Medieval manuscripts blog

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8 posts categorized "Sacred texts"

09 October 2023

The largest Greek manuscript?

We are always pleased to announce the digitisation of our manuscripts but this blogpost marks a particularly special milestone. Thanks to generous support by Kimberley and David Martin and the Hellenic League, we have been able to digitise one of the largest (and heaviest!) Greek manuscripts in our collections.

A photograph of a very large manuscript of the Greek Octateuch, next to a pencil and pencil sharpener to show the scale.

One of the largest volumes in the British Library’s collection of Greek manuscripts: Add MS 35123

Add MS 35123 comprises more than 600 leaves, almost 1,300 larger-than-A4 pages, bound tightly between heavy medieval wooden boards that weigh almost 10 kilograms. This giant tome is a late-12th century Biblical manuscript, containing the first eight books of the Old Testament: the five from Moses appended by Joshua, Judges and Ruth.

So if this manuscript only contains part of the Bible, what makes it so enormous? A glance at just one of the volume’s pages will provide the answer: the biblical text in the manuscript is actually enclosed by an extensive commentary, which appears on three margins of every single leaf.

A page from a medieval manuscript of the Greek Octateuch with extensive commentary.

Octateuch with Catena: Add MS 35123, f. 84v

Translated from Hebrew in the 3rd century BC, the Greek text of the books of Moses and the other Old Testament scriptures, known as the Septuagint, was not an easy read for an ordinary Greek reader. Some help was needed to understand its grammar, which reflected the original Hebrew text, and, even more importantly, the unique vocabulary used by its translators. New commentaries were also required to highlight the complex relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Unsurprisingly, many of these commentaries were written by the most renowned and learned of the Church Fathers. By the 7th and 8th centuries, the volume of interpretative Biblical material had grown enough to fill entire libraries. Thankfully, an effective and ‘user-friendly’ way of navigating this material had  been invented many centuries before by ancient scholars working on the Greek classics, particularly the work of the poet Homer.


Homer’s Iliad with marginal commentaries: the Towneley Homer, Burney MS 86, f. 3v

Scholars working in the library of Alexandria between the 3rd and 1st century BC established a way for students and readers to navigate the enormous amount of scholarship on Homer’s epics. They extracted the most important elements from these commentaries and placed them in the margins of the texts they interpreted. They also devised an elaborate system of symbols emphasising the connection between the main text written in the centre of each page and the commentary excerpts placed in the surrounding margins. The commentaries became very popular elements of school education, being named scholia (‘school material’) as a result.

A detail from the Towneley Homer, showing the system of signs used to link the text with the commentary.

Signs written in red ink connecting marginal commentaries to the main text: the Towneley Homer, Burney MS 86, f. 3v (detail)

Christian commentators adopted a  similar system. They placed the Biblical text in the centre of each page, written in larger, more prominent characters, adding the commentary around it in smaller letters, so that as much as possible could fit on the page. These Christian commentators also used symbols to connect a particular item in the marginal commentary with the relevant place or line in the Biblical text.

The source of each commentary was more important for Christian compilers than it had been for the ancients. They placed particular emphasis on recording the source of each extract, usually writing them at the beginning of each paragraph in red ink. This commentary, presented as a series of inter-connected extracts accompanying the Biblical text, was later called ’catena’, after the Latin word meaning ‘chain’.

A detail from a manuscript of the Greek Octateuch, showing numerical signs in red ink, connecting the text and commentary.

Numbers in red ink in the left margin connecting the commentary to the central text: Add MS 35123, f. 83v (detail)

Over time, many of the original texts used by these compilers were lost — in some cases they were condemned explicitly as heretical and were deliberately destroyed. The extracts found in the margins of these ‘Catena-Bibles’ have become increasingly valuable to modern biblical scholars. In many cases, they are the only witnesses for once-celebrated works, such as the Commentary on Genesis by Diodore of Tarsus (d. 394) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), both condemned as heretics in the 6th century, and the Commentary on Exodus by Gennadius of Constantinople (d. 471), which is also now lost.


Excerpts from the lost commentary of Diodorus (upper right-hand corner) and Gennadius of Constantinople (abbreviated in the lower right-hand corner): Add MS 35123, f. 84v (detail)

These are just a few of the many exciting sources preserved in this manuscript. A systematic survey of all Catena manuscripts has yet to be completed so there may be more to discover. We invite you to take a look at the online images. If you're lucky, you may be able to spot a new fragment of a lost text.


Peter Toth

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07 April 2023

Picturing the Crucifixion

This Good Friday, we have gathered a selection of illustrations of the Crucifixion from some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in our collections, dating from as early as the 11th century up to the end of the Middle Ages.

The Sherborne Missal

The Sherborne Missal is one of the masterpieces of English book production in the 15th century, a gigantic volume with nearly every page decorated with elaborate borders and historiated initials in colours and gold. The manuscript is a service book containing all the texts required for the celebration of Mass on the different feasts, holidays and saints’ days throughout the year, made for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, between approximately 1399 and 1407. The single full-page illustration in the manuscript is a depiction of the Crucifixion that introduces the Canon of the Mass. Christ is shown on the Cross, flanked by the two thieves, with the Virgin Mary fainting at its foot. Beside her appear the figures of St John and Mary Magdalene, while a crowd of mounted onlookers in contemporary dress gather behind the three crosses. The illustration is accompanied by portraits of the Four Evangelists writing in the corners of the frame, and a series of roundels containing depictions of related episodes from the Old Testament.

Read our previous blogpost on the digitisation of the Sherborne Missal here!

A full-page illustration of the Crucifixion in colours and gold, from the Sherborne Missal

The Sherborne Missal, c. 1399-1407: Add MS 74236, p. 380

The De Brailes Hours

Depictions of the Crucifixion commonly feature within Books of Hours, prayerbooks that were hugely popular among lay people during the Middle Ages, allowing them to develop and observe their own routines of personal devotion throughout the day. Named after its designer and painter William de Brailes (active c. 1230–c. 1260), this small, portable volume (measuring only 150 x 125 mm) is the earliest known surviving English Book of Hours, made in Oxford around 1240. Its Crucifixion scene appears at the beginning of the section called None, referring to the ‘Ninth Hour’ of the day, and is divided into three sections, showing Christ on the Cross between the two thieves, Christ before the Virgin Mary and St John, and Longinus piercing Christ’s side.

An illustration of the Crucifixion in three sections, from the De Brailes Hours

Book of Hours (‘The De Brailes Hours’), c. 1240: Add MS 49999, f. 47v

The Holkham Bible Picture Book

The Holkham Bible Picture Book is a unique copy of the Bible that was made in London in the early 14th century. Rather than focusing on the Scriptural text, this manuscript is composed principally of over 230 vivid illustrations depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments, with accompanying captions of varying length, mostly written in Anglo-Norman French. The Passion sequence is depicted over a series of folios towards the end of the manuscript. On this opening, Christ is nailed to the Cross and his garments divided among the Roman soldiers, while the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is shown writing the sign that will be displayed above Christ’s head. The Crucifixion is shown on the opposing page. Scrolls issue from the mouths of figures within the scene, indicating portions of speech. At the foot of the Cross, a cluster of bones and skulls have been painted, reflecting the name Golgotha (literally ‘Skull’ in Aramaic), the site of the Crucifixion in ancient Jerusalem.

An opening from the Holkham Bible Picture Book showing a sequence from the Passion.

The Holkham Bible Picture Book, c. 1327-1335: Add MS 47682, ff. 31v–32r

The Biblia Pauperum

Another unique type of illuminated picture Bible is this Biblia Pauperum (or Bible of the Poor), made in the Northern Netherlands around the turn of the 15th century. It features a series of images of the life of Christ painted in colours and gold, accompanied by images of episodes from the Old Testament that were thought to prefigure it. Here, for example, the Crucifixion appears in the centre of the page, with a depiction of the Binding of Isaac, son of Abraham, from the Book of Genesis, on the left, and Moses lifting up the bronze serpent on the right, from the Book of Exodus.


Biblia Pauperum, c. 1405: Kings MS 5, f. 17r

The Tiberius Psalter

The Crucifixion often appeared as part of prefatory cycles of images at the beginnings of Psalters (Book of Psalms). The Tiberius Psalter is one of the earliest surviving English examples, made in Winchester in the 3rd quarter of the 11th century. Its sequence of drawings, outlined in blue, red and green, depicts episodes from the lives of David and Christ, with an especial focus on the Passion. In the Tiberius Psalter’s depiction of the Crucifixion, Christ is shown on the Cross, with the Roman soldier Longinus piercing his side with a spear, and another holding to his mouth a sponge soaked in vinegar.


The Tiberius Psalter, 3rd quarter of the 11th century–2nd half of the 12th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 13r

The Monte Cassino Exultet Roll

The medieval churches of Southern Italy celebrated the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday from rolls designed to be used once a year for this specific ritual. The Exultet is a lyrical prayer, named after its opening words (‘Exultet iam angelica turba caelorum’), which is chanted during the ceremonial lighting of the Paschal candle during the Easter vigil. The British Library’s Exultet roll (Add MS 30337) was made at the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino around 1075–1080 and features numerous illustrations, including a depiction of the Crucifixion that appears at the centre of the sixth membrane. Notably, the image is displayed upside-down upon the roll. This is because the deacon given the responsibility of reading the prayer would turn the top of the roll over so that it draped in front of the church’s ambo (a raised platform for liturgical readings) and display the images to the congregation the right way up. You can read our previous blogpost on this incredible item and the special way it was used in the performance of the Exultet. 


The Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, c. 1075–1080: Add MS 30337, membrane 6

We wish our readers a peaceful and Happy Easter!

Calum Cockburn

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21 December 2022

Chi-rho pages for Christmas

It’s not something you’ll find on your average Christmas card, but the Chi-rho is a Christmas symbol that appears in some of the oldest surviving gospel-books. One of the most spectacular examples is the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, which is now on display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. But this is far from the only Chi-rho page in the Library’s collection. With Christmas just around the corner, we think it’s the perfect time to celebrate some of our festive Chi-rhos and their rich meanings.

Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, with large decorated letters 'XPI'
Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, Northumbria, c. 700: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

What is a Chi-Rho page?

Chi-rho pages are a feature of Insular gospel-books. These are copies of the biblical accounts of the life of Christ in Latin, produced within the monastic culture that developed in Ireland, Britain and closely connected centres in the 7th-8th centuries (known as Insular in reference to ‘the Isles’).

The Chi-rho is the abbreviated name of Christ in Greek, spelled chi-rho-iota and written with the capital letters ‘X-P-I’. In Insular gospel-books there is a large decorated Chi-rho at the beginning of the account of the Incarnation at Matthew 1:18, ‘Christi autem generatio sic erat’ (Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this way). In the most magnificent examples like the Lindisfarne Gospels, made in Northumbria in the early 8th century, the letters fill almost the entire page with brilliant pattern.

Detail of the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, showing the intricately decorated letter 'X'
Detail of the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, Northumbria, c. 700: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

History of the Chi-rho page

The practice of abbreviating divine names, or nomina sacra, goes back to at least the 2nd century, when letters representing the name of Christ were employed as Christian symbols. Nomina sacra were commonly abbreviated in early Greek bibles as a way of showing reverence and making them stand out visually. For example, in the 6th-century Greek gospel-book the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus (Cotton MS Titus C XV), the main text is written in silver ink while the nomina sacra are abbreviated and written in gold. Insular Chi-rho pages took this much older practice and expanded it to make the sacred name a major focus of decoration.

Detail of a Greek gospel-book written in silver and gold ink on purple parchment
Abbreviated nomina sacra written in gold ink, including ‘XC’ (Christ), ‘YC’ (Son), ‘ΘΥ’ (God) and ‘IC’ (Jesus), from a Greek gospel-book, the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, 2nd half of the 6th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 2v (detail)

The earliest surviving Chi-rho pages date from around 700, and they appear in gospel-books from Ireland, England and areas where Insular scribes were working or had strong influence. By contrast, most gospel-books produced in continental Europe followed the late antique practice of placing no or very little emphasis on the text of Matthew 1:18.

An interesting example of a continental gospel-book which has a Chi-rho page is the Schuttern Gospels (Add MS 47673), made at the Benedictine abbey of Schuttern in southwest Germany in the early 9th century. Schuttern was one of many monasteries in the Upper Rhine and Lake Constance area founded by Irish monks in the 7th century. Liutharius, the deacon who wrote the Schuttern Gospels, was probably a local judging by his name, and he wrote in a Carolingian minuscule script. Nevertheless, the decoration of the manuscript is strongly Insular, suggesting that the monastery’s early history still held major influence in its scriptorium.

Chi-rho page in the Schuttern Gospels, with the letter 'X' decorated with interlace
Chi-rho page in the Schuttern Gospels, Schuttern in southwest Germany, early 9th century: Add MS 47673, f. 19v

Although Chi-rho pages stopped appearing in English gospel-books after about the 8th century, they continued in other areas until much later. One of the latest surviving Chi-rho pages is in the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), made in Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1138. You can read more about this fascinating manuscript, written by the 28-year-old scribe Máel Brigte and illuminated in an Irish-Scandinavian style, in our previous blogpost.

Chi-rho page in the Gospels of Máel Brigte, with the 'X' decorated with brightly coloured animal interlace
Chi-rho page in the Gospels of Máel Brigte, Armagh, 1138: Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

Symbolism of the Chi-rho page

Coming at the beginning of the narrative about Christ’s birth in the Gospel of Matthew, the Chi-rho is generally seen as a symbol of Christ’s Incarnation, or human conception and birth. In the Gospel of John the Incarnation of Christ is mystically described as the moment when ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). By emphasising the word ‘Christ’ at the beginning of the Nativity account, the Chi-rho can be seen to literally illustrate the idea of the Word becoming flesh, especially since Insular gospel-books were written on parchment made from animal skin.

Yet the Chi-rho is also particularly evocative because the letter chi is in the shape of a cross, so it could signify both Christ’s name as well as his Crucifixion and its redemptive power. For Christians, the human birth of Christ is significant because it meant that he could die a human death and so save humanity from sin. Through its shape the letter chi poignantly connects these two important events.

Chi-rho page in the Bodmin Gospels, with a modestly decorated letter 'X'
Chi-rho page in the Bodmin Gospels, Brittany, late 9th century: Add MS 9381, f. 14v

The idea that the Chi-rho symbolises the living Word and the life-giving Cross perhaps explains why Insular Chi-rhos are often teeming with life. For example, in this gospel-book, made in Brittany in the early 10th-century and digitised by the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project (Royal MS 1 A XVIII), animal heads with foliage sprouting from their mouths emerge from the end of each stroke of the letter chi. This gives the impression that the letter is bursting with life and abundance.

Chi-rho page with animal heads emerging from the ends of the strokes on the 'X'
Chi-rho page in a gospel-book from Brittany, early 10th century: Royal MS 1 A XVIII, f. 13r

A cryptic symbol

Greek was not widely known in western Europe in the early Middle Ages. Both the use of Greek letters and abbreviation made the Chi-rho difficult to understand. This cryptic quality was probably part of its appeal, suggesting the mysterious nature of God. The Chi-rho was not simply a word but a symbol of something inexpressible.

Nevertheless, the Chi-rho proved too enigmatic for some scribes and readers, as shown by the garbled Chi-rho in a gospel-book made in Northumbria in the first half of the 8th century (Royal MS 1 B VII). Here it seems that the scribe mistook the Greek letter rho for a Latin letter ‘P’, and transliterated it to the Greek letter pi (Π). They also wrote the letter ‘H’ instead of ‘A’ at the beginning of the Latin word autem, perhaps misunderstanding the Irish convention of spelling the word with an added ‘h’ at the beginning, as hautem. The result is that instead of ‘XPI AU/tem’, the scribe has written ‘XΠI HU/tem’ – a string of letters that make no sense.

Chi-rho page in the Royal Athelstan Gospels
Chi-rho page in the Royal Athelstan Gospels, Northumbria, first half of the 8th century: Royal MS 1 B VII, f. 15v
The garbled Chi-rho in the Royal Athelstan Gospels
The garbled Chi-rho in the Royal Athelstan Gospels, Northumbria, first half of the 8th century: Royal MS 1 B VII, f. 15v (detail)

Discover more

The Chi-rho page also stars on the front cover of the newly published book about the Lindisfarne Gospels: Eleanor Jackson, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration (London: British Library, 2022). Written by the British Library’s Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, the book is an accessible introduction to the production, decoration and history of the manuscript. It is fully illustrated in colour and is available from the British Library Shop.

Lindisfarne Gospels book display
Display of the newly published book on the Lindisfarne Gospels in the Laing Art Gallery shop

Looking at these majestic Chi-rho pages, we can get a sense of some of the awe, mystery and joy with which monastic scribes and readers regarded the birth of Christ many centuries ago. From everyone in the Medieval Manuscripts team, we wish you a very Happy Christmas!

Eleanor Jackson

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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27 April 2020

Designing the Arnstein Bible

Following our blogpost on the Worms Bible earlier this month, today I focus on another remarkable German Romanesque Bible in the Library’s collection: the Arnstein Bible. Like the Worms Bible, it is enormous (540 x 355 mm), and now in two volumes. The first volume includes Genesis to Malachi, and the second Job to Revelation, with large illuminated and decorated initials at the beginning of the biblical books. The manuscript is fully digitised, and available to view online (Harley MS 2798 and Harley MS 2799).

Decorated initial of Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs
Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57v

The Bible was made at the Premonstratensian abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas in Arnstein, on the Lahn river about 30 kilometres east of Coblenz, which was founded in 1139 by the last count of Arnstein, Ludwig III (d. 1185), who became a lay brother there.

In date, the Arnstein Bible was produced around twenty-five years after the Worms Bible. Originally, the manuscript included historical annals recording important events related to the Abbey (now Darmstadt, Hessische Landesbibliothek, MS 4128), that reveal an approximate date for it of 1172. We also know the name of the man who wrote it, identified in the entry for that year as a brother called Lunandus.

Detail of decorated initial showing Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs
Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57v (detail)

Lunandus had a formidable task to undertake in planning out the design and layout of this enormous book. The text is written out in 39 lines to a page, with generous margins. Most of the biblical books and introductory material are presented in two columns of 130 mm in width.

An indication that this Bible is a great monastic book is the inclusion of not one, but rather three translations of the book of Psalms, arranged in three parallel columns, each of 80 mm width. This allowed the reader to study the variant Psalm texts across the page (see this previous blog post for more on St Jerome’s (d. 420) three translations of the Psalms in this Bible).

Three parallel Psalm translations, with decorated initials showing Christ making the sign of blessing, the Virgin and Child, and a bishop, at the beginning of Psalm 101
Three parallel Psalm translations, with decorated initials showing Christ making the sign of blessing, the Virgin and Child, and a bishop, at the beginning of Psalm 101, Harley MS 2799, f. 40r

For Lunandus, planning the layout for the transition from two to three columns and back again presented particular challenges. The three comparable versions of the Psalms proper finish about three-quarters of the way down the page (f. 57r). The next texts that had to be included only required one version; however the rest of the page was still ruled for three columns. Lunandus had to signal that the reader must switch from comparing the variant Psalm translations across the page to reading one column and then going to the next, sequentially.

He did this by identifying the following texts with a series of rubrics, or headings in red ink (the term rubric is derived from the Latin 'rubrica', the name of the red ochre pigment used to make the colour red). Lunandus presented the short so-called Psalm 151 in the first column and started the prologue to the next biblical book in the second and third columns.

The end of Psalms and the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs, written in three columns
The end of Psalms and the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57r

The rubric in the first column summarises the contents of Psalm 151: 'Hic p[salmu]s pr[opr]ie scriptus est David [et] extra numerum cum pugnaret cum gloria et in hebraicis codicibus non habetur' (This Psalm was written by David himself and is outside the number [of the Psalms] and is not contained in Hebrew bibles. It is about the time when David fought with glory.) The short text in seven verses follows below this heading.

The adjoining rubric, spread out over columns two and three, explains that the Psalms have ended, 'explicit libor psalmorum' (here ends the book of Psalms), and that the prologue to Proverbs is about to begin (incipit). The start of this prologue begins in the middle column. Here Lunandus left room for an enlarged initial letter on eight lines, the letter ‘C’ of the first word ‘Chromatio’, the name of the original addressee. The rest of the word is written in individual letters vertically to the right of the first letter. The initial itself is embellished with stylized acanthus leaf decoration punctuated with characteristically Germanic gold bands ornamented by small round dots that are cinched around the foliate form.

Deatil of the decorated initial at the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs
The decorated initial at the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57r (detail)

This sophisticated presentation of text and image represents a stunning achievement in scholarship and design. Like other great or giant Romanesque Bibles, the Arnstein Bible represents a testament to the commitment of its makers to the elegant presentation of the Word of God.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading

Walter Cahn, Romanesque Bible Illumination (Cornell, 1982), pp. 26, 230, 253 no. 8, pls 157, 162.

Jeffrey F. Hamburger, 'The Hand of God and the Hand of the Scribe: Craft and Collaboration at Arnstein', in Die Bibliothek des Mittelalters als dynamischer Prozess, ed. by Michael Embach, Claudine Moulin and Andrea Rapp, Trierer Beiträge zu den Historischen Kulturwissenschaften, 3 (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2012), pp. 53-78 (p. 62, fig. 22, colour plate 17).

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson and the British Library, 2016), no. 23.

20 April 2020

The Holy Helpers

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

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

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

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

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

‘God granted you while that you were here

to each of you remarkable privileges:

whoever prays to you wholeheartedly and sincerely,

to hear all their requests graciously

[and] remedy worldly dangers and misfortunes

Because of this remember in your special prayers

all those who have you devoutly in memory’

(‘God grauntyd you whil that ye wer heere

to ech of you synguler prerogatives

who prayeth to you of hool herte and enteere

Alle ther requestys graciously to heere

Geyn worldly tempestis and troublys transitorye

For which rembemrith in your special prayeere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Clarck Drieshen

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25 December 2019

Christmas at Sainte-Chapelle

It is midnight on 24th December in the great city of Paris, sometime in the last quarter of the 13th century. Paris is the most populous city in Europe with around 200,000 residents, and it is the centre of learning, government and commerce in France. Tonight all is quiet in the city's many ports, markets, workshops, lecture halls and council chambers, but the sound of chanting is rising from the churches, filling the cold night with warm music. Within the walls of the royal palace on the Île de la Cité, the clergy of the royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle are celebrating the feast of the Nativity from a beautiful new book.

A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. In the lower half of the left column is a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10r

The book is a Gospel Lectionary, a collection of the Gospel passages to be read during the mass throughout the year. They are arranged in calendar order, beginning with the season of Advent. The Gospel readings for each day of the year were established in the early Middle Ages and, with a few local variations, were traditional throughout the churches of Western Europe. Like the entire service, the readings are all in Latin.

At Christmas, three masses are performed throughout the day. The reading for Midnight Mass is Luke 2:1-14, which tells how Joseph and Mary travelled to the city of Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable and laid him in a manger. Meanwhile, shepherds watching their flocks were visited by an angel, who announced to them the birth of Christ and explained where to find him.

As the deacon reads the words, he can see the events delicately illustrated in the decorated letter that opens the reading. Almost every one of the readings in this luxurious lectionary begins with an illustrated letter, 262 in total. The letters, known as ladder initials, are slender and towering, divided into horizonal tiers and topped with gothic architectural features, much like the magnificent building for which the manuscript was made.

A close-up of the decorated initial from the last picture. It contains a Nativity scene in the upper half and the annunciation to the shepherds in the lower half.
Decorated initial for the reading for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10r (detail)

The upper level of the letter shows the Nativity scene—Mary reclining in bed, Joseph sitting behind, the baby Jesus lying in a high altar-like manger being nuzzled by the ox and the ass. The lower level shows the surprised shepherds and equally surprised sheepdog encountering the angel, who points urgently up to the Nativity above. The top of the initial features alternating Gothic pinnacles and gables, similar to the distinctive exterior of Sainte-Chapelle (below).

The exterior of Sainte-Chapelle, a magnificent chapel with elaborate Gothic architecture.
Sainte-Chapelle, north facade with alternating pinnacles and gables. (François Deneux / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0)
A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. The right column contains a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Dawn Mass on Christmas Day, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10v

After Midnight Mass, the clergy and congregation of Sainte-Chapelle go to bed, their heads filled with the joyful words and bright images. Later, the community returns to the church for the second service of the day, the Dawn Mass. The reading continues with Luke 2:15-20, in which the shepherds go to Bethlehem, find the Holy Family and glorify God.

A close-up of the initial from the previous image. The upper half shows the Nativity scene and the lower half shows the shepherds praising God.
Decorated initial for the reading for Dawn Mass on Christmas Day, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10v (detail)

The decorated letter shows the Nativity in the upper scene, almost but not quite the same as before. Mary has now crossed her arms, and with her wistful expression she seems to illustrate the line of Luke 2:14, 'Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart'. She is also now covered by a blue quilt with a red lining, perhaps Joseph's cloak from the previous scene. On the lower level, the shepherds are praising God, two of them reverently raising their arms and one clutching his hands to his heart. Their arrival is signified by the gothic architectural structure under which they now stand. With its pointed arch containing two trilobe arches and a quatrefoil medallion, the structure closely resembles a design that is repeated along the lower walls of Sainte-Chapelle's upper chapel (below).

An interior wall of Sainte-Chapelle decorated with a row of pointed arches.
Sainte-Chapelle, upper chapel, dado of pointed arches each containing two trilobe arches and a quatrefoil medallion (Guilhem Vellut / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0)
A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. The entire height of the right column is filled with a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Christmas Day Mass, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

The third and most important mass of Christmas, distinguished with the largest and most elaborate decorated initial in the lectionary, was celebrated during the day. The reading is John 1:1-14, 'In the beginning was the Word', which describes how the Word of God created the world and then became flesh in the person of Christ.

In the decorated initial, the six days of Creation, the seventh day of divine rest and the Crucifixion are represented inside barbed quatrefoils. The scenes emphasise the message of the Gospel reading, adding the solemn reminder that Christ's human birth meant that he could die a human death, and so achieve salvation for humanity. The slender column of quatrefoil medallions is reminiscent of Sainte-Chapelle's soaring windows with their panels of geometric glasswork (below).

Interior view of Sainte-Chapelle, a magnificent gothic chapel with very high windows featuring geometric stained glass.
Sainte-Chapelle, interior facing east with soaring windows (Pierre Poschadel / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

As the service comes to an end, the clergy and congregation of Sainte-Chapelle gaze around the chapel. The winter sunshine is streaming through the stained-glass windows and the lofty vaults are pointing the way to heaven. Those within sight of the book can see sacred history minutely represented inside letters that echo the architecture of the building. For a moment, the events of the Christmas story seem be to present within the gothic splendour of Sainte-Chapelle. Everyone is filled with wonder as they leave the chapel and head to their Christmas feasts.

A detail of the previous decorated initial, showing a barbed quatrefoil medallion containing a Crucifixion scene.
The Crucifixion in the decorated initial for the reading for Christmas Day Mass, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

The Sainte-Chapelle Gospel lectionary is currently on view as part of the Sacred Texts display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery, open on the readings for the dawn and daytime masses on Christmas Day. Visit us to see this festive treat in person (check our seasonal opening hours).

Merry Christmas from the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Section of the British Library!

Eleanor Jackson

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26 September 2019

Discovering Sacred Texts launch

This week the British Library has launched its latest online learning resource, Discovering Sacred Texts, which invites visitors to explore the world’s major faiths through the Library’s extensive collections. The new website includes over 250 digitised collection items, teachers’ resources, short films and articles. Nine faiths are featured: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, the Baha’i Faith and Zoroastrianism.

Discovering Sacred Texts also includes many spectacular medieval manuscripts. For our readers, here’s a handy guide to some of the specially written articles focusing on pre-1600 western manuscripts on the site.

A page from the Codex Sinaiticus with four columns of stately Greek script.
The Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest surviving copy of the complete New Testament, Eastern Mediterranean, early 4th century: Add MS 43725, f. 244v

The Christian Bible is formed of numerous books that were written over hundreds of years. Early Christians adopted the Jewish scriptures, which they characterised as the Old Testament, and added to them a collection of texts recounting the lives and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and his early followers, called the New Testament. At first, the Christian Bible circulated in Greek but before long it was translated into a wide variety of languages: Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic and Latin.

Find out more about the formation and spread of the Christian Bible in The Christian Bible, by Scot McKendrick.

A page from a Greek manuscript with dashes and other small lines around the words
Gospel lectionary with ekphonetic notation, Eastern Mediterranean or Southern Italy, late 10th century: Arundel MS 547, f. 9r

Copies of the entire Bible were rare for much of the ancient and early medieval period. Portions of the Bible, such as the Gospels, Psalms and Apocalypse, were regularly produced as separate volumes. The text was often shaped to suit the readers’ needs. For example, passages might be re-ordered to form a lectionary, combined to produce a harmonised text, or paraphrased as a summary version.

Explore the different contents and uses of biblical manuscripts in Manuscripts of the Christian Bible, by Scot McKendrick.

A decorated manuscript showing scenes of Christ and the Apostles
The Holkham Bible Picture Book, England, c. 1327-1335: Add MS 47682, f. 28r

Unlike in other Abrahamic religions, Christian sacred texts were often produced with extensive illustrations. The Church justified images as a useful tool for teaching people about scripture. Rich decoration could also emphasise the importance of the biblical text itself, with shimmering gold evoking the glory of heaven. Decorated letters, either with abstract or figurative designs, might also serve the practical purpose of marking the beginnings of texts.

Learn more about the development and functions of images in medieval biblical manuscripts in Biblical Illumination, by Kathleen Doyle.

A decorated page with a picture of the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, and below inside the decorated intial, a picture of a woman praying
The Annunciation with a patron portrait, the Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours, 15th century, England: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 34r

The most popular book of the late Middle Ages was the Book of Hours, a type of prayer book for the laity. While their contents vary, the prayers often focus on the Virgin Mary and the Passion of Christ, with shorter prayers included for a wide variety of saints. Many Books of Hours also include images, both to appeal to the eye and to deepen the spiritual experience of prayer. Often, they were carefully customised to reflect their owner's personal interests.

Discover the different texts and images that appear in Books of Hours in Medieval prayer-books, by Eleanor Jackson.

A text page with large initials and a border decorated with flowers and vines
Wycliffite Bible, England, Early 15th century: Arundel MS 104, f. 251r

The Bible was translated into a wide range of languages from an early date. The oldest known translation of a biblical text into English is the Old English translation of the Psalms added between the lines of the Vespasian Psalter in the mid-9th century. The entire Bible was first translated into English by the followers of the reformer John Wycliffe in the last decades of the 14th century, at which point it provoked considerable controversy.

Find out more about medieval translations of the Bible in The importance of translation in the diffusion of Christianity, by Annie Sutherland.

The Virgin Mary seated on a throne with the baby Jesus on her lap. On the lower right a monk kneels in prayer.
Coldingham Breviary, England, 1270-80: Harley MS 4664, f. 125r

Women played an important role in Christianity from the time of Christ and throughout the Middle Ages. The Virgin Mary and three women who were the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ served as exemplars of holiness and were often depicted in medieval manuscripts.

Learn more about attitudes to women in Women and Christianity, by Christine Joynes.

Medieval manuscript with a picture of Christ, covered in bloody wounds, kneeling before his tomb. In the lower margin there is a handwritten note.
Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, Kings MS 9, f. 231v

King Henry VIII formally broke with the Roman Church after Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. In the decades that followed, the dissolution of the monasteries and programmes of Protestant reform led to the widespread destruction of medieval manuscripts. Yet Henry himself remained devoted to medieval religious traditions and he owned a large number of Latin devotional manuscripts.

Learn more about Henry’s manuscripts and the consequences of his break with the Roman Church in Henry VIII and the Reformation, by Susan Doran.

A group photo, standing outside the Library's Treasures Gallery
Some of the British Library's curators at the Discovering Sacred Texts launch event on Monday

As well as these ancient and medieval-focused articles, there are lots of other fascinating articles about the Library’s diverse collection on the Discovering Sacred Texts web-space. We hope you enjoy exploring!


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17 September 2019

Medieval sacred texts on display

Biblical manuscripts were essential to all aspects of Christian religious life in the Middle Ages. They were studied as the cornerstone of education, read aloud from the altar, carried in processions and displayed as emblems of the Word of God. Often they are exceptionally beautiful, with the finest artisans, best materials and most reverent care devoted to their creation.

In the run up to the launch of the Library’s new Discovering Sacred Texts resource later this month, we have put some of our stunning biblical manuscripts on display in the Treasures Gallery. Let us take you on a virtual tour to explore the variety and sophistication of these medieval sacred texts.

A text page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, beginning with the decorated initials ‘MAT’ made up of twisting animal forms, and continuing in a bold rounded script.
The prologue (argumentum) to the Gospel of St Matthew, the Lindisfarne Gospels: Lindisfarne, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 18v

In the early Middle Ages, copies of the entire Bible were rare. A church’s most sacred manuscript was more usually a Gospel Book, a copy of the Four Gospels written by the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One of the most famous of these is the Lindisfarne Gospels. It was probably created by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721, as a solitary work of painstaking devotion. The Gospel text is a particularly accurate version of the Latin Vulgate Bible produced by St Jerome, copied from an exemplar that was probably brought from Italy by the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow. But the Lindisfarne Gospels’ text is doubly special. In the 10th century a priest called Aldred added an Old English translation above the words of the Latin, providing the oldest known translation of the Gospels into English.

An opening in the Cologne Gospels. On the left page is a frame containing silver writing on a purple background; on the right page is a picture of a seated man with a beard, long robe and large halo, holding a pen and a book, looking at an open book on a stand.
Evangelist portrait of St Matthew, the Cologne Gospels: Cologne, Germany, last quarter of the 11th century, Harley MS 2820, f. 14r

Medieval artists experimented with different ways of decorating the Gospels. Often each Gospel text opened with an ‘Evangelist portrait’ of its writer, based on the Classical author portraits sometimes included in ancient manuscripts. This magnificent example belongs to the ‘Cologne school’ of manuscript illumination, which was characterised by rich painterly decoration. St Matthew is depicted pen in hand, writing his Gospel. On the opposite page, a biographical poem about the Evangelist is written in silver on purple-stained parchment and surrounded by an acanthus-leaf border in imitation of imperial books from ancient Rome.

The beginning of a text with a miniature of three scenes contained inside a tall arched frame. The upper scene shows Christ’s empty tomb, the middle scene shows three women kneeling before Christ, the lower miniature shows a lion with its cubs flanked by two prophets holding scrolls.
Opening to the Gospel of Mark, the Floreffe Bible: Floreffe, modern Belgium, c. 1170, Add MS 17738, vol. II, f. 179v

In the monasteries and great churches of the 11th and 12th centuries, there was a revived interest in giant multi-volume copies of the entire Latin Bible. The monumental format of these manuscripts made them impressive symbols of the Word of God. This Bible from the Premonstratensian abbey of Floreffe in south-eastern Belgium measures 480 x 335 mm and fills two heavy volumes.

The Floreffe Bible takes an allegorical approach to illustrating the Gospels. Each Gospel text begins with a series of images exploring the relationship between the symbol of its Evangelist and an aspect of Christ’s life. Here at the opening of St Mark’s Gospel, two scenes from Christ’s Resurrection—the Three Marys discovering the empty tomb and then encountering the risen Christ—are depicted along with St Mark's lion symbol, who is shown guarding three small lion cubs. This pairing emphasises the theological link between St Mark’s lion and Christ’s Resurrection, since it was traditionally believed that lion cubs are brought to life when their father roars over them, just as God the Father resurrected Christ.

Opening to a text with a large letter I containing eight medallions, the first seven showing scenes from the Creation of the world and the eighth showing the Crucifixion.
Opening to the reading for the Mass on Christmas Day: Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

Passages from the Gospels were read every day in church services, with particular readings assigned for the feasts throughout the year. In Gospel Lectionaries, Gospel passages are arranged in the order they were read in the Church calendar, rather than in chapter order. This exquisite Gospel Lectionary comes from Sainte-Chapelle, the royal palace chapel in Paris. This page shows the beginning of the Gospel of John which was read during the Mass on Christmas Day. The decorated letter I (for In principio, ‘in the beginning’) depicts God creating the world and Christ dying on the Cross. As such, it illustrates the opening words of the Gospel which describe how the Word of God created all things and became flesh in Christ.

You can come and admire all these spectacular manuscripts for free in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery or explore them online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. And watch this space for more content about our medieval sacred texts coming soon.

Eleanor Jackson

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