There is a Middle English aphorism that says, ‘Winter all eats / That summer begets’. Living alongside 24-hour supermarkets, it is easy to forget the once vital preoccupation with preserving the autumn harvest and stocking our larders to the brim. As we approach the sign of Aquarius, long nights and short days will persist until mid-March when the sun enters Aries, and we spare a thought for our medieval forebears in the most barren and cold of seasons. Depictions of wintry concerns and activities from the medieval era are frequently featured in the calendars which preface many Books of Hours and Psalters (for a discussion of calendars, see the post from January 2011).
Detail from an October calendar showing the fattening of hogs, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 6r
A February calendar with a bas-de-page scene of men chopping wood and a woman gathering it, from a Book of Hours, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500, King’s MS 9, f. 3v
Surviving a medieval winter was the result of forethought and hard labour. The calendar page for October shows two men knocking acorns from trees to fatten their hogs in readiness for winter, while the calendar page for February depicts two men with curved knives cutting wood to be gathered and bundled, in this case, by a woman.
Detail from a February calendar of a man drying his shoe by the fire, from a Psalter, France (Paris), c. 1250, Royal MS 2 B II, f. 1v
A February calendar with roundels showing of a man warming his feet by the fire (top) and the sign of Pisces (below), from a Psalter, England (Oxford), c. 1200–c. 1225, Arundel MS 157, f. 13v
Little agrarian activity could take place in winter and miniatures of Labours of the Month for December, January and February show mostly indoor scenes. The practical discomforts of winter are illustrated in the February calendars of two contemporary Psalters, one made in Oxford and the other in Paris, both showing a man attempting to dry his shoe or warm his feet over the fire.
Detail from a January calendar of warming by the fire and feasting, from a Book of Hours (the ‘Hours of Joanna I of Castile’), Southern Netherlands (Bruges), 1486–1506, Add MS 18852, f. 1v
A January calendar with a bas-de-page scene of feasting by an open fire, from King’s MS 9, f. 2v
The standard activity featured in the January calendar is one of feasting and warming oneself by the fire. These miniatures were produced in Bruges around 1500, and both show men sitting to a rich feast attended by a woman. The dominant ‘humour’ of the winter season was thought to be phlegm, and one contemporary text, the Secretum Secretorum, recommended combatting its injurious effects through a modification of the diet. It prescribes figs, grapes, ‘fine red wine’ and ‘hot meats’ such as mutton or pigeon, while warning that the somewhat odd assortment of laxatives, bloodletting and lovemaking are to be avoided. Overindulgence in general is very bad, according to our source, but better to do so in the winter season when the body’s natural heat is drawn inwards, resulting in good digestion. This is good to know in the season which includes Christmas.
Detail of activities on a frozen river, from Add MS 18852, f. 2r
Detail from a November calendar of a boar being snared, from a Book of Hours, Germany (?Worms), c. 1475–c. 1485, from Egerton MS 1146, f. 12v
Snow sports of many varieties are another feature of January calendars, such as the skating, sledging and ball games taking place on the frozen river above. An activity which combined sport and the acquisition of food was boar-hunting, the principal quarry of noblemen in the winter. Above, a boar is chased through a gallows-like-structure in a snowy landscape, becoming ensnared in the noose and speared by a knight. Another good ‘hot meat’ to combat the phlegm.
Detail of a miniature of a crowned lion as ‘King of Beasts’ in a Book of Hours (‘The Taymouth Hours’), ?England (?London), c. 1325–c. 1350, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 18r
In light of the recent news that London may be without lions for the first time in 800 years, and with further inspiration from the Royal Beasts exhibition at the Tower of London, we take a turn towards the role of the lion in the medieval imagination.
Visitors to Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination may remember the lion skull kindly lent to the British Library by the Natural History Museum. This was one of two skulls unearthed at the Tower of London, where King John (d. 1216) had established a Royal Menagerie which was to become home to an assortment of exotic beasts including lions, bears and one short-lived elephant.
Detail of an historiated initial showing the King of England mounted on a lion, from the Bohun Psalter, England (S.E., ?London), 2nd half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 68v
The skulls were radiocarbon dated to 1280–1385 and to 1420–1480, suggesting that these particular lions were the private exhibits of either Edward I, II or III, in the first instance, or of the Lancastrian Henry VI or Yorkist Edward IV, in the second. These ‘Barbary’ lions, hailing from northwest Africa, were doubtless an exciting embodiment of the Royal Arms of England for any English monarch.
Detail of a miniature of crafty method for catching lions (potentially) by placing a goat in one hole and waiting for a lion to fall down the second hole, from a Bestiary, England (?Salisbury), c. 1225–c. 1250, Harley MS 4751, f. 2v
Whether royal mascots or diplomatic gifts, numerous archival records indicate a long history of lions at the tower. Exactly how they came to be at the tower, how they were crated and transported, is unknown, but trapping a lion using the method depicted in the Bestiary above (involving two holes and a tethered goat) would be quite a feat. The earliest noted payments to their keepers came from King John in 1210-1212, with records becoming more detailed under Henry III (d. 1272).
Detail of an historiated initial showing a man being devoured by lions (I Kings 20:36), Egerton MS 3277, f. 104r
In 1240, the sheriffs of London were instructed to make provisions for a lion and a keeper, William de Botton, including 14 shillings for ‘buying chains and other things for the use of the lion’. By 1314, the sheriffs were providing a quarter of mutton every day for the maintenance of numerous lions. The polar bear seems to have had it better in this respect. As part of a cost-saving measure for the City, this (chained) Norwegian captive could at least fish for its own supper on the bank of the Thames.
The keeper’s own wages could be slow to materialise, as experienced by William Bounde who was owed £55 by 1408: he would be imprisoned by his creditors, he claimed, and the lions would go unfed. The office was granted to Robert Manfeld in 1436, who would double up as marshal of the hall within the royal household. Perhaps delegating duties became a challenge since it was in the same year that all of the lions in the tower apparently died. Had he simply fed the sick lions a monkey, as recommended by the Bestiary, they may well have been cured.
Detail of a miniature of lion and his irrational fear of the white rooster, in a Bestiary, England (?Rochester), c. 1230–c. 1300, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 5v
The Bestiary describes the power, courage and intelligence of the lion – a fitting emblem of monarchy – who fears nothing save the white rooster, scorpion and snake.
Detail of a miniature of cubs born dead and reanimated by their fathers who breathe life into them, in the Bestiary, England (?North or Central), c. 1200–c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 6r
When hunted, the Bestiary relates, the lion sweeps his tail over the ground to conceal his tracks; he also sleeps with his eyes open to avoid capture, and he has the ability to resurrect his stillborn cubs. He never attacks women and children, nor the man who prostrates himself before him.
Lions were able to ascertain, by mysterious means, both virginity and royal blood, which is why Josiane was immune to being trapped in a cave with two lions.
Detail of a miniature of Beves of Hampton slaying the two lions pestering Josiane, Yates Thompson 13, f. 12r
Beves of Hampton, by contrast, was forced to employ all his knightly prowess to avoid being devoured alive.
Detail of a miniature of Joanna of Paris embracing a lion, from the ‘Topographia Hiberniae’ of Gerald of Wales, England (?Lincoln), c.1196–1223, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 19v
Occasionally, a ‘woman’s tricks’ might be held responsible for encouraging the amorous affections of the lion, as Gerald of Wales reports was the case at the French court of King Philip.
Detail of a column miniature showing Habakkuk (suspended by the hand of God) delivering a jug of stew to Daniel in the lions’ den, from Guyart de Moulins, Bible historiale, France (?Paris), 1357, Royal MS 17 E VII, f. 107v
Detail of an historiated initial 'A' showing Daniel and two lions in the den, from a Bible, England, c. 1250–c. 1275, Royal MS 1 D I, f. 377r
The popular stories associated with biblical heroes Daniel, Samson and David gave frequent cause for lions in manuscript miniatures. Daniel’s benign and friendly companions emphasise his miraculous delivery from the lions’ den.
Marginal drawings of David keeping his sheep safe by grappling with a lion and a dog (above) and fighting Goliath (below), from the Worms Bible, Germany (Frankenthal), c. 1148, Harley MS 2803, f. 126v
Other popular subjects include David – shepherd boy and future king – protecting his sheep from a lion, a prolepsis of his battle with Goliath.
Detail of a miniature of Samson taking a honeycomb from the lion’s body, from the ‘Queen Mary Psalter’, England (?London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 44r
Samson was renowned for possessing the strength to tear apart a lion with his bare hands. The illuminator who executed the Samson miniature chose to depict the moment when Samson revisited the dead lion to find bees nesting in its carcass, allowing him to take honey from the lion’s body.
Detail of an historiated initial containing an Evangelist portrait that represents Mark as a lion, from a Book of Hours, Italy (?Bologna), c. 1390 – c.1400, Add MS 69865, f. 2v
The lion can be seen, more frequently, distinguishing the Gospel of Mark from the other Evangelists (this particular Mark has morphed into a lion-human hybrid).
Detail of an historiated initial showing Jerome and lion, from Jerome, Pseudo-Jerome and others, Epistles and treatises, Italy (?Venice), c. 1390, Egerton MS 3266, f. 8r
Similarly, Saint Jerome can be identified by his red Cardinal’s hat and his attribute, a lion.
Detail of the border of a Calendar page for July, showing Leo and a man harvesting and gathering sheaves of wheat, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410, Egerton MS 1070, f. 9r
In the bestselling devotional books of the Middle Ages, the calendar pages often display a zodiac sign paired with a typical activity for the month. Leo, the sign for July, heralded the harvest and he is frequently juxtaposed with scenes of peasants sharpening sickles or threshing grain.
Detail of Leo as a lion apparently forced into the July calendar by chain, Royal 2 B VII, f. 78r
The lion is often very well portrayed in manuscripts and this may be linked to their popularity as an exhibit in the Tower. The improvements to Matthew Paris’ depictions of elephants, for example, are the result of his journey from St Albans to the Menagerie to draw Henry III’s elephant from life. Looking at the miniature above, you can almost imagine William de Botton with his chains worth 14 shillings, cajoling his captive ...
To learn more about the lions and other exotic creatures, their keepers, and the vanished menagerie that was a distant predecessor of London Zoo, check out the Royal Beasts exhibition at the Tower of London.
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.