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49 posts categorized "Animals"

26 August 2014

Bugs in Books

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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. 

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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.’

Add MS 28841 f. 6r detail
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.

011HRL000004751U00032000 detail
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. 

Harley_ms_3244_f050r detail
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. 

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f101r detail
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

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 96r dog-size ants G70031-02a
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.

Harley MS 3448 f. 10v bees c13744-42a
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

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 45r bees F60101-62a
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.

Yates_thompson_ms_12_f120r detail
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).

Burney_ms_97_f029r detail
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:

Sloane MS 4016 f. 6r c13578-09b
Detail of a six-legged spider in its web, from an herbal, Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 6r

Royal MS 13 B VIII f. 11v E124037
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!

Stowe_ms_17_f048r detail
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

011HRL000007026U00013000 detail
Detail of a marginal dragonfly and dragon, from the Lovell Lectionary, England (probably Glastonbury), c. 1400 – c. 1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 13r

Add MS 35254 K N and P F60002-30
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

Add MS 28841 f.7v
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

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Detail of a grasshopper, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Additional MS 18851, f. 30r

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Detail of a butterfly alighting on a flower, Additional MS 18851, f. 17r

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Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar, and a beekeeper (rotated 180°), from the Exultet Roll, Italy (Monte Cassino), c. 1075 - c. 1080, Add MS 30337, membrane 10

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Miniature of the Crucifixion, with a gold border including flowers, moths, a fly, and a caterpillar, Additional MS 35313, f. 29r

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Detail of a border including a monkey and a fly, Additional MS 35313, f. 71v

Burney MS 132 f. 2r C0192-06b
Detail of a border including a dragonfly and helmets, from De bello gallico, Italy, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Burney MS 132, f. 2r

- Sarah J Biggs

14 August 2014

The Wardington Hours

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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/

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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.

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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:

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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).

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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.

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The Last Judgement from the Dunois Hours, Paris, c.1439-c.1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 32v

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.

Add_ms_82945_f009r
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.

- Chantry Westwell

20 July 2014

Enter the Dragon: Happy St Margaret's Day!

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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.

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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. 

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 255v G70033-99a
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

Harley MS 5347 f. 26v c12046-06
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.

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 256r G70032-65a
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.

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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

Egerton MS 2019 f. 216r K051116 copy
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

Harley MS 3000 f. 42v K051118
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

Harley MS 2974 f. 165v c6725-03
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

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f086v_detail
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

Yates_thompson_ms_3_f282v_detail
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!

-  Sarah J Biggs 

11 July 2014

Benedict Rules

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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. 

Egerton MS 1070, f. 89r
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). 

Burney MS 319, f. 22r
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.

Harley MS 5431, f. 7r
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.

Harley MS 948, f. 24v
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).

Arundel MS 155, 133r
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’ (zona humilitatis), 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.

Add MS 18196, f. 68r
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

Add MS 39636, f. 13r
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

 - James Freeman

28 June 2014

Art and Alchemy

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Attention all budding alchemists!  Four of the British Library’s ‘Ripley Scrolls’ (Add MS 5025) are the latest additions to our Digitised Manuscripts website. They are currently on loan to the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf as part of an exhibition on ‘Art and Alchemy: The Mystery of Transformation’ until 10 August, starring alongside works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens and many others.

Add_ms_5025_f002dr
Detail of a man (?George Ripley) in rustic dress, bearing a staff with a horse’s hoof, from the Ripley Scrolls, late 16th/early 17th century,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

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.  They date from around the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the seventeenth century, however their origins are unknown.  An inscription on the second scroll records that ‘This long Rolle was Dra[ur]ne for me in Cullers at Lubeck in Germany  Anno 1588’ – however, two other scrolls bear a similar note, so neither the date nor the location may be established with any certainty.

Add_ms_5025_f004ar
Detail of a hermetic illustrating stages in the alchemical process and the revelation of alchemical wisdom,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

The scrolls illustrate stages in the alchemical process of preparing the philosopher’s stone, which was needed to turn base metals into gold.  The scrolls give visual form to the furnaces, flasks and other paraphernalia its practitioners were supposed to use.  They also contain emblematic imagery whose meaning remains obscure to scholars as well as more familiar symbols, such as the zodiac.

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Detail of a zodiac diagram enclosing two dragons, a sun and a moon,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

Add_ms_5025_f002ar
Detail of an alchemist, probably Hermes Trismegistus, holding a hermetic flask,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

The large figure at the top of the second, third and fourth scrolls probably represents Hermes Trismegistus, the ancient and likely mythical author of hermetic texts that later formed the basis of alchemical experimentation in the medieval and early modern periods. Alchemists (often holding flasks or overseeing experiments) are depicted throughout the scrolls, alongside symbolic figures of unknown significance. Labels on some of these figures suggest they represent the elements that alchemists sought to transpose during their experiments.

Add_ms_5025_f002br
Detail of alchemists holding flasks,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

Add_ms_5025_f004br
Detail of symbolic men and a woman surrounded by flasks, within an enclosure decorated with a dragon vomiting a frog,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

Alongside them is an array of fantastical and grotesque anthropomorphic creatures: a woman with the tail of a dragon, a Bird of Hermes (a bird with the head and torso of a human), and a winged dragon with female features (perhaps representing Satan). There are also real and mythical creatures worthy of any medieval bestiary: toads and frogs, dragons aplenty, lions, and a cockatrice.

Add_ms_5025_f004cr
Detail of a Bird of Hermes,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

Add_ms_5025_f001dr
Detail of a dragon with a cockatrice perched on its head,
Add MS 5025, f. 1r.

George Ripley was an Augustinian canon of Bridlington. He claimed to have studied at the University of Louvain, and there is evidence to indicate connections with Edward IV beyond Ripley’s dedication of The Compound to the king. Another British Library manuscript, Cotton MS Vitellius E X, contains a drawing of Ripley’s tomb at Bridlington, upon which alchemical symbols feature prominently, indicating the integration of alchemy with medieval Christianity.

Add_ms_5025_f003br
Detail of an alchemical distillation furnace,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

Seventeen other Ripley scrolls are known to survive, scattered across institutional collections in Britain and the United States. Recent studies have concentrated on comparative study of the different designs found on these scrolls. The four that make up Add MS 5025 represent each of the three main designs – and their availability on Digitised Manuscripts constitutes an important scholarly resource for the study of alchemy in the late medieval and early modern periods. There are two further Ripley Scrolls held at the British Library: Add MS 32621 and Sloane MS 2524A.

- James Freeman

17 June 2014

Weird and Wonderful Creatures of the Bestiary

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Those of you who follow our blog regularly will surely have noticed our deep and abiding love for medieval animals and bestiaries; in the past we’ve done posts about dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers, owls, and more.  But today we thought we would have a look at a few of the more fantastic creatures that are featured in medieval bestiaries, many of which are scarcely known today. 

The amphivena

The name of this beast is variously given as anphivena, amphisbaena, amfivena, and many other variations.  But the true spelling of its name is not the least of its mysteries; the exact nature of the amphivena’s form was also a source of considerable uncertainty. 

Harley_ms_3244_f062r detail
Detail of a miniature of an amphivena, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 62r

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 138vg70035-21a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two amphivenas, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London?), 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 138v

The bestiary text tells us that this animal is so called because it has two heads, one in the ‘normal position’ and one at the end of its tail, and that its body forms a round shape.  Isidore of Seville says that the amphivena can ‘move in the direction of either head with a circular motion’, which seems, understandably, to have been confusing to some bestiary artists.  Pliny characterises it as a violent, poisonous beast, which might account for many of the depictions of it in the act of doubly attacking itself.

The manticore

The manticore is a fearsome beast indeed, and one that is also apparently vulnerable to the whims of the various artists attempting to portray it.  Bartholomaeus Angelicus describes this animal by saying that ‘among all the beasts of the earth is none found more cruel, nor of more wonderly shape’.

Harley_ms_3244_f043v detail
Detail of a miniature of a leonine manticore, Harley MS 3244, f. 43v

Royal_ms_12_c_xix_f029v detail
Detail of a miniature of a manticore from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 29v

 This wonderly shape is essentially a composite one; the manticore is said to have a lion’s body – ‘blood-red in colour’ - the face of a man, a triple row of teeth, and the tail of a scorpion.  It is extremely swift, can jump great distances, and, according to the bestiary, ‘delights in eating human flesh.’

Royal MS 12 F XIII f. 24v E031715
Detail of a miniature of a manticore from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24v

The bonnacon

The bonnacon is reported by the bestiary to be found simply somewhere ‘in Asia’, and has a deceptively normal appearance.  In general, it looks like a bull, but has horns that curl backwards so that if someone were to fall on them, they would be uninjured. 

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Detail of a miniature of a bonnacon repelling pursuit, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 16r

Banish any thoughts that the bonnacon is a considerate and gentle animal, however!  This creature’s true claim to fame is its unique defense mechanism; when threatened, we are told, a bonnacon will spray its attacker with poisonous dung.  This excrement ‘produces such a stench over an area of two acres that its heat singes everything it touches’, and needless to say, it is extremely effective at ending a pursuit.  For obvious reasons, bestiary artists were fond of depicting this sort of scene, but some, perhaps moved by delicacy, have declined to illustrate it.

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Detail of miniature of a lioness, a crocote, and a bonnacon, Harley MS 3244, f. 41r

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Detail of a miniature of hunters pursuing a bonnacon with a very long lance and strategic shield, from a bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

The leucrota

Another composite animal, the leucrota, takes its place in the bestiary just before the section on reptiles. 

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Detail of a miniature of a leucrota, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 37v

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Detail of a miniature of a leucrota, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 23r

The leucrota is somewhat confusingly described as having the rear parts of a stag, and the chest and legs of a lion, but with cloven hooves.  Its most distinctive characteristic is its charming wide-mouthed grin, which stretches across its head.  Its teeth are single, continuous pieces of bone, and it is capable of imitating the sound of a human voice.

The basilisk

The basilisk is included among the reptiles in the bestiary.  We are told that its alternate name – regulus – is particularly apt, as a basilisk is the ‘king of creeping things’.  A basilisk is an exceedingly dangerous animal, as its scent can annihilate almost anything, and its gaze is terrible enough to cause the death of any man foolish enough to look at it. 

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Detail of a basilisk wearing a crown, Harley MS 4751, f. 59r

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Detail of a basilisk killing a man with its gaze and being attacked by a weasel, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

It is, however, vulnerable to the weasel, which can pursue the basilisk into its hiding hole and kill it.  In the bestiary text, much is made of the example of the basilisk; the writer takes the opportunity to expound on the nature of evil embodied in this horrible creature.  He assures us that no matter how frightening an animal might be, ‘the creator of all has made nothing for which there is not an antidote’.  So take heart, and keep your weasels close!

We’ll have a look at some more of our bestiary favourites in the months to come (of course we will!), and please send along some of your finds to us on Twitter @BLMedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs

16 May 2014

Anyone for Hawking?

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We are delighted to tell you that the magnificent Kerdeston Hawking Book is now available on our Digitised Manuscripts site (Add MS 82949). This manuscript, together with the related Kerdeston Hunting Book (a fragment of 5 leaves, now Additional MS 82948), was in the collection of HRH Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, until his death in 1974, being acquired by the British Library in 2007.

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Ypocras sitting on a stool writing with a dog at his feet. Three hunters, each with a beating stick and three hawks on his arm stand in front of Ypocras. Two buildings are at the top of the miniature, with Kerdeston's arms in the upper centre, from the Kerdeston Hawking Book, England (Norfolk): London, British Library, MS Additional 82949, f. 31v

The library of a 15th-century country gentleman would not have been complete without books on everyday matters such as estate management, heraldry and hunting, sometimes compiled as one volume. The Middle-English ‘Kerdeston Hawking Book’ is from the library of Sir Thomas Kerdeston of Claxton, Norfolk (d. 1446), whose first wife, Elizabeth, was daughter of Sir Edward Burnell, one of the English soldiers killed at Agincourt in 1415. It is a tall, thin book, probably designed to be carried around, and the pages are worn, indicating that it was well-used  by its owner.

The first leaf of the book has two full-page images, one on either side, unfortunately rather damaged by cuts and rubbing. The first shows a man in very fine hunting dress, thought to be of the Master of the Hunt, with his pouch at his waist and hawk on his wrist, riding towards a stream with fish and fowl in it.

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The Master of the Hunt, shown on horseback, and, below, a hermit with beggars, from the Kerdeston Hawking Book: London, British Library, MS Additional 82949, f. 1r

On the verso of the first folio is an image showing a king in full regalia, holding three hawks on a leash in his right hand. In the lower third of the page are three hawksmen with poles, lures and pouches. The seated scholar in the middle has an open book and a scroll that reads ‘ypocras’. This refers to the first treatise in the book, a dialogue between Ypocras (Hippocrates) and Cosma, a Roman senator, on falconry.

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A royal figure, scholar and three hawksmen from the Kerdeston Hawking Book: London, British Library, MS Additional 82949, f. 1v

The book contains advice on how to care for falcons and hawks, with remedies and recipes for salves to keep their plumage in good condition, as well as instructions on their training and management.  The margins are decorated with images of birds, animals and the Kerdeston coat of arms.

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Marginal image of a dog with a duck in its mouth, from the Kerdeston Hawking Book: London, British Library, MS Additional 82949, f. 45r

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Marginal image of two hawks swooping on a heron, from the Kerdeston Hawking Book: London, British Library, MS Additional 82949, f. 48r

No English book on hunting would be complete without foxes and hounds, and here they are:

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Marginal image of two hounds chasing a fox, from the Kerdeston Hawking Book: London, British Library, MS Additional 82949, f. 32r

Chantry Westwell

You can read more about the Kerdeston Hawking Book here:

Bror Danielsson, 'Library of Hunting and Hawking Literature (early 15th c. fragments)', in Et Multum et Multa: Beiträge zur Literatur, Geschichte und Kultur der Jagd. Festgabe für Kurt Linder zum 27.November 1971, ed. by S. Schwenk, G. Tilander &C. A. Willemson (New York, 1971), pp. 47-60 [refers to the Kerdeston Hunting Book, a related manuscript: Add MS 82948].

Kathleen L. Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts 1390-1490, A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, 6, 2 vols (London, 1996), no. 91.

 

 

26 April 2014

Medieval Manuscripts at the UK Blog Awards

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Last night we attended the inaugural ceremony of the National UK Blog Awards, held in London. We were very excited to be nominated in the Arts and Culture category, but we faced some stiff competition, from the likes of Global Metal Apocalypse, Me Firi Ghana Blog, and the Tate (no, we haven't heard of them either -- only joking!).

And the winner was ..... you'll have to wait for the end of this post. But here are some of the stories that have made us famous (please note: our obsession with medieval animals is purely coincidental).

Lolcats of the Middle Ages: they're cute, they're cats, they're medieval cats, and one of them is in a submarine. What's not to like?!

Cats

Knight v Snail: you've often wondered, who would win a fight between a knight and a snail, haven't you? Here's the answer you've all been waiting for.

Snail

Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library: probably the most astonishing discovery in the history of astonishing discoveries (bettered perhaps only by that old episode of Scooby Doo, in which the gang of pesky kids finds out that the "ghost" is really the dastardly fairground owner). This post, we're reliably informed, is pinned to the kitchen wall of Chocolat author Joanne Harris. Enough said.

Cookbook

And so, without more ado, we can proudly announce that the winner of the National UK Blog Award 2014 for Arts and Culture was ... the MEDIEVAL MANUSCRIPTS BLOG!!!

Thank you so much everyone for following us online, and everyone who has supported us -- we promise to do our best to keep up the good work!

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Julian Harrison & Sarah J Biggs