Medieval manuscripts blog

6 posts categorized "Printed books"

01 October 2022

‘Do you like gold? Use it!’: A golden binding by Pierre Legrain

‘Do you like gold? Use it!’ So said the fashion designer and art collector Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) to the interior decorator and designer Pierre Legrain (1889-1929) when he encouraged him to apply his talents to designing modern bindings for Doucet’s modern books. Thus began the fruitful collaboration between a collector and a designer which would produce some of the most striking binding designs of the early 20th century. Following his work for Doucet, Legrain became known as a designer of bookbindings in the early 1920s and worked for a number of different clients. He was widely recognised as the leading designer of French bindings of the early 20th century and produced some of his best and most famous work towards the end of his life.

The cover of a book, made of yellow leather decorated with an art deco design of gold semi-circles and blue and white circles
Gold-tooled book binding by Pierre Legrain on a copy of Colette La vagabonde (Paris, 1927): C.108.w.8

The final case in the British Library’s Gold exhibition contains a number of bookbindings which are all decorated with gold using various techniques. Among them is the most recent object in the exhibition. It is a binding designed by Pierre Legrain in Paris on an edition of La vagabonde by Colette, printed in 1927. The binding was designed by Legrain at the height of his career in the late 1920s and is a great example of the very effective and skilful use of gold tooling. The book is bound in citron goatskin, Legrain’s favourite covering material, and is decorated with blue goatskin onlays and tooled in gold and silver to an all-over art deco design. It is signed by Legrain on the doublure inside the upper cover and belonged to the book collector Major J. R. (John Roland) Abbey (1894-1969) before it was acquired by the British Library in the 1970s.

Pierre Legrain was a designer rather than a bookbinder, and his designs were transferred to bindings by skilled craftsmen, always to the highest standards, first in their studios, and later, once he had become successful and well-known, in his own studio. His style was revolutionary and a departure from all French bookbinding designs produced in previous centuries. His designs were not centred on each cover as had been the case previously, but he instead used both covers and the spine of a book as a blank canvas for which to create a design going all the way across, looking to contemporary art and design for inspiration. Legrain often made use of a ruler and a divider, and his early designs were often geometrical before he moved to more asymmetrical and complicated designs later on in his career.

Spine of the book, with a yellow leather cover tooled with a design of gold lines and blue and white circles, and with a gold-tooled title 'COLETTE LA VAGABOND'
Spine of the gold-tooled book binding by Pierre Legrain (Paris, 1927): C.108.w.8

Legrain was of the opinion that a binding should prepare the reader for the book it encloses. The designs he produced and the way he looked at a binding as a work of art set the tone for how French – and other European – bookbinding design was to develop in the first half of the 20th century.

You can visit Gold in the British Library until 2 October 2022. If you would like a taster of the exhibition or are unable to visit in person, you can watch the virtual exhibition opening on the British Library Player, or purchase the accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World from the British Library shop. 

Karen Limper-Herz

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

28 July 2022

Masters of gold tooling

‘Gold is gold is gold’ it is said, but the Library’s current Gold exhibition shows that this is not the whole story. In book bindings, it appears as paint, lacquer, powder and leaf and was (and is) used all over the world. The more pure (and expensive) the metal, the less likely it is to tarnish. Light is the catalyst which brings such a decorated binding to life. The covers glow in the restricted light levels of a gallery display case today, just as they once did in the candlelight of the medieval royal court, on a church lectern or in a scholar’s study.

An illustration of an 18th-century bookbinder at work
A bookbinder working on a gold tooled binding, India, 1798-1804: Add Or 1111

There are many reasons why such cost and effort should be expended but a celebration of the wealth and discernment of the owner, the skill of the craftsman and honouring the text or manuscript contained within surely played a part. Bound books which were destined to be gifts were frequently ornamented with gold.

Arguably, the technique that creates the most astonishing result is tooling in gold. This is achieved by impressing a heated engraved brass tool into the surface of leather through a thin layer of gold. The skill needed is considerable, as I learned during my first attempt. The temperature was far too hot which resulted in me tooling through the leather into the workbench beneath! To avoid expensive errors like this, apprentice bookbinders were required to train for many years (usually seven in England).

Gold tooled binding motifs
An enlarged pointillé motif popularised by the Maître Doreur, and a solid flower motif used by Cobden-Sanderson

One of the spectacular gold-tooled bindings in the exhibition is by the 17th-century French binder known as the Maître Doreur (C.14.c.12). In some countries, practitioners specialised either in the structure of the book or on the decoration. In France the term for the latter was ‘doreur’ (which references ‘or’, the French for gold). The fact that this binder was given the epithet Maître Doreur (i.e. Master gold tooler) indicates the level of his expertise. The delicately tooled motifs comprising dots and coloured onlays repeat in a hypnotic fashion until the entire glowing surface is covered. This use of tiny dots of gold leaf to form a pattern is known as pointillé technique. It is hard to calculate how long such work took. It would be many hours, if not days.

Binding by the Maitre Doreur
Gold-tooled pointillé binding by the Maître Doreur, France, 17th century; Alonso Chacon, Historia vtriusque belli Dacici a Traiano Caesare gesti (Rome, 1616): C.14.c.12

Another beautiful example of gold-tooling in the exhibition is an Arts and Crafts binding by Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson (1840–1922), who may be considered the ‘Maître Doreur’ of the late 19th century (C.68.h.17). Gold was the key to his decorative schemes on goatskin bindings, but solid motifs were preferred to the pointillé favoured by the earlier binder. Lettering in gold was particularly important. Only four tools comprise this all over pattern.

Gold was often the first choice of decoration for a binding intended to be a gift, as this was to Cobden-Sanderson’s daughter, Stella Gabrielle. The binder wrote:

‘This book, Stella, I was binding when you were born, and being one of the noblest books I know I covered it with such glory as I could of roses and of stars and set your name in the midst and gave it to you.’

What a way to mark one’s birth day!

Cobden Sanderson binding tooled in gold with roses and stars and the name 'Stella Gabrielle'
Gold-tooled binding by Cobden-Sanderson, London, late 19th century; John Ruskin, Unto this last (Orpington, 1884): C.68.h.17
 
Portrait of Cobden-Sanderson
Portrait of T. J. Cobden-Sanderson by William Rothenstein, 1916 (Source: Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons CC0 License)

Cobden-Sanderson’s apprentice, Douglas Cockerell taught at London County Council Central School of Arts and Crafts. He passed on his expertise to promising younger craftsmen including the founders of the Sangsorksi and Sutcliffe workshop (established in 1901), Francis Sangorski (1875–1912) and George Sutcliffe (1878–1943). They created the beautiful jewelled binding on a copy of Spenser’s Epithalamion and Amoretti (C.109.p.20) which appears in the exhibition.

Sangorski and Sutcliffe binding tooled with gold floral patterns and set with jewels
Gold-tooled and jewelled binding by Sangorski and Sutcliffe, London, 1903; Edmund Spenser, Epithalamion and Amoretti (London, 1903): C.109.p.20

 

Detail of the Sangorski and Sutcliffe binding, showing the rose motif in the centre surrounded by jewels
Enlargement of the binding by Sangorski and Sutcliffe; Edmund Spenser, Epithalamion and Amoretti (London, 1903): C.109.p.20, detail

In the Middle Ages, ‘treasure bindings' on religious manuscripts sometimes incorporated jewels with lustrous precious metals (you can read about them in our article on medieval bindings). Sangorski and Sutcliffe revived this style but used it on secular texts, which were frequently poetic or exotic. Gold and gems make ideal partners on a surface due to the reflective nature of both materials, as can be seen on the binding on display.

The success of the trend inspired the creation of a stupendous binding on an engraved copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam featuring over a thousand jewels and a hundred square feet of gold leaf. The latter became perhaps the most famous bookbinding in the world after it was lost on the Titanic and a recreation was destroyed in the Blitz. A third version is in the British Library.

Photo of Sangorski and Sutcliffe’s workshop, with rows of men working on book bindings
Sangorski and Sutcliffe’s workshop, 1923 (Source: Shepherd's bindery, which incorporated Sangorski & Sutcliffe bindery)

Gold can contribute to the all-over splendour of a binding in other ways including metal ‘furniture’ (e.g. bosses and corner-pieces) and gilded edges on text blocks. Gilding protects the contents of the book from moisture and dust.

An ornate gold book clasp with a figure of Christ
Gold clasp on a Dutch Bible, 18th century: Davis 672

It can be gauffered, i.e. further decorated using tools which catch the light. An article in The Bookbinder of 1888 notes that 'a gilt edge is as necessary to a well-bound book as the gold chain is to an alderman's robes.'

Three books lined up next to each other with their fore-edges towards us, displaying elaborate gold edges
Gilt and gauffered edges from Davis 239, Davis 820, and C.46.f.5

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

P. J. M. Marks
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

18 November 2021

Robert Dudley's bindings: ‘A bear muzzled and chained’

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-88), is best known today as Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite. He had been a close friend of the Queen from a young age and remained so until his death in 1588. He was referred to as her ‘Lord Robert’ by the diplomat Henry Killigrew in a letter to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, Elizabeth’s ambassador in France, on 28 September 1561, in which Killigrew expressed doubts about Elizabeth marrying because she only had eyes for Dudley.

Letter from Henry Killigrew to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton
Letter from Henry Killigrew to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, 28 September [1561], London: Add MS 35830, f. 205r

As one of the central figures in Elizabeth’s life, Dudley of course plays a key role in the our current major exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, where he can be seen in this spectacular painting by Steven van der Meulen of c. 1561, which shows him displaying all the offices and honours he had accumulated during Elizabeth’s reign.

Portrait of Robert Dudley
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by Steven van der Meulen, c. 1561. By kind permission of Waddesdon (Rothschild Family)

Dudley had been appointed Master of the Horse on Elizabeth's accession to the throne in November 1558, and he became a Privy Councillor in 1562 and Earl of Leicester in 1564. Together with Sir Robert Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, Dudley played a key role in domestic and foreign politics during Elizabeth’s reign. But Dudley was much more than just Elizabeth’s favourite and a statesman. He was also a known patron of the arts, a great book collector and a patron of authors and bookbinders, and it’s his interest in owning finely bound books which is of particular interest here.

During his lifetime, Dudley patronised a number of binding shops and the bindings surviving from his library can be divided into different groups. While some of his bindings show his coat of arms on their covers, the most easily recognisable ones are those bearing his characteristic crest in the centre of both covers. Several different versions of his crest are known, all showing ‘a bear erect muzzled and chained supporting a ragged staff on the shoulder a crescent for difference’. More information on his coat of arms and his crest can be found on the British Armorial Bookbindings website. 

Crest of Robert Dudley, from a book binding
Dudley’s crest from vol. 1 of Biblia sacra, Lyon, 1550: C.18.d.5

Some of Dudley’s bindings show the influence of Parisian bindings on English bindings at the time in the extensive use of gold tooling in an intricate centre and cornerpiece design, such as this example bound by the so-called Dudley Binder in brown calfskin, tooled in gold with traces of black paint and Dudley’s crest in the centre of both covers.

Book binding with Robert Dudley's crest
Plato, Platonis Convivium, Paris, 1543: C.19.c.23., upper cover

A much simpler group of bindings, also showing Dudley’s crest with the addition of his initials ‘R D’, is decorated with a simple frame around the covers with fleurons at the corners, such as this example, bound in brown calfskin and tooled in gold.

Book binding with Robert Dudley's crest
Georg Meier, Justini ex Trogi Pompeii historia, Cologne, 1556: C.64.b.2., upper cover.

When Dudley died in 1588, an inventory of his library listed over 230 books of which over 90 are known today, bound by more than eight different binders’ workshops between the 1550s and the 1580s. Books from Dudley’s collection can now be found in libraries around the world and the British Library holds examples of some of his elaborate as well as plain bindings. You can find more information on and images of Dudley’s bindings on the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings.

Discover more fascinating characters and amazing documents from the world of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots in the exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, open at the British Library until 20 February 2022.

Robert Dudley's signature
Dudley’s signature from vol. 1 of Biblia sacra, Lyon, 1550: C.18.d.5

You can also find out more about Dudley and his bindings in H. M. Nixon and M. M. Foot, The History of Decorated Bookbinding in England (Oxford, 1992); H. M. Nixon, ‘Elizabethan gold-tooled bindings’, in Essays in Honour of Victor Scholderer, ed. by D. E. Rhodes (Mainz, 1970); or W. E. Moss, Bindings from the Library of Robt. Dudley, Earl of Leicester, (Sonning, 1934).

Karen Limper-Herz

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

24 September 2019

Leonardo da Vinci: from manuscript to print

The technique of printing with moveable type was invented in Germany in the decade before Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was born; as he reached his teens the new technology had already spread to Italy, thanks largely to the southwards emigration of German printers. Over the following decades increasing numbers of books were printed in a large number of cities and towns across the Italian peninsula.  With his vast written output — it’s estimated he produced 28,000 pages of writing, of which only about 25% survives today — Leonardo was a significant ‘author’ by any standards, but to what extent was he aware of printing? Did he ever intend to publish the various investigations he undertook throughout his career?

Melzi's portrait of Leonardo

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci attributed to his pupil, Francesco Melzi

Leonardo had an intense interest in machines of all kinds and spent a lot of his time inventing new ones, both on paper and as actual constructions. It seems unlikely that the printing press, one of the dominant new technologies of the time, would have escaped his attention. The two cities where he spent his first fifty years — Florence, where he trained as an artist and embarked on his career, and Milan, where he worked at the Sforza court for nearly two decades — would have given him ample opportunity to visit printing shops and see how they organised their work. A drawing in the Codex Atlanticus shows us his improved version of a printing press, which would in effect have semi-automated the process and meant that only one ‘pressman’, rather than the normal pair, would have been needed to operate the machine. Curiously, there seems to be no reference in any of Leonardo’s work to Gutenberg’s principal invention of moveable type (the printing press itself was merely a variant of a wine or olive press, machines which had been familiar for many centuries). If Leonardo did ever visit a printing house, it is intriguing to speculate what might have run through his mind as he watched compositors setting type line by line exactly as he himself wrote by hand, in ‘mirror script’, going from right to left, and reversing all the letters.  

Clearer evidence of Leonardo’s interest in printed books comes from his library. The majority of volumes mentioned in his several surviving lists of the books which belonged to him at various points are printed ones. They are surprisingly eclectic — editions of chivalric romances and other contemporary vernacular literature, translations of Greek and Latin authors, religious texts, scientific treatises and manuals and introductory works on the subjects and topics which interested him or which he felt he needed to master as part of his scientific investigations. They also reflect the widening range of the emergent publishing industry and its markets.

It is not known whether Leonardo ever planned to produce printed editions of his writings on the various subjects on which he intended to write ‘treatises’, such as the ‘Book on Water’ which forms the core of the Codex Leicester recently displayed at the British Library. But there’s no evidence that he wanted to keep them secret. His mirror script, once believed to be a kind of encryption, is now thought simply to reflect the way Leonardo, as a left-hander, found it most comfortable to write. In the more finished notebooks, such as Codex Leicester or many sheets in Codex Arundel, there is a clear attempt on Leonardo’s part to design a clear and readable page layout, with a block of text and a wide margin with drawings and other notes alongside or even keyed into the main content. Within that content, there is often an implied interlocutor or potential/eventual reader in the way he frames his discussion of a topic. It is more probable — and characteristic of Leonardo’s working practices in general — that his notes on various subjects never attained the kind of order and arrangement which would have been necessary if they were ever going to make the transition to published texts.

The spheres of manuscript and print continued to interact in unexpected ways during what can be called the long afterlife of Leonardo’s notebooks. Two items in the last section of the British Library exhibition gave an intriguing glimpse into the continuing complexities of this relationship as far as Leonardo’s writings are concerned, showing how interest in Leonardo’s scientific thinking remained alive over subsequent centuries thanks to various networks of scholars and collectors. Both texts relate to the work of arranging and compiling the notebooks according to subject after Leonardo’s death in 1519, which was started by Francesco Melzi, the pupil to whom he had bequeathed his manuscripts, and continued by other scholars after their dispersal following Melzi’s death in 1570, most significantly in Rome (where many notebooks had ended up) at the beginning of the 17th century.

Del Moto e Misura dell’Acqua

Del Moto e Misura dell’Acqua (Bologna: a spese di Francesco Cardinale, 1828)

Del Moto e Misura dell’Acqua [‘On the Motion and Measurement of Water’] was published by Francesco Cardinale in Bologna in 1828, over 300 years after Leonardo’s death, as part of a multi-volume collection of works by Italian authors on water. Cardinale worked from a copy of a manuscript which had been compiled in the 1630s for the collection of Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597–1679), the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, by the Dominican monk Luigi Maria Arconati, whose father owned eleven manuscripts by Leonardo, today in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. In arranging his compilation of Leonardo’s notes, Arconati found a model in a recent publication on the subject, Bernardo Castelli’s Della misura dell’Acque correnti, published in Rome in 1628 and dedicated to Urban VIII (Castelli, a Benedictine abbot, is described on the title-page as the Pope’s official mathematician).

A manuscripts copy of leonardo's Leonardo's Trattato della Pittura

In the case of the second item, King's MS 284, the thread of transmission from Leonardo’s originals is even more complicated. It contains what is perhaps the most important of these posthumous thematic compilations, the Trattato della Pittura or treatise on painting. This work was initiated by Melzi, who, with collaborators, worked systematically through the notebooks in his possession; the resulting text, now Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270 in the Vatican Library, was never completed; but it became the source (although the manuscript itself disappeared from view for over two centuries) for numerous later abbreviated manuscript versions. It is once again in Rome in the 1630s that a new wave of systematic work on the text, following on from Melzi, was undertaken, again drawing on the collection of Arconati’s father, in preparation for the publication of two printed editions, in the Italian original and French translation, in Paris in 1651. The British Library manuscript is a copy of this printed edition together with the illustrations based on Nicolas Poussin’s drawings for the Paris edition.

These complex trajectories from manuscript to print and back again reflect and continue what can be seen as the intrinsic complications of Leonardo’s relationship as a writer to publication and to his readers.

 

Stephen Parkin

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

09 April 2018

Mansion's manuscripts in Bruges

If you visit Bruges in the near future, we highly recommend that you visit the exhibition Haute Lecture by Colard Mansion, on at the Groeningemuseum until 3 June 2018. The British Library is a major lender to this show, which is devoted to Colard Mansion, a clerk, printer and bibliophile who was active in Bruges between 1457 and 1484. Mansion worked with William Caxton and was the first to experiment with engravings as illustrations in printed books. In this exhibition, the style and composition of his woodcut illustrations are compared to images in contemporary illuminated manuscripts. 

A page from a manuscript of the Trésor des Histoires, showing an illustration of a view of Flanders.

A view of Flanders, from the Trésor des Histoires, Bruges, c. 1475–80: Cotton MS Augustus V, f. 345v

The British Library has loaned three illuminated manuscripts and four printed books to this exhibition. Two of these manuscripts — the Ovide Moralisé en prose and the Trésor des Histoires — were brought to the court of King Edward IV in the 15th century. Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a very popular text in the later Middle Ages, being widely copied in both Latin and in various French translations. The prose version, known as the Ovide Moralisé en prose, contains added moralisations that would have appealed to the tastes of the Burgundian elite. In Mansion's book, the scenes from the legends of Jason and the Golden Fleece and Helen of Troy have a similar composition to the ones in Edward IV’s manuscript copy. 

A page from a manuscript of the Ovide Moralisé, showing an illustration of the Greek hero Jason yoking oxen, with the Golden Fleece on a plinth in the background.
Jason yoking the oxen, with the Golden Fleece on a plinth in the background, from Ovide Moralisé en prose, Bruges, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 102r

  A page from a medieval manuscript of the Ovide Moralisé, showing an illustration of the abduction of Helen.
The abduction of Helen, from Ovide Moralisé en prose: Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 193r

The manuscript of the Trésor des Histoires, a world history in French, contains some of the most sophisticated images associated with a secular chronicle. The miniature of Pope John XII on display in Bruges is attributed to the Master of the Getty Froissart, whose style is similar to that of the engraver of the illustrations in Mansion’s edition of Boccaccio, considered to be his masterpiece.

A page from a manuscript of the Trésor des Histoires, showing an illustration of Pope John XII.

Pope John XII, from the Trésor des Histoires, Bruges, c. 1475–80: Cotton Augustus MS V, f. 460r

There are 55 large miniatures in this volume. The early view of the Flemish countryside reproduced at the beginning of this blogpost is a fine example of the use of perspective and the refined treatment of light and landscape.

The only surviving manuscript of a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan’s Cité des Dames has also been loaned to the exhibition, and is presented in a section on women in society in Mansion’s milieu. Christine’s work was a response to the misogynistic writings of the time, taking examples from the life and deeds of virtuous women in history and mythology. Although the illustrations are sometimes unfinished, they are highly original, illustrating the trials and achievements of famous women. In the image below, Camilla, a motherless infant, is taken across a river in a boat made by her father, King Metabus of the Volscians, fleeing from his rebellious subjects. They hid in the woods, where she was fed on the milk of wild deer and grew up learning to hunt with a slingshot.

A page from a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan's Cité des dames, showing an illustration of the infant Camilla being taken across a river in a boat by her father.

Camilla, from Het Bouc van de Stede der Vrauwen, Bruges, 1475: Add MS 20698, f. 64v

In another scene from the same manuscript, Fredegund, the widow of Chilperic, is shown leading the Frankish troops into battle with her son Clothar still at her breast, employing a clever ruse to defeat their enemies.

A page from a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan's Cité des dames, showing an illustration of Fredegund, Queen Consort of Chilperic I, before an assembled group of soldiers.

Fredegund, from Het Bouc van de Stede der Vrauwen: Add MS 20698, f. 63r

In addition, four British Library incunabula are on display in Bruges, two of which are the work of Colard Mansion:

La Bible des poetes [Paris: Antoine Vérnard, 1493–94]

L’abusé en court [Bruges: Colard Mansion, 1479–84]

Ovide moralisé [Bruges: Colard Mansion, 1484]

Le Recueil des histoires de Troyes [Ghent?: David Aubert?, for William Caxton, about 1474–75]

An illustrated page from an incunabula, housed at the British Library.

La Bible des poetes [Paris, Antoine Vérnard, 1493–94]: IC.41148, f. 1v

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

02 November 2017

How many horns does a unicorn have?

How many horns does a unicorn have? It's the kind of trick question you might encounter when watching the British television series QI. One, I hear you say — everyone knows that. Unicorns only have ONE horn (the clue is in the name). And that's what I used to think too, but it seems we’ve all been duped. Sometimes a unicorn can have TWO horns. I know, right? Whatever next?

A detail from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a unicorn.

A lion-like unicorn: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 18r

I first came across the infamous two-horned unicorn when selecting the objects for the British Library's new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic (#BLHarryPotter). The printed book illustrated below, on show in the show, has a diagram featuring five different species of unicorn. It was published in Paris in 1694 and is the work of Pierre Pomet, a French pharmacist. Apart from realising that you discover something new every day — it's incredible to learn that so many species of unicorn have been identified — your eye is also drawn to the beast in the lower, left-hand corner. It clearly has a pair of horns. That's cheating, surely?

A page from a 17th-century printed book, showing illustrations of five species of unicorn.

Five species of unicorn, in Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux (Paris, 1694): British Library 37.h.7., part 2, p. 9

On closer inspection, I learned that the mysterious unicorn in question is known as a pirassoipi. We might be inclined to call it a bicorn. Delving deeper, we learn that it was described as being as large as a mule and as hairy as a bear. But our story then takes a rather distressing turn. Pomet noted that unicorn horn was ‘well used, on account of the great properties attributed to it, principally against poisons’. Unicorns, in other words, were valued for their body parts. The rather grisly image below, taken from a study of the unicorn by Ambroise Paré, published in 1582, depicts in the background the killing and skinning of a pirassoipi. Paré was surgeon to the French Crown and he had a keen interest in strange phenomena (his book also contains chapters on mummies and poisons). In his commentary, he admitted uncertainty whether the body parts of the unicorn would have any medicinal effectiveness.

A detail from a 16th-century printed book, showing an illustration of an Italian unicorn.

An Italian unicorn, in Discours d’Ambroise Paré, Conseiller et Premier Chirurgien du Roy. Asçavoir, de la mumie, de la licorne, des venins, et de la peste (Paris, 1582): British Library 461.b.11.(1.), f. 27r

Let's have another look at the unusual unicorn illustrated at the beginning of this blogpost. It's found in a 16th-century Greek manuscript, accompanying a poem by Manuel Philes called On the properties of animals. According to the poem, the unicorn was a wild beast with a dangerous bite: it had the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion. Distinctly un-unicorn-like, isn't it?

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a unicorn.

The unicorn with the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion: Burney MS 97, f. 18r

The unicorn is not the only beast illustrated in this manuscript. Its pages are filled with drawings of herons and pelicans, a wolf and a porcupine, and even a cuttlefish. One of my favourites is the illustration of the mythical centaur: it has a pair of over-extended human arms serving as its front legs. The scribe of this manuscript is named as Angelos Vergekios, a Cypriot who had made his home in France, and the illustrator is said to have been his daughter. Here is a selection of those images to whet your appetite. (A few years ago we completed the digitisation of all the British Library's Greek manuscripts thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation: the whole manuscript can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.) We'd love you to take a look at all of them and to tell us your favourites (please use Twitter or the comments form below).

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a heron.

A heron: Burney MS 97, f. 4r

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of two owls.

Owls: Burney MS 97, f. 10r

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a lioness.

A lioness: Burney MS 97, f. 16v

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a centaur.

A centaur: Burney MS 97, f. 19v

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a porcupine.

A porcupine: Burney MS 97, f. 26v

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing illustrations of different sea creatures.

Is is safe to go back into the water? A swordfish, narwhal, hammerhead shark and whale: Burney MS 97, f. 31v

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of an octopus.

An upside-down octopus: Burney MS 97, f. 40r

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a cuttlefish.

A cuttlefish: Burney MS 97, f. 41v

And this returns us neatly to the theme introduced at the beginning of this blogpost. It is a central premise of our exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, that there are lots of things about the real world that we don't properly understand or don't even know about. When the curators started their research a couple of years ago, I could never have imagined that we would have encountered a unicorn with two horns, and that our journey would introduce us at the same time to such a beautifully illustrated manuscript. And now you can show off to your friends too, whenever someone asks "how many horns does a unicorn have?".

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on display at the British Library in London until 28 February 2018. 

 

Julian Harrison, Lead Curator Harry Potter: A History of Magic and Medieval Historical Manuscripts

We'd love you to follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval.

If you tweet about the exhibition, don't forget to use the hashtag #BLHarryPotter.

 

Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs