THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

13 posts from June 2013

29 June 2013

Guess the Manuscript IV

It's time for another installment of everyone's favourite game - Guess the Manuscript!  How quickly can you figure this one out?  By now you know the rules: the manuscript is part of the British Library's collections, and can be found (somewhere) on on our Digitised Manuscripts site.  Ready?  Here we go...

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In case not everyone reading this spends their working lives staring at flyleaves, here's another clue:

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And that is how you would find the leaf in this manuscript.  Best of luck!

We'll update with the correct answer shortly.  You can see our previous Guess the Manuscript posts here, here, and here.

Updated:  these spectacular flyleaves are part of the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII.  Thanks for playing along!

27 June 2013

Christine de Pizan and the Book of the Queen

We are thrilled to announce the recent upload of one of our best-loved (and most-requested) medieval manuscripts to our Digitised Manuscripts site; Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen (Harley MS 4431) is now online!

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Detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan in her study at the beginning of the ‘Cent balades’, Harley MS 4431, f. 4r

Christine de Pizan is widely regarded as one of Europe’s earliest female professional authors, and is certainly one of the most prolific.  Born in Venice in 1365, she moved to Paris as a young child when her father was appointed the royal astrologer and alchemist to King Charles V of France.  Christine took advantage of the intellectual atmosphere of the court, making use of the royal library to teach herself languages, history, and literature.  Her writing career began at the age of 24, after her husband, a royal secretary, died suddenly, and she was faced with the necessity of providing for herself and her small children.  She soon attracted the patronage of a number of nobles at court, and produced dozens of major works over the next three decades, along with hundreds of ballads and poems.

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Detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan presenting her manuscript to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, France (Paris), c. 1410 – c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

The largest extant collection of her writing can be found in Harley MS 4431, a compilation, now in two volumes, produced for Isabeau (or Isabel) of Bavaria, the queen consort to Charles VI of France.  This manuscript was written and decorated under Christine’s supervision, and it is possible that some of the passages are in her hand.  The notable artists the Master of the Cité des Dames (see also Egerton MS 2709, Royal MS 19 E VI, and Royal MS 20 C IV) and the Master of the Duke of Bedford (see also Add MS 18850) were principally responsible for the illumination. 

Harley MS 4431 was the subject of an AHRC-funded research project by the University of Edinburgh, in association with the British Library and the ATILF (Analyse et Traitement Informatique de la Langue Française), a unit of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at the University of Nancy.  The resulting website provides images, transcriptions of the texts, a glossary of Christine’s language, and an admirable collection of further research tools.

The British Library has plans to exhibit the Book of the Queen in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, but until that time, please check out the glories of the fully-digitised version here, and several of our favourite illuminations below.

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Detail of a miniature of Venus presiding over a group of men and women, who are presenting their hearts to her, from 'L'Épître Othéa', Harley MS 4431, f. 100r

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Detail of a miniature of Queen Penthesilea with and her army of Amazons riding through the forest to aid the Trojan army, from 'L'Épître Othéa', Harley MS 4431, f. 103v

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Detail of a miniature of Hercules slaying Cerberus, and Theseus and Pirithous battling demons, from 'L'Épître Othéa', Harley MS 4431, f. 108v


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Detail of a miniature of Apollo killing Ganymede by piercing his eye, from 'L'Épître Othéa', Harley MS 4431, f. 119v

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Detail of a miniature of the Judgement of Paris, from 'L'Épître Othéa', Harley MS 4431, f. 125v

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Detail of a miniature of the Wheel of Fortune, from 'L'Épître Othéa', Harley MS 4431, f. 129r

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Detail of a miniature of Hermaphroditus and the nymph Salmacis bathing in a lake, from 'L'Épître Othéa', Harley MS 4431, f. 132v

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Detail of a miniature of ladies watching knights jousting, from 'Le Duc des vrais amants', Harley MS 4431, f. 150r

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Detail of a miniature of Christine and the Sibyl standing in a sphere of the cosmos, with the moon, sun and stars surrounding them, from 'Le chemin de long estude', Harley MS 4431, f. 189v

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Detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan before the personifications of Rectitude, Reason, and Justice in her study, and helping another lady to build the 'Cité des dames', Harley MS 4431, f. 290r

For the latest news and updates from the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts team, be sure to follow us on Twitter @blmedieval.

24 June 2013

Royal Manuscripts Launch the AHRC Image Gallery

Last week the Arts & Humanities Research Council announced the launch of its new Image Gallery, which will feature selected digital images from the many and varied projects which it supports. We are honoured that one of the British Library's recent projects has been chosen as the pilot 'virtual exhibition': thirteen manuscripts from last year's exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination can be seen in the gallery here.

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As well as supporting initial research for the Royal exhibition, the AHRC awarded the British Library a further grant to fully digitise many of the manuscripts featured in it, as part of its Digital Tranformations in the Arts and Humanities programme. Details about these manuscripts and links to their digital surrogates can be found on our blog.

We are delighted to be featured in this way, and hope that the new Image Gallery facilitates research into the art, culture and history of the Middle Ages. Further updates about newly digitised manuscripts will be published here and communicated via our Twitter feed, @blmedieval.

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21 June 2013

A Digital Reunion: The Sforza Hours

The history of the Sforza Hours, our newest upload to Digitised Manuscripts, in many ways resembles a detective story.  The manuscript (now Add MSS 34294, 45722, 62997, and 80800) was commissioned about 1490 by the Duchess of Milan Bona Sforza (d. 1503), the second wife of Galeazzo Maria Sforza.  The Milanese court painter Giovan Pietro Birago (fl. 1471-1513) was contracted to embellish it with miniatures.

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Bas-de-page scene of a hound chasing a rabbit, with Bona's name 'Diva Bona' in the full border, Add MS 34294, f. 122v

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Detail of a full border with Bona's embelm of the phoenix and motto 'Sola fata, solum Deum sequor', Add MS 34294, f. 93r


By 1494 Birago’s work on the manuscript was almost finished and the artist delivered a substantial portion of the still-unbound manuscript to the Duchess.  Then, something unexpected happened.  Several leaves still remaining in the artist’s workshop vanished.  The missing portion must have included a calendar, an indispensable part of any Book of Hours, which the Sforza Hours lacks to this day.  At present, the manuscript begins imperfectly with the four lessons excerpted from the Gospels.

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Miniature of St Mark and his lion at the beginning of the Gospel excerpts, Add MS 34294, f. 10v


Birago’s version of events surrounding the mysterious disappearance of the illuminated leaves survives in a letter he wrote to a person whose identity unfortunately has not yet been traced.  The painter claims that his work was stolen by a certain Fra Gian Jacopo, and subsequently sold by him to another friar, only referred to in the letter as Fra Biancho.  This Fra Biancho, Birago continues, took the leaves to Rome and presented them to Giovanni Maria Sforzino (d. 1520), illegitimate son of Francesco Sforza and half-brother of Bona’s husband Galeazzo.  The letter not only gives us some insight into the murky behaviour of some ordained members of the Milanese church, but also puts into perspective the tangible value of an illuminated manuscript as a desirable object of theft.  Regrettably, the letter does not give us any time frame for the events it describes.  We may only suspect that Giovanni Maria Sforzino had already received the stolen leaves by the time of his sister-in-law’s death in 1503, as they were never returned to her or reintegrated with her prayerbook.

It is only now that a small portion of the previously missing folios can be reunited with the rest of the manuscript, if only digitally.  Three detached leaves illuminated by Giovan Pietro Birago, all discovered in the 20th century and now in the collection of the British Library, were identified as those once removed from the unbound Sforza Hours.  Two of them are leaves from the calendar (Add MSS 62997 and 80800), and were both acquired by Martin Breslauer in 1984, in Switzerland.

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Calendar page for May, Add MS 62997

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Calendar page for October, Add MS 80800


The third leaf includes a miniature of the Adoration of the Magi that once preceded the hour of Sext in the Hours of the Virgin (Add MS 45722).  It belonged to the French collector Jean Charles Davillier (b. 1823, d. 1883) before an anonymous benefactor presented it to the British Museum in 1941.

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Miniature of the Adoration of the Magi, Add MS 45722


The remaining miniatures by Giovan Pietro Birago have never been recovered.  Bona Sforza clearly did not commission another campaign of work to complete her book of hours.  At her death in 1503, the unfinished manuscript probably passed to her nephew Philibert II (b. 1480, d. 1504), Duke of Savoy.  Philibert must have either presented or bequeathed the hours to his wife Archduchess Margaret of Austria (b. 1480, d. 1530).  Margaret, a keen patron of the arts, decided to have the manuscript completed.  In 1517, she commissioned the scribe Etienne de Lale to replace some of the missing text, and between 1519 and 1521, the Flemish illuminator Gerard Horenbout (b. c.1465, d. c.1540) to paint the remaining miniatures (the accounts for both campaigns have survived).  Doubtless following the Archduchess’s wish, Horenbout painted her and her father’s portraits in a biblical disguise.  Margaret appears as St Elizabeth in the Visitation.

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Miniature of the Visitation, from the prayers at Lauds, Add MS 34294, f. 61r


She is also recognizable as a woman attending the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, while her father, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, is shown as Simeon.

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Miniature of the Presentation in the Temple, from the prayers at None, Add MS 34294, f. 104v


The manuscript must have been subsequently presented to Emperor Charles V (b. 1500, d. 1558), Margaret’s nephew.  The Emperor's portrait in a cameo bust can be found in the margin of f. 213r with the accompanying monogram KR (Karolus Rex).

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Folio with a cameo bust of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, Add MS 34294, f. 213r


The Sforza Hours was eventually purchased by Sir John Charles Robinson (d. 1913), Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, in 1871, in Spain.  The book subsequently passed to another art collector, John Malcolm of Poltalloch (d. 1893), who presented it to the British Museum in 1893.

- Joanna Fronska

19 June 2013

New Acquisitions in Manuscript and Print

On 5 June 2013, the British Library bought four lots in the Mendham Sale at Sotheby's, London. The Library's view was that the sale was regrettable, and Roly Keating (our Chief Executive) expressed his reservations as joint-signatory in a letter published in The Times on 11 May. However, once it became clear that the sale would go ahead, a decision was made to try to purchase certain lots, in order to preserve some of the Mendham books for the national collection and to maintain public access to them.

The new acquisitions comprise two Books of Hours, one in manuscript and the other printed, together with two incunabula. The dispersal of the collection involved the risk that books hitherto available for research in the United Kingdom would leave the country or disappear into private hands. The British Library already has outstanding collections of manuscripts and of early printed works, so adding these books to our collections guarantees their availability to a worldwide research community now and in the future. Moreover, Joseph Mendham’s collecting activities meant that he acquired many early printed books that were unlikely to attract the attention of the institutional libraries or bibliophilic collectors of his era.

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Image reproduced by permission of Sotheby's.

Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, with additions including Middle English verse by John Lydgate

Southern Netherlands, middle of the 15th century

This Book of Hours was probably made in Bruges for the English market. Early in its history the manuscript was adapted for use by a female patron, and a number of Middle English devotional pieces were added to it, among them a version of John Lydgate's Shorte tretis of the 15 joyes of Oure Lady. Not only is the context is which this manuscript was produced of great interest, but its various additions have immense research value; we are delighted that it will soon to available to researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room.

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Image reproduced by permission of Sotheby's.

Book of Hours, Use of Sarum

London: John King for John Walley, 1555. 8º.

This small Catholic liturgical book, produced during the reign of Queen Mary I (1553–1558), is beautifully printed in red and black, and is a unique survival in excellent condition. John King and John Walley were both early members of the Stationers' Company in London, and King's printing shop was next to that of the Royal Printer, John Cawood. Although the text was also produced on the Continent for the English market, fewer editions were produced in England. All editions now survive in small numbers, mainly because the books were heavily used and then discarded when new editions became available.

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Image reproduced by permission of Sotheby's.

Martinus Magistri (or de Magistris), Tractatus consequentiarum

Paris: Felix Baligault, 20 August 1494. 4º.

Bound with Johannes de Sacro Bosco, Tractatus de sphera

[Paris]: Felix Baligault, [1494]. 4º.

Martinus Magistri’s treatise on the theory of consequence was composed by one of the leading nominalist scholastic philosophers in late-medieval Paris. Having reached its height in the 14th century, a revival in the study of consequence took place after nominalist teaching was reintroduced at the University of Paris in the 1480s. Medieval theories of this kind have become of increasing interest to modern logicians, but the texts survive in few copies. Of the 7 known editions of Magistri’s work, only 2 could be found in United Kingdom libraries, and none was previously in the British Library’s collections.

The Tractatus is bound with Johannes de Sacro Bosco’s astronomical treatise, De sphera, one of the most widely-read introductions to astronomy in the Middle Ages, surviving in numerous manuscript copies and over 80 early printed editions, 14 of them from the 15th century. None is common; these were very much books to be read and used.

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Image reproduced by permission of Sotheby's.

Sixtus IV, Bulla extensionis indulgentiarum …

[Rome: Georg Lauer, after 1 September 1480].

Indulgences were widely sold as part of the fund-raising effort to support the Knights of Rhodes against the assaults of the Ottoman Empire. Only one other copy of this printing is known, held at Munich University.

These four new acquisitions will soon be available to researchers in the Manuscripts Reading Room and the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library.

17 June 2013

Lindisfarne Gospels Rewind

Did you miss the Lindisfarne Gospels and St Cuthbert Gospel on BBC Radio 3? Then fear not, as the whole programme is available to listen again (United Kingdom only, alas) on the BBC iPlayer. Presented by author David Almond, the programme explores the place of these majestic manuscripts in art, religion and literature, and features interviews with staff from the British Library.

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Meanwhile, both of these great books can be viewed on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site: click here to see the Lindisfarne Gospels and the St Cuthbert Gospel.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @blmedieval.

15 June 2013

15 June 1215: A Significant Date in History

Some dates in history have more significance than others. Readers of 1066 And All That may recall that there are only two memorable dates in the whole of English history: according to the authors, "2 out of the 4 Dates originally included were eliminated at the last moment, a research done at the Eton and Harow match having revealed that they are not memorable". But one date that does continue to have resonance is 15 June 1215, the date of Magna Carta.

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King John of England (reigned 1199–1216), who may or may not have sealed Magna Carta on 15 June 1215: London, British Library, MS Royal 20 A II, f. 8v (described in our recent post, What Did Medieval Kings Really Look Like?).

Walter Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman, the aforementioned authors of 1066 And All That, put the events of 15 June 1215 into typical perspective:

"There also happened in this reign the memorable Charta, known as Magna Charter on account of the Latin Magna (great) and Charter (a Charter); this was the first of the famous Chartas and Gartas of the Realm and was invented by the Barons on a desert island and in the Thames called Ganymede. By congregating there, armed to the teeth, the barons compelled John to sign the Magna Charter, which said:

1. That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason (except the Common People).

2. That everyone should be free (except the Common People).

etc

6. That the Barons should not be tried except by a special jury of other Barons who would understand.

Magna Charter was therefore the chief cause of Democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People)."

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Magna Carta as reissued by King Henry III (reigned 1216–1272): London, British Library, MS Arundel 310, ff. 8v–9r.

The year 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the famous events in the meadow at Runnymede. The British Library, as custodian of two of the four surviving 1215 Magna Cartas, will be at the forefront of those celebrations. But what really happened on 15 June 1215?

A qualified answer to that question is: nobody really knows. The four surviving copies of Magna Carta (two at the British Library, the others at Lincoln and Salisbury) all bear the date 15 June 1215. As Claire Breay summarises in her book Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths (London: The British Library, revised edition 2010), "the exact sequence of events at Runnymede remains unclear ... [15 June] may be the date on which the Articles of the Barons were sealed [by King John], or, if that event had already taken place, it may be the date on which further details of the settlement were agreed." And therein lies the rub; as Breay says, "In common with other medieval charters, Magna Carta bore the date of the agreement itself, not the date of the subsequent issue of the charter by the king. Whatever the precise details of the sequence of events may have been – and these will probably never be certain – on 19 June the barons made formal peace with the king by renewing their oaths of allegiance."

If you'd like to know more about Magna Carta, have a look at our dedicated Magna Carta webpages, where you can examine one of the British Library's copies, read a translation, and find out answers to questions such as "Where did King John sign Magna Carta?", "Why is Magna Carta hard to read?", and "What does Magna Carta mean?".

13 June 2013

Lindisfarne Gospels on BBC Radio 3

On Sunday, 16 June, the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels is to feature in a special programme on BBC Radio 3. Presented by award-winning children's author David Almond, the programme will investigate the significance of the Gospels, exploring its creation, the journeys made by the book, and the cultural and religious landscape from which the manuscript emerged.

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Portrait of St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 209v).

Part of the programme was recorded on location at the British Library, the interviewees including Scot McKendrick (Head of History and Classics), Claire Breay (Lead Curator, Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts), and Deborah Novotny (Head of Collection Care). The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the nation's greatest medieval treasures, and can be seen in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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Detail from the canon-tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 12r).

Scholars are divided as to the precise date when this Latin gospelbook was made. According to a colophon written in the manuscript by Aldfrith, provost of Chester-le-Street (fl. 970), the scribe and artist was none other than Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (698–721?). Aldfrith was also responsible for adding the interlinear gloss in Old English.

Also featured in the Radio 3 progamme is the St Cuthbert Gospel (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000). This is the oldest intact European book, and was purchased by the British Library in 2012, following a successful fundraising campaign (see our previous post, St Cuthbert Gospel Saved for the Nation).

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The St Cuthbert Gospel, dating from the late-7th-century (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000, f. 28v).

The Lindisfarne Gospels is on semi-permanent display at the British Library, but both it and the St Cuthbert Gospel will soon be showcased in a major exhibition at Durham. David Almond's radio documentary is entitled "The Gospels Come Home", and explores the meaning of the Lindisfarne Gospels to himself and his fellow North-Easterners. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 19.45–20.30 on 16 June, and will subsequently be available to United Kingdom listeners via the BBC iPlayer.