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

26 July 2017

King David: life and soul of the Psalter

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In a recent Twitter poll by @BLMedieval, 989 voters resoundingly agreed that, out of a choice of four medieval saints, the best to invite to a summer party would be King David (his knack for the harp being stuff of legend). In tribute to this endearing decision — which spurned St Lawrence and his griddle, St John the Baptist and his lamb, and St Catherine with her wheel (for the pyrotechnics) — we thought it would be interesting to look at images of David and his harp in the decorated initial ‘B’ of medieval Psalters. Sometimes it demands great concentration to decipher letters decorated with scenes (historiated initials) but some have such delicately crafted meanings that the rewards are well worth it. They can be visual puzzles, with a message.

Harley MS 48041 f004r 12th

A decorated initial for Psalm 1 with an image of King David and his harp: Harley MS 4804/1, f. 4r (detail). Chartres, 1st half of the 12th century.

Psalm 1 in the Vulgate Bible opens Beatus Vir, ‘Blessed is the man’. The text proceeds, ‘who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence.’ The Psalms, widely believed to have been composed by King David himself, were recited by monks each day in religious services and the words were absorbed in the memory; they could have fallen out of diligent monastic mouths without a second thought. Psalters (books of the Psalms with prayers and other texts) were produced as stand-alone volumes, so the first words of Psalm 1 also mark the beginning of the heart of the book. Decorated initials at the start of major divisions helped the reader to navigate the manuscript and inspired a meditative spirit, reminding the reader to contemplate the familiar text.

In England and France, from the mid-11th century, initials were often inhabited by the author of the Psalms, namely our coveted dinner party guest, King David.  

Arundel MS 60 f.13r 11th-12thc

A decorated initial containing an image of King David and his harp beneath a male figure representing the subject of the Psalm: Arundel MS 60, f. 13r (detail). Winchester, 4th quarter of the 11th century

In a Psalter from late 11th-century Winchester, the initial ‘B’ shows two figures suspended in and inhabiting ornate vegetal scrolls. The lower figure holds a harp on his lap and wears a crown. He looks across to the words of the Psalm. Here is David. The figure above perhaps represents the blessed man discussed by the Psalm.

Decorated initials could contain even more complex meanings. Look closely at an astonishing initial in a 12th-century English Psalter. The annotated interactive version below explains how its artists used the ‘B’ initial to frame a subtly wrought cosmic drama expressing Christ’s victory over Satan. This is all the more astonishing since this ‘B’ is no bigger than the palm of your hand.

Hold your mouse over the image to reveal interactive annotations and explore the

decorated initial of Add MS 17392, f. 1r. Western England, 3rd quarter of the 12th century.

The life of Christ is held by Christians to fulfil the prophecies made in Old Testament Scripture, which includes the Psalms. Thus, inside the upper register is an image that may be Christ in Judgement before a crowd of the Blessed with the book of life, or perhaps preaching to his followers. David is beneath, at his harp, seated beside another male figure, perhaps again the blessed man of the Psalm. Both David and the man point up at Christ. The figures express Christ’s fulfilment of the words composed by David, his ancestor. At the same time (medieval artworks can often be interpreted in a variety of ways), it may be a reference to verse 1 and the blessed man whose delight is in the law of the Lord, on which he meditates day and night.

The plot thickens if we observe how, to David’s left, forming the curved bow of the lower half of the ‘B’, a human soul is being pulled up towards Christ by an angel and hell-wards, feet-first, by a devil. But the devil’s feet are in the mouth of a lion, which is, in turn, being trodden on by David. The possible meaning of this will become clear.

A male figure emerges from behind the lion, passing a scroll up the spine of the initial. It almost touches the end of another scroll, which is being held by a second depiction of Christ. Identifiable by his halo with a cross, Christ is holding a cross-staff, adorned with a flag; the attribute he is often given in images of his Resurrection. So here may be another reference to the New Testament fulfilment of the Old.

At first glance, this initial may just look whimsical interplay of human figures, beasts and plant scrolls. Never underestimate medieval art, because the web of meanings does not end here. If you look just below the crowd of souls in the upper register, you will see that the resurrected Christ’s staff is stabbing a serpent or basilisk and the image of Christ is trampling a dragon. The serpent, asp, basilisk, lion and dragon could be read as symbols of evil, which is the influence of the devil. Psalm 90 reads, 'Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon.' In the initial, all of these creatures are shown being vanquished. Thus the male figure next to David, probably the man with whom the Psalm is concerned, is a role-model; ‘blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly’. His feet, too, rest on the back of the devil in the lower border, the one wrestling a soul from the grip of an angel. In this way, the initial could be a powerful call-to-action, telling the reader to follow the example of the blessed man and, in so doing, to hope to overcome the malevolent forces described in the text.

In short, good call for keeping David on the guest-list (and not just because of his untold skills on the harp).


Amy Jeffs

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La première lettre du texte des psautiers médiévaux latins est un ‘B’ car le premier psaume de la Vulgate commence ‘Beatus Vir’ (‘Bienheureux l'homme’). Dans la période romane, cette initiale est souvent fortement décorée avec des motifs végétaux, des bêtes et des figures. Une figure qu’on trouve est le Roi David, avec sa harpe, regardant les mots qui suivent.

On croit généralement que David a composé les psaumes, donc l’image est un portrait d’auteur. Mais la formule est développée pour inclure des scènes théologiques complexes. L’initiale décorée d’un psautier anglais du douzième siècle (Add MS 17392) affiche un drame cosmologique à l'intérieur de la lettre. Si on scrute l’image, on voit des connections subtiles, proclamant la victoire du Christ contre le diable.


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22 July 2017

Job opportunities with the England and France 700-1200 Project

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We are pleased to announce that the British Library is recruiting for two new positions for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. Both positions are full time, fixed term positions, for 1 year, in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department. Full details of the posts and how to apply can be found on


Page with St Mark  holding an empty scroll, from the Sherborne Cartulary which also contains account of the Passion by the four Evangelists, 2nd quarter of the 12th century, England (Sherborne), Add MS 46487, f. 43v.

The British Library is collaborating with the Bibliothèque nationale de France to enhance access to and promote 800 pre-1200 manuscripts, half of which are held by each Library. In addition to digitising and cataloguing 400 pre-1200 illuminated manuscripts held at the British Library, we will also create a new interpretative website to highlight and interpret some of the exceptional manuscripts in the project.

(1) England and France 700-1200 Project Cataloguer and Researcher (Reference COL 01328)

The first new role is for a Project Cataloguer and Researcher. This post is to catalogue and research the manuscripts in the project and enhance existing catalogue records. Other tasks will include the preparation of short summaries of the digitised manuscripts to be placed on the interpretative website. Further responsibilities may include preparing blog posts, checking and publishing images, answering enquiries, presenting medieval manuscripts to specialist and non-specialist audiences, and other activities promoting the project. Full details and how to apply for Project Cataloguer and Researcher.

(2) Curatorial Web Officer, The Polonsky England and France Project (Reference COL 01360)

The second position is for a Curatorial Web Officer. This post is to process, edit and prepare articles, manuscript descriptions and images of selected project manuscripts for the interpretative website, and to assist in the selection and description of images and the uploading of them on the website. The website will also include several films about the manuscripts in the project, and this post-holder will assist in the organisation for and scripting of those films, at least one of which will be animated. The duties of this position may also include the promotion of the website and project through blogs and presentations for researchers and general audiences. Full details and how to apply for Curatorial Web Officer.

Both positions are one year, fixed term contracts, beginning in September 2017, dependent on the necessary security clearances being obtained. The positions are only open to applicants with the right to work in the UK.

The deadline for both applications is 16 August 2017.

The interviews for the Cataloguer and Researcher will be held on 4 September 2017 and for the Curatorial Web Officer on 5 September 2017. The selection processes may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview, and a short written exercise.

Bede, De temporum ratione, beginning of the prologue in a manuscript made either in Northern France or in England in the 11th or 12th century; Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 30v.

Tuija Ainonen

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19 July 2017

Matthew Paris and His Abbreviated Chronicle of England

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If you're interested in medieval English history, you may at some stage have come across the works of Matthew Paris. A monk of St Albans in Hertfordshire, Matthew Paris (c. 1200–1259) wrote his chronicles of the history of England over several decades, constantly revising and updating his information; he is also thought to have drawn the majority of the illustrations. King Henry III (reigned 1216–1272) visited St Albans no less than nine times between 1250 and Matthew’s death in 1259, and we can presume that Henry hoped to be favourably represented in Matthew Paris's writings.

1 royal_ms_4_c_vii_f006r
Self portrait of Matthew Paris from the Historia Anglorum, Royal  MS 14 C VII, f. 6r

The British Library has recently digitised a manuscript containing some of Matthew Paris's historical writings: an abbreviated version of his Chronica Majora ('Great History') and Historia Anglorum ('History of England'), found in Cotton MS Claudius D VI. This shortened version, which focuses primarily on the period between 1066 and Matthew’s day, is known as the Abbreviatio chronicorum Angliae ('Abbreviated Chronicle of England'). Not only was this chronicle written by Matthew, but it is likely that he was responsible for many of the accompanying illustrations.

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The most recent kings of England in Matthew’s time, from L-R, top-bottom: Henry II, Richard I (‘the Lionheart’), John I (‘Lackland’) and Henry III, Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 9v 

The Abbreviated Chronicle of England begins with thirty-two drawings of the kings of England, including legendary rulers such as King Arthur. The first king was believed to be Brutus of Troy, a mythical ruler descended from the Trojan warrior Aeneas, who sailed to Britain and established a ruling dynasty. Upon his death, the kingdom was divided between his three sons: Locrinus ruled England, Albanactus ruled Scotland (Albany), and Camber ruled Wales. King Henry III believed that he shared the blood of Trojan heroes and demigods. 

3 cotton_ms_claudius_d_vi_f006r
King Brutus of Troy and his three sons (clockwise): Albanactus, Camber and Locrinus, Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 6r

This style of images is known as ‘tinted drawings’, in reference to the delicate coloured washes used to accent drawings outlined in dark ink, rather than opaque paint. Matthew Paris was so closely associated with this technique that tinted drawings of this period came to be called ‘School of St Albans’ or ‘School of Matthew Paris’ in later art historical writing. This nomenclature was subsequently discontinued, when it was proved that this style was actually widespread in England at the time.

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Map of Britain, Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1 (formerly f. 12v of Cotton MS Claudius D VI)

Perhaps the most well-known part of this manuscript is a full-page map of Britain, which is now kept separately as Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1. We have discussed this map and the other maps drawn by Matthew Paris in the blogposts Our Favourite Map and Medieval Maps of the Holy Land.

The Abbreviated Chronicle of England was left unfinished, possibly due to Matthew Paris’s death in May or June of 1259. A later monk of St Albans, known as William Rishanger, continued the chronicle until the year 1293, and the manuscript also contains other historical writings. We're delighted that you can now look at the manuscript in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site (and we hope that Matthew Paris would have been pleased, too).

Taylor McCall

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