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

30 September 2016

Valerius Maximus: A Handbook for the Roman Arriviste?

In Rome in AD 31, Valerius Maximus finished his collection of almost a thousand stories from the Roman world. It was a time of great change and uncertainty, but also the beginning of a new era, as the great Roman Republic had been replaced by the rule of emperors, a model that would continue in Western Europe until the 20th century. Many people lamented the loss of the values of the past and the poet Lucan wrote, ‘From now on until the end of time we are slaves’. It seems that Valerius wanted to preserve the great stories to entertain, to connect his fellow citizens to their great past, and to provide a noble code of behaviour based on the examples of their illustrious forebears.

Valerius Maximus presents his book to Tiberius, seated in his court; ten sons of Rome are sent to Etruria for religious instruction; Metellus forbids the Consul, Postumius, to leave Rome; Rome is conquered by the Gauls; Numa Pompilius, King of Rome, threatens his people with death if they do not perform religious duties; Jehoiachin, King of Judah, in prison, hears Ezechial prophesying; Publicius Malleolus murders his mother and is placed in a sack to be thrown into the sea as punishment: Book 1, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, Paris, 1473–c. 1480, Harley MS 4374, f. 1r.

Valerius took his stories from the works of great Latin authors including Cicero, Livy and Varro, organised into 9 books with themes such as happiness and ancient customs. The books were divided into 8 or 10 chapters, each dealing with a specific topic and containing stories from Ancient Rome followed by foreign tales, mostly from Ancient Greece, to illustrate the topic.  In his preface, Valerius stated that he wanted to save others trouble, so he organised his stories for easy reference.


Miniature of Gyges, king of Lydia, kneeling before an altar, with a full border containing the royal arms of England and a foliate initial 'I'(cy commence), at the beginning of book 7, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, Bruges, Royal MS 18 E IV, f. 109r.

Valerius's work provides a unique insight into the lives of ancient Romans and their views on many subjects. The picture painted is not entirely rosy; the cruelty and brutality of the Romans towards their enemies and opponents is portrayed honestly, and there are numerous examples of bloody conflict in the civil wars at the end of the Republic. The political changes brought with them huge social changes; it was a time of social mobility, with the old political aristocracy swept away and a new elite from more modest backgrounds, some from the provinces, taking its place. The new administrators, men like Pontius Pilate in Judea, may have used the examples in Valerius’s work to help them acquire the knowledge and values that they needed to govern and to avoid the sneers of the old elite. It was described as ‘Practical ethics for Roman gentlemen’ in the title of a study by C. J. Skidmore. 

An example of nouveau riche conspicuous consumption is provided as a warning at the beginning of the last book, on vice.

Sergius Arata exhibits his hanging baths to his friends and inspects the artificial reserves he has constructed for fish; mid tier: the son of Aesopus feasts on the most costly singing birds; the Roman women plead for the repeal of the Oppian law forbidding female extravagance; lower tier: Sardanapalus, King of Assyria, clothed in women's attire, sits spinning among his wives, then burns himself and his possessions when he loses power, Book 9, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, Paris, 1473–c. 1480, Harley MS 4375, f. 179r.

Although we do not really know how popular Valerius’s work was in antiquity, it was still copied the Carolingian period. In the later Middle Ages it was amazingly successful, with more copies surviving than any other Latin prose text apart from the Bible. Some studies have compared the use of exempla from the Old Testament with Valerius’s moral examples. In the British Library we have copies from France, Germany and Italy.


Historiated initial 'U'(rbis Rome), of a building probably representing Rome, and a three-sided foliate border, at the beginning of Valerius Maximus's Factorum et dictorum memorabilium, Italy, N. (Lombardy?), 2nd half of the 14th century, Arundel MS 7, f. 1r.

Vernacular translations introduced the text to an even wider readership, perhaps the most well-known being the French translation begun for Charles V in 1375 by Simon de Hesdin, a knight hospitaller, and expanded and completed by Nicholas de Gonesse for the Duc de Berry.


Miniature of Simon de Hesdin presenting his book to King Charles V of France; in the foreground, a dog pursues a monkey. Full strew border with acanthus leaves, flowers, figures, and a monkey mounted on a sheep (damaged), Book 1 Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, Netherlands, S., last quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 4430, f. 33r.

Valerius's work was also popular with medieval aristocrats, as evidenced by the number of highly illuminated copies made, with several in the British Library, some now bound in two or more volumes as they are so large. The following manuscripts have just been published in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Harley MS 4372

Harley MS 4373

Harley MS 4374

Harley MS 4375

Other Valerius manuscripts have not been digitised in full but can be found online in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts with a selection of images:

Harley MS 4430

Royal MS 17 F IV

Royal MS 18 E III

Royal MS 18 E IV

Arundel MS 7



A family enjoying good fortune, Book 7, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, France, N. (Amiens or Hesdin), or Netherlands, S., 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 17 F IV, f. 232r.

Chantry Westwell



Further Reading

C. J. Skidmore, Practical ethics for Roman gentlemen: the work of Valerius Maximus (Exeter, 1996).

Valerius Maximus ‘Memorable Deeds and Sayings’: One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome, translated by Henry John Walker (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004).

28 September 2016

The Book Banner Who Inspired Banned Books

25 September to 1 October is Banned Books Week, when the American Library Association raises awareness of books which have been challenged over the past year to encourage freedom of expression and education. In the ALA's lists of frequently or notably banned books through the ages, the genres of utopia and dystopia feature prominently. From A Brave New World to 1984 to The Handmaid’s Tale to various works of H.G. Wells and even the Wonder Woman comics, works about imaginary societies have often attracted controversy and censorship. 2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the work which gave these genres their names: Thomas More’s Utopia. Ironically, however, for the forerunner of such controversial genres, Thomas More was a keen book-banner himself.

Cotton Titus D IV f12v
Thomas More's Verses on the Coronation of Henry VIII, London, 1509, Cotton MS Titus D IV, f. 12v

As chancellor to Henry VIII, More arranged for the burning of early Protestant books which he considered to be dangerous,  'pestiferous... sent to this realm to pervert the people from the true faith of Christ, to stir them to sedition against their princes, to cause them to contemn [sic] all good laws... to the desolation of this noble realm' (ed. by J.F. Larkin and P.L. Hughes, Tudor Royal Proclamations (New Haven: Yale, 1964), vol I, p. 194). Only  a few months after becoming chancellor, More drafted a list of forbidden books, promulgated on 22 June 1530. This included a ban on books in English printed outside of England. Earlier, Henry VIII had been among the first rulers in Europe to issue an index of banned books, in 1526. The exception to this ban, oddly enough, was More himself. He was granted a special dispensation by Cuthbert Tunstall, then Bishop of London, on 7 March 1528 to read Protestant works in order to refute them.

The frontispiece of the original edition of 'Utopia', showing a map of Utopia and the fictional, Utopian alphabet. Published in Louvain : Arte Theodorici Martini, 1516 (C.27.b.30.)

Similarly, More imagined his perfect island of Utopia as a place physically and intellectually cut off from the rest of the world and its destructive ideas. He portrayed Utopia as intellectually remote by giving Utopians their own language, with an imaginary alphabet probably made by his friend Peter Giles and words for some unique concepts which he claimed did not translate directly into Latin. To some extent, the alphabet and map at the beginning of More’s work were also a way for More to continue the conceit that he was writing a travel guide to a place called Utopia, in the vein of earlier works like John Mandeville’s Travels, as Karma Lochrie has noted. Copies of Mandeville’s work sometimes also included the alphabets of the various languages he claimed to have encountered during his voyages. Additionally, however, Utopia's imaginary language may have been a way to extend censorship to More’s ideal world. Although all Utopians were supposed to be highly educated and to view a liberal education as the greatest of all pleasures, with their distinct language More’s Utopians would be unable to understand or read the ideas which More claimed had led to bad education and bad behaviour amongst Europeans.  

Miniature of John Mandeville travelling to Constantinople, from illustrations for Sir John Mandeville's Voyage d'outre mer, Bohemia, c. 1400-1425, Add MS 24189, f. 4v

More’s work enjoyed almost immediate success when it was first published: it was soon republished and translated into many different languages. Nevertheless, if More had published his work today he might have found himself on lists of banned books, like later utopias and dystopias. The original Utopia advocated the overthrow of the rich, compulsory nudity for engaged couples, slavery as a punishment for adultery and a ban on lawyers, amongst other things. So, for Banned Books Week, spare a thought for Thomas More—the spiritual ancestor of both people who want to ban books and of some of the authors who find their books banned.


Alison Hudson


This blog is part of series for Banned Books Week 2016. See also Melvin Burgess’s blog on Censorship and the author, curator Christian Algar on the  â€˜corrected’ Il Decamerone and curator Tanya Kirk on The Monk, the Bible and Obscenity.

Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

26 September 2016

Every People Under Heaven

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A major new exhibition on the art of medieval Jerusalem opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, the exhibition brings together art from multiple religious and cultural traditions, providing new insight into the international nature of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, and highlighting the stunning artistic richness that survives from the period.

The British Library is proud to be a lender to this exhibition. In addition to a number of items loaned by our colleagues in Asian and African Collections,  three items from Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts will be on display. The exhibition offers a rare opportunity for these items to be viewed in the context of many other works of art created around the same time, and helps to reveal the many threads of cross-cultural influence to be found in works from the medieval Eastern Mediterranean and Levant.

The Harley Greek Gospels was produced some time around 1200 either in Cyprus or Palestine. Like many illuminated Byzantine Gospels, it contains portraits of the four Evangelists, one at the beginning of each Gospel book, as well as canon tables decorated with curtains, capitals and birds, and decorated headpieces at the beginning of three of the Gospels. But in addition, Harley 1810 contains 17 framed miniatures depicting narrative scenes from the life of Jesus and his followers throughout the manuscript. Most of these scenes appear in the course of the text of the Gospels, but one, depicting the Nativity, is given special prominence by being placed as the headpiece to the Gospel of Matthew.


Dormition of the Virgin Mary, Harley MS 1810, f. 174r. Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1200.

These narrative cycles appear in some Byzantine Gospel books from the second half of the 11th century, but they are relatively unusual. The cycle of images includes depiction of scenes that do not appear in the Bible, for instance on f. 174r, where the depiction of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary can be found, an account that is not found in the text of the Bible. The art is characteristic of Eastern Mediterranean/Levantine book production at this period. The Met has chosen to display the scene of the Annunciation, on f 142r, which comes near the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. In this miniature, the architecture depicted is distinctive and perhaps reminiscent of local style.


The Annunciation, Harley MS 1810, f. 142r. Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1200.

In addition to Harley 1810, visitors to the exhibition will be able to see the Melisende Psalter and its ivories on display. Readers of our blog will know our deep love for this manuscript, one of the most stunning works of 12th-century Crusader Art. Probably created for Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem between 1131 and 1153, the manuscript is written in Latin, but shows on every illuminated page the influence of Eastern Mediterranean art. The gold backdrop and architectural styles on display are particularly reminiscent of Byzantine illumination. On display at the Met are the folios depicting the Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazarus.


The Transfiguration, Egerton MS 1139, f. 4v. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem) 1131-1143.


The Raising of Lazarus, Egerton MS 1139, f. 5r. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143.

The Melisende Psalter was originally encased in an exquisite binding of two ivory plaques, which contain scenes from the life of David on the upper cover and the six vices and six works of charity on the lower cover. As if carved ivory plaques were not ornate enough, this binding was further adorned with small gemstones.


Ivory plaque from the upper binding of the Melisende Psalter, depicting scenes from the life of David. Egerton MS 1139/1, f. vr. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143.

We are delighted to be able to contribute to the exciting new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to enable our North American friends to see some of our favourite manuscripts in person! The exhibition opens on 26 September, and continues until 8 January 2017.

Cillian O'Hogan