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

04 July 2015

Happy Birthday, Declaration of Independence!

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Today is the 4th of July, the birthday of one of the most famous documents in the world, the United States Declaration of Independence. This year we are celebrating another very important birthday at the British Library, namely the 800th anniversary (yes, eight hundred years) of the granting of Magna Carta by King John of England in 1215.

But we do like to do things in style at the Library. And so, this summer, for the very first time in the United Kingdom, we have on display not only Magna Carta BUT ALSO Thomas Jefferson's own copy of the Declaration of Independence AND the Delaware manuscript of the United States Bill of Rights!!! These are all truly sensational documents in their own rights, each of them testament to the fight for establishing rights and liberties in various forms across the ages, and for attempting to limit the rule of tyrants.

We have kindly borrowed Jefferson's Declaration of Independence from New York Public Library, and it's a fascinating artefact. Made a few days or so after the Declaration was ratified by the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia on 4 July 1776, this manuscript preserves the original state of Jefferson's text, before it had been amended by his fellow delegates. Some of its words and phrases are underlined, and these represent passages which were omitted from the final version of the text. One of those omissions is highly poignant, since it contained Thomas Jefferson's proposal that the slave trade be abolished -- he described this trade in the manuscript draft on loan to us as an 'execrable commerce', and he labelled King George III a tyrant for presiding over the transportation of men from one hemisphere to another. It's extremely moving to see this manuscript in the flesh.


HRH The Prince of Wales and exhibition curator Claire Breay looking at the Declaration of Independence at the opening of the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition

And just for good measure, the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition also contains a manuscript of the US Bill of Rights. This is the copy sent to Delaware in 1790, which was then sealed and returned to the federal government. We have been extremely fortunate to borrow this item from the US National Archives in Washington, DC, and we are extremely grateful to both of our lenders, and to the law firm White & Case for making these loans possible.

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00581 (credit Tony Antoniou)

The Delaware manuscript of the United States Bill of Rights, currently on show at the British Library

And did you know another thing? If you're a big fan of American constitutional history, we're sure you'd like to know that you can also see one of the original printed copies of the US Declaration of Independence at the British Library this summer. Known as a 'Dunlap' printing (after its printer, John Dunlap), our copy was discovered by an American researcher in the United Kingdom National Archives in 2009, and has kindly been loaned to us by our friends at The National Archives.

EXT9-93 US Declaration of Independence 1776

A Dunlap printing of the Declaration of Independence, found at the UK National Archives in 2009

So don't miss the opportunity to see all these magnificent documents alongside Magna Carta! It truly is a feast for anyone interested in the history of England and the United States of America. The exhibition is open until 1 September 2015, and you can buy tickets here. Alternatively, you can read more about these items in the exhibition catalogue and on our dedicated Magna Carta website.

Julian Harrison

Co-curator, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

01 July 2015

A Calendar Page for July 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 July, 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. 4v 

The agrarian labours continue in this month’s bas-de-page scene. Amidst a gently rolling landscape, two men are mowing grass with scythes. To the left, a woman is using a pitchfork to turn the grass to dry into hay in the sunshine. Another woman approaches from the background, bearing a basket on her head and a satchel in her hand – perhaps containing refreshments for the workers. Note how the artist has included little details to convey a sense of the midsummer heat: the broad-brimmed hats the labourers are wearing to protect their faces from the sun, and the rolled-up sleeves of the man on the right. The roundels for July show the key religious dates for the month: the Visitation of the Virgin Mary, the Translation of the Relics of St Thomas the Apostle, and the feast days of St Benedict, St Mary Magdalene, and Sts James and Christopher. A lion – the Zodiac sign for Leo – is included as a header in the calendar. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants making hay,
Add MS 35313, f. 4v 

Detail of a roundel showing St Mary Magdalene,
Add MS 35313, f. 4v 

- James Freeman

27 June 2015

Art in the margins: the Theodore Psalter

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The psalter, a copy of the Psalms designed for personal or liturgical uses, was an important text in Byzantinum, particularly in monastic life. Among the many copies of this text surviving down to the present day are marginal psalters, which contain illuminations in the margins of the folios. Several important marginal psalters survive, such as the Barberini, Paris, and Bristol Psalters, all of which can be appreciated for their impressive decoration.

Add MS 19532, f 1v. Chrysography (writing in gold).

Add MS 19352, the Theodore Psalter, is perhaps the most richly decorated psalter to survive, with 440 marginal illustrations, and we have just updated the catalogue to include a description of every miniature in the manuscript. Nearly every folio contains illustration, and the title and first initial of every verse are in gold.

Add MS 19352, f 96r. An elaborate orchard scene takes up nearly a third of the page.

These illustrations range widely in their content, as each tries to imagine the most important elements of the Psalm. Specific lines referred to are often linked to the images by means of red or blue lines. The manuscript includes some graphic depictions of God’s wrath:

Add_ms_19352_f011v detail
Add MS 19532, f 11v. Angel pulling out the boastful tongue (Ps 11(12):4).
Add MS 19352, f 21v. Burning of Sodom and the five cities.

It also contains scenes of some of the Bible’s most exciting stories:

Add MS 19532, f 182r. David and Goliath.
Add MS 19352, f 141v. Plagues visited upon Egypt.
Add MS 19352, f 201r. Jonah cast into the sea.

Particularly prominent is King David, reputedly the author of a number of the Psalms, who can be seen praying in various ways. Many of these images underscore the prophetic qualities of the Psalms, and include New Testament figures, particularly Jesus and Mary, along with a passage in which they are prophesied.

Add MS 19352, f 84r. Daniel prophesies on the mount (pink) with the Mother of God at the top and David at the foot.

Other images are used in a liturgical context, and what they depict is not necessarily connected with the Psalm, but connected to a feast or Saint to which that Psalm is significant:

Add MS 19352, f 81v. The Martyrdom of the Forty Martyrs. Psalm 65 (66) is read on their feast day.

In addition to the Psalms, the Theodore Psalter contains the Odes, and a twelve-syllable poem on David’s early life. Also among the additional material are a colophon and a prayer for the Psalter's recipient. These make it clear that the manuscript was copied in 1066 by Theodoros of Caesarea, presbyter of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople, for the Abbot Michael.

Add MS 19352, f 208r. Colophon, written in gold.

On Digitised Manuscripts you can see full coverage of this richly decorated manuscript and many others like it.

-          Andrew St. Thomas