The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the greatest treasures in the British Library’s collections, is now back on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery. This Latin Gospel-book is thought to be the work of one remarkably gifted scribe and artist, who created it around 700 on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumbria. Its importance lies not only in the beauty of its carpet-pages and its miniatures of the four Evangelists, but also in the tenth-century gloss of its text that is the earliest example of the Gospels in the English language.
Colophon added by Aldred, the translator of the Old English gloss, in the Lindisfarne Gospels, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 259r
According to the colophon added by this translator, Aldred (fl. c. 970), who was provost of the community at Chester-le-Street near Durham, the artist-scribe was a monk called Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. The inscription records that Eadfrith ‘wrote this book for God and St Cuthbert and also for all the Saints whose relics are on the island’. It also describes the binding made by Billfrith the anchorite, which included a cover adorned with gold, silver and precious gems.
On display for the next three months are two pages from the canon tables that preface the Lindisfarne Gospels (ff. 12v-13r). These provide readers with a concordance to the Four Gospels, allowing them to locate episodes described by more than one Evangelist. A mistake has been made in Canon 2 (shown), where the name titles at the heads of the three columns have been confused with those of Canon 3 on the facing page. The headings which read ‘Luke’ and ‘John’ have been corrected by a near-contemporary hand to read ‘Mark’ and ‘Luke’. Interlace birds fill the columns and the arch, while a ribbon knotwork design is used for the bases and capitals.
Detail of masons building the canon table in the Echternach Gospels, from the monastery of St Willibrord, Echternach (now Luxembourg), 11th century, Harley MS 2821, f. 9r
Visitors to the Gallery will be able to compare the canon tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels with those in the Echternach Gospels, made in the monastery of St Willibrord (in modern day Luxembourg) in the eleventh century. The two tables on display (ff. 8v-9r) show elaborate ornamental pillars upon which masons are still working with hammers and chisels.
Detail of a remarkably naturalistic bird and fish from the ‘Golden Canon Tables’, Eastern Mediterranean, 6th or 7th century, Additional MS 5111, f. 11r
In another case nearby there is also the much earlier ‘Golden Canon Tables’ from the Eastern Mediterranean. Written over gold leaf, these tables are set within elaborately adorned architectural frames, including some finely executed birds and fish. These pages were later trimmed to fit a smaller twelfth-century manuscript of the Gospels, causing the loss of some of these details.
We are proud to announce that the CatholiconAnglicum is now being exhibited in our Treasures Gallery. The British Library acquired the manuscript, the only complete copy of the text in existence, in February this year, for £92,500, following the temporary deferral of an export licence. It had lain hidden for over a century in the Monson family collection in Lincolnshire.
Opening of the section for words beginning with M, from the ‘Catholicon Anglicum’, England (Yorkshire), 1483, Add MS 89074, f. 102v
Since its arrival at the British Library, it has been catalogued in detail (along with other late medieval dictionaries in our collection), photographed in full and uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts, and now forms the centrepiece of a display of manuscripts about the variety of languages that were spoken and written in medieval Britain. This is your chance to see this rare and precious manuscript face-to-face!
End of the section for words beginning with Ȝ, and the compiler’s epilogue, Add MS 89074, f. 185v
The Catholicon was the first such dictionary to have all of its entries arranged in alphabetical order. The positioning of vernacular words first, with Latin equivalents following, shows that it was intended to be used for Latin composition not translation. It would have been of particular utility in the grammar schools that were being founded in large numbers during the 15th century.
Alphabetical glossary of rare Latin words, with glosses in Latin and Old English, England (?Worcester), 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st half of the 11th century, Harley MS 3376, f. 1v
An early predecessor of the Catholicon is the first exhibit in the display: an alphabetical glossary of rare Latin words that was made in the 10th or 11th centuries, perhaps in Worcester. It may have been made for someone familiar with only basic Latin vocabulary, or as an aid to developing a more advanced command of the language. The headwords are glossed with more simplistic Latin equivalents or, sometimes, Old English words.
Following the Norman Conquest, Old English was supplanted by French as the language of the ruling elites. The next item on display in the Treasures Gallery is a 14th-century copy of a treatise written by Walter of Bibbesworth a century earlier, the Tretize de Langage. It was designed to be used by a mother to teach her two young children, and uses descriptions of everyday life and work, rhymes and riddles – even animal sounds – both to entertain and educate.
Descriptions of diseases and their symptoms, treatments and cures, from the ‘Lilium medicinae’, Ireland (County Clare), 1482, Egerton MS 89, f. 93v
The other two exhibits showcase languages that were spoken elsewhere in the British Isles. The Lilium medicinae, a guide to the treatment of illnesses, was written in 1303 by Bernard de Gordon, a famous physician at the University of Montpellier in France. Bernard was one of the medical authorities named by the Doctor of Physick in the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This Irish translation of the Lilium was written by the scribe Domhnall Albanach Ó Troighthigh of County Clare in 1482. The Latin headings name various illnesses; the subheadings ‘Signa’, ‘Curacio’ and ‘Clarificacio’ describe their symptoms, treatment and cure.
Tinted woodcut of the Flagellation of Christ at the beginning of a poem by Walter Kennedy, from a collection of Scottish poetry, ?Scotland, 1st half of the 16th century, Arundel MS 285, ff. 5v-6r
A collection of Scottish poetry illustrates the cross-over between manuscript and print in the early 16th century. It contains seventeen 15th-century printed woodcuts, which have been pasted into reserved spaces in the book, often at the beginning of the texts. The source of the woodcuts is not known. They may have been recycled from a previous book, or gathered from a selection of devotional handbills or flyleaves. A poem about the Passion of Christ by Walter Kennedy begins, appropriately, with a scene of the Flagellation of Christ, an elaborate rubric in red ink and the opening words in an imposing display script.
A page from ‘The Book of Cyfnerth’, Wales (?Neath), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4353, f. 12r
There were, of course, other languages spoken in medieval Britain besides these. The British Library holds manuscripts of medieval Welsh, such as this legal text known as ‘The Book of Cyfnerth’. It contains the Gwentian code of Welsh law – a witness to a legal system distinct from that of England – and was written in south-west Wales, perhaps in Neath, early in the 14th century. The scribe who made this book was also responsible for another in the British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra A XIV, which also contains Welsh laws and a copy of the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris.
Bas-de-page scene of Christ carrying the Cross, from a manuscript of a Passion poem in Cornish, England (Cornwall), 15th century, Harley MS 1782, f. 14v
Harley MS 1782 further illustrates the flowering of regional forms of Christianity during the medieval period that we saw in the Scottish poetry book. This manuscript is a 15th-century copy of a poem about Christ’s passion written in Cornish. The text is illustrated with a series of scenes from the Passion – here, Christ carrying the Cross – akin to those that marked the Stations of the Cross in medieval churches.
Even the most cursory glance over the pages of medieval manuscripts will reveal a plethora of insects. Bugs are everywhere – although we hasten to add that we are extremely vigilant about avoiding the presence of any actual living insects within the pages of our books. But there has been little comprehensive scholarship about the appearance of such creatures in medieval manuscripts. Insects usually live literally in the margins, often not even appearing in catalogue entries despite their profusion.
Detail of a border including flowers, moths, and flies, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 64v
Whilst undertaking this very short exploration of the subject, therefore, we would do well to remember the words of one of the earliest writers about these minute creatures. As Pliny the Elder reminds us in the introduction to his book about insects: ‘Nature is nowhere to be seen in greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works. For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.’
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with marginal spiders and a praying mantis, Italy (Genoa), c. 1330 – c. 1340, Additional MS 28841, f. 6r
We’ll begin, as we almost always do, with the bestiary, that essential book of medieval beasts. The early medieval bestiary includes amongst its pages only two species of what we would consider insects today – ants and bees.
Detail of a miniature of ants in their anthill, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 32r
The humble ant is given quite extensive treatment in the bestiary. Echoing Isidore of Seville’s somewhat fanciful etymology, the text tells us that the ant is called ‘formica’ because it carries pieces of grain (‘ferat micas’). It goes on to describe much recognisable ant behaviour, detailing how ants walk in lines to gather food, store it for the winter, carry loads far in excess of their own size, and work together for the good of the group.
Detail of a miniature of ants on their anthill, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 50r
A parallel tradition to that of the bestiary is the Physiologus, one of the precursors to the Marvels of the East. In the Physiologus, a subspecies of ant, as large as dogs, is said to live in Ethiopia and to be adept at digging up gold. Such skill can be exploited by human beings, but only very carefully, as these ants will try to chase down and kill anyone who attempts to steal from them.
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a camel, while a man loads another camel with gold and escapes, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101r
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a group of men who have come to steal their gold, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 96r
The concept of insects as a distinct class of animals was one that didn’t exist in this period. Bees, for example, are characterised as the ‘smallest of birds’, and accordingly, often come at the end of the bestiary's section on winged animals. They are described as industrious creatures, living in community under a chosen king. Born in the decaying bodies of oxen or slaughtered calves, it is said, bees build their homes with ‘indescribable skill’, make honey, and then guard it fiercely against all potential invaders. Much like ants, bees were praised over the centuries by various authors who considered them humble and loyal animals, ‘wonderfully noble', and worthy of emulation by human beings.
Detail of a miniature of bees guarding their hives against a marauding bear, from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), Italy (Padua?), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3448, f. 10v
Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar and returning to their hive, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 45v
That said, bees could sometimes be used as weapons. A mid-13th century copy of William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer contains a miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch who was bound to a tower and smeared with honey in a gruesome attempt to end his life.
Miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch being attacked by bees, from William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer, France (Picardy?), 1232-1261, Yates Thompson MS 12, f. 120r
It is not clear why the early bestiaries omitted so many of the species of insects that people must surely have been familiar with – in many cases, perhaps, far too familiar. Flies, spiders, moths, and butterflies do not put in appearances in texts until later. The British Library is lucky enough, however, to possess a mid-16th century Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate which includes a cicada (f. 13r), a locust-like insect (f. 19r), and three species of spider – two of which are poisonous (and one of which is apparently six-legged).
Detail of a painting of three spiders, including a malmignatte, from a Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate, 2nd – 3rd quarter of the 16th century, Burney MS 97, f. 29r
Six-legged spiders are not unusual to find in medieval art, and neither are their ten-legged cousins, as the examples below will show:
Detail of a six-legged spider in its web, from an herbal, Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 6r
Detail of a marginal ten-legged spider, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographic Hiberniae, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 – 1223, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 11r
Most insects in medieval art, however, were not designed to illustrate any accompanying text, or at least, not literally. This is particularly the case for manuscripts from the later medieval era. The vast majority of insect examples we have found are decorative ones, taking their place amongst the flowers, fruit, and jewels that adorn these pages. Some are occasionally used for humorous purposes, or may have been intended to underscore the message of the text. An extremely small selection of these sorts of images is below; if we have omitted any gems, please do let us know in the comments or on Twitter: @BLMedieval. Happy bug hunting!
Detail of a marginal painting of flies surrounding a dog, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 48r
Detail of a marginal dragonfly and dragon, from the Lovell Lectionary, England (probably Glastonbury), c. 1400 – c. 1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 13r
Selection of cuttings of border illuminations, featuring flowers, birds, moths, butterflies, and other insects, Italy (Rome), c. 1572 – c. 1585, Additional MS 35254, f. N
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with a caterpillar and a spider catching a fly, Additional MS 28841, f. 7v
Detail of a grasshopper, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Additional MS 18851, f. 30r
During our work here at the British Library, we have been struck recently by the different arrangement of the text in Psalter manuscripts – especially where the Psalms are written in more than one language.
Detail of a historiated initial depicting David as a shepherd, with an illuminated word panel, and the text of Psalm 14 in Latin (‘Dixit insipiens’) with an interlinear Old English gloss, from the Vespasian Psalter, England (?Canterbury), 2nd quarter of the 8th century, Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 53r
Interlinear glosses were a common way of providing a commentary upon a text. In the Vespasian Psalter, the Psalms were written out in Insular uncial script during the second quarter of the 8th century. A century later, a scribe translated many of the words into Old English, writing them between the lines in Insular cursive minuscule. The wide spacing of the Latin text meant that an almost continuous gloss could be accommodated with ease. This ‘gloss’ is the oldest surviving translation into English of any Biblical text. It reconfigured the manuscript into one that could be used to aid comprehension of the Latin text through a vernacular translation.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 51 (‘Miserere mei’) in Greek, Latin and Arabic, from a trilingual Psalter, S. Italy (Palermo), 1130x1153, Harley MS 5786, f. 73r
Other Psalters were specifically designed to accommodate a translation. Harley MS 5786 is a trilingual Psalter, with three parallel vertical columns containing the Psalms in Greek, Latin and Arabic. The manuscript was made at Palermo, within the court circle of King Roger II, between 1130 and 1153. The Psalter reflects the multilingual culture of twelfth-century Sicily, which was inhabited by both Arabs and Greeks. It may have been intended as a homage to Roger’s dominion over southern Italy and parts of northern Africa and Byzantium.
The opening of Psalm 69 (‘Salvum me fac’) in Greek and Latin, with a foliate scroll initial C and a historiated initial S of Christ Pantocrator and David in waters, from a bilingual Psalter, France (Paris), c. 1220-c. 1230, Add MS 47674, f. 58v
Trilingual psalters are very unusual; it is more common to find bilingual versions. This example was made around 1220-1230 in Paris – the most important centre for the production of Bible manuscripts in the thirteenth century. The appeal of a bilingual Psalter in Paris is obvious: a major preoccupation of university study was the understanding of the original meaning of the words of the Bible. The Latin Vulgate in the right-hand column is accompanied in the left-hand column by the Greek Septuagint (itself a translation from the Hebrew Old Testament). A reader could thus trace the translation of the Bible text back to an earlier version, and understand how Greek words had been rendered in Latin. Some university scholars, such as Hugh of St Victor, advocated the study of Hebrew in order to obtain the original and literal meaning of the Bible.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 81 (‘Exultate Deo’), in Latin and Middle French, with puzzle initials, from a bilingual Psalter, England, 1st half of the fourteenth century, Harley MS 1770, f. 77v
The translation of the Psalms into vernacular languages reflects the desire for a different kind of comprehension on the part of the reader: not of its ancient, ‘original’ meaning, but of its meaning in his or her own language. Harley MS 1770 belonged to the Augustinian Priory at Kirkham in Yorkshire. It is a sort of trilingual Psalter. The first part of the manuscript contains the Psalms in Latin and French, again in parallel columns.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 1 (‘Beatus vir’), in Middle English with a Latin title and marginal rubric, from a bilingual Psalter, England, 1st half of the fourteenth century, Harley MS 1770, f. 158r
In the second part of the manuscript, the Psalms have been translated into Middle English rhyming couplets. The author used an earlier Middle English interlinear gloss on the Vulgate, which was itself a modernised version of an Old English glossed Psalter. The opening line of each Psalm is given in Latin: the Psalms were not numbered in medieval Bibles, but were cited using their opening words, so these were essential for navigating the text. Extracts from the Latin Psalms were written in the margins, showing the reader which verse was being translated into Middle English at that point. A reader could also compare the two vernacular versions through the Latin text that accompanied both.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 118 (‘Conftemini Domino’) in a Middle English Psalter, with a historiated initial C and marginal Latin rubric, N. England, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Arundel MS 104, f. 364v
The need for such Latin prompts is illustrated by Arundel MS 104, a copy of the Wycliffite version of the Psalms. Its owner cut selected historiated initials from two other manuscripts (one a Psalter commentary of c. 1220, the other a Psalter of c. 1370) and pasted them into the margins. The subject of an initial rarely corresponds to the content of the Psalm it accompanies. The letter itself, however, always matches the opening letter of the Psalms in Latin – and the Middle English text is glossed in the margin with the opening words of the Psalm in Latin.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 27 (‘Dominus illuminatio mea’), in Latin and Middle English, with a foliate initial D and border, from a bilingual Psalter, Harley MS 1896, England, mid-15th century, Harley MS 1896, f. 16r
An altogether different layout is adopted in this Wycliffite version of the Psalms. The text is arranged in a single column and alternates between the Latin and the Middle English translation – with elements of presentation rather than layout used to differentiate the two. The Latin verses are written in red ink, each prefaced by a small blue initial; the vernacular verses in brown ink, each prefaced by a small pink initial. Incorporating the two versions within a single column meant that the Psalms could be read as a single continuous text. The Latin and Middle English versions may have functioned as a kind of ‘call and response’, aiding the reader’s comprehension of the Latin through the vernacular, like in the Vespasian Psalter. Alternatively, the different coloured inks and initials could also have enabled the reader to focus his or her eyes on one version in particular: to skip over the translated passages and concentrate on the Latin – or, more controversially, to do the reverse, and read the Psalms solely in Middle English.
There is simply no earthly honour greater than a British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog post in your memory. So it is with all due reverence – and a selection of manuscripts from our collections – that we observe the feast day of Benedict of Nursia, saint and progenitor of the first monastic order.
Detail of an historiated initial depicting St Benedict, from the Hours of René of Anjou, France (Paris), c. 1410, Egerton MS 1070, f. 89r
Born c. 480 in Nursia, Benedict was educated in Rome but abandoned his studies in order to pursue a spiritual life. After living variously as a hermit or with other religious recluses, and narrowly escaping being murdered by a local priest in Subiaco, he founded Monte Cassino with his followers and there died, tradition has it, on 21st March 543. 11th July marks the translation of his relics to the abbey of Fleury (those of his sister, the wonderfully named Scholastica, were taken at the same time to Le Mans).
Detail of an historiated initial depicting St Benedict, from the opening of the second book of Gregory the Great’s ‘Dialogues’, Italy (?Bologna), 1st half of the 14th century, Burney MS 319, f. 22
Scant details of Benedict’s life survive. The main source is the second book of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great, which recounts mainly miraculous events intended to edify and inspire rather than specific details suited to historical biography.
Benedict’s principal literary legacy was his Rule, in which he set forth the practical and spiritual guidelines by which communities of monks ought to live. Composed c. 526, it comprises 73 chapters, covering such diverse matters as the qualifications required of an abbot of a Benedictine monastery, the twelve ways in which a monk can seek humility, how a monk should pray, read and eat and behave towards his brothers, a scale of punishments of increasing severity for misdemeanours, and the reception and treatment of guests. A chapter of the Rule was read aloud to the monks at their daily convocation: hence ‘chapter meetings’, and the ‘chapter house’ in which they took place.
Opening of the Prologue, with zoomorphic initials and coloured display capitals, from the Rule of St Benedict, England (Canterbury), c. 1000, Harley MS 5431, f. 7r
The Rule survives in three main textual versions – ‘pure’, ‘interpolated’ and ‘received/mixed’. The British Library possesses the oldest surviving copy of the ‘received’ recension, shown above: it dates from c. 1000 and the presence of a fourteenth-century pressmark suggests that it was written and illuminated at St Augustine’s, Canterbury. The unusually narrow format indicates that the manuscript may have been made to fit ivory covers recycled from an older book.
Chapters 38 and 39 from the Rule of St Benedict, with coloured initials and rubrics, England, 2nd half of the 12th century, Harley MS 948, f. 24v
Since the Rule was an essential text for the monastic life, it was copied and circulated very widely, and the British Library possesses numerous copies. The above example is taken from Harley MS 948, and contains Chapters 38 and 39 (mislabelled as 39 and 40): the first dealing with the care of elderly brethren and child oblates, the second with the duties of the monk appointed each week to read to brothers in the refectory while they ate in silence. Instructions to the rubricator can still be seen at the foot of the page. Old English translations of the Rule are found in two Cotton manuscripts (Titus A IV, Faustina A X part B) and there is a Latin-Middle English bilingual version in another (Claudius D III).
Full-page miniature of St Benedict, ?Eadwig Basan and the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, from the Eadui/Arundel Psalter, England (Canterbury), 1012x1023, Arundel MS 155, f. 133r
As one of the major saints of the medieval Christian church, St Benedict was frequently depicted in liturgical or devotional texts, such as this Psalter from Christ Church, Canterbury. It was produced a little later than the Rule from neighbouring St Augustine’s, and was written by one of the priory’s monks, Eadwig Basan. The full-page miniature of St Benedict – at first glance apparently incomplete – recalls that of St Aethelwold in his eponymous Benedictional (Add MS 49598, 963x984). Fully illuminated, the enthroned figure of St Benedict on the left sits in stark contrast to the more simply tinted figures of monks on the right – as in the Benedictional, likely a deliberate artistic decision that privileges the founder of a monastic order beside whom its followers at Canterbury are metaphorically and visually pale imitations. Only one of them is fully coloured: a figure, perhaps Eadwig himself, dressed in dull brown monastic robes and girded with a ‘belt of humility’ (zonahumilitatis), and kneeling in adoration at St Benedict’s feet. St Benedict, described in his nimbus as ‘father and leader of monks’ (pater monachorum et dux), is bestowing upon the Christ Church monks a copy of his Rule, the opening words of which are clearly visible in the open book.
Cuttings from late medieval Italian liturgical manuscripts have been attracting quite a bit of interest among followers of this blog recently, so we conclude with two especially fine historiated initials from Benedict’s native country.
Historiated initial depicting St Benedict in colours and gold, cut from a choirbook, Italy (Lombardy), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 18196, f. 68r
Historiated initial depicting St Benedict in colours and gold, with a hedgehog, cut from a gradual, Italy (Lombardy), 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 39636, f. 13r
When we speak to visitors or students about our medieval manuscripts, we frequently find ourselves spending a significant amount of time talking about how such books were created. We discuss the ways that scribes worked and artists painted, and quite often we will then be asked just how it is that we can know such details. There are, of course, medieval manuals for craftspeople that still exist, but often we can find clues in the manuscripts themselves. Writing was a skill that was hard-won and greatly valued, and many authors and scribes were memorialised by their artisan brethren. We’ll devote an upcoming post to an examination of these artists themselves, but today will concentrate on images of scribes at work.
Full-page miniature of St Dunstan at work, from Smaragdus of St Mihiel’s Expositio in Reglam S Benedicti, England (Canterbury), c. 1170 – c. 1180, Royal MS 10 A XIII, f. 2v
A spectacular leading example is that of St Dunstan, writing his commentary on the Rule of St Benedict. Dunstan is shown in his bishop’s garb, seated in a spectacular if somewhat uncomfortable-looking chair. On the stand before him is a manuscript, bound in a chemise fabric. The opening lines of Dunstan’s text are already written in blue and red ink, and the saint is in the process of adding to them with ink from the pot before him. In his right hand he holds a sharpened quill, while in the left he is wielding a knife. This knife was a common tool, used to sharpen quills, scrape away scribal mistakes, and even hold the parchment in place while the author was writing.
Detail of a miniature of a hermit at work on a manuscript, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315 – 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 6v
A knife is almost ubiquitous in medieval scribal scenes. It can be seen employed in the image above, in which a more modest scriptorium is on display. This miniature, from a copy of the Estoire del Saint Graal that once belonged to Charles V of France, shows a habited hermit in the act of writing at his desk; his quill dipped into the black ink that rests at his side and his knife steadying the page. This scribe is working on a not-yet bound folio, which has been ruled with lines and is being held in place by a set of red weights. Interestingly, we can see that rather than writing an original work, he is copying an older text, which rests on a stand above him; he has so far nearly completed the opening word.
Detail of a miniature of Guillaume de Lorris or Jean de Meun at work writing the text, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 133r
One of our favourites (of course) is the miniature above, which you hopefully are all already familiar with. In this scene, the author of the Roman de la Rose is seated at an elaborate workbench with his manuscript before him. Interestingly, it appears to be a finished copy, bound with gilded edges, which is fairly unusual in these sorts of depictions. Our author is holding a quill in his hand as he turns towards the viewer, and delightfully appears to have another quill tucked up into his cap. On the shelf below him are other bound books, some scrolls, and a glass of water, while on his desk we can see two pots of ink, one black, and one red – he may be at work rubricating (marking in red lettering) with the latter ink. Above the desk is what looks like a sheaf of papers hanging from a hook, although exactly what that is has been a subject of some debate – please do let us know your thoughts!
Full-page miniature of Donatus writing his grammar, from Sedulius Scotus’ Expositio super primam edicionem Donati grammatici, Germany, 2nd half of the 12th century, Arundel MS 43, f. 80v
Scribes didn’t always labour on their own, however. A 12th century copy of Donatus’ Grammar is prefaced with a miniature of the scholar himself, hard at work. He is surrounded by later inscriptions (and was apparently gifted by this inscriber with an odd variety of full-head crown), but he is also possessed of a small-scale assistant. This tonsured man, labelled ‘Heinre’(?) is holding an ink horn, which he offers to Donatus.
Historiated initial ‘I’(nitium) of Mark and his lion writing the Gospel, from the Worms Bible, Germany (Middle Rhineland), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 2804, f. 188v
Such scribal helpers weren’t always human. This is particularly the case with images of the four Evangelists, who are often shown being assisted by their animal (or angelic) counterpart in the tasks of writing their Gospels. One especially charming example comes from the Worms Bible. On the folio above, St Mark is writing the opening words of his Gospel attended by his lion, who helpfully holds the Evangelist’s ink-horn in his teeth while simultaneously serving as a bookstand.
Detail of a miniature of a scribe demonstrating to his pupils, from Jean Corbechon’s translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ De proprietatibus rerum, France (Paris?), 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 17 E III, f. 209r
Detail of a miniature of Prudence writing at her desk, with pupils before her,from Laurent d’Orleans’ La somme le roi, France (Paris) 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C II, f. 48v
Of course, writing well was a skill that took years to develop, and careful training was necessary. Many manuscripts include images of masters inducting their pupils into the secrets of the craft. Interestingly, it’s rare to find an example of a student actually practicing writing; instead the pedagogical technique seems to have required them to watch closely (and occasionally express admiration for the scribe’s labours). That said, we found one such example of apprentices at work, from Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen. In the scene at the bottom we can see a busy scriptorium; fittingly for this manuscript, the young men are working under the supervision of a woman, Io.
Detail of a miniature of a scriptorium under the supervision of Io, from Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410 – c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 109r
At the end of a long apprenticeship – and presumably, eventually some actual writing practice – a pupil could hope to one day become a master scribe, a profession that was highly respected. So much so that the tools of the trade were proudly displayed by those who had earned them, through sometimes literally back-breaking labour. As the 10th century scribe Florentius of Valeranica wrote: ‘Because one who does not know how to write thinks it no labour, I will describe it for you, if you want to know how great is the burden of writing: it mists the eyes, it curves the back, it breaks the belly and the ribs, it fills the kidneys with pain, and the body with all kinds of suffering. Therefore, turn the pages slowly, reader, and keep your fingers well away from the pages, for just as a hailstorm ruins the fecundity of the soil, so the sloppy reader destroys both the book and the writing. For as the last port is sweet to the sailor, so the last line to the scribe.’
Detail of a miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer holding a rosary and wearing a pen-case on a string around his neck, from Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, England (London or Westminster), c. 1411 – c. 1420, Harley MS 4866, f. 88r
Detail of a miniature of a scribe with a knife, shears, a pen-case, and an ink-pot, from Jean de Vignay and other texts, France (Paris?), 1st or 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 19 C XI, f. 27v
And that will be our last line; stay tuned for our next instalment on the subject of artists in medieval manuscripts! As always, please do let us know about your favourites in the comments below, or on Twitter @BLMedieval.
The British Library’s amazing new exhibition, Comics Unmasked, was opened last week by TV presenter and comics fan Jonathan Ross. Talking about the oldest item on show, an early printed version of the Bible with graphic images, Jonathan commented that the Bible can be a great source of material for comic books. We in Medieval Manuscripts know this only too well!
Of course, it all began with manuscripts. Here are some early examples.
This 11th-century Old English version of six books of the Old Testament is filled with graphic depictions of the well-known stories, like the series below showing Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden:
Adam and Eve, England, S. E. (Canterbury), 2nd quarter of the 11th century: London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 7v
We had to include this picture of the dancing camels!
Abraham’s Camels in the Book of Genesis: London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 39r
Sometimes described as England’s first graphic novel, this book tells stories from the Old and New Testament in a series of pictures with captions in Anglo-Norman French. There is some interesting material that didn’t make it into the authorised version of the Bible. The page below tells about Joseph’s reaction when he hears Mary is having a baby: the banners contain the dialogue, like speech bubbles in modern cartoons. In the second image, Joseph, whose friends have been telling him some home truths about his wife, is touching Mary’s stomach and asking her some awkward questions. Mary protests, ‘No, really don’t worry, I have never committed a bodily sin’. Of course he doesn’t believe her, but fortunately an angel drops in to reveal the divine plan and he has to eat humble pie.
Joseph finds out about Mary’s pregnancy, England, S.E. (?London), 1327-1335: London, British Library, MS Add 47682, f. 12r
Episodes from the life of Christ are also given the comic-book treatment:
The healing of the paralysed man; Christ rests by a well; the woman of Samaria; the disciples eat but Jesus will not: London, British Library, MS Add 47682, f. 24v
The life of Moses is one of the great stories of all time, providing material for comics and movies such as the Charlton Heston epic and Spielberg’s ‘Prince of Egypt’. The Queen Mary Psalter contains a remarkable series of Old Testament stories told in a series of 223 pictures with captions in French. Included in the series is the Moses story. Here are some of the episodes:
Miniature in two parts of the king of Egypt demanding that all Jewish infants be killed (above); of the birth of Moses, and Moses placed in a basket and left on the banks of the Nile (below), England (London?), c. 1310-1320: London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 22v
Miniature of Moses freeing the Israelites from the king of Egypt, (above); miniature of Moses and the king of Egypt's troops facing each other across the Red Sea, (below): London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 24v
Miniature of God giving the laws to Moses for a second time (above); and of Moses showing the laws to the Israelites (below): London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 26r
We'll feature more medieval "comics" on this blog in the next few weeks. We're having great fun putting this list together, and would welcome more suggestions via @BLMedieval. Meanwhile, you can see our Comics exhibition in London until 19 August 2014, book your tickets online here.
Harley Roll Y 6 – the Guthlac Roll – has been fully digitised, and a new catalogue description and high-resolution images are now available on Digitised Manuscripts. This newest upload takes place, appropriately, on St Guthlac’s own feast day. It also coincides with the conclusion of a two-day conference at the University of London, which has marked the beginning of the 1300th year since Guthlac’s death with a series of papers on the saint’s life, his cult, and the surviving sources. The Guthlac Roll is also on display in the British Library’s newly refurbished Treasures Gallery.
Drawing of Guthlac being carried to the gates of Hell by demons and being given a scourge by St Bartholomew with which to repel them, Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 8. For more Hell-mouths in BL manuscripts, see ‘Prepare to Meet Your Doom’.
The Guthlac Roll was made around the late twelfth or early thirteenth centuries. It is regrettably incomplete: a fifth piece of parchment, containing perhaps two or three roundels illustrating the earlier stages of his life, has been lost. What survives is a series of seventeen compelling and skilful pen-drawings in roundels of Guthlac’s life and deeds – including an entertaining trio illustrating his torment by and ultimate vanquishing of demons, aided by St Bartholomew – plus a final roundel illustrating the benefactors of his shrine at Crowland, in present-day Lincolnshire.
Drawing of Guthlac deciding to devote himself to a life of religion, Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 1 (incomplete).
Born into the Mercian royal dynasty, Guthlac spent his early adult life as a warrior, leading apparently successful raids and battles against hostile neighbouring tribes. The roll in its present state opens with half of a roundel that illustrates the sleepless night on which the young Guthlac, surrounded by his slumbering fellow-soldiers, resolved to devote himself to a life of religion.
The roundel scenes are given particular animation by the skill with which the anonymous artist captured facial expressions. Note the bewilderment of Guthlac’s men as he bade them and the military life farewell. Stumped by his decision, they turn to one another questioningly; one looks down at the ground, seemingly lost in a moment of doubt. The soldier at the front appears to be appealing to Guthlac – but too late: his back turned, he is departing with a simple wave.
Drawing of Guthlac sailing to Crowland with Tatwin, Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 4.
Having received the tonsure at Repton Abbey, Guthlac set sail for Crowland, at that time an island amidst the Fens. The roundel shows that his life of contemplation had already begun: with an open book on his lap, his gaze tilted upwards, he is lost in thought, oblivious to the paddling of Tatwin and his helper (who appears to be using a quant pole).
Drawing of Guthlac exorcising a demon from Ecgga, Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 10.
In a later roundel, two men look on in wonderment, one open-mouthed, as Guthlac is exorcising a demon from Ecgga. The scene reinforces Guthlac’s saintliness: that he possessed holy powers that were witnessed by his contemporaries.
According to Felix of Crowland’s Vita Sancti Guthlaci, the main source for the roll, word of Guthlac’s deeds attracted wide attention. While in exile, Æthelbald, King of the Mercians, sought Guthlac’s advice. The artist depicted Æthelbald sitting with his eyes fixed upon Guthlac, listening intently to his teaching, his attentive pose echoed by the rapt gaze of his attendant.
Drawing of Pega setting sail for Crowland with Beccelm, Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 15.
After Guthlac’s death, his sister Pega came to Crowland for his burial. The fifteenth roundel shows her, grief-stricken, being met by Guthlac’s disciple, Beccelm. Her brow is wrinkled, her eyes downcast; she is holding one hand up to her face mournfully. Her emotional state is echoed by her unsteady pose: with one foot on land and the other on the boat, she is balanced by Beccelm, who is lending her his hand.
The next roundel illustrates Guthlac’s burial. Observe the care with which one of the monks is holding Guthlac’s legs, how tenderly Pega is cradling the saint’s head in the crook of her arm, as they lower his shrouded body gently into the coffin. The depiction of Guthlac in silhouette – rather than wrapped in dramatic loops and whorls of drapery as in the earlier death-bed scenes – was a deliberate artistic decision. It encapsulates the sudden absence of the central figure in this cycle of roundels and the emptiness of his mortal remains following the departure of his soul.
Drawing of Guthlac’s appearance in a vision to King Æthelbald during the vigil at his tomb, Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 17.
It also emphasises the miraculousness of Guthlac’s startling reappearance in the next roundel: standing before Æthelbald, who is now looking up in wonder at the newly designated saint.