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

01 April 2015

Nothing But The Trooth

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Here at the British Library we’re famous for our April Fool blogposts. Who can forget the discovery of the unicorn cookbook, the time we encountered the Loch Ness monster, or the alien spaceship we found illustrated in a medieval calendar? But this year we’ve decided to keep to the straight and narrow. No jokes this year. Honest.

King John teeth

Instead, we’re going to bring you the teeth of King John. Yes, King John of Magna Carta fame, who notoriously snarled and gnashed his teeth when forced to concede the Great Charter in 1215 (at least, that’s what we’re led to believe) and who, to judge by the evidence, was in need of a very good dentist. At the Library we have two of John’s molars on display in our Magna Carta exhibition, and we’re not making that up. The gnashers in question were reportedly removed from the king’s tomb at Worcester Cathedral when it was opened in 1797, by one William Wood, a stationer’s apprentice. Next to the teeth we have on show a note recording their return, together with an account of the opening of the tomb. The molars have been kindly loaned to us for the duration of the exhibition by our friends at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum.

So, in this week when another medieval English monarch was interred at Leicester Cathedral, what can we learn about Bad King John from his teeth? For starters, John must have been in an exceedingly foul mood when Magna Carta was presented to him, to judge by the state of his molars. X-rays were made of the two royal teeth that still survive outside the coffin, and we are indebted to Professor Jason Buschman of the University of Oklahoma, who wrote to tell us that one of the teeth is a lower molar, most likely "number 30 or 31 in palmer notation”. The dentist who made the x-ray reported that one of the teeth was exposed at the root, meaning that King John would have been in great pain: in his case, "abscess didn't really make the heart grow fonder".


We can also speculate for the first time as to King John's diet. When his body was examined in 1797 by Mr Sandford, a surgeon from Worcester, it was reported that only four teeth survived in his "upper jaw". We are often led to believe that people in the Middle Ages had better teeth than their modern counterparts, due to the lack of sugar in their diet. Had John's gnashers started to fall out in his old age? One doctor we consulted suggested that King John may have imbibed too much runny mead during his lifetime (did it give him the runs?). What we can deduce, however, is that John may have suffered from chronic toothache in his final years, which potentially prompted his abysmal fits of temper, leading the barons to rebel against him. Did the king have more on his mind in June 1215 than simply putting his seal to Magna Carta?

After King John had died (in 1216), the monastic chronicler Matthew Paris wrote, "Foul though Hell is, it is made fouler still by the presence of John". Or, to put it another way, King John, "Fangs for the memories".

Of course, this may all be an April Fool after all ... if they were royal teeth, surely they would have a crown?

29 March 2015

The Anglo-Saxon Origins of Medieval Justice

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Our major Magna Carta exhibition is now open in London, but for those of you who can't come to the British Library in person, over the coming months we're going to showcase some of the exhibits on this blog. You may imagine that our story starts in the years immediately before the Great Charter was granted in 1215; but in fact the earliest items in our exhibition pre-date the Norman Conquest of England ...

Miniature of a king dictating the law (London, British Library, Royal MS 11 D IX, f. 6r)

‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.’

So reads the most famous clause of Magna Carta, still valid in English law. But what do we know about the concept of justice before the 13th century?

The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon law code was actually issued around the year 600 by King Æthelberht of Kent (r. 560–616), and was written in Old English. Meanwhile, the Bible provided models for good Christian kingship, as demonstrated in this 11th-century manuscript of the Hexateuch (the first 6 books of the Bible), on show in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

The Old English Hexateuch (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 59r)

Here is the biblical story of Pharaoh sentencing his chief baker to be hanged (Genesis 40:21-22). However, the 11th-century artist has dressed the figures in costumes of his own day: the king in the centre, holding a sword and a sceptre or rod, is surrounded by his counsellors; the condemned man, on the right, is being strung from the gallows. According to a 14th-century catalogue, this beautifully illustrated manuscript was kept in the monastery library at St Augustine’s Canterbury on the first shelf of its first bookcase. You can see this page in our Magna Carta exhibition, and the whole manuscript can be viewed on our Digital Manuscripts website.

The Ten Commandments were a particularly important model for the drafting of Anglo-Saxon law codes. They are referenced in the laws of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and formed part of the preface to his law book, grounding the secular laws in biblical precedents. God’s law is also specifically referenced in the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, which begins with the line, ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence, and the law of God promoted’. This was issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035) with the advice of his counsellors. The text was drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023), and one of the eight surviving medieval manuscripts containing the text was produced in either York or Worcester in the 11th century. It was probably owned by the archbishop himself, and may contain his own annotations.

The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

This item is also on display in our Magna Carta exhibition. When you see it in person, you realise that this pocket-sized book was deliberately made to be easily portable, perhaps by Archbishop Wulfstan himself.

It's quickly apparent that the concept of justice in medieval England was firmly established before King John came to the throne. We'll review why Magna Carta came to be granted in some of our later blogposts (look out for them on Twitter, @BLMedieval with the hashtag #MagnaCarta).

You can view the Old English Hexateuch and King Cnut's lawcode alongside other items relating to the history and legacy of Magna Carta in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. They are also featured on our new Magna Carta website (Old English Hexateuch and lawcode of King Cnut).

28 March 2015

The Greek Manuscripts of Robert Curzon, Part II

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(For Part I, see this post).

Today we continue our journey through the Greek manuscripts acquired by the 19th-century bibliophile and traveller Robert Curzon.

Add MS 39604. Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 344), with notes of lessons and names of months in Arabic. 12th century, ff 1-24 being added in the 14th century. Illuminated headpieces and initials. 16th-17th century binding of wooden boards covered with black leather, St. Andrew's cross in panel, blind-tooled, with a leather clasp. An image of the fore-edge, including the clasp, can be seen on Digitised Manuscripts as f v recto. Acquired at the Monastery of St Sabba near Jerusalem for 20 pieces of gold, and used by Curzon “for a pillow during 3 nights, when I was wandering on the banks of the Jordan” (f i recto).

Add MS 39605. Sermons on the Gospels of John and Matthew, by the author of the Theognosia (formerly attributed to Gregory of Nyssa), possibly Metrophanes of Smyrna. Early 10th century. Ornamental pen-and-ink head-piece on f 1 recto. 19th century binding of red velvet. Acquired at the Karakallou Monastery on Mount Athos (f ii recto).


Add MS 39606, f 1v. Miniature of Gregory of Nazianzus seated on Christ’s right, each with a book.

Add MS 39606. Gregory of Nazianzus, Orationes, followed by extracts from Pseudo-Nonnus, Scholia mythologica. 11th century. Illuminated head-pieces and initials, paragraph initials in gold. On f 1v is a full-page miniature, much-rubbed, of Gregory seated on Christ's right, each with a book. 19th century red velvet binding by J. Clarke. Acquired at the Karakallou Monastery on Mount Athos (f i recto).

Add MS 39607. John Chrysostom, In epistulam I ad Corinthios homiliae (TLG 2062.156), imperfect, lacking the end of hom. 26 (expl. ὄνειδος πολλῷ μᾶλ[λον, PG 61.222) and the beginning of hom. 27 (inc. μετὰ ταῦτα κατέβη, PG 61.223), due to the loss of two leaves after f 214. Preceded by a table of contents, ff 1r-v, imperfect at the beginning, and a summary, ff 2r-3v. Hom. 24 (ff 193r-200r) differs from the version in PG. 12th century. Head-pieces tinted yellow, initials slightly tinted. 19th century binding of blue velvet. Acquired at the Karakallou Monastery on Mount Athos (f i recto).

Add MS 39608. John Chrysostom, In Genesim homiliae 1-33 (TLG 2062.112). 13th century. 19th century binding of blue velvet. Acquired at the Karakallou Monastery on Mount Athos (f i recto).

Add MS 39609. Isaiah of Scetis (Isaiah of Gaza), Asceticon (CPG 5555). 11th century, with some 18th-century additions on paper. Illuminated head-pieces and initials, other initials and titles in gold. Hybrid full leather Greek/western binding of goatskin over wooden boards, with blind-tooled central stamp and corner pieces. Two pins on the front board fore-edge, and two pairs of three holes through the back board for straps. Writing on the upper edge, which can be seen on Digitised Manuscripts as f iii recto. Acquired at the Karakallou Monastery on Mount Athos (f i recto).

Add MS 39610. John Climacus, Scala paradisi (TLG 2907.001) and Liber ad Pastorem (CPG 7853). 11th century. Illuminated head-pieces and initials. Drawing of the Ladder of Ascent on f 206r. Binding of blind-tooled leather over birch boards. Writing on the upper edge, which can be seen on Digitised Manuscripts as f iii recto. Acquired at the Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos (f i recto).

Add MS 39611. Heirmologion, with musical notation, arranged according to ἤχοι or modes. 17th century. Modern western binding of brown leather. Presented to Curzon by the Vice-Consul at Suez in 1834 (f i recto).

Add MS 39612. Revelation (Gregory-Aland 2041), with brief marginal notes and kephalaia, probably by the original scribe, but less formally written. The quire-numbers on ff 1v and 10v show the manuscript formed part of a larger volume, possibly Athos, Karakallou 121 (268) (Gregory-Aland 1040). 14th century. Modern western binding of dark morocco. Acquired at the Karakallou Monastery on Mount Athos (f ii recto).


Add MS 39613, f 30r. Illuminated initial at the beginning of the Greek text of the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom.

Add MS 39613. John Chrysostom, Divine Liturgy, in a Latin translation, ff 2r-29v, followed by the Greek original, ff 30r-59r. The Latin text differs from that in printed editions. Likely created in France, probably Paris, between 1502-1506. Illuminated initials (ff 2r, 30r) and border (f 2r) of late French style. 16th century binding of light brown leather, blind-tooled, the panel formed by fillets alternating with four rows of impressions of a stamp of interlaced arcs of lattice work, five dots within the interlacement. The border is formed of lozenges enclosing roses. Brass clasps (one broken). Gilt and gauffred edges. The boards are from 16th century printed books: a Latin grammar with examples in French, a Latin servicebook, and another book in French. No indication is given of where Curzon acquired the item (either in the MS or in Curzon’s Catalogue), but the manuscript was in Rheims in the 16th and 17th centuries, and was quite possibly acquired there.

Add MS 39614. Xenophon, Hellenica (TLG 0032.001). Early 16th century, written by Damianus Guidotus at Venice, who was also the scribe of the following two manuscripts. Add MSS 39614-39616 were acquired from a priest of the Church of San Francesco della Vigna in Venice (f i recto). Five more volumes of the same set as in the possession of the Rev. Walter Sneyd of Denton, Oxford (afterwards of Keele Hall), whose library was sold at Sotheby's in December 1903: see lots 48, 52, 379, 380.

Add MS 39615. Hermogenes, De constitutionibus (Περὶ στάσεων) (TLG 0592.002). Early 16th century, of the same origin and provenance as the previous item.

Add MS 39616. [Plutarch], De liberis educandis (TLG 0007.067). Early 16th century, of the same origin and provenance as Add MSS 39614-39615.

Add MS 39617. Demosthenes, Orationes, with the hypotheses of Libanius, and occasional scholia and interlinear glosses. 15th century. Acquired at the Karakallou Monastery on Mount Athos (f i recto).

Add MS 39618. Theological and religious works. 16th century. Acquired at the Great Monastery at Meteora in Thessaly (ff i recto-ii verso).

Add MS 39619 (not digitised). Rhetorical and other works in Greek. Written in 1712 (f 3r). Acquired in Therapia (f i recto). Add MS 39619-39622 bear the 18th-century ownership marks of one Paisius of Amapeia.

Add MS 39620 (not digitised). Theological works of George Koressios. Late 17th century. Acquired in Therapia (f i recto).

Add MS 39621 (not digitised). Commentary on the 4th book of Theodorus Gaza's Introduction to Greek Grammar, based on the commentary of Elias Andreas of Bordeaux. Late 17th century. Decorated headpieces and initials. Acquired in Therapia (f i recto).

Add MS 39622 (not digitised). Rhetorical treatises in Greek by Alexander Mavrocordatos and Anastasios Papavassilopoulos, with interlinear and marginal notes. Early 18th century. Acquired in Therapia (f i recto).

Add MS 39623. Fragments from a Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 1742). Late 14th century. Acquired at the Karakallou Monastery on Mount Athos (f i recto).

Add MS 39624 (not digitised) Collection of classical and Christian Greek poems for school use, with interlinear glosses in Modern Greek, possibly a Mathematarion. This manuscript is not listed in Curzon's 1849 Catalogue. Written in 1739 (f 206r). Original binding of brown leather, blind-tooled diagonally. On the front cover is a faded stamp of the Crucifixion, on the back a mitred saint with scroll (possibly Prophet David). Acquired at the Monastery of St Sabba near Jerusalem (f ii recto).

This overview of Curzon’s Greek manuscripts can only go so far in outlining the range of fascinating material to be found within them – not least in Curzon’s own notes on their acquisition, which occasionally extend to several pages. While Curzon himself has been the subject of a number of studies, his manuscripts as a collection have not received as much attention as they deserve – some key items are listed below in the bibliography, but there is much work to be done, particularly on the insights they provide us with into Byzantine and post-Byzantine binding practices.


Robert Curzon, Catalogue of Materials for Writing, Early Writings on Tablets and Stones, Rolled and Other Manuscripts and Oriental Manuscript Books in the Library of the Honourable Robert Curzon, at Parham in the County of Sussex (London: Nicol, 1849) [Only 50 copies printed. Curzon’s personal annotated copy is now Add MS 64098)].

Robert Curzon, Visits to Monasteries in the Levant (London: John Murray, 1849)

Holland, M., ‘Robert Curzon, Traveller and Book Collector’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 65 (1983), 123–57

Fraser, Ian H. C., The Heir of Parham: Robert Curzon 14th Baron Zouche (Harleston: Paradigm, 1986)

Cormack, Robin, ‘“A Gentleman”s Book’: Attitudes of Robert Curzon’, in Through the Looking Glass: Byzantium through British Eyes, ed. by Robin Cormack and Elizabeth Jeffreys, Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies Publication, 7 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), pp. 147–62

- Cillian O’Hogan