmunds, c, 1435, Harley MS 2278, f. 67v

Rabbits in a romance

This manuscript of Roman de la Rose opens with a scene of the lover dreaming of the rose and the walled garden of delights. In the lower margin are rabbits being chased by hounds (again). But, not to worry - they will have their revenge – see below!

Page from the Romance of the Rose, with a picture of the lover asleep in the decorated initial and two dogs chasing three rabbits in the lower margin
The lover asleep in the decorated initial, and dogs chasing rabbits in the lower margin, Roman de la Rose, France, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 31840, f. 3r

Bunnies' revenge

The Smithfield Decretals is a large volume of canon law with narrative scenes added in the margins by a London artist. Rabbit hunting is depicted several times, but finally the rabbits take their revenge! There are several images of rabbits with bows and arrows shooting their persecutors, and a three-page series of a hound being brought to justice. First, he is bound, then he is tried by rabbits in an outdoor courtroom, and on the next pages, he is executed.

Rabbits bind and gag a dog in the Smithfield Decretals
Rabbits bind and gag a dog, the Smithfield Decretals, France, S. and London; 1275-1315, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 62v
Rabbits conduct a criminal trial of a dog in the Smithfield Decretals
Rabbits conduct a criminal trial of a dog, the Smithfield Decretals, France, S. and London; 1275-1315, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 63r

Trouble in a trumpet

We kept some of the weirdest rabbit images we found to last. This copy of the Holy Grail legend begins with a splendid illumination of Arthur’s court of Camelot and of Lancelot on his quest. Around the edges are scenes of jousting, a man shooting a butterfly, hybrid creatures, and in the upper margin, a naked man blowing a long trumpet out of which emerges…a rabbit!

Royal 14 E III f089r
A page from La Queste del Saint Graal, showing miniatures of Arthur and his court, and Lancelot on his quest, France, N., early 14th century, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 89r
Detail of a rabbit being blown out of a trumpet from the margins of La Queste del Saint Graal, France, N., early 14th century, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 89r

Jousting rabbit

This scene of a tournament with magnificent pavilions and finely-dressed knights is in a copy Froissart’s Chronicle. Look carefully, and in the decorative border are a rabbit and a snail jousting, both mounted on the shoulders of apes, in a parody of chivalric culture.

Harley MS 4379
A tournament, the 'Harley Froissart', Bruges, 1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v
Screenshot 2020-04-12 at 19.02.55
Detail of a rabbit and snail riding monkeys and jousting from the 'Harley Froissart', Bruges, 1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v

Sadly, we could not include all the great images we found, but why not try a search of your own? Go to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and search ‘Rabbit’ or ‘Rabbits’ in the 'image description' field. Be careful, though – despite their cute and cuddly appearance, some can be dangerous!

Chantry Westwell

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11 April 2020

Exultet rolls: celebrating the return of the light

The medieval churches of Southern Italy maintained a very special Easter tradition. They celebrated the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday from a scroll made to be used once a year for this specific ritual. Known as Exultet rolls, these manuscripts combine words, music and pictures to create an enthralling multimedia experience centred on the joyful theme of light returning to the world.

The British Library's Exultet roll (Add MS 30337) was made at the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino around 1075-1080. This ancient abbey was founded by St Benedict, father of the Benedictine order, in around 529. The use of Exultet rolls was a tradition that went back to the early Beneventan practices of the area, while the style of the paintings in Add MS 30337 was influenced by near-contemporary Byzantine works.

The beginning of the Exultet, with a large golden letter 'E'
The beginning of the Exultet, with a large golden letter 'E': Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 2

Exultet rolls were made for performance. They were designed to be read by a deacon standing in the church's ambo (a raised platform used for readings). As he was reading, he would turn the top of the roll over so that it draped in front of the ambo, displaying the images to the congregation. For this reason, the pictures are generally arranged upside-down in relation to the text so they would appear the right way up to the viewers. The people would look up and see the beautiful images unfurling before their eyes like a moving picture show.

The use of the Exultet roll is illustrated in the roll itself:

Image of a deacon reading the Exultet roll in church, with the top of the roll draped over the ambo, beside the Paschal candle
Image of a deacon reading the Exultet roll in church, with the top of the roll draped over the ambo, beside the Paschal candle: Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 11

The Exultet is a lyrical prayer, named after its opening words 'Exultet iam angelica turba caelorum' (Rejoice now, angelic choir of the heavens), which is chanted during the ceremonial lighting of the Paschal candle during the Easter Vigil. The Exultet roll provides the text for the ritual along with neumes, a type of medieval musical notation, which guide the melody.

The roll begins with an image of Christ enthroned and adored by angels, with a banner that reads, 'Lumen xpisti lumen xpi lumen xpi' (light of Christ, light of Christ, light of Christ), emphasising the central message of the ritual—that the Resurrection of Christ at Easter is the return of light to the world.

Christ enthroned, adored by angels
Christ enthroned, adored by angels: Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 1

The text celebrates the renewal of life at springtime, illustrated by a personification of Mother Earth (Tellus Mater). She is depicted in the illumination as a naked woman with her arms outspread in a loving gesture, surrounded by plants and nurturing a cow and a serpent at her breasts. Based on classical imagery, this represents the natural abundance and goodness of Earth.

Mother Earth (Tellus Mater)
Mother Earth (Tellus Mater): Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 3

Following Mother Earth is an image of Mother Church (Mater Ecclesia), where the juxtaposition of the two allegorical mothers suggests worldly and spiritual nurture. As the text announces, Mother Church is celebrating and adorned with brightness. She is shown richly dressed like an empress, holding up a church and surrounded by the faithful.

Mother Church (Mater Ecclesia)
Mother Church (Mater Ecclesia): Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 3

The text goes on to recall all the events that make the eve of Easter so gloriously bright, declaring: 'This is the night which purged the shadows of sin with a column of light' (Hec igitur nox est que peccatorum tenebras columne illuminatione purgauit).

As it explains, on the Paschal feast, God delivered the Israelites from captivity in Egypt through the parting the Red Sea. On the eve of Easter, Christ descended to the underworld and redeemed the righteous through the Harrowing of Hell, cancelling the sin of Adam and Eve. On this night, Christ's Resurrection took place. Each of these events is illustrated in the roll.

The crossing of the Red Sea
The crossing of the Red Sea: Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 7

After this, the deacon asks God to accept the offering of the Paschal candle, then gives lengthy praise to the bees who produced its wax. The text announces that 'the bee surpasses all the other living things that are subject to man' (Apis ceteris que subiecta sunt homini animantibus antecellit).

Drawing on the Georgics of Virgil, the text describes how the bee emerges in the springtime and immediately gets to work, gathering flowers, building a hive, making honey, forming wax and caring for the young. In this way, the bees are a fitting symbol of Spring and of the community working together for the common good.

Bees gathering nectar and taking it to their hive, with a beekeeper harvesting wax
Bees gathering nectar and taking it to their hive, with a beekeeper harvesting wax: Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 10

Bees are also praised for their chastity, which the text links to the Virgin Mary whose chaste motherhood made the events of Easter possible.

Virgin and Child, with two figures (probably angels) cut out from either side
Virgin and Child, with two figures (probably angels) cut out from either side: Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 11

The Exultet ends with a prayer for the end of the dark night and for the rise of the morning star that will never set. It asks God to grant peace and joy to the clergy, the pope, the bishop, all the congregation and the emperor.

In the church, we can imagine the deacon coming to the end of the prayer with the light of the newly lit Paschal candle glinting on the gold of the Exultet roll. The bright images descending from the ambo brought the themes of the text to life. For the people gathered in the church and sharing the experience, the roll reinforced the joyful messages of hope, renewal and brightness of the Easter celebration.

Happy Easter to all from BL Medieval!

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Translations are from Thomas Forrest Kelly, The exultet in southern Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

09 April 2020

Illuminating the Worms Bible

Some of the finest examples of medieval book art are Bibles. Medieval scribes and artists illustrated biblical manuscripts in order to adorn and elaborate the sacred text, as you can discover in our Biblical Illumination article on the Discovering Sacred Texts webspace. A particularly impressive example is the Worms Bible (Harley MS 2803). With pages measuring 540 x 355 mm, this is one of a number of giant multi-volume Bibles that were produced throughout Western Europe in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The Worms Bible includes a seventeenth-century inscription recording that it belonged to the Augustinian abbey of St Mary Magdalene in Frankenthal, about ten kilometres (six miles) south of Worms. Frankenthal was an important scriptorium, and this Bible may have been made at the Abbey. There is a very small inscription on the first folio before the text proper, right on the edge of the lower margin, recording the date of 1148 (anno MCXLVIII), which was probably when the work was either begun or completed.

St Jerome writing at a desk, with a tonsured monk holding up an inkwell to him
Prefatory letter at the beginning of the Worms Bible, with a miniature of St Jerome writing at a desk and a decorated initial 'F', Harley MS 2803, f. 1v
Screenshot 2020-04-08 at 15.57.46
Detail of St Jerome writing at a desk, with a tonsured monk holding up an inkwell to him, Harley MS 2803, f. 1v

Like most Vulgate Bibles, the two volumes of the Worms Bible include several letters by St Jerome arranged as prefatory material. The first text is St Jerome’s letter to bishop Paulinus of Nola (d. 431), in which St Jerome urged Paulinus to study the Scriptures diligently, to live in and meditate on them (inter haec vivere, ista meditari). It begins with a large illustration of St Jerome seated as a scribe writing (f. 1v). Here St Jerome holds a quill pen and a knife with which to make corrections. A small tonsured figure, perhaps the commissioning abbot, holds up an ink horn to St Jerome to supply him with ink for his task.

On the pages of his open book, we can see that St Jerome is writing the first words of the letter: ‘Frater ambrosi/us tua m[ih]i mu/nuscula’ (Brother Ambrosius [has delivered your] your little gifts to me). Immediately next to the scene is a large letter ‘F’(rater) that begins the text itself. The letter is embellished with bright stylized acanthus leaf decoration interwoven around the gold bars of the letter. Characteristically Germanic gold bands with small round dots are cinched around the foliate forms.

The creation of light above, and the Creation of Eve below, in the initial ‘I’(n), at the beginning Genesis
The creation of light above, and the Creation of Eve below, in the initial ‘I’(n), at the beginning Genesis, Harley MS 2803, f. 6v
Detail of the Creation of Eve
Detail of the Creation of Eve, Harley MS 2803, f. 6v

In the large initial beginning the book of Genesis a few pages later, tight scrolls join the foliate decoration, and the illustrations move into the initial ‘I’(n) itself (f. 6v). The second word of the text, ‘principio’ ([in] the beginning), is also displayed in the panel of decoration. Two scenes from Genesis are included: at the top of the letter, God orders ‘FIAT LUX’ (let there be light), while below, God creates Eve from Adam's side while the speech scroll contains his observation that ‘Non est bonu[m] homine[m] esse solum fa/cimus ei adiutoriu[m] simile sui’ (It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a help like unto himself, Genesis 2:18). Skin tones are shaded in green and pink, and the painting contains fine details, such as the incision on the sleeping Adam’s side from which Eve, who stands behind him, has just emerged.

Job covered with sores, being poked by a devil, at the beginning of Job
Job covered with sores, being poked by a devil, at the beginning of Job, Harley MS 2803, f. 288v
Detail of Job covered with sores, being poked by a devil
Detail of Job covered with sores, being poked by a devil, Harley MS 2803, f. 288v

These features of the stylized acanthus, clasps, colours, and modelling of tones are found in the other large initials that begin each biblical book. Most depict the book’s author, often writing or holding a scroll with a quotation from his text. For example, Job reclines in the initial letter of his book, covered with sores with a devil tormenting him (f. 288v). He laments: ‘pereat dies in qua nat[us] su[m] et nox in qu[a] dictu[m] e[st] c[on]cept[us] e[st] homo’ (Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said: A man child is conceived, Job 3:3).

The Worms Bible was exhibited in Mannheim in 2013, and was featured in blog about the exhibition at that time. You can view both volumes on the Digitised Manuscripts website, and discover more about the production of medieval manuscripts in our article, How to make a medieval manuscript. For more about this Bible, see Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), no. 21.

Kathleen Doyle

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05 April 2020

Guess the manuscript returns

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Today's Guess the Manuscript is relatively simple, we think. In which British Library manuscript is this page found?

A detail of a manuscript page with a dragon strangling an elephant

You can find the entire book on our Digitised Manuscripts site. If you're still having trouble, we suggest looking at our Medieval England and France, 700–1200 webspace, created in partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Have a guess by submitting a comment below, or tweeting us @BLMedieval (#GuessTheManuscript). Happy hunting!


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02 April 2020

The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick

One of the most remarkable 15th-century English manuscripts can now be viewed in full online, on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick is an illustrated Middle English biography of Richard Beauchamp (b. 1382, d. 1439), 13th Earl of Warwick. It survives in a single copy, made for his daughter, Anne Beauchamp (b. 1426, d. 1492): Cotton MS Julius E IV/3. Richard Beauchamp was an important political figure during the reigns of Henry IV (r. 1399–1413), Henry V (r. 1413–1422) and Henry VI (r. 1422–61, 1470–71), at the height of the Hundred Years War between England and France.

A page from The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, showing an illustration of Beauchamp kneeling before Henry V, receiving his appointment as Captain of the French city of Calais.

Beauchamp is made Captain of Calais by King Henry V: Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 13r (detail)

The manuscript contains 55 pen drawings, or ‘pageants’, that chronicle Beauchamp’s life, from his birth and baptism to his death and burial, each accompanied by a short explanatory caption. The drawings are renowned for their sense of drama, their realism, and their immense detail. You could spend hours scanning their contents and discover all manner of interesting features, from jewelled crowns and embroidered dresses to elaborate heraldic devices and swords. At one point, the heart of St George even makes an appearance, preserved in a gilded monstrance (a vessel for holding relics).

A detail from The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, showing an illustration of Beauchamp receiving an embellished vessel containing the heart of St George from the Holy Roman Emperor.

Beauchamp receives a monstrance containing the heart of St George from the Holy Roman Emperor: Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 18r (detail)

The manuscript’s drawings provide significant insight into many aspects of European court culture during the Late Middle Ages (roughly 1250 to 1500). Recent scholarship has used them as important evidence for the study of weapons and armour, banqueting, dress and heraldry, architecture, late medieval drama, and even the design of ships and the nature of naval warfare.

A detail from The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, showing Beauchamp greeting and shaking hands with the Doge of Venice.

Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, greeted by the Doge of Venice, on his arrival to the city: Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 8r (detail)

The pageants situate Beauchamp at the very heart of English political life, as a prodigious knight and general, as a major advisor to three English kings, as an ambassador travelling throughout Europe on behalf of the royal court, and ultimately as Lieutenant of France and Normandy and protector of the young Henry VI.

A page from The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, with an illustration depicting a battle between Beauchamp and Owen Glendower.

Beauchamp fighting in the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403: Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 4r

Several of the manuscript’s illustrations see Beauchamp fighting in significant battles and sieges that took place in England and France during this period. One, for example, depicts the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, in which Beauchamp fought on the side of King Henry IV against Sir Henry ‘Harry Hotspur’ Percy, ultimately defeating the rebel and securing the English throne for the Lancastrian forces. The mounted Beauchamp appears at the centre of the battle, charging directly into the enemy forces.

A page from The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, showing Beauchamp defeating a French knight in a joust.

Beauchamp defeats a French knight during a tournament and is forced to dismount to prove he is not tied into his saddle: Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 16r

Beauchamp acquired a reputation for engaging in chivalric behaviour and pursuits during his lifetime. Jousting and tournament scenes are notably prominent throughout the manuscript’s series of drawings. The Earl takes part in jousts in celebration of the coronation of Joan of Navarre as Queen of England, in a diplomatic mission to the Holy Roman Empire, and at a tournament before the French court, where he is shown defeating three French knights in quick succession. In this image, a victorious Beauchamp is forced to dismount from his own horse to prove that he has not been tied into his saddle, so astonished is the French court at his skill in the sport.  

A page from The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, showing an illustration of a banquet, thrown in honour of Beauchamp by Sir Baltirdam.

Beauchamp attends a banquet thrown in his honour by Sir Baltirdam, the Sultan’s Lieutenant: Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 10r

One of the major sequences of images in the manuscript focuses on the pilgrimage Beauchamp undertook to the Holy Land in 1408, which sees the Earl travelling across Europe and encountering various members of the nobility during his journey. Upon reaching Jerusalem, Beauchamp meets with the deputy of the Patriarch of the city, and visits the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre. He then attends a banquet thrown in his honour by a certain ‘Sir Baltirdam’, a lieutenant to the Sultan of Egypt. At the conclusion of the meal, Sir Baltirdam offers Beauchamp and his men lavish gifts of precious jewels, silk cloth, and gold.

A page from The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, showing Beauchamp’s burial presided over by the Bishop of Lichfield, with his coffin being lowered into a tomb.

The Burial of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick: Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 27r

The final set of images in the manuscript takes a more sombre turn, depicting Beauchamp’s death and burial in 1439. Presided over by William Heyworth, Bishop of Lichfield, and observed by a crowd of mourners, Beauchamp’s coffin is shown being lowered into his tomb in the Beauchamp Chapel of St Mary's Church, Warwick. Both the chapel and the tomb survive to this day, the latter marked by an enormous bronze effigy of the Earl made during the 15th century.

A bronze effigy of Richard Beauchamp in armour, marking the site of his tomb, accompanied by bronze sculptures of a dog and a griffin.

The 15th-century bronze effigy of Richard Beauchamp, resting on his tomb (St Mary’s Church, Warwick)

Our manuscript was probably commissioned by Anne Beauchamp, daughter of Richard Beauchamp and widow of Richard Neville 'the Kingmaker', Earl of Warwick (b. 1428, d. 1471), sometime between 1483 and her death in 1492. Its drawings have been linked to an artist now known as the 'Caxton Master', named after his illustrations of William Caxton's translations of the Metamorphoses of Ovid (Cambridge, Magdalene College, Old Library, MS.F.4.34) and the Mirroure of the Worlde (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 283). Later, the manuscript was owned by the herald Robert Glover (b. 1544, d. 1588), before passing into the hands of the great manuscript collector, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (b. 1571, d. 1631). It was bequeathed to the nation by Cotton's grandson, Sir John Cotton (b. 1621, d. 1702). We are delighted that it can now be viewed in full online, for everyone to enjoy.


Calum Cockburn

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31 March 2020

Don’t waste time writing

What should you do if you read something remarkable, or come across a brilliant observation that you must remember? Take a photo and share it via the family WhatsApp group? Post it on Twitter and wait for the likes to roll in? Or perhaps it should go on Instagram, with a background of a sunset to set it off?

In the early modern era, contemporaries would either commit these gems to memory or store them in commonplace books. Add MS 32494 is one of these treasure troves of wisdom, once belonging to the scholar and poet Gabriel Harvey (1552/3–1631). If you’re grappling with the perennial question of what you should (and shouldn’t) be doing, Harvey is here to help. Here is some of his advice:

A manuscript page containing Harvey’s advice about dreams and not making the same mistakes

Gabriel Harvey's advice about dreams and making the same mistakes, in his commonplace book: Add MS 32494, f. 11v


Don't be frustrated if you can’t remember last night’s really good dream. According to Harvey, ‘who so regardith Dreames, is lyke him, that takith howld of A shaddowe, and followith after the wynde’ (f. 11v).

Making the same mistakes

It’s time to break the pattern. As Harvey put it, ‘he that wasshith himself bycause of A dead boddy, and then towchith the deade againe, what good doith his washing? So is it with A man that repentith his misdeeds, and doith them againe’ (f. 11v).

A manuscript page in which Harvey advises getting up early

Harvey's advice about eating and sleeping: Add MS 32494, f. 19r

Eating and sleeping

If you’re reading this in bed, it’s time to get up! Hannibal used to get up before daybreak and never rest until supper, before sleeping on the ground with only his cloak to cover him. Both Alexander the Great and Scipio used to eat whilst going about their business. And as Harvey’s mother used to say, ‘all the speede, is in the morning’ (f. 19r).


Another bad habit. Harvey was given to this vice, sternly reminding himself to ‘auoyde all writing, but necessary, which consumith unreasonable much tyme, before you ar aware: you haue alreddy plaguid yourselfe this way: Two Arts lernid, whilest two sheetes in writing’ (f. 16r).


The way to happiness is to ‘make the best of euery thing’ (f. 12r). If you’re unhappy, don’t let anyone know (‘he bearith his misery best, that hydeth it most’, f. 22r).


If you haven’t got a copy of Seneca to hand, fortunately Harvey took some notes for you. To gain a woman’s affection, all you have to do is ‘to looue and to be loouely’. The lover who is the most devoted will enjoy the greatest success: ‘he rulith most in Venus Court, that servith his Lady best’. Don’t think that because your lady has ostensibly forgiven you that she isn’t seething inside. As Harvey noted, ‘a pleasante looke doth pacify the Loouer, thowgh his Ladyes Hart be neuer so angry’. Remember that romance is a mixture of work and win: ‘he that gatherith Roses, must be content to prick his fingars, and he that will win his Looues fauour, must abide her sharpist words awhile’ (f. 25v). Finally, before embarking on a new courtship, Harvey advised reflecting on how other people you know are doing (‘When thou goist awooing, marke how thy neighbours haue spedd before ye’, f. 25r). If they all seem to be trapped in unhappy relationships, will it be any different for you?

A manuscript page containing Harvey’s advice about women and romance

Harvey's relationship advice: Add MS 32494, f. 25r

We hope Gabriel Harvey’s advice proves useful. Don’t forget, ‘it is better not to lyue, then not to know how to lyue, or not to lyue as you know’ (f. 23r).


Jessica Crown

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