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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

18 October 2017

Highway to Hell

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Today we're living easy, living free because we're on the highway to Hell! We have a season ticket on a one-way ride to explore the Hell-mouth, a popular depiction of Hell in illuminated manuscripts.


Raising a little Hell: full-page miniature depicting Archangel Michael locking the entrance to the Hell-mouth, from the Winchester Psalter, Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r

Imagery of the Hell-mouth has been used from the early medieval period, as the gaping mouth of a beast or serpent filled with the tortured souls of the damned. This image may have originated in Anglo-Saxon literature, with a number of surviving works describing Hell as the mouth of a beast or the Devil himself. One late 10th-century collection of religious texts now known as the Vercelli Book, currently housed at the Biblioteca e Archivio Capitolare di Vercelli, northern Italy, contains a quotation in Old English comparing the Devil to a dragon swallowing human souls:

necumaþ þa næfre ofþæra wyrma seaðe . ofþæs dracan ceolan þe issatan nemned.

'came they never out of the pit of snakes and of the throat of the dragon which is called Satan' (Homily 4:46-8: transcription from The Digital Vercelli Book; translation from D. G. Scragg, ed., The Vercelli Homilies and Related Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)).

This type of imagery inspired illustrations in contemporary manuscripts like the New Minster Liber Vitae (now Stowe MS 944). Produced in Winchester, this manuscript features 11th-century prefatory drawings including dramatic scenes of the Last Judgement that stretch across two folios. The top illustration shows angels leading souls to St Peter, who holds open a door to the Heavenly Jerusalem. In the middle scene, two saints watch on as St Peter and a demon fight over a human soul. In the final scene below, Archangel Michael locks the door to Hell as a demon drops struggling souls into the open mouth of a beast, the Hell-mouth.


An almighty scene: a depiction of the Last Judgement with the Hell-mouth in the bottom illustration, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, Stowe MS 944, ff. 6v–7r

Hell-mouths continued to appear in manuscript illuminations throughout the Middle Ages, becoming more imaginative and wonderfully gruesome in their decoration. The Winchester Psalter (now Cotton MS Nero C IV), produced in the 12th century, contains an elaborate miniature cycle of the Last Judgement, featuring the toothy Hell-mouth of a beast filled with grinning demons tormenting human bodies, including one demon spearing an upside-down king with a pitchfork. Ghastly images like this miniature reminded medieval Christians that judgement awaited them also after death: if they passed, they could join the angels in heavenly paradise; if they failed, they faced eternity in the jaws of Hell.


Give 'em Hell: miniature portraying a three-headed Hell-mouth devouring creatures, from an Apocalypse, Add MS 17333, f. 43r

Illustrated Hell-mouths were particularly popular in Apocalypse manuscripts, works that contain copies of the Book of Revelation. This text is the final book of the Bible, featuring lurid visions of the struggles between good and evil before the Last Judgement. In a 14th-century French Apocalypse composed in both Latin and French (now Add MS 17333), images are used to depict the text, like a three-headed Hell-mouth illustrating the following passage from Revelation 20:10 (f. 43r): 'And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.' Three creatures likely representing the devil, beast and false prophet of the text are consumed by fire and brimstone within the wide jaws of the Hell-mouth. A demon can even be seen prodding a six-headed beast with a poker.

A 15th-century Book of Hours known as the Bedford Hours (now Add MS 18850) similarly contains scenes from the Last Judgement at the opening of the Office of the Dead, a prayer cycle commonly read for deceased loved ones in order to help their souls reach Paradise. The accompanying miniature acts as a visual reminder to readers of what awaited them after death: elaborate detail and decoration to glorify Paradise and gore-ify Hell. Christ appears enthroned in judgement over human souls, flanked by saints and angels. Souls that have passed judgement are greeted by angels as they reach Heaven. The damned souls below are forced into a fiery Hell-mouth, and roundels feature demons grinning as they beat human figures with mallets and turn a torture wheel.


Glorification of Heaven, Gore-ification of Hell: Hell-mouth in a full-page miniature depicting the Last Judgement, from the Bedford Hours, Add MS 18850, f. 157r

However, according to AC/DC, there is a bright side to ending up as a snack to a Hell-mouth:

Going down, party time

My friends are gonna be there too!

Image 5_harley_ms_3999_f021r
Like a bat into Hell: Detail of a marginal drawing with a bat-like Hell-mouth devouring souls, from Harley MS 3999, f. 21r


Alison Ray

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15 October 2017

Another day, another caption competition

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Regular readers of this Blog may recall that we sometimes throw caution to the wind, and test their imagination with one of our fiendish caption competitions. Today is no exception. Here is an image from the famous Queen Mary Psalter (Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 81r): but what exactly is going on?

There are no prizes, but we'd like you to send us your wittiest captions, using the comment form at the bottom of this post or contacting us on Twitter via @BLMedieval. We'll publish and retweet the best responses: good luck!


13 October 2017

Job vacancy to work with digital images

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The British Library is recruiting for a Project Officer to work on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. This is a full-time, fixed term position, for nine months, in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department.


The opening page for the Gospel of St Matthew from 9th-century Northern France: Harley MS 2797, f. 15r.

The Project Officer will assist the curators with all aspects of preparation for and delivery of the digitisation project and other smaller digitisation projects, including the South-East Asian manuscripts project. This will include arranging for delivery to the studio, checking images and uploading manuscripts to the Library’s online catalogue, contributing to the development of learning materials, preparing blog posts, answering enquiries and a range of other curatorial duties. This is a 9-month post post beginning in January 2018, dependent on the necessary security clearances being obtained.

Full details of the post and how to apply are available on the Library’s website. The position is only open to applicants with the right to work in the UK.

To apply, please visit

Closing Date: 5 November 2017

Interviews will be held on 16 November 2017. The selection process may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.

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