Longstanding readers of our Medieval Manuscripts Blog may know that we have a penchant for hedgehogs. In 2012, we published a post entitled The Distinguished Pedigree of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, based on the accounts of their behaviour in medieval bestiaries. In 2014, we brought you a hedgehog beauty contest, no less, featuring images of five of our favourites. And most recently we focused on the heraldic hedgehog in the 13th-century Dering Roll.
Hedgehogs rolling on the ground to collect grapes for their young, as illustrated in the Rochester Bestiary (England, c. 1230): London, British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r. Hedgehogs were said to creep into vineyards when the grapes were ripe, to climb the vines and shake the fruit down to the ground. Then, rather than eating this bounty on the spot, they would turn onto their backs and roll around, impaling the grapes with their sharp quills. They could then trundle off back to their burrows, carrying the grapes on their spines, as a meal for their young. The bestiary writers allegorized this as a warning of the clever stratagems of the devil in stealing man's spiritual fruits.
We've now discovered this fantastic animation, based on the drawings of hedgehogs in one of the British Library's medieval bestiaries (Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r). De Herinacio: On the Hedgehog was made by the amazing Obrazki nunu and Discarding Images. We hope that you love it as much as we do! Maybe it will inspire more people to explore and reinvent our wonderful collections.
Our recent blogpost, Visions of the Apocalypse, featured a selection of images from five of our favourite Apocalypse manuscripts. These works are filled with imaginative depictions of St John’s visions in the Book of Revelation, and it is interesting to compare how different artists illustrated the same text.
One of the most evocative passages in Revelation is at the beginning of chapter 12:
‘And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars … And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child.’
Detail of the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, from the Queen Mary Apocalypse, S.E. England or East Anglia, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 B XV, f. 20v
Medieval illuminators applied their talent and imaginations on this text, and the results are wonderfully varied. In the above image from the Queen Mary Apocalypse, the woman is svelte and elegant, posing nonchalantly in her rather ‘bling’ crown, with the moon at her feet. There is no beast in sight yet, and St John and the winds are watching her in admiration. On the following page (f. 21r), featured in our last blogpost, the horrific seven-headed beast occupies the whole page and the woman is shown in an inset picture, giving up her new-born child to an angel.
The Woman and the Beast, from the Silos Apocalypse, Spain, 1091-1109, Add MS 11695, ff. 147v-148r
This next image from the 11th-century Spanish manuscript, the Silos Apocalypse, is part of a brilliantly coloured tapestry, featuring a rather whimsical monster who looks almost friendly: all seven heads appear to be smiling. In the upper part of the image is a woman holding a magnificent floral shield, her head surrounded by daisy-like stars, while she gestures towards the beast.
The lower half of the page shows water flowing out of one of the beast’s mouths towards the brightly-clothed woman, who now has wings. The water is being swallowed up by the earth, as described in the following verses from Revelation, 12:13-16:
‘And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness …And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.’
Detail of the woman and the beast spewing water into the earth, from the Welles Apocalypse, England, c. 1310, Royal MS 15 D II, f. 156r
In this image from the Welles Apocalypse, produced in England between 1300 and 1325, the stars are part of the patterned background and the beast has only one head, with water spewing out of it into what appears to be a hollow tree trunk. The woman resembles Mary with a blue robe and halo.
Detail of the woman and the beast spewing water into the earth, from the Yates Thompson Apocalypse, Paris, c. 1370-c. 1390, Yates Thompson MS 10, f. 20v
A manuscript made late in the 14th century in Paris, Yates Thompson 10, also has a woman raising her hands in terror. The dragon has only one head once again, but is more lifelike than the one in the Welles Apocalypse, and so is the landscape, though the sky is golden.
Detail of the woman clothed with the sun and the seven-headed beast spewing water into the earth, from the Abingdon Apocalypse, England (?London), 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 42555, f. 36v
The Abingdon Apocalypse, from the 13th century, shows a woman flying away from the griffon-like beast with seven heads, one of which spews water into a tunnel in the earth. Beneath her, wolves and lions are looking on. A golden screen against a blue sky represents her cloak of the sun and she is holding a book-like object.
These are not the only beasts, in fact Apocalypse manuscripts are full of an awesome array of imaginative creatures that must have struck terror into the hearts of anyone brave enough to open these books.
Here is a selection of Apocalyptic beasts, but we must include a disclaimer: this material could give you serious nightmares.
Detail of the second beast of the Apocalypse on an altar and the third beast watching saints being killed (left), Add MS 42555, f. 43v
Detail of John looking at the three beasts of the Apocalypse with frogs coming out of their mouths, Add MS 42555, f. 60v
Readers of our blog will be familiar, by now, with the fact that some medieval illuminators had a special enthusiasm for marginal mockery. No matter how overtly devotional the text, its margins were not protected from a carnival parade of visual humour. In fact, it would be easy to get the impression that the more solemn the central scene, the better the scope for marginal antics.
Aping the Office of the Dead, from a Book of Hours, France, c. 1320s, Add MS 36684, f. 125r
The Office of the Dead, included in many Books of Hours, is a series of prayers to be said in anticipation of death, at a funeral, or in remembrance of the deceased. This solemn miniature depicts monks standing at the foot of a coffin and singing the Office from a book. A good incentive for our book’s owner to pray, one might think, even if he or she was a bit distracted by the hybrid form of the grave-digger with his shovel at the bottom of the page.
Detail of the text of the Office held by the hands and hindquarters of apes, Add MS 36684, f. 125r
More difficult to ignore, however, is the episode just beneath the central scene: one ape holds the same book, another uses his hindquarters as a lectern, and the antics of both are overseen by a laughing skeleton!
The Hours of Terce, with an historiated initial showing the Adoration of the Magi, Add MS 36684, f. 46v
Apes are frequently the cause of marginal inversion in this particular Book of Hours, such as at Terce (the third canonical Hour of the day) where the gestures of the Magi in the miniature of the Adoration are parodied by three apes in the bas-de-page (the space at the bottom of the page).
Detail of the ‘three wise apes’ in the bas-de-page at Terce, Add MS 36684, f. 46v
One grasps a leafy extension of the bar-frame, a vine with a bemused head, apparently the subject of their own ‘adoration’.
Detail of an ape on stilts riding a hobby-horse and balancing a stork on its shoulders, from Jean Froissart, ‘Chroniques’, Vol. IV, part 1, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 113r
A quick glance, in fact, at the index in Lilian Randall’s Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts reveals an astonishing 18 pages worth of ‘ape and…’ or ‘ape with…’ etc., many of which describe quite peculiar scenarios like the one above (some further examples from British Library manuscripts can be found in our post ‘Monkeys in the Margins’).
An illuminated border containing an ape holding a piece of fruit, from a Book of Hours, France (Rouen), c. 1430-c. 1440, Harley MS 1251, f. 91r
The Physiologus, a second-century Greek compilation of knowledge about animals and nature, attempted to redefine the natural world in Christian terms. Apes, it was thought, were the creation of the devil, the Ape of God who mimicked His actions just as the ape mimicked human behaviour.
Detail of an ape riding a goat (both animals noted for being lascivious) and looking at part of the Athanasian Creed (‘Perfectus deo perfectus homo’ – ‘Perfect God, perfect man’), from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), c. 1300-c. 1325, Stowe MS 17, f. 81v (for more on this manuscript, check out our similar simian blog-post ‘Monkeying Around with the Maastricht Hours’)
From being a representation of the devil, the ape also morphed into an image of the devil’s victim, the sinner. Imprisonments of the material world, such as lust and sin, were best conveyed with an ape. Nothing said ‘sensuality’ and ‘unreliability’ better than a foolish ape holding an apple or riding a goat.
Detail of a mother ape being hunted, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, c. 1310 – c. 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 107v
The Bestiary developed these themes (see the copy in Royal MS 12 F XIII here) by giving an account of a mother ape fleeing hunters and carrying twins, her favourite in her arms and her least favourite on her back.
As she tires, she drops the child she likes while the one she dislikes will cling to her. For the theologian John Scotus, this was an allegory of the human condition, with the favoured child representing worldly pleasures while the neglected one stood in for spiritual values.
An ape engaged in the female pursuit of winding wool (with a goat, of course), Stowe MS 17, f. 91v
Classical writers such as Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and Gaius Julius Solinus, all emphasised the ape’s propensity for imitation.
Detail of an ape wearing a bishop’s mitre and playing a trumpet, from the Bohun Psalter, England (?London), after 1356 and probably before 1373, Egerton MS 3277, f. 22v (for more on apes and other animals in this manuscript, see our earlier post ‘Lions, Monkeys and Bears – Oh My!’)
Indeed, Isidore of Seville, the expert on etymology in the Middle Ages, explained the derivation of simius (ape) from similitudo, remarking that ‘the monkey wants to imitate everything he sees done’.
This group of apes is at school: one is being beaten by a master, three are being lectured, and another appears to be smelling the contents of a vase (probably a urinal), alluding to the common trope of the ‘ape as physician’ in the margins of medieval manuscripts.
Detail of an ape sat in green wicker basket playing the bagpipes, from the Hours of the Earls of Ormond’, England (London), c. 1460-1467, Harley MS 2887, f. 29r
Finally, apes sometimes get up to such usual activities that they become one means (in combination with a range of distinctive motifs) of identifying individual artistic personalities. These examples come from the oeuvres of two illuminators active in England in the third quarter of the fifteenth century. The ape sat in a green wicker basket and playing the bagpipes is a trademark of sorts for a border artist known as ‘the Owl-illuminator’ (who is also known for using owls in marginal decoration).
Detail of a miniature illustrating a marriage ceremony, with an ape picking fleas from a human head in the border, from a Book of Hours, England (London or Oxford), c. 1450-c. 1460, Add MS 62523, f. 7r
And then there is this very helpful ape, picking (and eating) fleas from a human head – a very unusual motif and one good indication that you are looking at work by ‘the Caesar Master’.
The contemporary ‘catch all’ term for animal antics in the margins of medieval manuscripts is thought to have been babuini (Latin) or babewyn (Middle English), meaning ‘baboon-like’ or ‘monkey-business’. It is perhaps fitting, then, that Lilian Randall’s index of ape-activities runs to 18 pages. Reading through the list, one can’t help but think of Bernard of Clairvaux’s words in 1125: ‘To what purpose are those unclean apes…?’
Every year has its share of blockbuster movies where you can watch the human race meeting a sticky end, either from either a ghastly pandemic, forces of evil, whether human, alien or robotic, or a natural cataclysm. Of course, this is nothing new. The earliest Christians believed that the end of the world was imminent, and the last book of the Bible, Revelations, contains a vision of the struggle between good and evil leading up to the Final Judgment. Otherwise known as the Apocalypse of St John the Divine, it is believed to have been completed during the reign of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD), while John was exiled on the island of Patmos.
Detail of St John on the island of Patmos, from the Abingdon Apocalypse,England (?London), 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 42555, f. 5r
The poetic imagery of the passages from the Bible, the symbols involving numbers, strange beasts and human and demonic characters, are open to a myriad of interpretations. Beginning in the Carolingian era, illustrated manuscripts of the Apocalypse were made to help interpret the text. At the British Library, we have a number of Apocalypse manuscripts with extensive cycles of images. In this and a series of blog posts we will be looking at how the main themes and images are treated in some of them.
Digitised Apocalypse Manuscripts
Four of our Apocalypse manuscripts are fully digitised, and here is one of our favourite images from each:
The Silos Apocalypse
The woman clothed with the sun,Revelation 12:1-18, from the Silos Apocalypse, Spain, 1091-1109, Add MS 11695, ff. 147v-148r
The Abingdon Apocalypse
Detail of a priest blessing the Sacrament on the left and on the right Christ with the slaughtered Lamb, Adam weeping, Noah in the ark, Jonah and the whale, Add MS 42555, f. 10r
The Welles Apocalypse
Earthquake and kings hiding, with John beside, from the Welles Apocalypse, England, c. 1310, Royal 15 D II, f. 131r
The Queen Mary Apocalypse
Detail of a dragon, a woman in bed, and her child being caught up to heaven, from the Queen Mary Apocalypse, S.E. England or East Anglia, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal 19 B XV, f. 21r
Visions of Heaven and Hell
The dramatic imagery in Apocalypse manuscripts contrasts the mystical vision of peace in Heaven with the torments in store for wicked men on Earth in the events leading up to the Last Judgement. For those who believed the end was nigh, these images left no question which side you should be on!
The iconography varies from the well-known stairway to Heaven to hosts of angels with black wings to the many-storied New Jerusalem.
The Lamb and angels and the four living creatures with saints and the chosen of Israel below, Add MS 11695, ff. 112v-113r
Detail of the revelation of the heavenly Jerusalem to St John, Add MS 42555, f. 79v
Detail of the Vision of Heaven, from the Yates Thompson Apocalypse, Paris, c. 1370-c. 1390, Yates Thompson MS 10, f. 19r
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
The British Library has an incredible collection of close to 400 Books of Hours of various styles, dates, origins and sizes, including some of the most celebrated and beautifully illustrated ones ever made. Over the next few weeks we will be featuring the new Books of Hours added to our collection in recent years.
The most beautiful of these recent acquisitions is the Wardington Hours, purchased in 2007 with the help of the Art Fund, the Friends of the British Library and other generous donors. It would otherwise have been taken out of the UK by an overseas purchaser. It has recently been digitised and is available on our website at http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/
The Betrayal of Christ at the beginning of the office of Matins, from the Wardington Hours, Paris, c.1410-c.1440, Add MS 82945, f. 1r
The Wardington Hours is part of a Book of Hours containing only the Hours of the Passion, a less common cycle of devotions than the Hours of the Virgin. There are eight exquisitely painted miniatures illustrating the Passion of Christ with intricate detail and rich, colourful imagery. Illuminated borders with sparkling gold ivy leaves feature on every page, and include painted dragons with different animal heads in one part of the volume.
The Way to the Cross at the beginning of the office of Terce, from the Wardington Hours, Paris, c.1410-c.1440, Add MS 82945, f. 18v
The miniatures are attributed to the group of illuminators associated with the Bedford Master, one of the most prominent artists working in Paris in the early fifteenth century, and whose name derives from the Bedford Psalter. This most celebrated work was made for John of Lancaster (b. 1389, d. 1435), Duke of Bedford, who was the brother of King Henry V and Regent of France for Henry VI and is now in the British Library (Add MS 18850). Both manuscripts contain an unusual miniature of the Crucifixion including the seven last words of Christ. Here is the one from the Wardington Hours:
The Crucifixion at the beginning of the office of None, from the Wardington Hours, Paris, c.1410-c.1440, Add MS 82945, f. 26v
The Bedford Hours is a complete volume, and the Hours of the Passion is only one of the devotional texts it contains. But again the image of the Crucifixion accompanies the office of Nones and the miniatures have the same colourful palette and lively style as the Wardington manuscript. The last words of Christ are contained in seven banners in a similar arrangement, with an eighth banner held by a centurion, which reads ‘Vete filius dey erat iste’ (Behold this was the son of God).
The Crucifixion at the beginning of the office of None, from the Bedford Hours, Paris, c.1410-c.1430, Add MS 18850, f. 240r
The Dunois Hours, also in the library’s collections, was made in the same prominent Paris workshop by the Dunois master for an enemy of the Duke of Bedford and companion of Joan of Arc, John Dunois, Bastard of Orleans. The latter is portrayed in the margin of the miniature of the Last Judgment, led by Saint John the Evangelist, a patron saint he shared with his English opponent.
Though there are similarities in style, the borders of the Wardington manuscript are finer and more exquisite than the ones in the Bedford and Dunois Hours. The text is framed in gold, surrounded by delicate networks of gold ivy leaves and swirling stems.
A text page with border including dragons, from the Wardington Hours, Paris, c.1410-c.1440, Additional MS 82945, f. 9r
The medieval owner of the Wardington Hours is not known, but it comes from a larger volume, another part of which has been identified by Catherine Reynolds as Huntington Library, MS HM 1100 (see Catherine Reynolds, ‘The Workshop of the Master of the Duke of Bedford: Definitions and Identities’, in Patrons, Authors and Workshops: Books and Book Production in Paris around 1400, ed. by G. Croenen and P. Ainsworth (Leuven, 2006), pp. 437-72 (p. 451)).
The Wardington Hours was owned by the Courgy family of Paris in the 18th century and recently by the leading English bibliophile, Lord Wardington (b.1924, d.2005). In 2004 it was dramatically rescued from a fire in his manor in Oxfordshire when his daughter Helen and a human chain of local people managed to save all his valuable books by passing them out onto the lawn, while the fire brigade held off from spraying water into the part of the house holding the library.
Today is the feast day of St Margaret of Antioch (not to be confused with St Margaret of Scotland or Hungary). Although St Margaret was declared to be apocryphal in the year 494 by no less an authority than Pope Gelasius, and many people over many years have entertained doubts about her authenticity, she is still widely venerated as a saint today.
Miniature of St Margaret, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 234v
St Margaret was particularly popular in the medieval period, and her cult and image spread widely. No doubt this was aided by her inclusion in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend. In this text, Margaret was said to have been born in Antioch in the closing years of the 3rd century. Although she was the daughter of a pagan priest, Margaret converted to Christianity and vowed eternal chastity. She moved to an area in what is now Turkey with her godmother, and there caught the attention of a Roman prefect or governor. In a turn of events that echoes many of the other early female martyrs, the prefect proposed marriage to her, but Margaret chose to remain true to her vow and to Christianity.
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Margaret being brought before the Roman prefect, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London?), 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 255v
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret in prison being visited by her godmother, from Tectino’s Life of St Margaret of Antioch in verse, northern Italy, first half of the 15th century, Harley MS 5347, f. 26v
In retaliation, the prefect ordered her to be tortured and thrown into prison. Whilst there, according to the legend, she was visited by Satan in the shape of a dragon. Resisting temptation yet again, Margaret was swallowed by the dragon, but emerged from his side unscathed and carrying a cross after praying for aid. Giving up on the idea of dragon-based revenge, her captors eventually beheaded her.
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Margaret emerging from the belly of the dragon, and being beheaded, from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 256r
St Margaret is one of the most instantly recognisable saints in the medieval pantheon, because she is so frequently depicted emerging from the belly of a dragon (for more on the latter subject, see our post The Anatomy of a Dragon). Her suffrage was widely included in medieval manuscripts, as were miniatures of her torture and death. Below is a selection of some of our favourite images of St Margaret from throughout our collections; please do let us know if we’ve left out any of your favourites. As always, you can reach us in the comments below, or on Twitter @BLMedieval.
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 406v
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1440 – c. 1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 216r
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret in prison, emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), and Psalter, southern Netherlands, c. 1460 – c. 1470, Harley MS 3000, f. 42v
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours, France (Troyes?), c. 1460 – c. 1470, Harley MS 2974, f. 165v
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Margaret being thrown into prison, and escaping from the belly of the dragon, from the Taymouth Hours, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 86v
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the fire-breathing dragon, from the Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v
Besides providing us with numerous dragon images St Margaret is the patron saint of pregnancy and expectant mothers (something that has particular relevance to me at the moment!). Happy St Margaret’s Day, everyone!
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