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

10 October 2015

Medieval Animal Tales

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You have until 1 November 2015 to run, gallop, canter, fly, swoop or simply walk down to the British Library to catch the brilliant (and free!) Animal Tales exhibition, on display in the Entrance Hall Gallery. 

Press shot

Curated by Matthew Shaw, Alison Bailey and Barbara Hawes, Animal Tales explores the relationship between beasts and humans in works of literature and artistic books: the many ways in which human feelings and thoughts have been projected onto animals, and how the animal kingdom has served as a mirror to human foibles. A full list of exhibits is available on our American Collections blog

Two items likely to be of interest to readers of this blog are Guillaume Apollinaire’s Le Bestiaire, ou Cortège d’Orphée (1977) and Pablo Neruda’s Bestiary/Bestario (1965). These 20th-century re-imaginings of a medieval genre provide the perfect opportunity for us to look over the British Library’s rich collection of bestiary manuscripts.

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Detail of a miniature showing vultures feeding on human carrion, from the Rochester Bestiary, south-eastern England (?Rochester), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 50r

When we think of medieval bestiaries, what first comes to mind are richly illuminated manuscripts: for example, the 13th-century Rochester Bestiary (Royal MS 12 F XIII). Some 55 miniatures illustrate passages of text that describe animals and their behaviour, from the lion to vulture (via the elephant, beaver, dromedary and mole). The 13th century was the heyday of the Latin bestiary, and based on the distribution of surviving examples and entries in contemporary book-lists, they were most popular in England.

Sloane MS 278, f. 48v

Detail of a miniature showing elephants, a dragon and a mandrake, from a bestiary, northern France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Sloane MS 278, f. 48v

Such manuscripts represent the culmination of a very long textual tradition. Bestiaries were primarily based on the Physiologus, a Greek text from Alexandria written between the 2nd and 4th centuries. The Latin translation that followed shortly thereafter provided the basis for the medieval bestiary, along with interpolations from Pliny the Elder’s Historia naturalis and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae.

Royal MS 12 C XIX, ff. 31v-32r

Miniatures of goats and a bull, from a bestiary compiled with other theological texts and medical recipes, northern or central England, 1st quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 12 C XIX, ff. 31v-32r

In monastic libraries, bestiaries were usually classified along with theological works and shelved with similar materials, such as sermons, penitentials, and lives of saints. The compilation of a bestiary in Royal MS 12 C XIX along with two sermons and extracts from the Bible, the Imago mundi and the Etymologiae further illustrates the context in which contemporary readers encountered this text. This manuscript (omitting the French and Latin recipes at the end) is a direct copy of the Worksop Bestiary (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M. 81).

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Detail of a miniature of Adam naming the animals, with a stag, a lion, a donkey, a rabbit, and a man riding a camel, from the Rochester Bestiary, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 34v

While the Physiologus began its life as a treatise structured around the subjects of virtue and vice, the interpolations from other texts gradually changed the bestiary’s form to reflect the organisation of the natural world as described in Genesis. The moralising content remained, however, and many medieval sermons and preaching handbooks contain such material derived from bestiaries. It was as source-books for edifying and instructive stories, complementary to those derived from the Bible or hagiographies, that the bestiaries derived their success and widespread circulation.  

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Detail of a miniature of moles burrowing underground, from the Rochester Bestiary, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 44v

For a more in-depth look at the bestiary genre, its origins and evolution, and links to further images, check out our online exhibition, Books of Beasts in the British Library: The Medieval Bestiary and its Context.

Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

Detail of a miniature of hunters spearing a bonnacon, and protecting themselves from its burning dung with a shield, from a bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

Past posts on animals – real or fantastic – are among the most popular ones published on this blog. Who could forget the Unicorn Cookbook? Or Medieval Lolcats and Bugs in Books? We’ve had dancing monkeys in Apes Pulling Shapes, the humble hedgehog in The Distinguished Pedigree of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and How to be a Hedgehog, and the mighty lion in A Royal Beast and the Menagerie in the Tower. There’s also a handy guide to possibly the oddest creatures in Weird and Wonderful Creatures of the Bestiary; beware of the bonnacon, that’s all we can say.

Animal Tales runs until 1 November 2015 in the Entrance Hall Gallery at the British Library. Entry is free.


- James Freeman

06 October 2015

Collaborative Doctoral Studentships at the British Library

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Last year we advertised the opportunity for an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Partnership on the theme of ‘Understanding the Anglo-Saxons: the English and Continental Manuscript Evidence’. Joanna Story, Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Leicester and Principal Investigator on ‘The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain’ project, submitted the successful proposal. When the doctoral award was advertised, Becky Lawton, who has just finished an M.Litt. at the University of St Andrews, was chosen to be the award-holder.

Bede Harley image

The beginning of Bede's verse Life of St Cuthbert, England, late 10th or early 11th century (Harley MS 1117, f. 45r)

We are delighted to welcome Becky to the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section at the British Library this week. Her research on ‘Experiencing the city of Rome in Anglo-Saxon England’ will be jointly supervised by Joanna Story and Claire Breay, Head of the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section. The award runs for three years from this October to September 2018. During this time we will be digitising many more of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and preparing for an exhibition on the Anglo-Saxons which will open in the autumn of 2018, giving Becky the opportunity to contribute to the Library’s public programmes as well as working on her thesis.


A page from Priscian's Excerptiones, England, 11th century (Add MS 32246, f. 5r)

This AHRC collaborative doctoral award is one of five starting this autumn at the British Library. The four other students will be working on: maps and the Italian grand tour; the religious music of South Asia; Ruth Rawer Jhabvala and constructions of identity in the Anglo-Indian novel; and the music of Thea Musgrave. They will be jointly supervised by British Library curators and academics based at Royal Holloway, SOAS, Exeter and Glasgow Universities respectively.

The AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships scheme has been running for three years and the Library is now advertising opportunities for new partnerships for a fourth round of awards to begin in October 2016. The Library provides the students holding a collaborative doctoral award with staff-level access to the collections, expertise and facilities of the Library, as well as financial support for research-related costs of up to £1000 a year. The student also benefits from the dedicated programme of professional development events delivered by the Library in tandem with the other museums, galleries and heritage organisations affiliated to the CDP scheme. So if you are based in a UK Higher Education Institution and would like to co-supervise an AHRC-funded doctoral student in one of the three research themes selected for next year, apply by 27 November 2015.

Claire Breay
Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts

01 October 2015

A Calendar Page for October 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Calendar page for October, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 6r 

A slightly grisly bas-de-page scene greets us this month: an ox is about to meet its end, while two men barter over the sale of another on the other side of the wall. Other peasants are carrying baskets of grapes to a shed in the distance, where we can see them being pressed to make wine. The roundels contain depictions relating to the major religious festivals of October: the feast day of Saints Bavo and Remigius, St Dionysius/Denis (shown holding his own head), St Donatian, St Luke (with a bull, his Evangelist symbol, in the background) and Saints Simon and Jude. As we noted last month, the artist has mistakenly reversed the order of September and October’s Zodiac symbols: Libra (in the form of scales) being shown here at the top of the page instead of Scorpio. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of men bartering over the sale of an ox, an ox being slaughtered, and grapes being pressed from wine,
Add MS 35313, f. 6r 

Detail of a roundel depicting St Denis,
Add MS 35313, f. 6r 

- James Freeman