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

29 July 2015

What's Your Favourite Magna Carta Item?

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A group of us were recently discussing what is our favourite item in the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition. Mine changes every day, but I had recently plumped in a Twitter Q&A for the John Wilkes teapot, on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Meanwhile, Alex Lock, our researcher on the post-medieval legacy of Magna Carta, finally had to admit that the Middle Ages is the best after all, when he chose the seal matrix of Robert fitz Walter, loaned to the British Library by our friends at the British Museum.


The John Wilkes teapot (image courtesy of the V&A)


The seal matrix of Robert fitz Walter (image courtesy of the British Museum)

Our followers on Twitter soon sprung into action. Dr Sophie Ambler, Research Associate on the Magna Carta Project, nominated the Statute of Pamiers. Other votes went for the Hexateuch, the painting of Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Shakespeare's King John (nominated by Marc Morris), King John's teeth and thumb-bone, 1066 And All That, and Matthew Paris's map of Britain.


The Statute of Pamiers (image courtesy of the Archives nationales)


Portrait of Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John (image courtesy of the V&A)


Map of Britain by Matthew Paris (image courtesy of the British Library)

This got us thinking. Is there something that has escaped the above list, or a little-known gem in the exhibition that everyone's overlooked? We'd love to hear from you. Tweet us @BLMedieval, or add a comment at the end of this blogpost, and we'll publish/retweet the best. Anyone for King John's will or the account of William Penn's trial?

You can either see the exhibition in person, until 1 September (tickets can be booked here), or you can view the exhibits in our catalogue or on our dedicated website. Which are your favourites?

Julian Harrison (@julianpharrison, co-curator of Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy)

27 July 2015

Equality, Huh? Who Would Have Thought It?

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Our current major show, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, is about to enter its final weeks. The exhibition closes on 1 September, so hurry to see it while you still have the chance. If you're not aware, the reviews have been excellent (blush) and it's been the highest attended British Library exhibition to date.

There are all sorts of weird and wonderful objects in the show, ranging from King John's teeth to an executioner's axe. Here, researcher Alex Lock describes two of our favourite items in the exhibition, made at the time of the French revolution.

The Contrast

The Contrast, 1793: British Liberty, French Liberty, Which is Best? (British Museum 1861,1012.47): reproduced by kind permission of the British Museum

Engraved by Thomas Rowlandson (d. 1827) in 1792, at the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars, this print entitled ‘The Contrast’ compares ‘British Liberty’ with ‘French Liberty’ following the revolution of 4 July 1789. Invoking Magna Carta, the print represents Britain as peculiarly blessed, prosperous, law-abiding and politically advanced, especially when compared with the ancien regimes of continental Europe or the anarchy of revolutionary France. The roundel on the left features Britannia holding ‘Magna Charta’ (symbolising law), with a lion sitting at her feet (symbolising loyalty and strength), and a ship sailing into the distance (symbolising prosperity, wealth and military might). In contrast, the cameo on the right depicts so-called French liberty in very unflattering terms: a gruesome French Medusa tramples a decapitated corpse and carries a trident impaled with hearts, while a corpse hangs from a lamp-post in the background.

Printed in the aftermath of the September Massacres – a wave of killings in France in late summer 1792 – and the arrest of King Louis XVI (who was soon to be executed), 'The Contrast' was designed to expose the dangers of Jacobin ‘French Liberty’, at the risk of revolutionary fervour spreading to Britain. This was exactly its purpose. Although etched by Rowlandson, the image was originally designed by Lord George Manning for the Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property, whose aim was to counteract Jacobin and reformist sentiments in Britain by circulating anti-French Revolution propaganda.

If the imagery is not clear enough, the words associated with each form of ‘liberty’ are listed underneath the roundels. The keywords for Britain – ‘Religion, Morality, Loyalty, Obedience to the Laws’ – are compared with those for revolutionary France – ‘Atheism, Perjury, Rebellion, Treason, Anarchy’ and worst of all ‘Equality’! The viewer must decide - ‘which is best’?

BM-Jug_English Liberty BM-Jug_French Liberty

An earthenware mug contrasting English and French Liberty, 1793 (British Museum 1982,1101.1): produced by kind permission of the British Museum

The image wasn't only disseminated in print form. We love the fact that it was also reproduced on a large earthenware mug, for those patriots who wished to compare British and French liberty with a cup of something nice!

Both the print and mug are currently on display in the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition, and we are extremely grateful to the British Museum for so generously lending them to us. You can buy tickets for the exhibition here (and remember, under 18s get in for free, the best deal in town!).

Alexander Lock

21 July 2015

Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript

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We are delighted to announce the publication of a new book, Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript, edited by Scot McKendrick (Head of Western Heritage at the British Library), David Parker (Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham), Amy Myshrall (Research Fellow at the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham) and Cillian O’Hogan (Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies at the British Library).


Codex Sinaiticus was produced in the middle of the fourth century, and is one of the two oldest Christian Bibles to survive largely intact from antiquity (the other being Codex Vaticanus in Rome). It is also the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in existence. Preserved for many centuries at St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, it is now dispersed between four institutions: St Catherine’s Monastery, the British Library, Leipzig University Library, and the National Library of Russia.

The book consists of the proceedings of a conference held in 2009 to mark the launch of the Codex Sinaiticus website, and its publication marks the culmination of the Codex Sinaiticus Project. It contains twenty-two articles, dealing with all aspects of the manuscript and its history, divided into five sections: Historical Setting, the Septuagint, Early Christian Writings, Modern Histories of Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Sinaiticus Today. Together with the extensive research to be found on the Codex Sinaiticus website, the book provides the most up-to-date information available about the manuscript. It includes a general index, an index of Biblical passages, a list of papyri and manuscripts, and numerous high-resolution images of Codex Sinaiticus.

Formally launched at an event at the British Library last night, the book is published by British Library Publishing in association with Hendrickson Publishers. It is available for purchase in the UK now from the British Library Shop, and will be available in the United States from Hendrickson this September.

John 21:1-21:25. Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f 260r), Eastern Mediterranean (?Palestine), mid-4th century.

- Cillian O’Hogan