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

17 December 2014

Tudor Scribe and Spy at No. 2 in the Official Classical Charts

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A new recording of a magnificent choirbook produced for King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, one of the great treasures in the British Library’s music collections, reached number 2 in the Classical Charts in the first week of its release in October 2014.

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Detail of a historiated initial with the Tudor rose and pomegranate, from the Choirbook of Petrus Alamire, Southern Netherlands, c. 1516,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 3r

Containing mostly motets for four voices by Josquin des Prez, Pierre de la Rue and other leading Continental composers, this volume is representative of the finest French and Franco-Flemish repertory of the time. To celebrate the first complete recording of all 34 pieces, full coverage of this beautifully illuminated volume is now freely available on Digitised Manuscripts.

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Cantus and tenor parts of the motet ‘Celeste beneficium’ by Jean Mouton,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v

The rich sounds of early sixteenth-century polyphony, as notated in Royal MS 8 G VII, have been recreated by the choir Alamire and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, under the directorship of Dr David Skinner. Here is a sound-clip of the opening piece:

Celeste beneficium


Released as ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’, the CD’s title refers to the colourful history of its famous scribe, Petrus Alamire (d. 1536), from whom Skinner’s ensemble borrows its name. In addition to making several similar choirbooks for other European courts, Petrus Alamire was a composer, mining engineer, and diplomat. He acted as a spy for Henry VIII, informing him of the movements of Richard de la Pole, the exiled pretender to the English crown. Surviving letters to the King and to Richard de la Pole suggest that Alamire was simultaneously engaged in counter-espionage. Perhaps gifting this manuscript to Henry was one way for Alamire to smooth over his double-dealing.

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Alto and bass parts of the motet ‘Celeste beneficium’ by Jean Mouton,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 3r

Naturalistic foliage, birds and insects, common to the south Netherlandish style of illumination, are combined with Tudor symbols such as the dragon and greyhound ‘supporters’ of the royal arms (f. 2v), and heraldic badges including the portcullis, the double rose, and the pomegranate (f. 3r). The exact circumstances of its presentation to Henry and Catherine are unknown, and it has been suggested that the manuscript may originally have been intended for Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany. ‘Celeste beneficium’, for example, was composed for the French couple, and its text calls upon St Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, to help bring forth children.

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Detail of ‘HK’ in the place of stamens in the marginal flora and fauna,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v

It is not difficult, however, to imagine the relevance of this text to Henry and Catherine’s pressing need for a male heir. The following two motets (‘Adiutorium nostrum’ and ‘Nesciens mater virgo virum’) continue this theme, and the fusion of Catherine’s emblem, the pomegranate, with the Tudor double rose, is another probable reference to the desire for progeny (see opening image above). Further evidence to support the idea that this manuscript was designed with Henry in mind appears in a tiny detail amidst the flora and fauna of the marginal decoration: the ‘HK’ which serves to substitute the stamens surely refers to ‘Henricus’ and ‘Katharina’. If the intended patrons did change, this must have occurred extremely early in the manuscript’s production.

Adiutorium nostrum


Whatever the case, there is little doubt that this book would have greatly appealed to the King. Henry received a thorough musical education: he played several instruments, sang from sight and composed and arranged music. Indeed, it was Henry’s desire to bring the finest musicians in Europe to play and sing at his court which brought Petrus Alamire into close contact.

Now, perhaps for the first time since Henry’s post-dinner entertainment, we can appreciate the full aural and visual magnificence of this unique volume. See here for further details about the CD, and experience Royal MS 8 G VII in its entirety on Digitised Manuscripts.

- Holly James-Maddocks & Nicolas Bell

14 December 2014

Important notice: Temporary removal of Lindisfarne Gospels from display in the Treasures Gallery

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We would like to advise visitors to the British Library that the Lindisfarne Gospels will not be on display on Tuesday 16 and Wednesday 17 December 2014. The manuscript will be back on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery on Thursday 18 December. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.

The Lindisfarne Gospels can always be viewed online on Digitised Manuscripts.

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The Lindisfarne Gospels: London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D. IV, f. 16r.

- Cillian O'Hogan

13 December 2014

Magna Carta at the British Library in 2015

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By now, you should have heard whether you were one of the lucky 1,215 winners of our ballot to view all four 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts next February. But fear not, don't despair, if you were unsuccessful this time around ... because we're delighted to remind you that next year the British Library will also be staging the largest exhibition ever devoted to Magna Carta.

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A 14th-century manuscript image of King John hunting (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 116r)

So what do you need to know, and what will you be able to see at the British Library? Our exhibition is called Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, and is sponsored by the law firm Linklaters. It opens to the public on 13 March 2015, and closes on 1 September. Tickets are already on sale -- just follow this handy link -- and are priced at £13.50 (Adult Gift Aid) with many concessions: entry is free for the Under 18s and Friends of the British Library. As you might expect, our two manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta will be on display, together with countless books and objects relating to this globally-recognised document. Previously we announced that an early copy of the American Declaration of Independence (1776), handwritten by Thomas Jefferson, will feature in our exhibition, on loan from New York Public Library, together with the Delaware copy of the United States Bill of Rights (1790), being borrowed from the US National Archives and Records Adminstration. Our American loans are being kindly funded by White & Case.

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The Forest Charter, 1225 (London, British Library, Additional Charter 24712)

At this stage we're not allowed to tell you the full line-up of exhibits -- we don't want to spoil the surprise -- but we can promise that our exhibition will be spectacular. There will be manuscripts, documents and printed books, paintings, prints and drawings, newspapers, cartoons and photographs, and artefacts galore. And this blogpost contains a little taster of some of the things that will be on show.

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A 13th-century manuscript image of King John being poisoned by a monk of Swineshead Abbey (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v)

Over the next few months, we'll be telling you more about our plans: keep an eye on this blog and follow us on @BLMedieval. We look forward to welcoming you to the British Library next year. It's only 3 months before our exhibition opens ...

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The earliest printed edition of Magna Carta, 1508 (London, British Library, C.112.a.2, ff. 5v–6r)

 

Julian Harrison