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

25 November 2014

The Phillipps Lectionary: a window into 11th-century Byzantine illumination

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In 2006 and 2007, the British Library acquired five Greek manuscripts that had formerly been on long-term deposit as Loan 36. These manuscripts all once belonged to Sir Thomas Phillipps, the noted manuscript collector of the nineteenth century. All but one (now Add MS 82951) also belonged to Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford, much of whose manuscript collection is now in the British Library. The story of the provenance of these manuscripts will be the subject of a future blog post, when the remaining four manuscripts have also been digitised. Today, however, our focus is on the standout item in the group, Additional MS 82957, a very fine 11th-century Gospel Lectionary from Constantinople.

82957 f059 headpiece
Add MS 82957, f 59r. Decorated headpiece with two peacocks, one drinking from a fountain, on top, and two rams on pedestals on either side

The lectionary is extremely fragile and required extensive, painstaking conservation work for over a year before it was fit for digitisation. A future blog post will outlien the particular difficulties of digitising and conserving this item.

82957 f001r headpiece
Add MS 82957, f 1r. Decorated headpiece with numerous animals, birds and other decorations.

The manuscript itself is spectacular. It goes beyond the usual levels of ornamentation for Greek lectionaries of the period to incorporate richly-decorated initials and headpieces. In fact, it is closer in style to some of the great psalters of the eleventh century: including the Theodore Psalter and the Bristol Psalter, both now kept at the British Library. Indeed, the similarities between  some of the decorated initials in this manuscript and that of the Theodore Psalter led to the hypothesis that both were produced at the Stoudios Monastery in Constantinople. More recently, however, a detailed study of a wide range of eleventh-century manuscripts led Irmgard Hutter to suggest that the manuscript should be placed in the circle of the so-called ‘copiste du Métaphraste’, a scribe whose hand can be detected in a number of manuscripts of Symeon Metaphrastes (for bibliographical details, please consult Digitised Manuscripts).

Pi
Pi in the shape of two hands holding palm leaves. (L) Add MS 82957, f 154v. (R) Add MS 19352, f 100r.
Epsilons 2
Epsilon in the shape of two birds. (L) Add MS 82957, f 113v. (R) Add MS 19352, f 148v.
Omicrons
Illuminated initial omicron. (L) Add MS 82957, f 10r. (R) Add MS 19352, f 74v.

Particularly noteworthy are two anthropomorphic initials found at the beginning of the first two sections, below the adorned headpieces:

Anthropomorphic initials
(L) Add MS 82957, f 1r, detail of St John the Evangelist in the form of an epsilon. (R) Add MS 82957, f 59r, detail of a man feeding a bird in the form of an epsilon.

Sadly, the fragility of the manuscript means that there is some loss into the gutter in the case of these two initials, but the level of artistic skill is clear nonetheless.

We finish with a lost initial. f 280 was damaged at some point in the manuscript’s history:

Add_ms_82957_f280v
Add MS 82957, f 280v.

However, the imprint made by a decorated initial on the portion of the page now lost can still be seen on the facing page. It is the letter tau (T) with a bird at the base. The imprint is a little difficult to make out, but is perhaps clearer when put alongside a similar tau from earlier in the manuscript:

Taus
(L) Add MS 82957, imprint of initial tau on f 281r. (R) Add MS 82957, f 3v, bird carrying the letter tau on its shoulder.

There is much more to be discovered in this manuscript, and surely a great deal more to be said about its place in the wider context of eleventh-century illumination. The digitisation of this fragile item makes it available to a wide audience, and we invite you to explore its riches.

- Cillian O'Hogan

23 November 2014

Nine-month Internship in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section

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The British Library is pleased to be able to offer a paid internship in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department for a doctoral or post-doctoral student in History, History of Art or other relevant subject.

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Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 193v

The intern will be involved in all aspects of the work of the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section, including responding to enquiries, providing talks for students and patrons, selecting and presenting manuscripts for display in our exhibition gallery, and cataloguing, thereby gaining insight into various curatorial duties and aspects of collection care. During the internship at the Library, the intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise. 

The primary focus of the internship will be to enhance the online Digitised Manuscripts website by creating and supplementing catalogue entries for medieval manuscripts and accompanying images, and assisting with the Library’s Magna Carta exhibition, working under the supervision of the Lead Curator, Illuminated Manuscripts. 

The internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the student to develop research skills and expertise in medieval and Renaissance art and history, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences.

Candidates

The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or who have recently completed, a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of pre-1600 manuscripts, and who have a right to work in the UK. 

Hours of Work/Contract Duration

  • 36 hours per week over normal business hours, full time for nine months.
  • The internship will start on 2 February 2015 or as soon as relevant security checks have been completed. 

Applications are available on the British Library’s website, http://www.bl.uk/careers/index.html.

Closing Date: 18 December 2014

Interview Date: 7 January 2015

The selection process may include questions about the date, origin and decoration of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.

 - Kathleen Doyle

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.