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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

24 July 2014

Choosing a Husband: Brains or Brawn, Money or Looks?

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Career options for medieval women were limited.  If they were lucky they could choose between getting married or entering a convent.  For some, the latter was preferable to becoming a wife, who was often treated as little more than one of her husband’s possessions.  The majority of women, of course, still chose marriage and family, and the important question was: what type of man made the best husband?  There is a tradition of love debates in courtly society in Anglo-Norman England, which can be found in La Geste de Blanchflour e de Florence and Melior e Ydoine, both based on Latin poems about the relative merits of knights or clerks as husbands.  In other words, should you go for brawn or brains?  Perhaps the first place to look for an answer to these questions is the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, where we searched under ‘clerk’ and ‘knight’ and found some interesting images on the subject.

The one below shows a man, described as a ‘devoted clerk from Pisa’ riding with his future wife to their wedding.  He appears a good husband, perhaps, if a tad boring (but maybe not  – keep reading!).

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f223v
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a clerk from Pisa and a woman, being led on horseback to their wedding ceremony, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 223v

In the next image the clerk has deserted his wife - the Virgin Mary appeared at his wedding and reminded him of his promise to take holy orders!

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f224r
Detail of a bas-de-page of the devoted clerk of Pisa, having left his bride to become a monk, from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 224r

Below another clerk seems to be behaving badly. On the left hand side, he grabs a woman, who looks rather startled and on the right he attacks someone, perhaps a rival.

Royal MS 10 D VIII f. 176r
Detail of a miniature of a clerk and a woman, and the clerk committing a homicide, with a foliate initial 'Sacerdos', at the beginning of causa 15 of Gratian’s Decretum,  France (Paris?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Royal 10 D VIII, f. 176r

So let’s see what the knights were like…

This one is stabbing a unicorn; not a good start!

Harley MS 3244 f. 38r E043080
Detail of the lower miniature, depicting a knight spearing a unicorn as it rests in a maiden's lap, from a theological miscellany, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, after c. 1236, Harley MS 3244, f. 38r

And this one seems to be offering the lady a lift on his horse, but is he planning to carry her off?

Royal_ms_10_e_iv_f086v
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady and a knight, who is pointing towards his waiting horse; two hounds stand nearby, from the Smithfield Decretals, France (Toulouse?), Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 86v

So, what was a poor girl to do?  The answer is, ask her mother for advice.

Fortunately, one of our manuscripts, Additional MS 46919, a well-known collection of texts in Anglo-Norman French and Middle English from the 14th century, contains a unique copy of a verse debate between a mother and daughter on choosing a husband.  The volume, which has (unfortunately) not been fully photographed yet, is known as the ‘William Herebert Collection’ after the Franciscan friar of Oxford, who compiled it and copied some of the texts, which include Bibbesworth’s Tretiz de langage.

Photo 1 detail
Detail of the beginning of a dialogue between mother and daughter, Add MS 46919, f. 59r

The short debate beginning on f. 59r of this manuscript consists of five 10-line verses alternating between mother and daughter.  In the first verse, the daughter asks her mother how she should choose between her two lovers: one is handsome, the other rich:

Jole mere ke frai? / de deus amanz su mis en plai

Li uns est beaus cu[m] fleur de maii / li autre est riches ben le sei

Or quei ke me seit a fere / pite del douce meyre

Dear mother what should I do? / I am torn between two lovers

The one is as beautiful as the mayflower / The other is rich as I well know

So what should I do? / Have pity on me, sweet mother.

 

The mother replies:

Fille fetes cu[m] les fiz  / kant ieo esteie jeovenette jadis

Volu[n]ters a douns me pris / jeu sanz pru nest ben asis

Daughter, do as girls did / back when I was young.

I soon learned / that a game without a prize is not a good bet

 

She goes on to say that those who let their emotions rule will repent later.  The daughter protests that her handsome lover’s kisses are so delightful and that ill-gotten spoils soon turn sour:

Meuz vaut joie orphanine / ke rischesce a marrement

Ky mel leche d’espine / cher l’achate et poi en prent.

Better to be happy in poverty / than to have wealth but a dreary life

He who licks honey from a thorn / pays dearly and gets little in return.

 

Of course the mother has the final say – she gets her two verses worth, first delivering a stern lesson on the ways of the world:

Le secle est or de tel manere / les riches avaunt les poveres arere

Poi engard hom en la chere / si le riche atorn n’i siet

Marchant a voide almonere / fet a feire poi de espleit.

Such is the way of the world that the rich are in front and the poor behind

And nobody pays any attention to a man’s beautiful face

If he does not have stylish attire and a full purse.

 

But then she tempers this with wisdom.  In the end, it is goodness and honour that count.

Aver est en aventure / Mut est fous ke trop l’aseure

Mes honur et bunte dure / Coment ke del aver alt:

Ke seit entendre mesure / Cil est riche ke moult vault.

Material possessions are transient / only a very foolish person trusts in them too much

But honour and goodness last / whatever happens to possessions.

He who knows moderation / he is rich, for this is valuable.

 

And if all ends well, the outcome will be a wedding - to the right man!

Add MS 24678, f. 22r .K90054-29
Miniature of a marriage, Italy (Bologna), last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 24678, f. 22r

-  Chantry Westwell

22 July 2014

Conservation in the 17th Century

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The ‘Mayerne manuscript’, Sloane MS 2052, is on display at the National Gallery’s exhibition Making Colour and is also available to view on Digitised Manuscripts.  Compiled over twenty-six years, it reflects Mayerne’s abiding interest during his middle age in the chemistry of painting and the preparation of pigments, glues, varnishes and other substances.  As Making Colour reveals, before the synthesis and manufacture of pigments in the nineteenth century, artists made their own colours from the raw materials, experimenting and developing them through trial and error. 

Sloane_ms_2052_f026r
Tests for the preparation of a pigment from blackberry juice, from the Mayerne manuscript, England (London), 1620-1646, Sloane MS 2052, f. 26r (inverted)
 

Such information is vitally important for conservators: understanding the chemical make-up of early modern or medieval pigments can help them to determine why paintings have degraded in certain ways, and inform any interventions that they might make to rectify or halt such deterioration.  The Mayerne manuscript is also of interest in the history of conservation as a discipline, since it also contains notes about how paintings were repaired and cleaned nearly four centuries ago. 

1417.c.44
Title page of ‘Inaccessible Glory: or, The impossibility of seeing God’s face whilst we are in the body’, England (London), 1655, 1417.c.44
 

At the close of his sermon, preached at the funeral of Sir Theodore de Mayerne on Friday, 30th March 1655 at St. Martin-in-the-Field, Rev. Thomas Hodges remarked that: 

‘He [Mayerne] was a person of rare accomplishments...I confess I know not any subject which might be either for necessity or delight whereof he was ignorant, nay in which he was not a great proficient, and expert master.  And, which is more admirable, this variety was not attended with the least discernable confusion, but so methodised and digested that he readily at his pleasure commanded it when occasion required, and brought it forth clothed in such language as he spoke him no less an orator than an artist.’ 

Sloane_ms_2052_f023v
Notes on cyan and pigments derived from blackberries with samples, Sloane MS 2052, f. 23v
 

However tidy-minded and articulate Mayerne might have been in life, his manuscript Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium is something of a jumble.  In Sloane MS 2069 (f. 172r), we find a letter from Mayerne to his friend Dr Monginot in 1630, in which he recognised the need ‘to take up my pen, if I wish to leave to posterity some of my dearest children – that is, the fruits of my genius – as my conscience dictates, and as my friends invite me’.  Yet, as with his medical case notes, Mayerne never succeeded in imposing order upon his artistic notes or preparing them for print during his lifetime.  Those illustrated with pigment samples or coloured diagrams have naturally attracted most attention and, until 2004, there was no complete edition in English of this manuscript.  

Sloane_ms_2052_f057r
Assorted notes, recipes and observations, Sloane MS 2052, ff. 56v-57r
 

Buried among them are fascinating insights into conservation, 17th-century style.  The above page, for example, contains a note that to repair a cracked painting, it should be washed and rinsed thoroughly, and coated on the back with a thick water paint, that may be removed when necessary.  It is tucked among miscellaneous observations on the purification of light linseed oil by filtering it through a cow’s bladder, or the transparency of ox intestines in which gold has been wrapped. 

Sloane_ms_2052_f153v
Notes on the repair of oil paintings gleaned from Sir Anthony van Dyck, Sloane MS 2052, f. 153v
 

Sir Anthony van Dyck was a source of other conservation tips.  To repair a peeling oil painting and protect it from a damp wall, he advised painting the reverse with umber very finely ground in oil – a recipe essential for paintings undercoated with glue or water colours. 

Sloane_ms_2052_f014v
Notes on the cleaning of surface impurities and dirt from oil paintings, Sloane MS 2052, f. 14v
 

An unfortunate incident with paintings imported from Italy for Charles I prompted Mayerne to formulate his own ideas.  The paintings had been shipped, ill-advisedly, with a cargo of currants and mercury sublimate.  The former fermented and the latter vaporised, blackening both the oil and tempera paintings in the hold.  Mayerne jotted in the margins that the oils were apparently cleaned with milk – but observed that a more watery liquid would have been better: the oil would have resisted it and prevented the washing away or smearing of the pigments. 

Sloane_ms_2052_f015r
Notes on the cleaning and restoration of oil paintings, Sloane MS 2052, f. 15r
 

Mayerne continued with further, more specific instructions: that a picture soiled with dust should be washed with a wrung-out sponge, with any parts painted with the pigment Dutch pink protected from spoiling by glued-on paper.  Apparently, potash from crushed grape skins or urine are also effective! 

Sloane_ms_2052_f061r
Notes on the bleaching of paper, Sloane MS 2052, f. 61r
 

Mayerne’s interest extended beyond oil paintings to include prints, and he sought information from craftsmen such as Mark Anthony, a painter from Brussels, the royal apothecary Louis le Myre and Jean Anceaux, a bookseller from the French town of Sedan.  From the latter, Mayerne acquired some of the earliest recorded information about the bleaching of paper: one stage involved the soaking of paper in water in which a cod has been boiled. 

Sloane_ms_2052_f147r
Mayerne’s recipe for cleaning tempera paintings, Sloane MS 2052, f. 147r
 

These and many other such notes formed the basis for subsequent experimentation, also recorded in the manuscript.  The same motivation drove Mayerne’s medical and artistic pursuits – a passion for the study, development and application of chemistry – and sustained the compilation of this notebook over twenty-six years.  He also had an eye for the commercial potential of his discoveries.  Towards the end of the manuscript, there is a recipe for ‘freshening tempera pictures and making them equal to those painted with oil’.  To distinguish it from his other notes, many of which had been obtained second-hand, he recorded in the title that it had been ‘invented by T. de Mayerne, 1632’, perhaps with the aim of ensuring that it remained his or his heirs’ intellectual property. 

- James Freeman

20 July 2014

Enter the Dragon: Happy St Margaret's Day!

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Today is the feast day of St Margaret of Antioch (not to be confused with St Margaret of Scotland or Hungary).  Although St Margaret was declared to be apocryphal in the year 494 by no less an authority than Pope Gelasius, and many people over many years have entertained doubts about her authenticity, she is still widely venerated as a saint today.

Add_ms_35313_f234v
Miniature of St Margaret, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 234v

St Margaret was particularly popular in the medieval period, and her cult and image spread widely.  No doubt this was aided by her inclusion in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend.  In this text, Margaret was said to have been born in Antioch in the closing years of the 3rd century.  Although she was the daughter of a pagan priest, Margaret converted to Christianity and vowed eternal chastity.  She moved to an area in what is now Turkey with her godmother, and there caught the attention of a Roman prefect or governor.  In a turn of events that echoes many of the other early female martyrs, the prefect proposed marriage to her, but Margaret chose to remain true to her vow and to Christianity. 

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 255v G70033-99a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Margaret being brought before the Roman prefect, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London?), 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 255v

Harley MS 5347 f. 26v c12046-06
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret in prison being visited by her godmother, from Tectino’s Life of St Margaret of Antioch in verse, northern Italy, first half of the 15th century, Harley MS 5347, f. 26v

In retaliation, the prefect ordered her to be tortured and thrown into prison.  Whilst there, according to the legend, she was visited by Satan in the shape of a dragon.  Resisting temptation yet again, Margaret was swallowed by the dragon, but emerged from his side unscathed and carrying a cross after praying for aid.  Giving up on the idea of dragon-based revenge, her captors eventually beheaded her.

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 256r G70032-65a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Margaret emerging from the belly of the dragon, and being beheaded, from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 256r

St Margaret is one of the most instantly recognisable saints in the medieval pantheon, because she is so frequently depicted emerging from the belly of a dragon (for more on the latter subject, see our post The Anatomy of a Dragon).  Her suffrage was widely included in medieval manuscripts, as were miniatures of her torture and death.  Below is a selection of some of our favourite images of St Margaret from throughout our collections; please do let us know if we’ve left out any of your favourites.  As always, you can reach us in the comments below, or on Twitter @BLMedieval.

Add_ms_18851_f406v_detail
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 406v

Egerton MS 2019 f. 216r K051116 copy
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1440 – c. 1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 216r

Harley MS 3000 f. 42v K051118
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret in prison, emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), and Psalter, southern Netherlands, c. 1460 – c. 1470, Harley MS 3000, f. 42v

Harley MS 2974 f. 165v c6725-03
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours, France (Troyes?), c. 1460 – c. 1470, Harley MS 2974, f. 165v

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f086v_detail
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Margaret being thrown into prison, and escaping from the belly of the dragon, from the Taymouth Hours, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 86v

Yates_thompson_ms_3_f282v_detail
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the fire-breathing dragon, from the Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v

Besides providing us with numerous dragon images St Margaret is the patron saint of pregnancy and expectant mothers (something that has particular relevance to me at the moment!).  Happy St Margaret’s Day, everyone!

-  Sarah J Biggs