THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

24 January 2013

The Worth of a Butterfly

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Machaon and Podalirius butterflies, from Butterfly and Moth Paintings by Elizabeth Dennis Denyer ('Drawings of Lepidopterous Insects'), England, 1800, Additional MS 6895, f. 8r

As the forthcoming panels at Leeds sponsored by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section will demonstrate, the reading room at the British Library is often the place where exciting discoveries are made (see here and here for our sessions at the 2013 Leeds International Medieval Congress).  These discoveries encompass a broad range of topics, from new scribal attributions and previously unknown historical events, to hidden words in illuminations.

It is a pleasure to announce that lepidopterology (the study of butterflies and moths) can now be added to this list.

 

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Iris butterflies, from Butterfly and Moth Paintings by Elizabeth Dennis Denyer ('Drawings of Lepidopterous Insects'), England, 1800, Additional MS 6895, f. 34r

While conducting research last year on Elizabeth Denyer, an eighteenth-century restorer of medieval manuscripts and early printed books, I came across a book of butterfly paintings which she based on specimens in the collection of her Chelsea neighbour, the renowned entomologist William Jones. After contacting Dick Vane-Wright, I realised that this book has remained unknown since it was bequeathed to the British Museum by Elizabeth, and that further it has much to tell us about the early history of entomology.

 

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Detail of a vignette of John Denyer and Martha Denyer (parents of the artist Elizabeth Denyer) in profile and in silhouette, made on a separate piece of paper and mounted on the page, from Butterfly and Moth Paintings by Elizabeth Dennis Denyer ('Drawings of Lepidopterous Insects'), England, 1800, Additional MS 6895, f. 54r

 

Our initial findings were recently published in Antenna: the Bulletin of the Royal Entomological Society, and we are delighted to be able to share them with the public. Click Download Antenna 36(4) 239-246 for a PDF of the article.

We are very grateful to the British Library, and our thanks to the Royal Entomological Society for permission to make our article freely available on the internet. (The text is copyright of the RES, Sonja Drimmer and R.I. Vane-Wright. Copyright of the images is noted against each image in the article.)

While lepidopterology only originated as a field of scientific enquiry in the 17th century, the beauty of butterflies was not lost on our medieval forebears. Previous posts on this blog have featured manuscript illuminations showing a monstrously large butterfly supervising (?) the plowing of a field, as well as an ape hunting a butterfly in the margins of a manuscript of the Estoire del Saint Graal.

Chaucer, however, seems to have held the multicolored insects in somewhat lower esteem. Disappointed with the depressing tales told by the Monk, the Canterbury Host exclaims, 'Youre tale anoyeth al this compaigne / Swich talkyng is nat worth a boterflye.'

We hope you find them worth a whole lot more!

 

Sonja Drimmer

Lecturer, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

 

Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval

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