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

28 June 2016

Tips for a Manuscripts Road Trip

With the long vacation about to begin, the sun shining (sometimes), and the temperature reliably in the double digits throughout the day, medievalists everywhere are turning their minds towards spending time in manuscript libraries. How can you spend the fleeting hours efficiently, while leaving enough time for getting a sunburn?

Detail of Boethius in his library, from Le Livre de Boece de Consolacion, Bourges, 1477, Harley MS 4335, f. 1r

Know Your Library

Well before you visit a library, contact it to confirm that the material you want to examine is available on the dates you want to visit. Items can sometimes be on display at an exhibition, on loan, in conservation, or at the photographic studio. If in doubt, you can contact for British Library manuscripts. Additionally, check that we haven’t already digitized the manuscript; we’re putting up new material every day. Especially during the summer, be sure to check whether the library will be closed for an obscure holiday or for a lunch break. Note that you’ll often be asked to leave a quarter of an hour before the stated closing time.

Most libraries require you to order items in advance, which is best done at least a day before; you don’t want to be stuck waiting for your book to show up. You’ll need to get a reader pass to visit the British Library and most other specialized libraries, for which there are sometimes unusual requirements. You don’t want to travel only to discover that you didn’t bring sufficient identification to be admitted.

  1. Proof of address. Since you’ll be working with some highly valuable materials, you’ll need an official proof of address to get a reader pass at the British Library. If you don’t have an identity card with your address, be sure to bring something that matches it.

  2. A reference letter. Most manuscripts libraries require you to bring a recent letter of reference briefly indicating any institutional affiliation you might have and experience with handling special-collections material. This should be printed on official letterhead. Ideally, bring one to give to every library you visit.

Bel Accueil (Fair Welcome) looking at her reflection in a mirror while la Vieille (the Duenna) admires, from Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, Bruges, c.1490–1500, Harley 4425, f. 114r 
  1. Passport-sized photos. The friendly British Library staff will take your photograph; smaller libraries often ask you to bring one or two photos to attach to a card. Hint: there are now many websites that will correctly crop a photo to the specifications for different countries.

  2. A one-pound coin. You can only bring materials into the reading room that fit in a clear plastic bag. At most libraries in the UK, you get a locker key in return for a coin. Don’t worry: you’ll get it back when you return the key, and you can spend it on a nice cup of tea as you leave on your last day.

In planning your trip, don’t forget to take care of yourself: some libraries can be very cold (especially old college and cathedral libraries during the winter). The British Library has one-site restaurants and cafés, but in other cases you’ll want to bring sufficient provender to get you through the day without wasting time looking for food.

Bring the Right Gear

Think carefully about your research questions before you go to the library, and what you’ll need to answer them. Many successful trips to the reading room can be made with nothing more than a method to record notes. But life can sometimes be made easier with a few simple tools:

A ruler marked for millimetres (hovering over Harley MS 649, f. 137r)
  1. A ruler. This is the most important part of the manuscript scholar’s toolkit. It’s surprisingly difficult to obtain a ruler truly suited to codicological work. Manuscripts are always measured in millimetres, regardless of their size; this means that one almost never needs to worry about decimals or fractions while achieving an appropriate level of accuracy, while saving time by leaving out the units from one’s notes. Unfortunately, many rulers are still marked only in centimetres, making it difficult to read the smaller increments. The fastest and most accurate rulers number individual millimetres. Even better is a ruler that marks half millimetres; when measuring scripts on a page, this can improve one’s understanding of how different pages were ruled or written. Since parchment is rarely flat, a flexible ruler that can be rolled up when on the move is key for any serious work studying page layout or scripts. A ruler around 500 millimetres long is sufficient for the majority of manuscripts.

  2. A pencil and paper. Special collections libraries ban pens. Many lend out pencils, but these are often too short for extended writing; bring your own, plus a pencil sharpener. Even if you’re using a laptop, you don’t want to be stuck if the battery suddenly dies.

  3. A camera. It’s sometimes fastest to take a picture and make more detailed notes on it later. Recognizing that this reduces wear on collections, an increasing number of libraries allow photography of their items (including the British Library, for non-restricted manuscripts). But be careful about relying on this: many reading rooms are too dim to obtain a clear picture of a page of handwritten text with a typical point-and-shoot camera. Even with a higher-end camera, text can be unreadable, necessitating another visit. The most cost-effective option is often to ask for a copy from Imaging Services, which produces extraordinarily clear photographs; and if you order an entire manuscript, you’ll also be doing the entire world a favour, since this allows us to make it available through Digitised Manuscripts.

    If you’re set on taking your own photos, be aware that many libraries ban noisy SLR cameras. The ideal camera for most researchers is a quiet midrange mirrorless camera attuned to low light. Go for the largest image sensor available, as this is key for getting clear pictures of text (an APS-C sensor is a reasonable expectation with today’s technology and on a scholar’s budget). It’s also useful to have a lens hood, to cut down on the glare from the fluorescent lights and ensure you don’t get too close to the book.

  4. A magnifying glass. Optional, depending on your eyesight and research questions. One can often be borrowed from reading rooms.

  5. A small electric torch. When studying a writing surface, whether parchment or a typeset page, a raking light can reveal many details. Be sure to use an LED light, since these produce less heat; and be careful not to blind other readers!

Saving a book from hellfire, Anglo-Saxon miscellany, England (Canterbury or Winchester?), 2nd quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 87v

Be Nice to Your Manuscripts

Handling a manuscript is like caring for a small child. They can sometimes be surprisingly tough, but they can also do unexpected things behind your back and get hurt easily.

Falconia with her books, from Boccaccio, De claris mulieribus, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal 20 C V, f. 147v

Always use appropriate book stands: don’t always work with the one that happens to be on your desk, but look around the reading room first to see what is available. The foam wedges that are now becoming common are available in four different sizes: if you don’t find what you need, or you’re not sure how to use the stands correctly, the reading room staff will be more than happy to lend a hand.

Collection Care at the British Library has a series of films showing how to use items properly; even experienced researchers are sometimes surprised to find that they’ve been using book stands incorrectly for decades. We also have a series of guidance booklets on conservation.

— Andrew Dunning (@anjdunning)

23 June 2016

From the Louvre's Library to the Treasures Gallery

In 1364 the French king, Charles V (b. 1338, d. 1380) set about constructing a new library in the Louvre, which had hitherto been a fortress and was now a royal palace. He chose an old falconry tower, removed the birds and created a splendid library. What was a loss for the birds and their keepers was a gain for the literary culture of France.

The opening page of the second volume of a Bible historiale, France (Paris), 1356-1357, Royal MS 17 E VII, vol. 2, f. 1r. A lion playing with some monkeys is depicted at the bottom of the page. Lions were the favourite animal of Charles V who owned more than ten of them in his menagerie. 

The construction of the library reveals the king’s strategy and shows how Charles differed from the monarchs that preceded him. He was a bibliophile king, as well as a highly political one. A well-furnished library containing splendid illuminated manuscripts could serve a wider political and cultural agenda and the construction of the library was part of a project to promote the French language and to make Paris both a seat of learning and an administrative hub. As in the case of other royal libraries, it is possible to see the luxurious manuscripts produced for him as an expression of the public persona of their owner.

Charles reigned during the period of the Hundred Years War, a time of external threat and instability. In locating his court in Paris, in the newly modernised Louvre, he intended to centralise the workings of the court to better respond to the military threat posed by the English forces. Part of that consolidation was the promotion of the French language.

To fill his library, Charles commissioned the copying of a large number of volumes as well as new translations of particular works. The library was organised on three floors. The most precious manuscripts, mainly in French, and the new translations were kept on the first floor. On the second floor, there were the prose romances, medical books, manuscripts of the Roman de la rose and other poems. Latin books, encyclopaedias, theological books and books of science and astronomy occupied the third floor. The library was open to his counsellors, prestigious visitors and members of the court. In 1380, the library contained over 900 manuscripts and 2500 texts in French.

An apostle preaching, from Royal MS 17 E VII, vol. 2, f. 217v

A beautiful bible, probably owned by Charles V, has recently gone on display in our Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The manuscript (Royal MS 17 E VII vol 1 and vol 2) is an illustrated, French version of the Bible, known as a Bible historiale. Now bound in two volumes, it was made in 1356-57, either for Charles V or for his father John the Good, king of France (1350-1364).  The Bible historiale was not the first translation of Scriptures in a vernacular language but it was one of the best-sellers of this genre. The Bible historiale was compiled by Guyart des Moulins, canon and dean of St Pierre, Aire-sur-la-Lys Artois, between 1291 and 1297 who blended his own translation of a 12th-century scholastic text, the Historia scholastica by Petrus Comestor, with a translation of the Vulgate.

The Bible historiale was popular in royal and noble collections from the second half of the fourteenth century onwards. Manuscripts of the Bible historiale, like this copy, were expensive to produce because of their size and magnificent decoration. John the Good owned a Bible historiale captured in Poitiers in 1356 (now held at the British Library as Royal MS 19 D II), while his son, Charles V, owned at least seven! 

Royal 19 D II f. 155
Detail of the death of David and the crowning of Solomon, from the Bible historiale of John the Good, France (Paris), c. 1350-1356, Royal MS 19 D II, f. 155r

Though the Bible historiale in the Treasures Gallery is not mentioned in the extant inventories of Charles V’s library, it appears highly likely that he once owned it. The quality of the decoration indicates that these volumes were intended for an aristocratic patron. The miniatures are attributed to the Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy, who worked for both John the Good and Charles V. Each biblical book opens with a large miniature, a decorative border. There are two large one-column miniatures respectively at the beginning of the first volume and second volume: the first volume begins with a preface illustrated by the Trinity and the second volume begins with the Proverbs illustrated by Solomon’s life.

The Trinity surrounded by the authors of the four Gospels: Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, from Royal 17 E VII, vol. 1
, f. 1r

After his death in 1380, Charles V’s library began to be dispersed. In 1424, John, duke of Bedford, regent of France (1389-1435) bought this library for a low price and moved it to Rouen. According to Jenny Stratford, the duke of Bedford acquired this highly symbolic library in order to create a magnificent court and especially to promote the English king’s claim on French crown. When he died in 1435, the library moved to London where it was dispersed another time. However our Bible historiale followed a different path: they were acquired by Thomas Langton, bishop of Winchester (1493-1501) who was sent to France for diplomatic missions in 1467 and 1485. The Bible historiale would become an English royal book under Charles II, three centuries later.

Royal 17 E vii vol1 f 247r David bells
David playing the bells, from Royal 17 E VII, vol. 1, f. 247r

Looking at the remaining books of Charles’ library today-- whether in person in the Treasures Gallery or online on Digitised Manuscripts-- we catch a glimpse of the king himself.  We get a sense of a political strategist and a bookish king who – according to Christine de Pizan –liked to read until dinner in a private study he had created, next to his library.

~Laure Miolo

 Further Reading:

On Charles V’s library, see: Léopold Delisle, Recherches sur la librairie de Charles V, 2 vols (Paris: H. Champion, 1907). François Avril, Jean Lafaurie, Marcel Thomas (eds.), La Librairie de Charles V (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 1968).

Jenny Stratford, The Bedford Inventories. The Worldly Goods of John, Duke of Bedford, Regent of France (London: Society of Antiquaries, 1993), pp. 55-97.


21 June 2016

Maps, Monsters and Marvels

In the second series of the American television programme The West Wing, the White House is lobbied by a fictitious group of cartographers to promote a new map of the world. They suggest a map which uses the Gall-Peters projection and puts South at the top of the map and North at the bottom. While the characters in the television series reject the ‘South-up’ map as too radical, it is actually quite an old idea: in fact, a map contained in a spectacular 11th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript (Cotton Tiberius B V/1), which has been uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts this week, shows that the idea of putting South-East at the top is at least a thousand years old.

Map of the world, from a scientific miscellany, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

This map—the earliest known attempt to depict the topography of the British Isles—features Britain in the bottom left corner of the world. (This can be viewed more easily using the zoom feature on Digitised Manuscripts.)

Detail of the British Isles, from Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v 

The map was copied in the mid-11th century, but some scholars suggest that it may have been based on a Roman world map.

Perseus and Medusa, from Cicero’s Aratea, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 34r

The map is contained in a scientific miscellany (Cotton Tiberius B V/1), which was probably made in the south of England in the mid-11th century. Both Canterbury and Winchester have been suggested as its place of origin.

Argo, from Cicero’s Aratea, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 40v

This volume is full of practical texts and fantastical images. Its contents include a calendar; a copy of an archbishop’s itinerary to Rome; lists of bishops, emperors, and kings; Ælfric’s De temporibus anni; a Macrobian zonal map; prayers; texts on the sun and the moon; Cicero’s Aratea; and Priscian’s Periegesis.

Lertices with asses' ears, sheep's wool and birds' feet and Blemmya, a headless man with face in his torso, from the Marvels of the East, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 82r

This volume also contains an illuminated copy of the Marvels of the East, a text which described the creatures who were said to live in the faraway lands depicted on the map.

Miniature of Mambres contemplating Hell, from Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 87v

In the 12th century, a Life of St Nicholas and some notes relating to Battle Abbey were added to the manuscript. The volume also contains a series of documents related to Ely, Cambridgeshire and Exeter that were probably added to the volume in the early modern period.  

Regulations of the thegns' guild at Cambridge, from an addition to an 8th-century Gospel-book, England (Ely), late 10th century,  Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 74r

This magnificent manuscript gives unparalleled insights into a variety of aspects of early English history, from the reception of classical texts to conceptions of topography to rare depictions of agricultural practices to imaginings of marvels and monsters.

Calendar page for June, from Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f.5v

Whether you are lobbying for a new map or are just curious about what Anglo-Saxons did in June, do have a look at Cotton Tiberius B V/1 on Digitised Manuscripts: there is a lot to discover.

~Alison Hudson