THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

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

21 November 2014

Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships at the British Library

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Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f132r
Opening leaf of the Old English epic poem ‘Beowulf’, 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century,
Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r

This is a reminder that the deadline for applications for a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership at the British Library is 4.00pm on Friday 28th November. There is just one week left to apply – don’t miss out on this fantastic opportunity! 

Six doctoral studentships are up for grabs, fully-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and with additional financial support of up to £1,000 per year from the British Library to cover travel and related research costs. 

Each studentship will be jointly supervised by a member of the British Library curatorial team and an academic from a UK Higher Education Institution. There are nine potential research areas that range across the British Library collections, with one for the medieval period: ‘Understanding the Anglo-Saxons: The English and Continental Manuscript Evidence’. 

Stowe_ms_944_f006r
Miniature of King Cnut and Queen Aelfgifu/Emma placing a golden cross on an altar, witnessed by Christ in Majesty and Benedictine monks, from the Liber Vitae of New Minster and Hyde, England, S.W. (Winchester) c. 1031,
Stowe MS 944, f. 6r 

The British Library has the largest holdings of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world. We particularly welcome applications relating to network and knowledge exchange across early medieval Europe, the methods of making manuscripts and the development of script, perceptions of the past in Anglo-Saxon England, and comparable topics (see the advertisement for full details). A CDA in this field would fit exactly with the three-year period of research and preparation for the major British Library exhibition on the Anglo-Saxons, which is scheduled to open in October 2018. 

We invite applications from Higher Education Institutions to work with us on this topic. We will select the six proposals with the strongest HEI applications to start in the next academic year, commencing October 2015. HEI applications will be assessed according to the following criteria: 

- development of the research theme;

- the proposed academic supervisor’s research interests and expertise;

- the ability of the proposed Department to support the student;

- and evidence of previous successful collaboration with non-HEI partners. 

The studentships will then be further developed in collaboration with the successful academic partner in each case before being advertised to prospective students. The successful student will contribute to the final agreed research topic. 

For further details and an application form, please visit the British Library’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships page.

20 November 2014

Magna Carta Ballot: A Huge Thank You

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We'd like to thank everyone who entered our recent ballot to see the four original 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, when they are brought together next February for the first time in 800 years. We were overwhelmed by the response: just under 45,000 people entered online, and we received in addition more than 100 postal entries. Everybody at the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral really appreciates the efforts made by members of the public to view our precious Magna Cartas.

The ballot is now closed, and the winning entrants are in the process of being selected. You may recall that we were offering 1,215 people the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the four documents side-by-side. Winners will be contacted between now and 12 December, so please hold tight if you haven't heard from us yet: there's a chance that you may actually be one of the chosen ones!

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Lincoln Cathedral (left), Salisbury Cathedral (middle) and the British Library (right), home to the four surviving manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta

A reminder that the winners will view the four 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts at the British Library in London on Tuesday, 3 February 2015. The winners will be given a special introduction to the history and legacy of Magna Carta from historian and TV presenter Dan Jones. They will also each receive a special edition Magna Carta gift bag containing free passes to each of the upcoming exhibitions at the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, plus a Certificate of Attendance, inscribed with the winner’s name and sealed in wax with a special stamp created to mark the day. The event is being sponsored by Linklaters, the global law firm, and we are very grateful for their support.

For anyone who does miss out on this one-off event, remember that all four Magna Carta manuscripts will be on display individually as part of major exhibitions in 2015 at their respective institutions -  the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral. See this webpage for more information.

The 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta by King John will be marked worldwide by numerous events and exhibitions, which will be publicised on this blog and via our Twitter account, @BLMedieval. In the meantime, if you'd like to know more about the history of Magna Carta, please see the British Library's dedicated webpages. It's going to be a very exciting year for all of us!

18 November 2014

A Royal Beast and the Menagerie in the Tower

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Yates_thompson_ms_13_f018r - detail
Detail of a miniature of a crowned lion as ‘King of Beasts’ in a Book of Hours (‘The Taymouth Hours’), ?England (?London), c. 1325–c. 1350,
Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 18r

In light of the recent news that London may be without lions for the first time in 800 years, and with further inspiration from the Royal Beasts exhibition at the Tower of London, we take a turn towards the role of the lion in the medieval imagination.

Barbary lion skull
A skull of a ‘Barbary’ lion, excavated from the moat of the Tower of London in 1937, image courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London

Visitors to Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination may remember the lion skull kindly lent to the British Library by the Natural History Museum. This was one of two skulls unearthed at the Tower of London, where King John (d. 1216) had established a Royal Menagerie which was to become home to an assortment of exotic beasts including lions, bears and one short-lived elephant.

Egerton_ms_3277_f068v detail
Detail of an historiated initial showing the King of England mounted on a lion, from the Bohun Psalter, England (S.E., ?London), 2nd half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 68v

The skulls were radiocarbon dated to 1280–1385 and to 1420–1480, suggesting that these particular lions were the private exhibits of either Edward I, II or III, in the first instance, or of the Lancastrian Henry VI or Yorkist Edward IV, in the second. These ‘Barbary’ lions, hailing from northwest Africa, were doubtless an exciting embodiment of the Royal Arms of England for any English monarch.

Harley4751 f2v
Detail of a miniature of crafty method for catching lions (potentially) by placing a goat in one hole and waiting for a lion to fall down the second hole, from a Bestiary, England (?Salisbury), c. 1225–c. 1250,
Harley MS 4751, f. 2v

Whether royal mascots or diplomatic gifts, numerous archival records indicate a long history of lions at the tower. Exactly how they came to be at the tower, how they were crated and transported, is unknown, but trapping a lion using the method depicted in the Bestiary above (involving two holes and a tethered goat) would be quite a feat. The earliest noted payments to their keepers came from King John in 1210-1212, with records becoming more detailed under Henry III (d. 1272).

Egerton_ms_3277_f104r - detail
Detail of an historiated initial showing a man being devoured by lions (I Kings 20:36), Egerton MS 3277, f. 104r

In 1240, the sheriffs of London were instructed to make provisions for a lion and a keeper, William de Botton, including 14 shillings for ‘buying chains and other things for the use of the lion’. By 1314, the sheriffs were providing a quarter of mutton every day for the maintenance of numerous lions. The polar bear seems to have had it better in this respect. As part of a cost-saving measure for the City, this (chained) Norwegian captive could at least fish for its own supper on the bank of the Thames.

The keeper’s own wages could be slow to materialise, as experienced by William Bounde who was owed £55 by 1408: he would be imprisoned by his creditors, he claimed, and the lions would go unfed. The office was granted to Robert Manfeld in 1436, who would double up as marshal of the hall within the royal household. Perhaps delegating duties became a challenge since it was in the same year that all of the lions in the tower apparently died. Had he simply fed the sick lions a monkey, as recommended by the Bestiary, they may well have been cured.

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f005v - detail
Detail of a miniature of lion and his irrational fear of the white rooster, in a Bestiary, England (?Rochester), c. 1230–c. 1300,
Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 5v

The Bestiary describes the power, courage and intelligence of the lion – a fitting emblem of monarchy – who fears nothing save the white rooster, scorpion and snake.

Royal_ms_12_c_xix_f006r - detail
Detail of a miniature of cubs born dead and reanimated by their fathers who breathe life into them, in the Bestiary, England (?North or Central), c. 1200–c. 1210,
Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 6r

When hunted, the Bestiary relates, the lion sweeps his tail over the ground to conceal his tracks; he also sleeps with his eyes open to avoid capture, and he has the ability to resurrect his stillborn cubs. He never attacks women and children, nor the man who prostrates himself before him.

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f008v - detail
Detail of a miniature of Josiane (luckily a virgin of royal blood) with two lions,
Yates Thompson 13, f. 8v (this miniature featured earlier this year in our Valentine's Day blog post, An Illustrated Guide to Medieval Love)

Lions were able to ascertain, by mysterious means, both virginity and royal blood, which is why Josiane was immune to being trapped in a cave with two lions.

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f012r - detail
Detail of a miniature of Beves of Hampton slaying the two lions pestering Josiane,
Yates Thompson 13, f. 12r

Beves of Hampton, by contrast, was forced to employ all his knightly prowess to avoid being devoured alive.

Royal_ms_13_b_viii_f019v - detail
Detail of a miniature of Joanna of Paris embracing a lion, from the ‘Topographia Hiberniae’ of Gerald of Wales, England (?Lincoln), c.1196–1223,
Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 19v

Occasionally, a ‘woman’s tricks’ might be held responsible for encouraging the amorous affections of the lion, as Gerald of Wales reports was the case at the French court of King Philip.

Roy17EVII f107v
Detail of a column miniature showing Habakkuk (suspended by the hand of God) delivering a jug of stew to Daniel in the lions’ den, from Guyart de Moulins, Bible historiale, France (?Paris), 1357,
Royal MS 17 E VII, f. 107v

Roy1Di f377
Detail of an historiated initial 'A' showing Daniel and two lions in the den, from a Bible, England, c. 1250–c. 1275,
Royal MS 1 D I, f. 377r

The popular stories associated with biblical heroes Daniel, Samson and David gave frequent cause for lions in manuscript miniatures. Daniel’s benign and friendly companions emphasise his miraculous delivery from the lions’ den.

Harley_ms_2803_f126v
Marginal drawings of David keeping his sheep safe by grappling with a lion and a dog (above) and fighting Goliath (below), from the Worms Bible, Germany (Frankenthal), c. 1148,
Harley MS 2803, f. 126v

Other popular subjects include David – shepherd boy and future king – protecting his sheep from a lion, a prolepsis of his battle with Goliath.

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f044r - detail
Detail of a miniature of Samson taking a honeycomb from the lion’s body, from the ‘Queen Mary Psalter’, England (?London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320,
Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 44r

Samson was renowned for possessing the strength to tear apart a lion with his bare hands. The illuminator who executed the Samson miniature chose to depict the moment when Samson revisited the dead lion to find bees nesting in its carcass, allowing him to take honey from the lion’s body.

Add 69865 f2v
Detail of an historiated initial containing an Evangelist portrait that represents Mark as a lion, from a Book of Hours, Italy (?Bologna), c. 1390 – c.1400,
Add MS 69865, f. 2v

The lion can be seen, more frequently, distinguishing the Gospel of Mark from the other Evangelists (this particular Mark has morphed into a lion-human hybrid).

Egerton 3266 f8
Detail of an historiated initial showing Jerome and lion, from Jerome, Pseudo-Jerome and others, Epistles and treatises, Italy (?Venice), c. 1390,
Egerton MS 3266, f. 8r

Similarly, Saint Jerome can be identified by his red Cardinal’s hat and his attribute, a lion.

Egerton 1070 f9
Detail of the border of a Calendar page for July, showing Leo and a man harvesting and gathering sheaves of wheat,  from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410,
Egerton MS 1070, f. 9r

In the bestselling devotional books of the Middle Ages, the calendar pages often display a zodiac sign paired with a typical activity for the month. Leo, the sign for July, heralded the harvest and he is frequently juxtaposed with scenes of peasants sharpening sickles or threshing grain.

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f078r - detail
Detail of Leo as a lion apparently forced into the July calendar by chain,
Royal 2 B VII, f. 78r

The lion is often very well portrayed in manuscripts and this may be linked to their popularity as an exhibit in the Tower. The improvements to Matthew Paris’ depictions of elephants, for example, are the result of his journey from St Albans to the Menagerie to draw Henry III’s elephant from life. Looking at the miniature above, you can almost imagine William de Botton with his chains worth 14 shillings, cajoling his captive ...

To learn more about the lions and other exotic creatures, their keepers, and the vanished menagerie that was a distant predecessor of London Zoo, check out the Royal Beasts exhibition at the Tower of London.

- Holly James-Maddocks