Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

26 August 2016

Improving Access to Our Digitised Manuscripts

Add comment Comments (0)

If you check the British Library’s online catalogue of Archives and Manuscripts today, you may notice an exciting change. Catalogue entries of many digitised manuscripts now feature a button linking directly to the digitised version of the manuscript.  

Dancing Stowe 17 f38
Detail of a marginal painting of a friar with a musical instrument and a woman with upraised arms, from the Maastricht Hours, Low Countries (Liège), c. 1300–1325, Stowe MS 17, f. 38r 

You can find the link either by scrolling down the ‘Details’ tab or by looking in the tab labelled ‘I want this’, where a button linking to the digital version should appear first in the list of options. Click on the blue hyperlink or the red ‘Go’ button, and a new tab will open in your browser containing the Digitised Manuscripts page for the relevant manuscript. We will soon have added hyperlinks to catalogue entries for all 1460+ of our digitised manuscripts.

Henry VIII Psalter Buttons
Catalogue entries for the Psalter of Henry VIII, Royal MS 2 A XVI, with links to the digital version highlighted in red

Therefore, if you are planning a trip to the British Library or just looking up the details of a manuscript, you will be able to see immediately what is fully available 24/7 on Digitised Manuscripts. There’s no need to wait for our quarterly masterlist of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks (although we will continue to release those) or to check the Digitised Manuscripts website separately.

Opening page of one of the most recent additions to Digitised Manuscripts, La
Vie de saint Denys et ses compaignons, with inhabited border and historiated initial, France (Paris or Rouen?), c. 1420, Harley MS 4409, f. 3r

We hope you will find this new tool useful. With almost 1500 manuscripts digitised, there is a lot to discover. Happy reading!

Alison Hudson


24 August 2016

The Great Medieval Bake Off

Add comment Comments (0)

The return of a certain baking contest to British television screens this evening marks the time of year when viewers are struck by a peculiar kind of ‘baking fever’. Typical symptoms include: massively overestimating your own baking talents; buying and using peculiar ingredients you would never usually use; and avidly discussing whose cake had more of a ‘soggy bottom’. This fascination with the baking process and an enjoyment of bread, cakes and pies has long been an important part of society. Baking is, after all, one of the world’s oldest professions, and baking guilds were among the earliest craftsmen guilds established in medieval Europe.

The high level of skill required in the baking craft was certainly recognised in medieval society. In the passage below, the Anglo-Saxon monk, Ælfric, implied that everyone can cook, but it took special skills to be a baker! 'You can live a long time with my skills', he described a baker saying, 'but you cannot live well without them.'

Detail of passage from Ælfric’s colloquy which claims that everyone can cook, but it takes special skills to be a baker (pistor), from marginal additions to a copy of Priscian’s De Excerptiones, Abingdon, 11th century, Add MS 32246, f. 16v

The realities of medieval baking are also depicted in the beautiful illustrations of the Smithfield Decretals. This manuscript contains a collection of 1,971 papal letters, heavily illustrated with scenes which complement the letters and aspects of medieval life. These two illustrations depict two figures, one putting a loaf of bread into the oven and another who waits nearby with a basket of loaves. It is likely that this depicts a communal bread oven, which was popular in the 1300s and allowed all members of the village to bake their own loaves.

Detail of a baker putting a loaf in an oven, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145r


Detail of a man with loaves in a basket and a baker putting loaves in an oven or taking loaves out of an oven, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145v

Another illustration from a 14th-century manuscript depicts a rabbit baking its own bread in a miniature oven!


Detail of marginal image of a rabbit, from Lansdowne MS 451, f. 6r

In medieval society, bakers also provided extravagant fare at feasts and celebrations. Feasts were a fundamental part of medieval society and were used to celebrate victories, proclaim social bonds and enjoy the products of the land.

Detail of men feasting, from the Tiberius Psalter, England (? Old Minster Winchester), 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 5v 

It is easy imagine that preparing for these feasts could be an extremely stressful experience for the cooks and bakers. The illustration below depicts an angry cook brandishing his knife at a member of the service staff.


Marginal illustration from the Luttrell Psalter, Additional MS 42130, f. 207v

Like their modern counterparts, medieval bakers created and used cookbooks, containing recipes and lists of ingredients. A particularly fascinating cookbook was recently discovered here at the British Library, which included recipes for hedgehogs, blackbirds, and even unicorns! The image below, however, is taken from the Forme of Cury, the oldest known instructive cookbook in the English language, dating to the 14th century. The world ‘cury’ is the Middle English word for ‘cookery’. This recipe is for a ‘toastee’, in which two pieces of toasted bread are flavoured with a spiced honey and wine sauce. This cookbook also includes recipes for ‘Pygg in sawse sawge’ or ‘Pig in sage sauce’ and ‘Bank mang’, the predecessor of blancmange.

Recipe for a ‘tostee’, from the Forme of Cury, England, c. 1390, Add MS 5016

Other medieval recipes can be found in the 15th-century cookbook known as the ‘Boke of Kokery’. This manuscript contains 182 recipes, instructing the reader how to ‘hew’ (chop), ‘mele’ (mix), and ‘powdr’ (salt). The page below describes some of the dishes served at a feast for the ordination of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1443. The page also describes a ‘sotelte’ or ‘subtlety’, which was an elaborate sugar sculpture, designed to replicate a biblical scene.


Description of sugar sculptures and other subtleties at a feast for the ordination of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1443, from A Boke of Kokery, England, c. 1443, Harley MS 4016, f. 2r

It is clear that there are many similarities between the medieval and the modern baker. Bakers are still valued members of society, use cookbooks and recipes, and cook for a wide range of functions. One particular difference, however, is the more tolerant approach that modern critics have for bakers whose culinary skills are just not up to scratch. No matter how bad their skills, modern bakers will not be drawn through the streets on the back of a horse with the evidence of their failure tied around their neck.

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a bad baker being dragged on a horse-drawn hurdle with his deficient loaf of bread around his neck, from the Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (Toulouse?), c. 1300-1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 94r

Neither will modern bakers be strung up for their failures of the kitchen, and meet the same fate as the baker in the image below. This is taken from the illustrated Book of Genesis in the Old English Hexateuch, and accompanies the story of the hanging of the Pharaoh’s baker.


Depiction of the hanging of the Pharaoh’s baker in the Old English Hexateuch, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 59r.

Thankfully to many an aspiring baker, modern society is far more tolerant of the varying talents of bakers and the cakes an loaves that they produce!

Becky Lawton


23 August 2016

Which Star Sign Are You?

Are you one of those people who reads their star charts religiously? Does it matter whether you were born a Taurus or under the sign of Aries? Do Leos rub you up the wrong way or Capricorns get your goat?

If you've answered yes to any of these questions, it might warm your heart to realise that astrology was taken very seriously in the Middle Ages. Take, for example, the Psalter of Lambert le Bègue (Add MS 21114), which contains this cycle of calendar pages, each adorned with its own zodiac sign. For January we have an image of a hooded man drinking from a bowl, below which is the sign of Aquarius; February is represented by a man lopping branches from a tree, with the sign of Pisces; while December depicts a man about to slaughter a bull, supported by the sign of Capricorn. Lambert (died around 1177) had founded the Béguine monastery of St Christophe in Liège, and his portrait is found on f. 7v of this Psalter, made sometime between 1255 and 1265.

Whoever illustrated this calendar clearly wished to supply the star signs for their readers, supplemented by drawings of typical activities for each month of the year, from hawking (May) to harvesting (August) and making wine (October). The vaguely optimistic bull on the calendar page for December is contrasted with the indignant boar for November and the proud hawk for May. Meanwhile, the star signs all resemble their modern forms, with that for Sagittarius firing its arrow into the distance off the right-hand edge of the page. So, which star sign are you?


January (Aquarius): Add MS 21114, f. 1r



February (Pisces): Add MS 21114, f. 1v



March (Aries): Add MS 21114, f. 2r



April (Taurus): Add MS 21114, f. 2v



May (Gemini): Add MS 21114, f. 3r



June (Cancer): Add MS 21114, f. 3v



July (Leo): Add MS 21114, f. 4r



August (Virgo): Add MS 21114, f. 4v



September (Libra): Add MS 21114, f. 5r



October (Scorpio): Add MS 21114, f. 5v



November (Sagittarius): Add MS 21114, f. 6r



December (Capricorn): Add MS 21114, f. 6v

You can find our more about calendar pages in our monthly post taken this year from the magnificent Bedford Hours.