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

28 April 2022

Medieval Manuscripts Cataloguer and Researcher

The British Library is recruiting a Medieval Manuscripts Cataloguer and Researcher, to work at St Pancras in our Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team.

A page from an early 13th-century manuscript of Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae, showing in the lower margin a bird perched on a building, a man with the tame falcon of Kildare and a scribe writing the miraculous Gospels of Kildare

A page from an early 13th-century manuscript of Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae, showing in the lower margin a bird perched on a building, a man with the tame falcon of Kildare, and a scribe writing the miraculous Gospels of Kildare: Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 22r

This is a fixed term opportunity, for 6 months. The successful candidate will produce catalogue descriptions of pre-1600 western manuscripts, using the Library’s cataloguing system. They will support the completion of two major projects: (1) the cataloguing of manuscripts in the Library's Harley collection; and (2) Medieval and Renaissance Women. The post-holder will also promote the Library’s collections by writing blogposts aimed at a non-specialist audience, answering enquiries, and presenting manuscripts to specialist and non-specialist audiences.

To be successful in this role, you will have experience of cataloguing medieval manuscripts, specialist knowledge of medieval palaeography, and a strong reading knowledge of Latin. In addition, you will have experience of promoting collections, excellent attention to detail, and strong organisational skills.

For further information and to apply for this position, please visit quoting vacancy ref: 04090.

The closing date for applications is 15 May 2022. Interviews will be held on 30 May 2022.

Please note: we are unable to provide sponsorship under the UK Skilled Worker visa for this role, as it does not meet the eligibility criteria required for this immigration route.

23 April 2022

A 2000-year-old postcard

Sending greetings to friends and family from places we visit has always been popular. Whether we text, call or just post something on social media, we love to let others know about where we travel and what we see there. Although we may associate tourism with modern or postmodern society, there are some fascinating documents surviving to prove that people were also interested in travel and sightseeing thousands of years ago.

A letter written in Greek on a fragmentary piece of papyrus
Letter from Nearchus to Heliodorus, 1st/2nd century AD, Hermupolis (Egypt), Papyrus 854

The British Library has a fragment of a Greek letter that is the ancient equivalent of a postcard from a sightseeing trip, written on papyrus in the 1st or 2nd century AD in Middle Egypt. A man called Nearchus is writing to his friend Heliodorus to tell him about his trip on the River Nile. After the short greeting, Nearchus tells his friend why he started to travel:

‘As many people embark on ships today to travel and see the excellent works of human hands, I have also decided to follow their example and sailed downstream on the Nile towards Syene'.

An aerial photo of the island of Philae
The Island of Philae near Syene Aswan, after its relocation on the nearby island of Agilkia before the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1960 (Zakaria Rabea / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0)

From what Nearchus tells us, it seems like there was an extensive market for tourism to Upper Egypt. His first destination, Syene, is a town by the Nile near today’s Aswan. It is a picturesque place with an island in the river that has the great temple of Isis, famous for its architecture and miracles, which Nearchus probably visited.

Photo of Siwa Oasis
View of the Siwa Oasis in Egypt (Youssef Alam / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-3.0)

His next stop, the Siwa Oasis, is quite a distance away: it is in the Western Desert near the Libyan border. Siwa had a famous sanctuary where the ram-headed god Amon gave oracles to his visitors, which Nearchus was keen to visit:

‘I went to Libya where Amon chants his oracles to everyone. I have received very promising words and I scratched the names of all my friends on the wall of the sanctuary for eternal memory…’

Just like Alexander the Great, who visited the same site some 500 years earlier and was proclaimed the son of Amon by the oracle there, Nearchus also received good news from the god. He also tells us that he scratched his friends’ names on the temple wall. Although this may sound very alarming today, putting names on the temple wall was considered pious at that time. It was to ensure that the absent friends would be present at the holy place forever – exactly as Nearchus assures his friend.

A photo of an ancient Egyptian monument with hieroglyphics, as well as later graffiti
Graffiti on the wall of the Temple of Isis on Philae, an island in Lake Nasser, Egypt (Irene Soto / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0)

Unfortunately, the last two lines of Nearchus’s postcard have been washed off the papyrus and are missing, so his story remains unfinished. But there is still hope his graffiti of his friends’ names may survive somewhere in the ruins of Amon’s Temple in Siwa. You can read more fascinating stories from our ancient papyri on our Greek Manuscripts webspace.

Peter Toth
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 April 2022

Discovering Boccaccio manuscripts online

The Italian writer, poet and humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) is probably most familiar in the English-speaking world for his Decameron, a collection of one hundred short stories that were adapted by Chaucer and Shakespeare and inspired works by Swift, Tennyson and Keats. He was a key literary figure in late-medieval and Renaissance Europe whose considerable output included love poetry, courtly tales, a genealogy of the gods, and the first collection of biographies devoted solely to women in Western literature.

Towards the end of his life, disillusioned with love and suffering from a variety of ailments, he was only dissuaded from burning much of his own material by the intervention of Petrarch, a close colleague and mentor. Fortunately his works survived, and the many translations and extant manuscripts are testament to their popularity. In the 15th century numerous illustrated copies were produced for the courts of Europe.

Illuminated manuscript showing Petrarch approaching Boccaccio, who is lying in bed
Petrarch appears to Boccaccio who is ill in bed, in a building decorated with the coat of arms of the French royal family, from Des cas de nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus Claris (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century), Add MS 35321, f. 247v

Twenty seven British Library manuscripts containing works of Boccaccio are either fully or partially digitised in our online catalogues. An advanced search in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts using the field ‘Author’: ‘Boccaccio’ produces a list of all of these with a selection of images from each one. Six are also fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Here are just some of these fascinating manuscripts.

Concerning Famous Women

Most impressive of all are two grand volumes of Boccaccio’s ground-breaking collection of biographies of famous women, De claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women) in a French translation by Laurent de Premierfait. Both contain magnificent illustrations of the characters and their deeds. Boccaccio’s purpose in this work is to encourage virtuous behaviour among women, but the examples he chooses from among biblical, classical, mythological and historical characters are both good and bad. All the well-known female figures are present, each one accompanied by a portrait, from Eve to Medusa, and from Sappho to Cleopatra, alongside less familiar examples such as Hypsicratea, Queen of Pontus, and Faustina Augusta, wife of Marcus Aurelius. Christine de Pizan based many of her biographies of women in the famous Cite des Dames on this work.

An illumination of Cleopatra being bitten by asps
Cleopatra is bitten by two dragon-like ‘asps’ and blood pours from her arms, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus Claris (Rouen, c. 1440): Royal MS 16 G V, f. 101r


Hypsicratea cutting her hair, surrounded by an army
Hypsicratea cutting her hair and joining her husband King Mithridates VI in battle, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus Claris (Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century): Royal MS 20 C V, f. 119r

The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts also features copies of the original Latin text of Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. One of these, Harley MS 6348, is an early copy made in Italy in the 14th century, not long after Boccaccio’s death. The opening page of De claris mulieribus contains the dedication beginning with the words: ‘Pridie, mulierum egregia...’ The first sentence translates as:

‘Some time ago, illustrious lady, while away from the crude multitudes and almost free of other concerns, I wrote a little book in praise of women, more for the pleasure of my friends than as a service to humanity’ (trans. Guarino).

The opening page of a 14th-century copy of De claris mulieribus, beginning with a decorated initial letter 'P'
The opening page of Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus (Italy, last quarter of the 14th century): Harley MS 6348, f. 24r

Concerning Noble Men and Women

In addition to his biographies of women, Boccaccio produced a collection of biographies of both men and women, De casibus virorum illustrium, also translated into French by Premierfait. Some of these are very large volumes, each containing over fifty biographies with numerous miniatures. For example, Royal MS 14 E V, a Bruges manuscript owned by Edward IV, is almost half a metre tall and has 513 folios – the size of a small suitcase – so you need to be strong just to lift it off the shelf! the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts has images of all the pages with illustrations from this manuscript. For example, a historical event known as the Sicilian Vespers, the Easter rebellion by the Sicilians against French rule in 1282 when thousands of French civilians were murdered, is the subject of one illustration. 

Illustration of the Sicilian Vespers, with a soldier stabbing a man with a spear while he is in bed
The Sicilian Vespers, from Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De casibus virorum illustrium (Bruges c. 1480): Royal MS 14 E V, f. 488r

The theme of the biographies is the changeability of fortune. Boccaccio focuses on the downfall of famous people, all of whom are subject to the will of Lady Fortune. In book 6 the two meet and speak about the fates of the unlucky nobles who are destined to fall from dizzy heights of power and wealth.

Bocaccio in his study, with his vision of Fortune as a crowned lady with many arms
Boccaccio in his study, with his vision of Fortune as a crowned lady with many arms, from Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De casibus virorum illustrium (Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century): Royal MS 20 C IV, f. 198r

Another manuscript of his work, Harley MS 621, has a miniature at the beginning of each of the major sections or books into which the work is divided. In this one, Boccaccio watches Fortune turn her wheel. Note the cockerel in the border!

Boccaccio watching Fortune turn her wheel
Boccaccio watching Fortune turn her wheel, with an old king seated on top, a pile of fallen persons below, and a violent battle between two armies in the background, from Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De casibus virorum illustrium (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 621, f. 217r

The Fall of Princes

The English poet, John Lydgate, produced an abridged version of De Casibus in a Middle English translation, known as The Fall of Princes. Three copies are fully digitised on Digitised Manuscripts. One of these, which was probably made at Bury St Edmunds, contains a series of illustrations of key scenes in the margins. One gruesome example is of King Cyrus of the Persians who subdued all the nations from Syria to the Red Sea. According to the Boccaccio/Lydgate version of his life, Tomyrus, Queen of the Scythians defeated his army, severing his head from his body, and throwing it into a bowl of blood with these words, ‘Thou that hast all thy time thirsted for blood, now drink thy fill, and satiate thy self with it’.

The remains of King Cyrus floating in tub of blood
The remains of King Cyrus floating in tub of blood, The Fall of Princes (England, perhaps Bury St Edmunds, 1450-1460): Harley MS 1766, f. 135r

The Decameron

There are also Boccaccio manuscripts on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts containing a variety of his other works, including three of his most well-known work, the Decameron. This copy of the Decameron, translated into French by Laurent de Premierfait, is decorated with borders containing the royal arms of England. This is because it was part of the collection of manuscripts owned by King Edward IV of England. 

A presentation miniature of Jean, duke of Berry, receiving the book from the translator, Laurent de Premierfait
Jean, duke of Berry, receiving the book from the translator, Laurent de Premierfait, with the border containing the royal arms of England, from the beginning of Les cent Nouvelles, a French translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron (Bruges, 1473-83): Royal MS 19 E I, f. 1r

Other Boccaccio texts include Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, a quasi autobiographical novel about a love affair set in Naples. 

An open manuscript with illuminated initials in gold, on red, green or blue grounds
Illuminated initials in Boccaccio's Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (Italy, c. 1500), Harley MS 5427, ff. 19v-20r

This overview of Boccaccio manuscripts helps to demonstrate that our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, though not providing full digital coverage, remains a key source for images of our manuscript collections. We continue to maintain it and make updates and corrections to the records. We hope you enjoy exploring!

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 April 2022

Medieval manuscripts and the Art That Made Us

Our medieval manuscripts will soon feature on the major new documentary series, Art That Made Us, for BBC Two and BBC iPlayer. The series explores how pivotal works of art, literature, design and music have helped shape the history of Britain. Featuring very detailed, close-up filming of some of our manuscripts, it will be an opportunity to see them on screen in more detail than ever before.

The first episode, which will go out on 7 April, begins with the withdrawal of the Roman troops from Britain in the 4th century and the following period of migration, warfare, the rise of the English language and the spread of Christianity. In this episode, speakers will discuss the superb illuminated Gospel-book, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the Old English epic poem Beowulf. It will also feature one of the earliest surviving maps of the world and the only example that originates from England before the 12th century.

Medieval map of the world
Map of the World, from a scientific miscellany, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

The second episode, airing on 14 April, explores the trauma of the Black Death in the 14th century and some of the creative works that came afterwards. There will be discussion of major Middle English poems including Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman and the anonymous meditation on grief, Pearl. The episode will feature the earliest manuscript of the Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, an account of the spiritual visions witnessed by Julian, an anchoress in Norwich, when she was suffering from a near-fatal illness. It is also the first known work in English to be authored by a woman.

The opening of Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich
Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, England mid 15th century: Add MS 37790, f. 97r

This episode will also include the only surviving manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe. This is an account by Margery Kempe, a mystic from King’s Lynn, of her visions and experiences, and the earliest known autobiography in English.

Opening of the Book of Margery Kempe
The Book of Margery Kempe, England, c. 1440: Add MS 61823, f. 1r

The Old Hall Manuscript will also feature on this episode. This collection of sacred music is the most important source for our knowledge of early harmony music in England. It contains one of the oldest surviving collections of English part music (music written in parts for separate players or singers). Works by numerous English composers are included, such as the beautiful motet Veni Sancte Spiritus by John Dunstaple.

Manuscript of Veni Sancte Spiritus, with musical notation and lyrics
The motet Veni Sancte Spiritus by John Dunstaple in the Old Hall Manuscript, England, c. 1410-1420: Add MS 57950, f. 56r

Later episodes of the programme will feature other British Library collection items, including John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, poetry by John Donne, Paradise Lost by John Milton, Teares of Ireland by James Cranford and Micrographia by Robert Hooke.

Art that Made Us will be broadcast on Thursdays at 9pm from 7 April 2022 on BBC Two and it will also be available to view on iPlayer. We hope you enjoy seeing our amazing manuscripts on screen. You can also view all these manuscript in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

30 March 2022

Deciphering an English exorcism manual

We recently encountered a mysterious medieval manuscript during our current Harley cataloguing project. In the three centuries that it has been in the Harley collection, no one realised the true identity of the manuscript with the shelf-mark Harley MS 2874. Contributing to this may be the fact that its main contents start with a string of illegible and unpronounceable words: ‘Cpnkxratkp malkgnprum spkrkxxm’.

Title of the manuscript written in code
The words ‘Cpnkxratkp malkgnprum spkrkxxm’ written in red ink: Harley MS 2874, f. 1v

What to make of these strange words? The fact that they are written in red ink suggests that they are part of a title. So what does this manuscript contain? When we turn to the old catalogue of the Harleian manuscripts published in the year 1808, we find the manuscript described as a fragmentary Breviary–a common prayer book used in Christian liturgy–that was written in the 14th century.

Harley MS 2874 is described in the old 1808 Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts as an imperfect Breviary, a parchment codex in duodecimo (small-size) format, and dating to the 14th century
The description of Harley MS 2874 in the old Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts (1808), II, p. 717

But the 1808 catalogue must be incorrect. The manuscript does not contain any texts that one expects to find in a Breviary. Instead, the illegible words appear to be a form of secret writing. They employ a known encryption method in which vowels are replaced with their successive letters in the alphabet. With this method and some knowledge of the Latin language in mind, the title can be deciphered as: ‘Coniuratio malignorum spirituum’. In English, this means: ‘The Conjuration of Evil Spirits’. The manuscript is clearly not a fragmentary Breviary, but a complete copy of an exorcism manual that claims to describe the rituals used to drive out demons from possessed persons in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Rome.

An opening from the manuscript
An opening containing formulas for exorcising demons: ‘I exorcise you unclean spirit’ (Exorziso te immunde spiritus): Harley MS 2874, ff. 5v-6r

The Coniuratio malignorum spirituum survives in about 30 printed editions. All of these were published in Rome or Venice in the late 15th and early 16th century. Our Harley manuscript is almost certainly a handwritten copy of one of these printed books, and, based on its script, was copied around the year 1500.

A woodcut print of a man exorcising demons
A woodcut print of a man exorcising demons from a printed copy of the Coniuratio malignorum spirituum (Rome: Stephan Plannck, about 1500): British Library, IA.18786

The Harley manuscript differs greatly from the printed versions in that it not only encrypts the text’s title, but also encrypts or abbreviates any further references to the act of conjuring and invoking demons throughout the manuscript. For example, ‘Coniuro te diabole’ (I conjure you Devil) has become ‘Cpnkxrp tf dibbplf’ in code, or ‘9o te diabole’ in abbreviated form, and ‘Memento lucifer’ (I hold Lucifer in mind) has become ‘Mfmfntp lxckffr’.

‘Coniuro te diabole’ encrypted ‘Cpnkxrp tf dibbplf’. The text is written in black ink with a capital ‘C’ in red ink
‘Cpnkxrp tf dibbplf’ (Coniuro te diabole): Harley MS 2874, f. 21r
The word 'Coniuro' abbreviated
‘9o’ (Coniuro): Harley Ms 2874, f. 23r
‘Memento lucifer’ encrypted as ‘Mfmfntp lxckffr’.The text is written in black ink with a capital ‘M’ in red ink
‘Mfmfntp lxckffr’ (Memento lucifer): Harley MS 2874, f. 10v

Since none of the Italian versions contains secret writing, the Harley manuscript was almost certainly encrypted by the scribe who copied it. But why did they do this? For an answer to this question, we need to look into the scribe’s background. An important clue to their identity can be found on the manuscript’s first page. This page is not part of the Coniuratio malignorum spirituum, but rather it contains a text in a different script that is both fragmentary and faded. With the aid of Ultraviolet light it can be identified as a royal pardon from King Henry VI to William Babington (d. 1453), who was abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk between 1446 and 1453. It may be the same pardon of debts owed to the Exchequer that Babington and his monastery are known to have received on 23 December 1451.

Importantly, the royal pardon is not a later addition but original to Harley MS 2874. Whoever made the manuscript cut a fragment from the pardon and used the blank parchment on its reverse side for writing the first page of the exorcism manual. This suggests that the scribe was quite possibly a monk of Bury St Edmunds, and certainly based in England.

A faded text in black ink highlighted with UV light, revealing the name of William Babington
Ultraviolet image of a royal pardon for William Babington and Bury St Edmunds: Harley MS 2874, f. 1r

The English origin of the manuscript is significant because the historian Francis Young argues that there is no evidence for the popularity of Continental exorcism manuals in England at this time (A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity (2016), pp. 94-95). This means that the English scribe was probably unfamiliar with the genre of exorcism manuals. Perhaps this made them uneasy about the text’s contents, contributing to their decision to encrypt key parts of the manual. Moreover, they might have been particularly concerned about how future owners could use the manuscript. As Francis Young (p. 103) points out, the Coniuratio malignorum spirituum could be readily used for illicit magical rituals in which communication with demons is sought not to exorcise them but to control and employ them for one’s own purposes.

Its repeated use of the term ‘conjuration’ would have made the exorcism manual especially suitable for the dark arts, as in the instruction ‘I conjure you devil and unclean spirit’ (Coniuro te diabole et spiritus immunde).

The opening words of a conjuration
The opening words of a conjuration in a printed copy of the Coniuratio malignorum spirituum (Rome: Stephan Plannck, about 1500): British Library, IA.18786

Conjurations are often found in magical texts that present formulas for invoking and commanding spirits. According to a 17th-century English magical treatise you should say the following:

‘I conjure and constrain you to fulfil my will in everything faithfully without hurt of my body or soul and to be ready at my call as often as I shall call you’.

An English text for conjuring demons
A conjuration for invoking and commanding spirits (England, 17th century): Sloane MS 3847, f. 120r

In using secret writing, the scribe may have wanted to limit the number of readers of the manuscript to a select and trusted few, perhaps a circle of monks at Bury St Edmunds. If that was their intention, then they seem to have been successful. Since the manuscript was acquired for the Harleian Library on 17 May 1715, cataloguers have not identified its contents, preventing magical practitioners from using it ever since.

This is just one of our many discoveries from the Harley cataloguing project. To read about some of the others, see our previous blogposts about a newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey and the lost miracles of St Wulfsige of Evesham. We will keep posting our findings, so keep a close eye on this blog!

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

26 March 2022

The secret of a silver clasp

The British Library is home to a huge array of beautiful bookbindings: from velvet and sheepskin chemises, to bejewelled covers, gold-tooled and patterned leather, and ivory friezes. Clasped bindings are a particular favourite of mine. This binding method is intended to protect a book from the effects of dust and light by an element (typically leather or metal) that secures its upper and lower covers. Clasped bindings have been in use for hundreds of years and many beautiful and elaborate examples survive from the Middle Ages.

One manuscript housed at the Library has a particularly special clasped binding. Attached to its green and gold-tooled covers, its small silver clasp is shaped in the form of a lion, with a coiled tail and a curly mane, and its right forepaw raised.

The upper cover and fore-edge of an early 16th-century Book of Hours, with its silver lion-shaped clasp

The upper cover and fore-edge of an early 16th-century Book of Hours, with its silver lion-shaped clasp: Egerton MS 1147

The silver clasp in the shape of a lion

The lion-shaped silver clasp: Egerton MS 1147, clasp

The lion alone is a beautiful addition to the manuscript, but it also hides a tantalising secret. On the reverse of the clasp, enclosed within the space directly behind the lion’s head and upper body, an artist has added a delicate engraving. It depicts a female figure, draped in robes, with long flowing hair. Who is this mysterious woman? What is her connection to the silver lion, and why has her portrait been added to the back?

The reverse of the silver clasp, with an engraving of a woman

The reverse of the clasp, showing an engraving of a female figure: Egerton MS 1147, clasp

Possible answers to these questions can be found within the pages of the manuscript itself (Egerton MS 1147), recently digitised and available to view in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The volume is a Book of Hours — a type of devotional book that was very popular during the Middle Ages — written and illuminated in the Flemish city of Bruges between 1500 and 1515. It contains numerous beautiful illustrations and decorative borders that accompany its calendar and collection of prayers and liturgical and devotional readings.

A full-page miniature of Christ as Salvator Mundi

Christ as Salvator Mundi, at the opening of the Latin Prayer to the Holy Face, ‘Salva sancta facies’: Egerton MS 1147, f. 12r (Image by Isabelle Reynolds-Logue)

One such illustration appears in the lower margin of the opening page of the Latin ‘Salva sancta facies’, or Prayer to the Holy Face. The image shows a woman sitting in an enclosed garden, the outline of a cityscape with numerous turrets and crenellations visible in the background. Before her appears a lion with silver fur wearing a golden crown and collar, its paw outstretched to the woman’s hand. In short, the image displays unmistakeable parallels to the design of the lion-shaped clasp attached to the book’s covers.

A miniature of the Maid of Ghent with a crowned lion placing its paw in her lap

A marginal portrait of the ‘Maid of Ghent’ and her lion: Egerton MS 1147, f. 12r detail

The elusive female subject of both the clasp and the marginal illustration can be identified with a symbolic medieval figure known as the ‘Maid of Ghent’. Her story originates in a 14th-century Middle Dutch poem, written by the Flemish author Baudouin van der Lore. It was written at a time when the city of Ghent (in modern-day Belgium) was threatened by the invading army of Louis II, Count of Flanders. Baudouin’s poem details a vision of the Maid stranded in a wood, and relates how she is protected from the machinations of an evil prince by Christ who appears to her in the form of a lion. The poem’s symbolism evidently resonated with the citizens of Ghent and their struggle, and by the beginning of the 15th century, the Maid and her lion had been adopted as the emblem of the city itself.

Numerous examples of the ‘Maid of Ghent’ appear in surviving medieval metalwork, armorial plates and illuminated books produced in the city. The most notable of these is a large military standard, probably painted by a female Flemish artist called Agnes van den Bossche — one of only a few known women artisans from this time — some 40 years before our Book of Hours was made. The banner adopts the same design as the clasp and the illustration above: the Maid holding the crowned lion’s outstretched paw. The lion now appears in an almost burnished gold, but microscopic analysis of the banner and its pigments has revealed it would have originally been silver.

A banner with the Maid of Ghent on the left with her lion

A military standard, depicting the ‘Maid of Ghent’ and her lion, probably painted by Agnes van der Bossche, 1481–1482: courtesy of STAM Museum Ghent

Our Book of Hours is known to have originated in the city of Bruges, where it was worked on by a succession of Flemish artists, but the recurring presence of the figure of the Maid and her lion suggests it may have been intended for a Ghentish owner, for whom this emblem would have had special significance. Moreover, the book remained in Ghent for many centuries after its production. A marginal inscription on one page displays the letters ‘IR’ linked by a lover’s knot: the monogram of a renowned bookbinder, Jan Ryckaert (b. 1516, d. 1573) whose workshop was based in the city. Eventually, it had become part of the collection of the Ghentish bibliophile Pierre Joseph Versturme-Roegiers (b. 1777, d. 1846).

The monogram of the Ghentish bookbinder Jan Ryckaert in the lower margin of the page

The monogram of the Ghentish bookbinder Jan Ryckaert, showing the letters IR linked by a lover’s knot: Egerton MS 1147, f. 13v


Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

23 March 2022

Medieval and Renaissance Women — thank you

We recently put out a request for readers to suggest manuscripts for our Medieval and Renaissance Women digitisation project. The call is now closed, but we wanted to say a HUGE 'thank you' to everyone who contributed. We have been thrilled by the response. We received over 60 nominations for manuscripts that have some connection with the lives of women in Britain and Europe between 1100 and 1600. And we were extremely gratified by all your kind comments about our project, either added to the blogpost or sent via Twitter or email.

An illuminated manuscript page, showing Bishop Henry on the left, wearing red robes, and St Elizabeth on the right, holding a crucifix

One manuscript nominated for Medieval and Renaissance Women is this copy of the Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, illuminated by Sibylla von Bondorff (Swabia, c. 1480): Add MS 15686, f. 32r

We are currently collating these suggestions, and assessing them against our criteria for selection (such as the condition of each manuscript and its suitability for digitisation). We are keeping a list of all the nominations, so that even if they are not selected this time round, we will bear them in mind for future projects, if funding allows. It was great, in any case, to see such a wide variety of manuscripts put forward, in so many different languages, from across the whole period, and relating to so many different subjects, from women's education to domestic and economic life to female health. We are delighted to have so many different ideas to choose from.

A shrouded head in the margin of a manuscript of Bridget of Sweden's Revelations

Another nomination is a manuscript of the Revelations of Bridget of Sweden, which has several marginal illustrations (England, 15th century): Harley MS 612, f. 78v

The British Library would once again like to thank Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous support for Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will be updating you on this Blog over the coming months about the progress of the project.


Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 March 2022

Irish voyage tales for the holiday of a lifetime

After the last two years of lockdowns and travel restrictions, many of us are dreaming about travelling abroad, for rest or adventure. But where to go? Worry not, dear readers, for help can be found in some of our medieval manuscripts. The medieval Irish also imagined journeys to foreign shores, and there is an entire genre of such voyage tales called immrama, in which explorers travelled West to fantastic islands. There are a number of these immrama among the British Library's Irish manuscripts. Here we pick some of our top island destinations for your consideration.

A page from a 16th-century Irish manuscript with a zoomorphic initial followed by text
The opening lines of Immram Curaig Mail Dúin, 16th century: Harley MS 5280, f. 12r

The recently digitised Harley MS 5280 contains two tales of island-hopping Irishmen: The Voyage of Maeldúin’s Curach (‘Immram curaig Mail Dúin’) and The Voyage of Bran mac Febail (‘Immram Brain Meic Febail’). Maeldúin visited a number of islands after being blown off-course on his quest to avenge his father (you can read more in a previous blog post). The first island that the disoriented sailors came across was full of giant ants, each the size of a foal. They swarmed the beach trying to eat the travellers before they ever made it ashore. Even the most enthusiastic entomologist would have a tough time on this island. If you're determined to visit, we'd recommend looking from a distance as you search for friendlier shores. 

Illustration of ants
Illustration of ants from a Bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Harley MS 3244, f. 50r (detail)

Maeldúin and his friends were chased off another island by a horse-like creature, with the legs of a hound, sharp nails and an appetite for sailors. Even after fleeing to their ship, the creature dug up the beach and pelted them with the rubble. For animal lovers, the safest option is the island of birds, which, as the name suggests, is an island full of birds. They do not seem to mind visitors and it is only a few days away by curach to the land of monsters, should you insist on going.

Illustration of house martins
Illustration of house martins from a Bestiary, England, late 12th to early 13th century: Harley MS 4751, f. 37v

If you want something more relaxing, perhaps try an island divided into four parts by fences of gold, silver, brass and crystal. The inhabitants of this island are excellent hosts, treating their guests to food and drink. But be warned, they take check-out very seriously. When Maeldúin and his friends woke on their third day on this island, they found themselves already back on the curach and the island nowhere in sight. 

If you prefer self-catering, a small island containing a fort, some white houses and a playful cat jumping on pillars could be the one for you. Food, drink and comfortable beds will be provided, but you're advised not to take any of the jewellery. One of Maeldúin’s companions tried this and did not make it halfway across the courtyard before the little cat jumped through him like a flaming arrow, reducing him to ash. This is a great destination for lovers of fine food and drink (and cats). We would recommend bringing some cat treats, just in case.

Illustration of a cat
Illustration of a cat from a Book of Hours, Bruges, late 15th to early 16th century: Add MS 18852, f. 300r

Some of you may be seeking a total escape, a chance to leave all your worries behind. No need to fret, since both Maeldúin and Bran visited islands where you can forget all your troubles (and everything else). Maeldúin encountered an island full of constantly wailing people dressed in black. When one of his companions alighted on the island to investigate, he joined the islanders in their weeping. Two others who went to rescue him were unable to recognise him and also succumbed to the wailing. A further four were successful in their mission to rescue their friends, but had to cover their mouths with their clothes and to avoid looking at the island so as not to succumb to the same fate.

Illustration of a mourning woman, wearing black and weeping
A mourning woman representing Rome, from Carmina Regia, Italy, 1335: Royal MS 6 E IX, f. 11v

If being surrounded by sobbing strangers is not your idea of a good time, then you might prefer the Island of Joy, the only island Bran visited on his journey. Everyone there will greet you with a smile, or at least they will stare at you in silence. When one of Bran’s crewmembers set foot on the island, he broke out in a grin. If you think this island is for you, prepare for an extended trip. Bran was forced to leave that crewmember behind when he responded to their calls only with more smiling and staring.

Beasts of the End Times, with animal bodies and human heads
Beasts of the End Times, with broad toothy grins, from an Apocalypse, 2nd half of the 13th century: Add MS 18633, f. 16r

The wandering of the clerics of Colum Cille (‘Merugud cléirech Choluim Chille’), found in Add MS 30512, contains a number of ideal locations for foodies. One of the first islands visited by Snedgus and Mac Riagla had a river flowing through it which tasted of milk. While staying with an Irish cleric on an island of cat-headed people, they were treated to their fill of wheat, fish and wine.

There is also the option of an educational trip. On a later island, Snedgus and Mac Riagla found trees covered in birds with golden breasts and silver wings. A large bird in the middle sang the story of Creation, of Christ’s life, and of Doomsday. But make sure to bring an umbrella, as the other birds shook their wings after hearing the story, causing blood to gush from them.

Wildlife, comfort, education, fiery cats — there is an island for everyone. If you want to see more travellers’ tales, check out our previous blogpost Dragons, heroes, myths and magic for more tales of adventure.


Seosamh Mac Cárthaigh

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval