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55 posts categorized "Polonsky"

20 April 2021

‘Frenssh’ as it was ‘spak’ in medieval England

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In the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s prioress is accused of speaking an inferior version of French learned in Stratford rather than in Paris:

Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.

(And she spoke French fluently and elegantly,
After the school of Stratford-at-Bow,
For French of Paris was to her unknown.)

Illustration of an elegantly dressed nun
An elegantly dressed nun playing a musical instrument in the Queen Mary Psalter, London or East Anglia, 1310–1320: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 177r

In the same vein, there are examples of French medieval commentators criticising the way French was spoken in England as it evolved from being the mother tongue of royalty and the nobles who crossed the Channel after the Norman Conquest to being an acquired status symbol, as it was for Chaucer’s prioress. A separate dialect known as Anglo-Norman diverged from the French used in mainland France during this period. Spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary were influenced by the Norman French spoken by William the Conqueror and his followers, and by the existing vernacular, Old English, still used by much of the local population.

French was one of the languages of both spoken and written communication in England for an extended period from 1066 onwards and it was still used in some legal contexts up to the end of the 17th century. The fact that French was widely used is evident in the quantity of word-pairs in modern English – where two words exist with same meaning, one derived from an Old English root word and the other from a French one (e.g., thoughtful/pensive; kingdom/realm; enough/sufficient, walk/march). Such examples show how large numbers of French words were adopted during the Middle Ages, hugely enriching the vocabulary of English and changing the language fundamentally.

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts in Anglo-Norman French contains two texts, the Computus and the Bestiary adapted from Latin works by the earliest named French author, Philippe de Thaon, in the 12th century. The latter was dedicated to Adeliza of Louvain (d. 1151), wife of King Henry I of England. On line 4 of the page pictured below de Thaon confirms that he has written en franceise raisun (in the French language).

A text page from Philippe de Thaon’s Comput in Latin and French
A page from Philippe de Thaon’s Comput with text in Latin and French, England, 1100-1150: Cotton MS Nero A V, f. 41v

During the reign of Henry II (r. 1154–1189) and Eleanor of Aquitaine, literature in French flourished at the English royal court, though surviving manuscripts from this period contain mostly devotional texts, such as the Psalter in French verse below. Latin remained an important written language, particularly in the Church, and so the corresponding text in Latin is written in red in the margins.

A text page from a Psalter in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse
A Psalter in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse, England or France, 1175-1225: Harley MS 4070, f. 2r. In the upper margin someone has added ‘Cest sauter en fraunceys est’ (This Psalter is in French)

Written legends, chronicles and other literary texts in Anglo Norman survive in greater numbers from the 13th century onwards, when romances surrounding heroes like King Arthur were popular. It is not always possible to establish if surviving manuscripts were produced in England or in Normandy, as many nobles and English royalty held territory on both sides of the channel.

Guy of Warwick, a now almost forgotten hero but quite the superstar in medieval England, is the subject of an early written romance in Anglo-Norman pictured below. Beginning life as a humble page to the Earl of Warwick, Guy becomes a knight and performs numerous chivalric deeds throughout Europe and the East in order to win the hand of the earl’s daughter, his beloved Felice. But he has no sooner married than he abandons his wife and renounces the wealth and power he has gained to become a hermit, devoting his life to God.

The opening page of the Anglo-Norman romance, Gui de Warwik
The opening page of the Anglo-Norman romance, Gui de Warwik, England or France, 1225-50: Add MS 38662, f. 1r

Though the 13th-century text above is not illustrated, an episode from Guy’s legend is pictured in the lower margins of the Taymouth Hours, which includes some prayers in Anglo-Norman French. Across several pages are a series of graphic, comic-strip style illustrations of one of Guy’s many swashbuckling adventures. Fighting on the side of the Emperor of Constantinople, he meets a lion that is being pursued by a ferocious dragon. Taking up his sword, he kills the dragon with one blow, and so the lion becomes his faithful follower, never leaving his side and even lying at the foot of his bed each night. The story must have been familiar enough to medieval audiences to require little explanation as only the caption, ‘Gwi de Warwik’, accompanies the action (beneath the images on ff. 14r and v). The spelling ‘Gwi’ instead of French Gui (for Guy) features the English letter ‘w’, not used in French.

A collage of scenes from the story of Guy of Warwick and the lion from the Taymouth Hours
Scenes from the story of Guy of Warwick and the lion, the Taymouth Hours, ?London, mid-14th century: Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 12v-14v. Guy riding on his white horse (f. 12v) sees the dragon attacking the lion (f. 13r); the lion watches (f. 13v) as Guy slays the dragon with his lance (f. 14r); and the lion follows Guy as he rides away (f. 14v).

Tales of the early kings of Britain were also popular among French-speaking nobility and royalty in both England and France, judged by the manuscripts that survive. An illustrated copy of the Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman verse chronicle of Britain that includes legendary characters like King Arthur and Merlin, survives from the mid-14th century. At the end is an update to the reign of Edward III (r. 1327-77), containing the following words:

‘Apres li regne sun fiz qe or est Ke dieu li garde se il plest Edward le noble conqueror ki fort et pruz est’
(After him [Edward II] reigned his son - may God keep him if he pleases - Edward the noble conqueror who is strong and brave).

Here the scribe uses ‘ke’ alternating with ‘qe’ for the French que (that), and variant spellings, including ‘sun’ for French son (his) and ‘pruz’ for preux (brave), which provide evidence that vowels were pronounced differently in Anglo-Norman and Continental French by this time.

The coronation of King Arthur from the Roman de Brut
The coronation of King Arthur, Roman de Brut, England, 1338-40: Egerton MS 3028, f. 37r

As English regained its position as the dominant written language in England, literature in French was replaced by the works of authors like Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate who wrote in Middle English. Nevertheless, French continued to be used in some contexts including the law courts for a considerable period.

A number of 12th-century manuscripts containing Anglo-Norman French were digitised as part of the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project. You can read more about the use of French on both sides of the Channel before 1200 in our article on the Polonsky project site.

Chantry Westwell

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13 April 2021

Decorating the Decretum

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Church law, known as canon law (from the Greek word kanon, meaning ‘rule’), sets out the rules governing Church organization and Christian practice. In the early Christian period different types of rules, such as the decisions of councils, papal letters and episcopal statutes were circulated separately. But in the middle of the 12th century, a legal scholar called Gratian sought to systematise and harmonise these decisions by bringing them together in one volume. His work, generally known as the Decretum Gratiani sive Concordantia Discordantium Canonum (the Decretals of Gratian or concordance of discordant canons), became the first general textbook of canon law. The Decretum was the first of six volumes of canon law produced between the 12th and 14th centuries, and formed the main basis of Church law until the early 20th century.

The work quickly became a fundamental textbook for students and teachers of law, and several hundred medieval copies of the Decretum survive today. The text itself features case studies relating to a wide range of topics, including ecclesiastical administration, marriage and the Sacraments. These cases (or causae) describe various situations and develop questions from them.

Manuscript illustration of a pope with two litigant bishops and their advisers, from a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
A pope acting as a judge with two litigant bishops and their advisers, from a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, France, 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 10 D VIII, f. 133v (detail)

Very often, Gratian’s text is accompanied by later commentaries, used to interpret aspects of the cases discussed in the main text. These glossed copies typically feature a distinctive page layout in which Gratian’s text appears in the centre of the page, with the outer and lower margins occupied by the commentary.

In illuminated copies, decoration assists in distinguishing various sections of the text by illustrating each case with a decorated or historiated initial. For example, in an elaborate copy made in Barcelona, a case (causa 14) concerning the receipt of funds by clerics begins with an image of the pope sitting with an open book instructing tonsured men, while money changes hands to the left. In this copy each of the six questions also begins with a large initial in gold that corresponds to one in the surrounding gloss indicating the start of the commentary on that question.

A text page with a miniature of a pope, clerics, and laymen with a money bag, from the beginning of Causa 14 in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
A text page with a miniature of a pope, clerics, and laymen with a money bag, from the beginning of Causa 14 in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, Barcelona, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century: Add MS 15274, f. 201v

Sometimes the subjects of the initials do not relate to the text directly. The beginning of Part I of the Decretum in this French copy probably made in Sens features a Channel-style initial with naked men and lions or dogs clambering amongst the structure of the letter ‘H’(umanum) (human). In these cases, the initials may have served primarily to help a reader find and remember the place of relevant cases or other divisions more quickly, instead of illustrating them. 

Full page with an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H', in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
Full page with an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H', in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, , probably Sens, last quarter of the 12th century: Arundel MS 490, f. 7r
An illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H' with naked men and lions or dogs, in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
Detail of an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H' with naked men and lions or dogs, in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, probably Sens, last quarter of the 12th century: Arundel MS 490, f. 7r

In this way, medieval artists were able to make these legal manuscripts beautiful as well as useful. If you would like to find out more about medieval legal texts, take a look at our article on Legal manuscripts in England and France.

Kathleen Doyle

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22 March 2021

The colour purple

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Purple is a colour replete with imperial and spiritual associations. Certain Roman emperors famously reserved the use of purple clothing for themselves. It was also expensive: Diocletian’s Edict of Maximum Prices issued in the year 301 set the limit on a pound of purple wool at 50,000 denarii, the same value as a pound of gold. Books, too, written on purple were high-status objects. According to one account, Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) received a gift of poetry written in gold and silver on purple leaves (ostro tota nitens, argento auroque coruscis scripta notis) (P. Optatianus Porfyrius, Carmina I: 1-4.).

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts written in gold and silver on purple-stained parchment is in fact named for this colour: the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, a Greek manuscript of the Gospels written in the 6th century. In the Middle Ages, it seems probable that scribes and artists were inspired by these Late Antique manuscripts to incorporate purple into the design of prestigious books.

A page from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, coloured purple with script in silver
Fragment from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, Antioch, 2nd half of the 6th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 3r

From an early date, the use of purple in Christian biblical texts, often in combination with gold or silver writing, came to symbolise their sacred nature. For example, Godescalc, the scribe of a Gospel Lectionary made for the Emperor Charlemagne in 780, explained that ‘golden words’ on purple pages ‘disclose the joys of heaven’ (the manuscript is now BnF, MS nouv. acq. latin 1203).

One of the places where purple features in illuminated manuscripts is in full-page title or ‘incipit’ pages (from the Latin word incipit, meaning ‘it begins’), often paired with text written in gold or silver. An impressive example is found in a 9th-century manuscript made in the important centre of Tours. It is framed by decorated rectangular panels and interlaced golden corner pieces, which introduce the Gospel of St Matthew: ‘Incipit Evangel[ium] Sec[un]d[u]m Mattheu[m]’ (The beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew), written on painted purples panels.

Title page with a decorative frame and gold script on a purple background
Beginning of the Gospel of St Matthew, Tours, 2nd half of the 9th century: Add MS 11849, f. 26v

Sometimes an entire page is coloured purple, as in this early Bible from Canterbury, which although incomplete, retains four purple leaves. Three feature text written in alternating lines of gold and silver capital letters, while the fourth includes an Evangelist portrait of St Luke. The columns, formed of complex decorative interlace patterns in circles and rectangles redolent of metalwork provide a setting for the beginning of St Luke’s text: Quoniam quidem (forasmuch), written in gold and silver letters. 

Title page from the Royal Bible, with purple parchment and script in gold and silver
Title page from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 9th century: Royal MS 1 E vi, f. 30r

Title page from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 9th century: Royal MS 1 E vi, f. 30r

Evangelist portrait of St Luke with his symbol of an ox, on a purple background, in the Royal Bible
Evangelist portrait of St Luke with his symbol of an ox, at the beginning of his Gospel, from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 9th century: Royal MS 1 E vi, f. 43r

It seems likely that the purple was achieved through painting or staining the parchment, rather than by dipping the entire page in dye, particularly considering the many examples of purple background on only part of the page. Recent analysis of a manuscript now in Cambridge revealed that its purple background was achieved by painting a purple made from a plant, probably orchil (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS McClean 30, discussed in Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts, ed. by Stella Panayotova (London, 2016), no. 3. You can find out more about how medieval manuscripts were made in our video article.

The use of this colour was particularly popular in the early Middle Ages, when scribes and artists demonstrated the preciousness of the Gospel message through extraordinary decoration in gold, silver and special purple stained or painted leaves. 

Kathleen Doyle

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12 March 2021

The curious AB-script

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Diligent readers of this Blog will remember previous posts presenting some of the finest Carolingian manuscripts, such as the Moutier-Grandval Bible and one of the so-called Theodulf Bibles. Like most Carolingian manuscripts they are characterised by the main text being written in Caroline minuscule script. The earliest known example of this script appears in a manuscript from the abbey of St Peter at Corbie (near Amiens), written at some point before 769. It soon developed and spread as a clear and legible standardised script throughout the Carolingian empire. Its ubiquity persists to this day since it was revived during the Italian Renaissance and became the base for modern lower case typefaces of the Latin alphabet.

Full page of text, beginning with an uncoloured initial ‘P’ drawn in brown ink
Beginning of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentarii in Epistulas Pauli Minores, Corbie, c. 775-825: Harley MS 3063, f. 39v

Interestingly, even as Caroline minuscule was becoming the predominant script at this period, minuscule scripts based on pre-Carolingian variants kept being created. One example is the so-called AB-script, which was influenced by the writing of Merovingian royal documents (the dynasty preceding the Carolingians). This distinctive script takes its name from the forms of the letters ‘a’ and ‘b’, and was in use around the turn of the 8th century (c. 780–830). There are 35 surviving manuscripts of this script.

One manuscript to feature this type of script (Harley MS 3063) contains two commentaries on St Paul's Epistles, the first by the anonymous author known as Ambrosiaster (written c. 366–384), and the second by Theodore of Mopsuestia (b. c. 350, d. 428).

Detail view of the first line of text
The first line of text beginning Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentarii in Epistulas Pauli Minores, Corbie, c. 775-825: Harley MS 3063, f. 39v (detail)

The characteristic forms of the letters ‘a’ and ‘b’ can be seen clearly in the first line of the image above, which reads ‘Paulus Apostolus non ab hominib(us) neque p(er) homine(m), sed per...’. Focusing on the word ‘ab’, in the middle of the line, you can see that the form of the ‘a’ is open at the top. It almost looks like an ‘i’ with a small ‘u’ joined to it. The ‘b’ next to it is distinguished by a straight vertical stroke, like the cross bar of a ‘t’. This stroke does not connect with the upwards curve of the bowl at the bottom, as in the modern form of the lower case ‘b’.

Full page of text with damage at the top cutting off the top margin
Fragment of Augustine, De civitate Dei, Corbie, end of 8th century or beginning of 9th century: Harley MS 4980, f. 1r

Another example of AB-script is found in a fragmentary copy of St Augustine’s De civitate Dei (The City of God), now bound with two other originally separate manuscripts (Harley MS 4980, ff. 1–2). AB-script features other letters written in a distinctive way, such as ‘t’. This is evident in the word ‘inter’ in the 5th line of text (…inter se atq(ue) nobiscu(m) diuersitate tradunt(ur). Na(m) et simias…), pictured below. In this word the left side of the cross stroke of the ‘t’ curls back towards the stem, differentiating it from both a Caroline and modern lower case ‘t’.

Detail view of the fifth line of the text
Detail of the fifth line of text, fragment of Augustine, De civitate Dei, Corbie, end of 8th century or beginning of 9th century: Harley MS 4980, f. 1r (detail)

Both these examples of AB-script were written at Corbie Abbey, showing that the scribes there continued to experiment even in the early years of Caroline minuscule. It was once thought that AB-script originated at Corbie, because 14 of the 35 surviving manuscripts were made — or at least corrected by — scribes from that abbey. However, recent studies of these manuscripts and their extant exemplars have revealed a more complex picture of the development of this script. It appears that more than one centre was using AB-script to write often complicated and unusual texts, possibly commissioned directly from prominent personalities at the Carolingian court.

You can read more about the continued influence of Corbie Abbey in the article on medieval places of manuscript production in France and England on the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project-website.


Emilia Henderson
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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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