Medieval manuscripts blog

15 posts from March 2012

13 March 2012

Royal Exhibition Ends Today

Today (Tuesday, 13 March 2012) is the final day of the British Library's exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.

Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, translated into French by Jean de Vignay: Bruges, c. 1478-80 (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 E. i, f. 3r).

It's probably too late to book your plane or train tickets -- final admission is scheduled for 19.00 British time -- but don't forget that you can continue to view all the exhibited manuscripts on our Royal Facebook pages. What's more, there are detailed descriptions of every book in the accompanying catalogue, edited by Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle (ISBN 9780712358156).

The catalogue is fully illlustrated in colour, and contains introductory essays by the three editors (John Lowden, 'The Royal Manuscript as Idea and Object'; Scot McKendrick, 'A European Heritage: Books of Continental Origin collected by the English Royal Family from Edward III to Henry VIII'; Kathleen Doyle, 'The Old Royal Library: "A greate many noble manuscripts yet remaining"'), with catalogue entries by the above plus Nicolas Bell, Sarah J. Biggs, Alixe Bovey, Andrea Clarke, Justin Clegg, Sonja Drimmer, Joanna Fronska, Richard Gameson, Julian Harrison, Deirdre Jackson, Joshua O'Driscoll, Stella Panayatova and Lucy Freeman Sandler.

Motets for Henry VIII: southern Netherlands (?Antwerp), 1516 (London, British Library, MS Royal 11 E. xi, f. 2r).

Although the exhibition is soon to disappear, its legacy will live on! We hope you've all enjoyed the beautiful books we have shared with you, and that you continue to share our delight in the joys of medieval and early modern manuscripts. The British Library's next medieval-inspired exhibition will open in a few years -- watch this space!

11 March 2012

One That Got Away

Vesp A XVII, f. 1r C8483-08

Robert de Balsac's Manual on Warfare for the Instruction of a Prince (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian A XVII, f. 1r).

Our major exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (11 November 2011-13 March 2012), features many of the medieval and early modern manuscripts which entered the libraries of the kings and queens of England. Some of those books subsequently passed into the Royal collection at the British Library, but others went astray; and here is one such, a treatise on warfare made for King Henry VIII.

Henry's manuscript entered the British Library by a different route, since it ultimately passed into the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), and from his grandson Sir John Cotton (d. 1702) to the nation. It is a smallish volume, comprising just 23 leaves, and was decorated by a Flemish artist. The text itself is a curiosity. The manual on warfare was composed in the 1490s by Robert de Balsac, a French nobleman, for the express instruction of the king of France; but Henry VIII's copy was clearly made for the English monarch, most probably at a time when England was at war with France (c. 1511-1513). None of the French king's military tactics -- how to besiege a castle, how to engage in battle -- should have come as a complete surprise to Henry.

Vesp A XVII, f. 13v C8484-04
The king of England mounted on a white horse, chasing the fleeing king of France (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian A XVII, f. 13v).

How do we know that this manuscript was made for the English king? On its opening page (f. 1r) are found the arms of England flanked by the Tudor supporters of a dragon and greyhound, and with the red Tudor rose and Queen Katherine of Aragon's pomegranate motif in the borders. Moreover, its final page has a rose bush, from which pomegranates also sprout (f. 23v). But perhaps this book's most distinctive feature is its miniatures depicting combat between English and French troops, with the English always having the upper hand. On f. 13v, for instance, is an illustration of a pitched battle, with what must be intended to be King Henry VIII mounted on a white charger, chasing the king of France accompanied by his fleeing army. In this and the other miniatures it is only French soldiers who are portrayed as being killed, a tacit nod to the desire for English supremacy on the battlefield.

Vesp A XVII, f. 23v C8484-02
The Tudor rose entwined with the pomegranate motif of Katherine of Aragon (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian A XVII, f. 23v).

Just two manuscript-copies of this treatise are in existence, one at the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid (lacking the epilogue, which declares the manual to be the work of Robert de Balsac) and the other at the British Library. It's possible that Henry VIII's manuscript was copied from the printed edition published at Lyons in 1502. From 15th-century France to 21st-century London, via the English royal court -- one of Henry VIII's prized possessions now at the British Library.

09 March 2012

Beautiful Bindings

The upper cover of the Queen Mary Psalter (London?, c. 1310-1320: London, British Library, MS Royal 2 A XXII), rebound for Queen Mary of England (1553-1558).

Many medieval and early modern manuscripts lack their original bindings. It's a sad fact that one of the first things new owners sometimes do is to have their books rebound, in the process often destroying crucial historical evidence.

However, a few items in our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (11 November 2011-13 March 2012) retain their historical bindings, and here are two examples. The magnificent Queen Mary Psalter was presented to that queen in October 1553, having been rescued by Baldwin Smith, a quick-thinking customs official. Its two covers both display Mary Tudor's pomegranate motif, which she had inherited from her mother and Henry VIII's first queen, Catherine of Aragon (d. 1536). The clasps are engraved with the Tudor emblems of a portcullis, fleur-de-lis, and a lion and dragon, making it clear to all and sundry that this book was the queen's personal possession.


Chemise binding of the works of Pandolfo Collenuccio and Lucian (Rome and Florence, c. 1509-1517: London, British Library, MS Royal 12 C VIII), made for Prince Henry of England (d. 1612).

The second manuscript depicted here once belonged to King Henry VIII of England (1509-1547), having been made in Italy at the commission of Geoffrey Chamber. But its chemise binding of crimson velvet adorned with seed pearls and silver thread has the badge and motto of a later owner, Prince Henry, son of James I of England and VI of Scotland. Henry was a noted book-collector, and was presented with this volume by Nicholas Bond, President of Magdalen College, Oxford, on the occasion of his matriculation on 29 August 1605. Perhaps Bond wished to return the manuscript to a royal reader.

One moral of this story -- you can't always tell a book's origin from its cover.

You can read more about both volumes in the Royal exhibition catalogue.


07 March 2012

Royal Closes on 13 March

K90058-24 19 D iii f. 3 for Twitter

For those of you yet to see Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination at the British Library -- the exhibition closes on Tuesday, 13 March. Avoid disappointment, drop in or book online now.

And don't despair if you're unable to make the exhibition in person. Highlights of all the manuscripts on display will remain available on our Facebook albums.

In the meantime, episode 2 of Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings, entitled "What a King Should Know", airs tonight on BBC HD at 19.00, and will subsequently be available to view on the BBC iPlayer. Catch the programme to see close-ups of many of the manuscripts on show in our Royal exhibition.

05 March 2012

Volunteering Opportunity for American Doctoral Students

  Kings Library, British Library St Pancras
Thanks to the generosity of the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the British Library is this year again able to offer a six-month volunteership for an American doctoral student to participate in the project team of the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section of the History and Classics Department.

The student will be involved in all aspects of the work of the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section, including responding to enquiries, providing talks for students and patrons, selecting and presenting manuscripts for display in our exhibition gallery, and cataloguing, and thereby gaining insight into various curatorial duties and aspects of collection care.  During the volunteership at the Library, the student will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise.  The student’s primary focus would be on supplementing the online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, by researching and adding descriptions of medieval manuscripts or illuminated incunabula, including the selection of pages to be photographed and reproduced.        

The position is designed to provide an opportunity for the student to develop research skills and expertise in medieval and Renaissance art and history, and presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences.  This opportunity will contribute significantly to the ongoing work of the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and the Medieval and Earlier section.   


The programme is only open to US citizens who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed, a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of pre-1600 illuminated manuscripts or incunabula.  


The term of the placement is for a period of six months.  The placement is voluntary and therefore unpaid.  However, the successful applicant will be reimbursed in respect of actual expenses in the performance of his or her duties, such as direct travel expenses to London and commuting expenses to the British Library, accommodation, and immediate living expenses such as food (but not clothing), subject to a maximum of £8,000.  The volunteer will be responsible for making his or her own travel and accommodation arrangements. 

If the applicant does not hold the right to work in the United Kingdom, the Library will sponsor the volunteer for a visa using the UK Border Agency’s points-based system under Tier 5 Charity Workers.  The successful candidate will be required to submit the relevant application form to the local processing centre.  The processing fee will be reimbursed by the Library.  No placement may commence until the appropriate right to work documents have been obtained and verified. 

How to apply 

Please send an application letter detailing the months you would be able to be in London, a résumé, and two reference letters to Dr Kathleen Doyle, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, The British Library, by email to, or by post to 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, by 30 March 2012.  All applicants will be notified of the results by the end of April 2012.  A telephone interview may be held.


C13622-85 Harley 2799 f. 185v

Historiated initials 'In principio' with an Evangelist portrait of John, from the Arnstein Bible, Germany (Arnstein), c. 1172, Harley 2799, f. 185v 

K90056-14 Add 20916 f. 11
Miniature of the Virgin and Child looking down on a Venetian nobleman receiving a book from a seated Mark before a landscape, with the inscription 'Anno Aetatis XLII' within a border of putti with urns and garlands, Italy (Venice), c. 1550- c. 1560, Add 20916, f. 11


02 March 2012

Keep Your Royal Suggestions Coming!

C13597-61 Royal 12 B. vi f. 1

Miniature of the horoscope diagram for the day in which the world was created, including a world map within an astrological chart and personifications of winds, surrounded by 12 triangles with symbolic scenes representing aspects of life associated with the twelve astrological houses, from William Parron's Liber de Optimo fato Henrici Eboraci ducis et optimorum ipsius parentum, England (London), c. 1502-1503

Many thanks to everyone who has written in with their thoughts on Royal manuscripts to digitise; we have received a number of excellent ideas.  Some suggestions include the Royal and Rochester bestiaries (Royal 12 C. xix and Royal 12 F. xiii, respectively), the Queen Mary Apocalypse (Royal 19 B. xv), a 13th century Psalter from Oxford (Royal 1 D. x), William Parron's Liber de Optimo fato Henrici Eboraci ducis et optimorum ipsius parentum (Royal 12 B. vi; see above for a miniature), the Peter of Langtoft manuscript (Royal 20 A. ii), the Secretum Secretorum (Additional 47680), and the Alexander manuscript La vraie ystoire dou bon roi Alixandre, with other romances (Royal 19 D. i; see below for another miniature), among others.

As we mentioned before, the manuscripts must be in our current exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.  The list of manuscripts we have already selected for inclusion can be found here; please do continue to send along your ideas!  We can be reached in the comments to this post or the previous one (here), or by email at

K90052-19 Royal 19 D. i f. 37v

Miniature of Alexander being lowered into the sea in a cask (a submarine), from Historia de proeliis, translated in French as La vraie ystoire dou bon roi Alixandre, and other romances, France (Paris), c. 1340


- Sarah J Biggs


01 March 2012

A Calendar Page for March 2012

For more details on calendar pages or the Hours of Joanna of Castile, please see the entry for January 2012.

Add 18852 ff. 3v-4Calendar pages for March, Hours of Joanna of Castile, Bruges, between 1496 and 1506, Additional 18852, ff. 3v-4

The first folio of the calendar's opening for March contains a miniature of two men at work digging and planting in a walled garden beneath newly-budding trees.  At the top of the facing folio is a small painting of Aries, the ram.  Below is a miniature of men trimming vines on a lattice, supervised by a rather charming red-robed gentleman sitting beneath a tree.