The illuminated manuscripts staff held a small celebration on Thursday – our unique set of three volumes of the entire Lancelot-Grail, Additional MSS 10292, 10293 and 10294 have been digitised – that’s a total of 695 folios with 742 images! We had a special cake made to mark the occasion, and here it is, with one of the gorgeous images from Additional MS 10293 (f. 199r) of Lancelot and Guinevere reproduced in icing!
(Cake courtesy of Cakeology, Wimbledon)
Digitisation of these manuscripts has been a long and torturous process, begun in 2013: the volumes are very large and not easy to photograph and in 1860, when they were rebound, the decision was made to separate the first folios of two of the volumes, Additional MSS 10293 and 10294, into a separate volume, now Additional MS 10294/1. Both folios have gorgeous miniatures and full borders, and they were bound separately ‘for better preservation’ (according to a note on one of the flyleaves) as, being opening folios, they have been well-used so the illumination is worn and the parchment is deteriorating at the edges. But this has made the process of cataloguing and digitisation more complex, as the separate volume needs to be correctly labelled, recorded and entered in the cataloguing system so that users in our Reading Room and online, are able to access it easily.
But it has all been worth it – these manuscripts are a treasure-trove of incredible images of knights, kings, battles, devils, hermits, sea voyages, dragons and everything in between. Here are some of our favourites, including the opening page of the Histoire de Merlin from the first volume. The image shows God opening the gates of hell with the devils meeting inside; one of the devils later fathers Merlin (see the following image on f. 77v). We are not too sure what is happening in the lower margin of f. 76r – perhaps our readers have some suggestions!
God, the gates of Hell and devils meeting¸ with full border, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 76r
Below is the first folio of Additional MS 10293, the part known as the Lancelot-propre, or Lancelot du Lac, that tells the story of Lancelot, his chivalric exploits and his love for Guinevere. The image shows the aged King Ban, Lancelot’s father with his brother, King Bohors of Gaunes, before he was killed and dispossessed by the treacherous knight, Claudas. The text begins ‘En la marche de Gaule et de la petite bertaigne avoit ii rois’ (in the border of Gaul and little Brittany there once lived two kings….). The border is decorated with hybrid creatures, animals and human figures, one side consisting of a 3-storey chapel, each storey containing a courtly character. There are marvellous details to zoom in on, including a nun feeding a beggar on the lower right and a fire-breathing devil above the main image.
King Ban of Benoith and King Bohort of Gaunes, with full border, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10294/1, f. 1a recto
In this poignant image from the end of the Mort d’Artu, the hand emerges from the lake to take back Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword, and Arthur is shown, lying wounded in the foreground, while the young squire, Giflet or Griflet, looks on.
The death of King Arthur: his sword is returned to the hand in the lake, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10294, f. 94r
Ending on a happier note, with another party, the opening folio of Queste del Saint Graal from the third volume, shows King Arthur’s court seated at the table at Camelot on the eve of Pentecost, against a sumptuous gold backdrop. The border once again, is a plethora of knights, hybrid creatures and scenes from medieval life, including a man carrying a child in an early version of a baby backpack, but some scenes are best not described in this blog!
Arthur’s court at Camelot, with full border, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10294/1, f. 1d recto
King Æthelwulf, who died on 13 January 858, has been rather overshadowed by his more famous son, Alfred the Great – but did he lay the foundations for Alfred’s success?
Æthelwulf consolidated the West Saxon kingdom, strengthened his family’s rule over Kent and brought Devon and Cornwall under his influence. It seems that he was quite a networker, currying favour with Pope Benedict III and Charles the Bald, the Carolingian emperor. He travelled to Rome in 855 ‘with a multitude of people’, and gave gifts of ‘a fine gold crown weighing 4 lb, … one sword bound with fine gold; four silver-gilt Saxon bowls; one all-silk white shirt with roundels, with gold-studding; and two large gold-interwoven veils’, as well as lavish donations of gold and silver to ‘the clergy, leading men and people of Rome’ (from the Liber Pontificalis: AD 817–891, ed. by R. Davis (1995)).
On his way home, Æthelwulf stopped off at the court of Charles the Bald for three months and married the emperor’s daughter Judith in an elaborate ceremony. His new bride replaced Æthelwulf’s wife Osburh, who had borne all his children, including five sons. It is not known if Osburh had died before this or was discarded in favour of Judith, who was probably only fourteen. Æthelwulf’s connection to Carolingian royalty is referred to many times in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and was no doubt considered a very prestigious move.
Detail from a genealogical roll, showing Æthelwulf (centre), his father Ecgberht, King of the West Saxons (above), King Beorhtric (right), and below, 4 roundels containing his sons, Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and Alfred, England, 4th quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 14 B V, Membrane 1.
Here is an image of King Æthelwulf (in the centre) from a genealogical roll chronicle produced in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). He is shown against a shiny gold background, with his left hand on his heart. The French text beside him focuses on the gifts of money he gave to the Pope. Beside him is a man on stilts playing a pipe with an animal head.
Text page with West-Saxon genealogy to King Alfred, England, S.E. (Winchester), 4th quarter of the 11th century, Add MS 34652, f. 2v.
This is a leaf that has been detached from Cotton MS Otho B XI, one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It contains an Anglo-Saxon genealogy from King Cerdic (519-534) to Alfred (871-899). On the 7th line, Ecgberht (‘ecbyrht’), father of Æthelwulf, is listed as reigning for 37 years and 7 months (802-839). He was succeeded by his son: ‘þa feng æþelwulf to his sunu 7 heold nigenteolðe healf gear’ (‘his son Æthelwulf took over the kingdom and held it for the nineteenth half year’, i.e. eighteen and a half years) (lines 8-9). There follows a seven-line list of Æthelwulf’s antecedents with their patronymics: Æthelwulf is ‘ecbyrhting’ (son of Ecbyrht), Ecbyrht is ‘ealmunding’ (son of Ealhmund), Ealmund is ‘eafing’ (son Eafa, who married a Kentish princess) and so on back to ‘cynric cerdiccing’, Cynric, son of King Cerdic, who some believe was a Saxon invader and founder of the dynasty of Wessex.
Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, England, S. E. (Christ Church, Canterbury), 843, Stowe Charter 17
The earliest surviving charter of a king of Wessex is a grant by King Æthelwulf, dated 28 May 843 (Stowe Charter 17). Æthelwulf gave to his thegn Æthelmod land at Little Chart, Kent, including woods called Theodorice-snad and Beaneccer, and swine-pastures at Ætingden, Lidingden, Meredenn and Uddanh. Attached to the bottom of the charter is a small fragment of parchment containing a note of the witnesses, including Æthelwulf himself and Ceolnoð, Archbishop of Canterbury. This must have been used as an aide-memoire by the scribe when writing up the fine copy.
Æthelwulf was succeeded by his sons Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and finally Alfred, his youngest son, who reigned for 22 winters.
The British Library has a long track record in supporting exhibitions at home and abroad – and 2014 has been no different. This year has seen medieval manuscripts from the British Library travel near and far to a great diversity of exhibitions. Here are some of the highlights:
Mapping Our World: National Library of Australia, Canberra, 7 November 2013-10 March 2014
A two-page mappa mundi from the beginning of a copy of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, late 14th century, Royal MS 14 C IX, ff. 1v-2r
This fascinating exhibition took a look at how people through the ages had drawn and depicted the world around them in maps, atlases and charts. Medieval mappae mundi are an important facet of this story, containing not just geographical but also theological, historical and legendary material. Two manuscripts that contained a mappa went to Canberra for the exhibition: a copy of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon (Royal MS 14 C IX) and a copy of Macrobius’ Commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio (Harley MS 2772).
Miniature of Merlin building Stonehenge, from Wace, ‘Roman de Brut’, England, second quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r
Stonehenge has remained a source of fascination and speculation over the centuries, as this exhibition illustrated with two British Library manuscripts: Egerton MS 3028, a copy of Wace’s Roman de Brut; and Cotton MS Nero D VIII, a large compilation of historical texts, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Along with his contemporary Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey was one of the earliest chroniclers to comment on the monument and weave a story about its origins. Wace used Geoffrey’s fantastical work of history for his own Roman de Brut, a verse epic in French about Britain’s ancient kings. The copy in Egerton MS 3028 is remarkable for containing the earliest depiction of the monument: specifically, of Merlin lifting a lintel on top of two of the standing stone, to the evident wonderment of onlookers.
King Cnut and Queen Emma in the New Minster Liber Vitae, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r
The New Minster Liber Vitae (Stowe MS 944) formed part of an exhibition that challenged preconceptions about the Vikings by bringing together new research with a glittering (and often fearsome) array of treasure, loot, weaponry, jewellery and surviving fragments of a longboat. This manuscript, begun in Winchester in 1031, opens with a full-page drawing that commemorates the presentation to the church of New Minster by King Cnut and his wife Emma (Ælfgifu) of a cross – and, significantly, their integration into the spiritual as well as temporal realms of England.
Detail of an alchemist, probably Hermes Trismegistus, holding a hermetic flask, from the Ripley Scrolls, late 16th/early 17th century, Add MS 5025, f. 2r
Four of the British Library’s Ripley Scrolls (Add MS 5025) were on display for this exhibition, which featured works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rembrandt van Rijn, Rubens and many others. Based on The Compound of Alchemy of George Ripley (d. c. 1490) and other pseudo-scientific texts, these scrolls are intriguing, bizarre and perplexing in equal measure, featuring arcane experiments, human-animal hybrids, and cryptic inscriptions.
Miniature of king Robert of Anjou sitting on his throne, with inscribed fleur-de-lis in the background, from the Address of the City of Prato to Robert of Anjou, Italy (Tuscany), c. 1335, Royal MS 6 E IX, f. 10v
Two other British Library manuscripts made the journey to Germany in the spring, for an exhibition on Louis IV, who reigned as Holy Roman Emperor from 1328-1347. The first loan was Royal MS 6 E IX, a lavish copy of an address by the city of Prato to Robert of Anjou, from whom it sought protection from Louis. The other loan was of a German Apocalypse manuscript, Add MS 15243, made in the early fourteenth century. This manuscript is a rare survival, with a distinctive decorative style, which marks it out from the more common Latin or French Apocalypses (a blog post on this manuscript will be forthcoming in the New Year).
Theodore Mayerne’s experiments with pigments, from ‘Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium’, England (London), 1620-1646, Sloane MS 2052, f. 80v
In June, the Mayerne manuscript (Sloane MS 2052) headed down the road to the National Gallery for an exhibition on the science behind the making of pigments, whether made from crushed insects or precious minerals, or acquired locally or from distant lands, and how and why they might deteriorate over time. Theodore Mayerne (d. 1655), court physician to James I and Charles I, assembled a notebook that records his own personal experiments with colour, including notes taken from leading artists of the day, such as Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck.
Incipit page at the beginning of the Gospel of St Mark, from the Harley Golden Gospels, Germany (?Aachen), 1st quarter of the 9th century, Harley MS 2788, f. 72r
Harley MS 2788 – the Harley Golden Gospels – was on display for three months in the city of Aachen, where it may have been made in the first quarter of the ninth century. The exhibition brought together works of art from Charlemagne’s time. It is one of a group of books closely associated with the German emperor and his capital at Aachen, reflecting his personal initiatives and tastes. Its name is appropriate: prefatory canon tables, a title page, full-page miniatures of the Evangelists and corresponding incipit pages are all richly illuminated with gold.
Detail of a miniature of the Circumcision of Abraham, from James le Palmer’s Omne bonum, London, c. 1360–1375, Royal MS 6 E VI, f. 3r
Miniatures depicting the circumcision of Abraham in two British Library manuscripts went on display in Berlin for this exhibition that explored the roots of this ritual and the Abrahamic covenant through to modern-day references in popular culture. The Egerton Genesis (Egerton MS 1894) contains 149 miniatures in pen and colour washes, accompanied by captions derived from Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica. The first volume of James le Palmer’s unfinished encyclopaedia, the Omne bonum (Royal MS 6 E VI), is prefaced by a series of 109 tinted drawings of Old and New Testament scenes.
The Adoration of the Magi, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, England (Winchester), 963-984, Add MS 49598, f. 24v
In 1164, relics of the Magi were deposited at Cologne Cathedral, where they remain. 850 years later, an exhibition looks at their important place in medieval art as the first men to recognise Christ as the Son of God. The British Library’s contribution is the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (Add MS 49598), made 963-984, which contains a full-page illuminated miniature of the Adoration of the Magi within an ornate foliate border.
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.
Miniature illustrating Psalm 103 (Vulgate numbering): The creations of the Lord: valleys and mountains (left) with springs where beasts and birds are drinking, a man ploughing with oxen, a sea with ships on it and beasts in the water (centre); lions and other beasts among the rocks (right), from the Harley Psalter, S.E. England (Canterbury), 1st half of the 11th century, Harley MS 603, f. 51v
The Harley Psalter is one of three manuscripts copied from the very well-travelled Utrecht Psalter, a Carolingian masterpiece made around 825 at the Benedictine monastery of Hautvilliers near Rheims in Northern France. Now MS 32 at the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Utrecht, the Utrecht Psalter spent at least two hundred years in Canterbury from about 1000 AD, where it was the inspiration for our very own Harley Psalter, Harley MS 603. Dating from the first half of the 11th century, the Harley Psalter has a very similar arrangement and many near-identical images to those of the Utrecht Psalter, though the version of the Psalms is different. In each one of the large pen drawings, the artist has attempted to represent the words of the Psalms in pictorial form - not always an easy task. The images often include four or five episodes from the text of the Psalm that follows, depicted in a vibrant yet intimate style. They are extraordinarily detailed, filled with tiny people and animals and many details, some amusing, and some bizarre. This is the medieval ‘Where’s Wally?’: the reward for hours of searching is an unexpected delight from time to time.
Miniature illustrating Psalm 5: The psalmist entering a sanctuary (left), from which a winged demon is fleeing (centre), and above him an angel placing a wreath on a martyr's head; on the right, demons are prodding the wicked in a pit of fire, Harley MS 603, f. 3r
There are, of course, the standard variations on the theme of the righteous and unrighteous, such as holy tabernacles and fiery pits, the psalmist appealing to God and his angels for help against foes and demons.
Miniature illustrating Psalm 134: The Lord unleashing the fury of the wind and rain and his angels with spears slaying kings and their armies, Harley MS 603, f. 69r
God’s vengeance is portrayed repeatedly and with relish, as are the agitated gestures of the figures who suffer the consequences, particularly kings and judges.
So much for the standard fare. Here are a few unusual and interesting details we found to enjoy (apart from a medieval umbrella!). Please look for your own favourites in the online images and share them with us via Twitter: unlike the ‘Where’s Wally?’ books, Digitised Manuscripts allows you to zoom in for added searchability.
Detail from a miniature illustrating Psalm 7: a female demon with quadruplets (below right), Harley MS 603, f. 4r
Here is a female demon with her brood of quadruplets. She seems to have her hands full!
Miniature illustrating Psalm 21: The themes include: (1) the lamentation of the psalmist, who is shown holding two vials, and is attacked by bulls, dogs and lions, with a unicorn below (lower right); (2) prophetic images of Christ’s passion including an empty cross and two men dividing a garment in front of a lot machine (centre); and (3) praise to heaven, represented by the tabernacle with the meek eating at a circular table and seven women seated with babies (the seed of Israel), Harley MS 603, f. 12r
As those of you who follow this blog will know, we have a soft spot for unicorns. Here is one that seems to be facing up to two men with scythes. One has to wonder what the outcome of that contest will be. Our money is on the unicorn, naturally.
Detail of a miniature illustrating Psalm 30: People watching acrobats and a dancing bear, Harley MS 603, f. 17r
Continuing with the animal theme, this image includes a dancing bear and acrobats, presumably as a condemnation of frivolous pastimes.
Miniature illustrating Psalm 108: Below Christ in a mandorla with angels, a wicked man is seized by a demon (left) and the psalmist with a locust, standing in oil from an oil-horn (right); the sinner is punished (lower left), his wife and children abandoned and his treasures taken from his chest, Harley MS 603, f. 56r
And here a locust is an onlooker to the punishment of a sinful man. The sinner’s treasure is looted, his wife tears her hair out and his children are abandoned, naked.
Added miniature illustrating Psalm 59: The Lord in a mandorla handing a pair of shoes to an angel; the defenders of the city of Edom(?) are facing the attacking soldiers, Harley MS 603, f. 32v
Finally, did you know that angels wore shoes? No, nor did we, but in the picture the Lord is handing a pair to an angel (illustrating the line, ‘Over Edom will I cast out my shoe’). The style of this image is different: it is one of the drawings added to the Psalter in the 12th century.
There are 112 of these fascinating and skilful illustrations in the Harley Psalter, an impressive achievement by any standard. The artistic style, originally from Reims, was influential in the development of late Anglo-Saxon book decoration and the coloured line drawings that became especially popular in England at the time. For further examples of this style, check out the Tiberius Psalter (Cotton MS Tiberius C VI), which dates to the third quarter of the 11th century. Two copies of the Psychomachia at the British Library also contain similar decoration: Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII and Additional MS 24199 (the latter will soon make an appearance on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts).
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