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51 posts categorized "Polonsky"

23 February 2021

Illuminated Canon Tables

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Canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of Scripture over many centuries, in both Greek and Latin. Devised by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. c. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the tables present a unifying gateway to the Gospels, the four biblical accounts of the life of Christ written by the Evangelists, Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The tables contain numbered lists of passages that are either shared in two or more Gospel accounts, or are unique to a particular Gospel. As Eusebius explains in a letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

In deluxe copies of the Gospels, the canon tables offered an opportunity for artists to explore a different type of decoration from pictorial illustration and narrative initials. Typically the tables are presented in micro-architectural frames, sometimes complete with faux marble or porphyry columns under elaborate arched pediments.

Perhaps the most well-known canon table in the British Library is also the earliest: a sophisticated 6th- or 7th-century example in Greek made in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). These canons are now fragmentary, comprising only two leaves that were added to a 12th-century manuscript of the Gospels in Greek. The fragments give a glimpse of what must have been a truly splendid book, as they are written on gold, and embellished with bust portraits above the arches.

The Golden Canon tables, written on gold parchment with rich decoration
The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th-7th century: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r

In an elegant 9th-century Latin example the decoration is enhanced by the presence of an archer who prepares to shoot an arrow across the pediment at another man, who is preparing to launch his spear.

Canon table 2, decorated with an archer and spear-thrower
The Eller Gospels, canon table 2, with an archer and spear-thrower, northeastern France, 2nd quarter of the 9th century: Harley MS 2826, f. 5r

In a later, 12th-century Latin version of the tables from the Benedictine abbey of St Pierre in Préaux in Normandy, the columns feature lush foliage topped by elaborated capitals, with twisted winged creatures embedded in the design. The first canon is set out as seven groups of five passages identified by Roman numerals (the Ammonian section references), divided by horizontal lines and presented in four columns. Each column is headed by the name of the relevant Evangelist (Math[eu]s), Marcus, Lucas and Joh[ann]es). At top, the Abbey’s patron saint St Peter sits above the central column, identified by the key held in his right hand. This attribute was derived from Christ’s statement that ‘That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church . . . And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 16:18-19). 

The Préaux Gospels, canon table 1, with St Peter
The Préaux Gospels, canon table 1, with St Peter, northwestern France, 1st quarter of the 12th century: Add MS 11850, f. 10r

The other nine canons all include a central nimbed figure holding a gold book, presumably representing an Evangelist and the Gospels themselves, which are to come following the elegant correlation of their contents.

The Préaux Gospels, canon table 6, with a nimbed figure
The Préaux Gospels, canon table 6, with a nimbed figure, northwestern France, 1st quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 11850, f. 14r

To find out more, you can also explore our articles on Manuscripts of the Christian Bible, Illuminated Byzantine Gospel-books, and Biblical Illumination, as well as our earlier blogpost on the Golden Canon Tables.

Kathleen Doyle

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19 January 2021

Merovingian illumination in a manuscript of Gregory's Moralia

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The British Library holds one of the earliest surviving copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s (d. 604) Moralia in Job, a highly influential commentary on the Old Testament book of Job. It was made only about a century after St Gregory’s death, possibly in Laon during a period of Merovingian rule. The Merovingians were a dynasty that ruled over the Franks in the territory similar to Roman Gaul from the time of Merovech (or Merovich), by tradition the father of Childeric I (d. 481) and grandfather of Clovis I (d. 511).

A detail view of an initial ‘I’ in the shape of a fish
Initial ‘I’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 5v (detail)
Full page of text with an initial ‘I’ in the shape of a fish
Full page with an initial ‘I’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 5v

The decoration of Merovingian manuscripts is distinctive. It features a limited palette of brown, green and yellow, and the use of zoomorphic initials (as the name suggests, where animals form all or part of the letter). Some letters, such as ‘I’ are formed of just one animal, like the fish of ‘I’(nter) (among) at the beginning of the first book, while other letters are more composite. The beginning of the third book of the commentary is a letter ‘B’ for Beatus Iob (blessed Job), made up of a fish and two birds.

A detail of an initial 'B' in the form of two birds and a fish
Initial ‘B’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 55v (detail)
A full page of text with an initial 'B' in the form of two birds and a fish
Full page with an initial ‘B’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 55v

Another characteristic feature of these manuscripts is the display script – enlarged coloured letters typically used to delineate important divisions, such as the beginning of new sections of text. The first book of the text begins with a heading ‘In expositione Beati Iob’ (An Exposition of the Blessed Job). Similarly, the beginning of the third book (incipit liber [tertius]) is announced in capital letters of alternating colours.

Detail of an uncoloured initial ‘Q’ in the form of two birds and a fish
Initial ‘Q’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 78v (detail)
Full page with an uncoloured initial ‘Q’ in the form of two birds and a fish
Full page with an initial ‘Q’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 78v

Something of the way in which these manuscripts were made is revealed by the letter and display script at the beginning of the fourth book: ‘Q’(ui) (who), formed of two facing birds and a fish, and ‘Incipit liber quartus’ (beginning of the fourth book). Both are carefully drawn in ink but left without any added colours. This suggests that the writing and drawing were done first and the colours were added later, but in this case not completed.

You can read more about Gregory the Great in our article on the works of the Church Fathers, and find out more about Merovingian art in our article on French manuscript illumination, both on the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

Kathleen Doyle
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23 November 2020

The Polonsky project's two year anniversary

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Today is the two year anniversary of our launch of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200, in which we collaborated with the Bibliothèque nationale to digitise and make available 800 medieval French and English manuscripts from our two collections.

We have two websites: one, hosted by the Bibliothèque nationale, in which you can view all 800 manuscripts in an International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) viewer, and a curated website hosted by the British Library on which you can read articles, view individual manuscript descriptions and watch videos and animations. Both are bilingual, in English and French.

A phoenix rising from the flames
A phoenix rising from the flames: Harley MS 4751

We recently participated in an online seminar sponsored by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) that celebrated five digitisation projects sponsored by the Polonsky Foundation, some completed and others ongoing. The seminar was oversubscribed, so the presentations were recorded and may be watched here:

(Note: videos of the six presentations will automatically play in sequence, one after the other. Alternatively, you can click the 'playlist' button near the top right to select individual videos to play).

The Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website has been very well received, with over 150,000 individual users from all over the world. The majority of those are from the UK and the US, but there are thousands of viewers from France, Canada, Australia, Italy, Brazil, the Philippines, Spain and Italy making up the top ten countries by use.

So far, the most popular article is on how to make a medieval manuscript, in which you can watch seven videos on different aspects of manuscript production, such as parchment preparation, ink, pigments and applying gold leaf. Viewers spend an average of eleven minutes on this article. Other popular articles are featured in the Science and Nature theme, including those on mathematics, medicine, bestiaries and calendars. Articles discussing the use of Latin, Anglo-Norman French and Old English are also popular.

If you haven’t yet checked it out, or if you are amongst the 30% returning users, do explore the website. You may be interested in watching Professor Nick Vincent discussing law-making in early medieval England or Professor Julia Crick discussing manuscript production after the Norman Conquest. Or perhaps you'll enjoy the animated features on the whale and the crane from the bestiary. The project book has just been reprinted, too, if you would like to buy a copy.

You can read about the work of the Polonsky Foundation on their newly launched website, including about the England and France project.

Kathleen Doyle

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06 October 2020

Early medieval interlace – a distinctive or ubiquitous feature?

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Regular readers of this blog are likely familiar with splendid examples of ‘Insular’ art — the art of the islands of Britain and Ireland from the 7th to 9th centuries. The iconic Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most well-known, but you can also admire several examples on the webspace for the recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

Manuscript page in two columns with large decorated initial A in black, red, and green ink.
Decorated initial ‘A’ at the beginning of Book 3 of Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum; Southern England (Canterbury?), c. 800-850; Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 60v.

As is clear from this initial from the Tiberius Bede, one of the main decorative elements of Insular art is the incorporation of delicately drawn interlacing knotwork designs. The inside of the letter is decorated with interlacing ribbons on a black ink background. The tongue of the beast’s head at the top of the letter also interweaves with itself. Patterns like this are still closely associated with Irish, Scottish, and Welsh cultural identity, often called ‘Celtic knotwork’.

Intricate interlace designs are also an important element of the style of manuscript art known as ‘Franco-Saxon’. ‘Franco’ refers to Francia (the kingdom of the Franks), where this style originated. The ‘Saxon’ part of the term refers to the incorporation of Insular decorative motifs (when this term was coined in the late 19th century Insular art was often called ‘Hiberno-Saxon’). In general, the Franco-Saxon style is characterised by a fusion of motifs based on Insular models and features of layout, decoration, and script of the Carolingian manuscript tradition. The Carolingian dynasty seized control over the area roughly corresponding to modern-day France from 751, expanded the kingdom, and ruled (intermittently) until 987.

Interlace is usually described as one of the most defining Insular components of the Franco-Saxon style. Interlace decoration has also been seen as evidence of the spread of this style to the scriptorium of Saint-Martin of Tours during the second half of the 9th century. The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Martin of Tours was one of the most influential centres of manuscript production in the Carolingian empire in the early decades of the century. However, in 853 Tours was attacked by one of the Norse war bands who carried out raids along the rivers of France. To help restore the Abbey’s destroyed library, books from other Carolingian centres were sent to the monks of Tours. We know that at least one of those manuscripts was a Franco-Saxon manuscript from Saint-Amand, one of the main centres of the Franco-Saxon style.

Opening page of the Gospel of Matthew, with a large ligature LI in gold and colours and the rest of the text written in gold.
Decorated ligature ‘LI’, (Liber), beginning of the Gospel of Matthew; Tours, c. 850-900; Add MS 11849, f. 27r.

Consequently, the decoration in manuscripts made at Tours in the decades after the attack of 853 has been described as incorporating the Franco-Saxon style into the diverse and well-developed Tours style. This Gospel book from Tours, digitised as part of the Polonsky project (Add MS 11849), is one example of this. The golden ribbons that both form the outline of the ligature ‘LI’ (Liber) (book) as well as interlaced designs within the letter and at their terminals, have been compared to decorated initials in well-known Franco-Saxon manuscripts.

But there is a problem with using the presence of interlace as a distinguishing feature of an early medieval style. When you start to look at early medieval manuscripts from across northern Europe, you quickly notice that interlacing knotwork decoration is an omnipresent decorative element.

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a initial D in red and brown ink.
Detail of decorated initial ’D’ (Dixit), Cassiodorus, Expositio psalmorum; Southern Netherlands, Stavelot (now in Belgium), c. 850-875; Add MS 16962, f. 55v.

For example, in the area that is now Belgium and the Southern Netherlands, interlace in a slightly different variant was also common during this period. Here it is incorporated within the stem of the initial ‘D’ as well as in a design within the letter, in red and brown ink.

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a large initial D with interlace and beasts’ head decoration with details in green.
Detail of decorated initial ‘D’ (Disciplina), Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae; Western France, c. 800-900; Harley MS 2686, f. 5r.

Similarly, interlace is also present in contemporary manuscripts that were most likely made in Brittany, which was never incorporated fully into the Carolingian empire. Perhaps that is why manuscript art from this area often continued to resemble Frankish manuscripts created before the spread of Carolingian influence (i.e. before c. 750).

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a large initial D in brown ink with some black or dark blue details.
Detail of decorated initial ‘D’ (Dominus) (Lord), at beginning of Liber Scintillarum (Book of Sparks) by the so-called Defensor of Ligugé; Northern Italy, c. 775-825; Cotton MS Nero A II, f. 45r.

Further south, in Northern Italy, early medieval manuscripts also feature interlace in their decorated initials. This is apparent in a late 8th-early 9th manuscript (now Cotton MS Nero A II), which has a large initial ‘D’, with its ascender swooping to the left. The letter incorporates knotwork patterns within its rounded bowl, while another interlace design of thicker ribbons continues and reaches inside the bowl.

Insular artists, responsible for creations like the Lindisfarne Gospels, undeniably mastered the basic principles of interlacing knotwork and created incredibly intricate and imaginative designs. As a type of pattern in itself, however, it was such a ubiquitous feature of early medieval European art that its presence in a manuscript does not necessarily indicate specifically Insular influence.

Emilia Henderson

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03 September 2020

The Holy Kinship

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The brief references to the family of the Virgin Mary and Christ in the Bible inspired the development of extra-biblical traditions that were popular in the Middle Ages. In his account of the birth of the Virgin Mary in The Golden Legend, the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine described the Virgin’s immediate family in some detail, in relationships that have come to be known as the Holy Kinship.

One of the most intriguing and rare depictions of these connections occurs in the extensive prefatory material to the Queen Mary Psalter (Royal MS 2 B VII). In a recent study, only four other Gothic manuscript images of the Kinship were identified (Stanton 1996). This lavish manuscript was made probably in London in the first quarter of the 14th century, and illustrated by one very talented artist.

A page from the Queen Mary Psalter, featuring an illustration of the Holy Kinship on multiple registers.
The Holy Kinship in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

According to Voragine’s account, the Virgin Mary’s mother, St Anne, had three husbands, Joachim, Cleophas and Salome, and had a daughter with each of them, all called Mary. In the Psalter, Anne with each of her husbands appears in the lowest register of the image.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing St Anne and her husbands.
Detail of St Anne and her husbands, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

Directly above are the daughters of each marriage together with their husbands, in this case identified with their names written in the bar below that separates the two registers. Here St Joseph and the Virgin Mary are on the left, Alphaeus and the second daughter Mary (known as Mary Cleophas) in the centre, and Zebedee and the third Mary (known as Mary Salome) are the right.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing the daughters of St Anne and their husbands.
Detail of the daughters of St Anne and their husbands, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

The figures in the top two registers are the sons of these unions. In the second, the Virgin is shown again, holding the Christ Child on her lap. Next to them is St James the Less, one of the four sons of Mary Cleophas, and next to him St James the Great, the son of Mary Salome.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing the figures of the Virgin and Child, St James the Less and St James the Great.
Detail of the Virgin and Child, St James the Less and St James the Great, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

In the top register Christ appears on his own to the left, here in Majesty, holding a globe of the world. Next to him are Sts Simon and Jude, two further sons of Mary Cleophas who became apostles, and St John the Evangelist, the other son of Mary Salome.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing the figures of Christ and Sts Simon, Jude, and John the Evangelist.
Detail of Christ, Sts Simon, Jude, and John the Evangelist, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

The caption written in Anglo-Norman French below confirms the relationships:

Seint anne fu mariez a iii mariz a Joachim a Cleophe a Salomee. E ele enfaunta les iii maries. Joseph out la p[ri]mère. Alpheus la ii Zebedeus la iii. La p[ri]mère marie aporta ih[esu] c[ri]st. La secu[n]de porta seint Jake alphei e sent symo[n]. e seint Jude la iii porta seint Jake de galice Zebedeie seint Johan evvangeliste.

Saint Anne was married to three husbands: to Joachim, to Cleophas and to Salome. And she bore children, the three Marys. Joseph married the first [Mary], Alpheus the second, Zebedee the third. The first Mary carried Jesus Christ. The second carried St James the son of Alphaeus [the Less] and St Simon and St Jude. The third carried St James of Galicia [the Great] by Zebedee and St John the Evangelist.

(Transcription and translation by Chantry Westwell)

This French summary is similar to a Latin poem given in the Golden Legend:

Anna solet dici tres concepisse Marias,
Quas genuere viri Joachim, Cleophas, Salomeque.
Has duxere viri Joseph, Alpheus, Zebedeus.
Prima parit Christum, Jacobum secunda minorem,
Et Joseph justum peperit cum Simone Judam,
Tertia majorem Jacobum volucremque Johannem.

Anna is usually said to have conceived three Marys,
Whom her husbands Joachim, Cleophas, and Salome begot.
These [Marys] the men Joseph, Alpheus, and Zebedee took in marriage.
The first bore Christ; the second bore James the Less,
Joseph the Just, with Simon [and] Jude;
The third, James the Greater and the winged John.

(Translation by Ryan 1993, II, chapter 131, p. 150)

An opening from the Queen Mary Psalter, featuring illustrations of the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship.
The Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinsip miniature, the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, ff. 67v-68r

This diagrammatic presentation emphasises the importance of the Virgin and Christ by picturing each twice. Perhaps this also relates to the image on the facing page, which is a large Tree of Jesse. The four registers of the Holy Kinship correspond with the levels of the Tree. At the bottom the recumbent Jesse, the ancestor of David, is at the same level as Anne, the ancestor of the Virgin. Unlike most representations of the Tree of Jesse, this one doesn’t feature the Virgin or Christ who appear instead in the Kinship diagram.

A page from a 12th-century English miscellany, featuring he earliest known account of the Holy Kinship written in Old English.
The earliest known Old English account of the Holy Kinship: Cotton MS Vespasian D XIV, f. 157v

The text of the Golden Legend as it relates to the Holy Kinship is derived from earlier commentaries. The earliest known account in Old English is included in a 12th-century copy, now Cotton MS Vespasian D XIV:

Anna 7 Emeria wæron gesustre. Of Emeria wæs geboren Elisabeth, Johannes moder þæs fulhteres. Of Anna wæs geboren Maria Cr[is]tes moder. 7 þa þa hire were Joachim wæs forðfaren, þa genam Anna æfter Moyses æ oðerne were, þe wæs genæmd Cleophas. Of þan heo hæfde an oðre dohter, seo wæs eac genæmd Maria æfter þære ærre dohter, þas man cleopeð Maria Cleophe for heo wæs his dohter. Ða beweddede Cleophas Iosephe his broðre Marian þæs hælendes moder þe wæs his steopdohter. 7 his age ne dohter Mariæn he geaf Alpheon, of þære wæs geboren Jacob se læsse, 7 se oðer Joseph. Ðes Jacob wæs geclypod Jacobus Alphei for he wæs Alphees sune. Ðaget æfter Cleophas deaðe Anna æft[er] þære lage genam þone þridde were, þan wæs to name Salomas, of him heo hæfde þa þridde dohter, 7 þa heo genæmden eac Marien, for þære deorewurðnysse of þære forme dohter, 7 forþan þe se ængel brohte þone name. Seo wæs bewedded Zebedeo, of þære wæron geborene Jacob se mycele, 7 Joh[ann]es se godspellere. Maria wæs læsse Jacobes moder, 7 Maria wæs mare Jacobes moder 7 Joh[ann]es þæs gospelleres, 7 Maria seo Magdalenissce sohton urne Drihten mid smerigeles inne his þruge þa þa he bebyriged wæs.

Anna and Emeria were sisters. Of Emeria was born Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Of Anna was born Mary, mother of Christ. And when her husband Joachim had passed on, then Anna according to the law of Moses, took another husband, who was named Cleophas. From him she had another daughter, who was also named Mary after the older daughter, whom her husband called Mary Cleophas because she was his daughter. Then Cleophas married Mary, mother of the Saviour, who was his step-daughter, to his brother Joseph. And he gave his own daughter Mary to Alpheus, from whom was born James the Less, and another Joseph. This James was called James Alpheus, because he was Alpheus’ son. After the death of Cleophas, Anne following the law took a third husband, who was named Salome, from whom she had a third daughter, and she was also named Mary, because of the preciousness of her first daughter, and because an angel brought her the name. She was married to Zebedee, from whom were born James the Great and John the Evangelist. Mary was the mother of James the Less, and Mary was the mother of James the Greater and John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene sought our Lord with ointment inside his tomb when he had been buried.

(Transcription and translation by Calum Cockburn)

A page from a 12th-century commentary, featuring marginal drawings of three pairs of busts of the Holy Kinship.
Busts of the Holy Kinship, Arundel MS 36, f. 13r

The earliest English depiction of the Kinship has been identified by Park and Naydenova-Slade as marginal drawings in a 12th-century commentary from Kirkham Priory in Yorkshire, now Arundel MS 36. This manuscript was digitised as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 project, available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, and on the Bibliothèque nationale de France project website.

Here the images are limited to busts of three couples, each labelled with their names below: at the top, Joachim and St Anne, in the centre, St Joseph and the Virgin with the dove of the Holy Spirit, and at the bottom, Alpheus and Mary Cleophas. The images appear in the margins of a prologue to the following text entitled De Nativitate Sanctae Mariae. This letter or prologue does not describe the Holy Kinship. Instead, Park and Naydenova-Slade suggest that its inclusion is a visual commentary on a passage in the Nativitate on the children of St Joseph.

Kathleen Doyle

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Further reading

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. by William Granger Ryan, 2 vols (Princeton: University Press, 1993), II, chapter 131.

Anne Rudloff Stanton, 'La Genealogye Comence: Kinship and Difference in the Queen Mary Psalter', Studies in Iconography, 17 (1996), 177-214.

David Park and Mellie Naydenova-Slade, ‘The earliest Holy Kinship image, the Salomite controversy, and a little-known centre of Learning in northern England in the twelfth century’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 71 (2008), 95-119.

 

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21 August 2020

Online resources for medieval manuscripts

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In November 2018, we launched The Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 Project. This ground-breaking collaboration between the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France digitised a total of 800 medieval manuscripts from our two collections. The British Library’s curated website, Medieval England and France, 700–1200 now includes its own downloadable list of all 400 British Library manuscripts that were featured in the project, in spreadsheet format and as a PDF. This list can be accessed from the website’s About page.

An author portrait of St Dunstan writing at a desk, holding a quill pen and knife, with a background made of gold leaf
An author portrait of St Dunstan: Royal MS 10 A XIII/1, f. 2v

The bilingual site (available in both English and French) also offers our readers a wealth of resources on the early medieval period, including:

  • Six broad themes covering art, history, science, religion, making manuscripts, and medieval manuscript collections today.
  • 30 articles on a variety of subjects, from medieval science and maths to early medical knowledge, bindings, and monastic libraries.
  • 148 collection items, providing short introductions to some of the most stunning manuscripts digitised during the project.
  • Ten people pages, focusing on a selection of the major figures and authors active in England and France during the Middle Ages, from Bede and Anselm of Canterbury, to Emma of Normandy and William of Malmesbury.
  • A video series that explores all the steps needed to make a manuscript, narrated by Patricia Lovett MBE, as well as two additional videos discussing scribal culture and the role of law in early medieval England, featuring Professors Julia Crick and Nick Vincent.
  • Two animations based on accounts of the crane and the whale from an early medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751).
  • A glossary that defines important terms relating to medieval culture and art.
  • An overview of the project itself and the collaboration between the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France.
A detail from a medieval collection of texts on computus and astronomy, featuring diagrams that demonstrate the technique of finger-counting
Diagrams used to demonstrate the technique of finger-counting: Egerton MS 3314, f. 73r

We hope you enjoy exploring the Medieval England and France 800-1200 site and all the manuscripts digitised in the project!


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07 July 2020

The 800th anniversary of the translation of Thomas Becket

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On 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. The event shocked Christendom, and Becket was canonised as a martyr just three years later. On this day 800 years ago his body was translated (moved) from the crypt in Canterbury Cathedral to a new shrine in the Trinity Chapel.

Medieval manuscript illustrated with the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket
The earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket: Cotton MS Claudius B ii, f. 341r

Becket’s murder was recorded in a letter written by John of Salisbury (d. 1180), who was an eyewitness to the event. A copy of this letter is included in an early collection of letters assembled by Alan, the prior of the Cathedral from 1179 –1186 and later abbot of Tewkesbury (d. 1202), where it is illustrated by the earliest known representation of the murder (Cotton MS Claudius B ii).

Becket rose from relatively humble beginnings as the son of a London merchant to serve as chancellor to Henry II (r. 1154–89) from 1154, before becoming archbishop in 1162. Thereafter, he clashed with the King in defence of the autonomy of the Church. Thomas fled into exile in France in 1164, returning to England in early December 1170. Upon his return, tensions with the King still were unresolved, and a few weeks later, four knights left Henry’s court in Normandy and forced themselves into the Archbishop’s presence.

Detail of the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket
Detail of the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket: Cotton MS Claudius B ii, f. 341r

The images included in this manuscript narrate the sequence of events. In the upper register the Archbishop is at table when a messenger announces the arrival of the four knights, outside the door to the right. Below, having taken up arms, the knights enter the cathedral and attack Becket while he is kneeling before an altar. The knight wielding the sword may be Reginald Fitzurse, if the small animal head on his shield can be identified as a bear (ursus is ‘bear’ in Latin). To the right are four prostrated figures who venerate St Thomas at his tomb, perhaps representing the later penitence of the knights.

Calendar entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’ in the Luttrell Psalter
Calendar entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’ in the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 7r

In many English medieval calendars this translation date is included as a feast day. For example, the Luttrell Psalter made for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell features an entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’. This entry escaped later censorship following the November 1538 Proclamation issued jointly by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell by which Becket was characterised as a ‘rebel and traitor to his prince’ rather than a saint, and accordingly that ‘his name, shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphons, collects, and prayers in his name read, but rased and put out of all the books.’ The date of Becket’s martyrdom on 29 December in the Luttrell Psalter, however, was struck out by a single, rather discreet, line.

Calendar entry for ‘St Thomas, archbishop and martyr’ struck out in the Luttrell Psalter
Calendar entry for ‘St Thomas, archbishop and martyr’ struck out in the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 12v

Another calendar in which the translation survives on 7 July is an early 15th-century example from the diocese of Norwich. Here the image is of Becket as a young man in a bishop’s mitre, holding a sword representing the weapon of his martyrdom together with a cross-topped staff.

 Represtation of St Thomas Becket in a calendar
Representation of St Thomas Becket from a folding calendar: Egerton MS 2724, f. 1r

To discover more about Thomas Becket, you can read our earlier blogposts about Becket’s translation, Becket's martyrdom and erasing references to Becket in manuscripts. The letter collection (Cotton MS Claudius B ii) was digitised thanks to funding from The Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 project, and you can view the manuscript's collection item page or read more about medieval saints in manuscripts on the project website.

Kathleen Doyle

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29 February 2020

10 years of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog

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This month is an exciting anniversary for us: it has been ten years since the British Library's award-winning Medieval Manuscripts Blog began back in February 2010. It’s a decade that has seen large-scale digitisation, blockbuster exhibitions, exciting acquisitions and fascinating discoveries, and the Blog has been our main way of letting you know about them all. We aim to be inspiring, informative and amusing and above all to share with you the manuscripts love. To celebrate our big anniversary, join us in looking back at some of the Blog's highlights over the years.

10. Launch of The Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project

Medieval manuscript miniature of the Adoration of the Magi
The Adoration of the Magi from an illuminated Psalter, London, 1220s: Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8v

Originally started to promote the Library’s Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, the Blog announced the launch of the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site back in September 2010. Over 2,900 digitised manuscripts later, we’re still blogging to keep you updated about our digitisation projects. One of the most ambitious of these was the Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project, a collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in which we digitised 400 manuscripts, produced two new bilingual websites and published an accompanying book. Announcing the project launch was one of our proudest moments.

9. The voices of ancient women

Papyrus with a drawing of a girl
A girl serving drinks at a table, from an illustrated copy of the Life of Secundus, the Silent Philosopher: Egypt, 6th century, Papyrus 113 (15c)

We may be called the Medieval Manuscripts Blog, but we’re actually the section for Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts. Our blogposts about the Library’s ancient collections are ever-popular, and one of the big hits of 2018 was our post commemorating International Women’s Day, exploring fascinating insights into the lives of women in Roman Egypt from some of our ancient Greek papyri.

8. The first voyage of Codex Amiatinus

The Codex Amiatinus
Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

The Blog provides us with a great platform for promoting exhibitions such as Royal Manuscripts (2011–12), Magna Carta (2015), Harry Potter (2017–18), and Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (2018-19). We know that our readers loved our series of blogposts accompanying the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. One of the most popular announced that the oldest surviving, complete Latin Bible in the world, Codex Amiatinus, was coming on loan to the British Library. It was the first time that this incredible manuscript, made at the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716, had returned to the British Isles in over 1300 years.

7. Loch Ness Monster found at the British Library

A photoshopped image of a medieval manuscript with a picture of the Loch Ness monster capsizing a boat with a monk looking on
An artist's reconstruction of the Loch Ness Monster (Sarah J Biggs, 2013)

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is known for making some very important discoveries on 1st April each year. These completely serious and factual discoveries are some of the Blog's perennial favourites. For example, who could forget the time we used specialist imaging to uncover the earliest known picture of the Loch Ness Monster?

6. Unicorn cookbook found at the British Library

A photoshopped image of a medieval manuscript with a picture of a man cooking a unicorn on a grill
Detail of a unicorn on the grill in the Unicorn Cookbook

By complete coincidence, 1st April was also the date on which we made another of our very exciting discoveries: the long-lost unicorn cookbook. Every year this blogpost receives thousands of page-views from people wanting to learn how medieval cooks prepared this rare delicacy.

5. Medieval Manuscripts at the UK Blog Awards

A photo of Julian and Sarah at the Blog Awards
Julian and Sarah triumphant at the UK Blog Awards

One special highlight was when we were named Arts and Culture Blog of the Year in the inaugural UK Blog Awards in 2014. It was a tremendous honour and we were thrilled to bits!

4. White gloves or not white gloves

A photo of a hand wearing white gloves

We also use the Blog to share useful information about accessing and caring for our collections. One of our most popular blogposts explains our policy of not wearing gloves to handle manuscripts. There is a widespread view, stemming from films and television, that white gloves should be worn for handling old books. But recent scientific advice suggests that wearing gloves can do more harm than good.

3. Hwæt! Beowulf online

The opening words of the Beowulf manuscript
The opening words of Beowulf, beginning "Hwæt" ("Listen!"): London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r

On the Blog we provide regular updates on which manuscripts are available to view online. It’s especially exciting when our favourites go online, and over the years we have announced the digitisation of star manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Old English Hexateuch, Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen, the Luttrell Psalter and more. But the announcement that received the greatest attention was the 2013 digitisation of the Beowulf manuscript, the most famous poem in the Old English language.

2. St Cuthbert Gospel saved for the nation

The front cover of the Cuthbert gospel, featuring tooled leather with interlace and plant designs
The front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, Wearmouth-Jarrow, late 7th century: Add MS 89000

The Blog is also where we announce new acquisitions. The most thrilling of these was when we acquired the St Cuthbert Gospel following the most successful fundraising campaign in the Library's history. Created in the early 8th century in the North-East of England and placed in St Cuthbert's coffin in Durham Cathedral, this is the earliest intact European book. Since 2010 we’ve also welcomed into the collection treasures such as the Mostyn Psalter-Hours, the Southwark Hours, the Percy Hours and a leaf from an Anglo-Saxon benedictional.

1. Knight v Snail

Medieval manuscript depiction of a knight fighting a snail
Knight v Snail in the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324: Add MS 49622, f. 193v

Our number one is our most viewed blogpost of all time: the phenomenally popular Knight v Snail. In 2013, a trip to the manuscripts store room to look at some medieval genealogical rolls resulted in a blogpost about the ultimate adversaries of the medieval margins. Why do knights fight snails in medieval manuscripts? No one knows for sure but, as our viewers have demonstrated, it certainly makes for great entertainment.

There are so many blogposts we haven't been able to mention here — Lolcats of the Middle Ages, anyone? Crisp as a poppadom, Shot through the heart and you're to blame, A medieval rainbow, New regulations for consulting manuscripts, Help us decipher this inscription — suffice to say, this is our 1,299th blogpost, and in the last 10 years the Blog has attracted over 5.25 million views from almost 200 countries ... more than enough to pass a rainy day.

Thank you so much to our talented writers and loyal readers — you’re all brilliant. Editing the blog is such a wonderful experience and we're incredibly grateful to everyone who has made it possible. Here’s to the next ten years!

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