Medieval manuscripts blog

208 posts categorized "Decoration"

12 October 2016

England and France, 700-1200: Manuscripts from the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library

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We are delighted to announce a new project to open up further the unparalleled collections of illuminated manuscripts held by the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. In a ground-breaking new collaborative project the national libraries of Britain and France will work together to create two innovative new websites that will make 800 manuscripts decorated before the year 1200 available freely. The Bibliothèque nationale de France will create a new bilingual website that will allow side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection, selected for their beauty and interest. The British Library will create a bilingual website intended for a general audience that will feature highlights from the most important of these manuscripts and articles commissioned by leading experts in the field. Both websites will be online by November 2018.

Illuminated initial 'B'(eatus) and full border at the beginning of Psalm 1, Canterbury, early 11th century (British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 12r).

Before the introduction of printing to Europe, all books were written by hand as manuscripts. The most luxurious of these were illuminated, literally ‘lit up’ by decorations and pictures in brightly coloured pigments and burnished gold leaf. All manuscripts — whether they are luxurious biblical or liturgical manuscripts, copies of classical literature or patristic, theological, historical or scientific texts — are valuable historical documents that can deepen and expand our understanding of the political, social and cultural life of the eras in which they were made. Their research value is inestimable.

The British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France have two of the largest collections of medieval manuscripts in the world. As a result of France and England being so closely entwined through periods of war, conquest and alliance and, in the medieval period, both nations claiming territory in France at times, both libraries have particularly strong holdings of French manuscripts produced in France or in Britain (but written in French or Latin).

This new project will add to the growing numbers of manuscript material available in full online as part of wider programmes to make these cultural treasures available to everyone around the world. At the British Library, over 8,000 items are currently available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Similarly, thousands of items are available from the Bibliothèque nationale de France collections on its website, Gallica.

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Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library and Marc Polonsky of The Polonsky Foundation signing the agreement for the project.

This exciting project is made possible by a generous grant from The Polonsky Foundation. Dr Leonard Polonsky remarks that 'our Foundation is privileged to be supporting these two leading institutions in preserving the riches of the world's cultural heritage and making them available in innovative and creative ways, both to scholars and to a wider public'.

The Polonsky Foundation is a UK-registered charity which primarily supports cultural heritage, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and innovation in higher education and the arts. Its principal activities include the digitisation of significant collections at leading libraries (the British Library; the Bibliothèque nationale de France; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; Cambridge University Library; the New York Public Library; the Library of Congress; the Vatican Apostolic Library); support for Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, New York; and post-doctoral fellowships at The Polonsky Academy for the Advanced Study of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Its founder and chairman, Dr Leonard S. Polonsky, was named a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for charitable services in 2013.

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Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator, Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections and Curation of the British Library, Rachel Polonsky, and Marc Polonsky viewing a manuscript of the Gospel of Mark (British Library Royal MS 4 D II).

The focus on the digitisation project will be on manuscripts produced on either side of the English Channel between 700 and 1200. The manuscripts from this period open up a window on a time of close cultural and political exchange during which scribes moved and worked in what is now France, Normandy and England. Decorated manuscripts containing literary, historical, biblical and theological texts will be included, representing the mutual strengths of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Online access to these manuscripts will support new research into how manuscripts — and people — travelled around Europe in this period. New connections will be made possible by studying the two collections side by side.

For example, the manuscripts selected will include a number of illuminated Gospel-books, providing a witness to the changing tastes, influences and borrowings reflected in the books’ design and script. So a 9th-century, a 10th-century and a late 12th-century Gospel-book all have colourful illuminated initials with geometric patterns, floral decoration or animals heads, yet their execution is very different. The script, colours, style and subjects of the illumination all provide clues to the time and place of their composition. With the digitisation of manuscripts all these features may be studied and enjoyed in detail.

Egerton MS 609 f46 Blog1
Decorated initial ‘I’(nitium) from western France, perhaps Brittany or Tours, 9th century (British Library Egerton MS 609, f. 46r).

Add MS 40000 f34v Blog1
A book of Gospels from Thorney Abbey, originally produced in France, possibly Brittany, in the early 10th century, but which made its way to the abbey by the late 10th or early 11th century (British Library, Add MS 40000 f. 34v)

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Illuminated initial 'I'(nitium) with dragons and human masks in medallions, England or France, late 12th century (British Library, Royal MS 4 D II, f. 2v).

As well as making 800 manuscripts freely available online, the project will be part of a wider programme of activities aimed at researchers and the general public. A number of the manuscripts digitised will be displayed in a major international exhibition on Anglo-Saxon England to be held at the British Library from October 2018 to February 2019, which will highlight connections between Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent. Manuscripts included in the project may also feature in another major exhibition to be held at the Musée de Cluny in Paris focusing on Merovingian manuscripts, opening on 26 October 2016.

A conference at the British Library will coincide with the Anglo-Saxon exhibition (December 2018), and a project conference will be held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. We will also produce an illustrated book showcasing beautiful and significant manuscripts from the collections. Another output will be a film on the digitisation project that, together with the other aspects of the public programme, will open up new paths into our collections for a variety of audiences.

We look forward to working closely with our colleagues at the Bibliothèque nationale de France on this exciting project to enhance access to and understanding of the written cultural heritage of England and France.

Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator


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09 October 2016

New Content on Our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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The British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is a fantastic resource for anyone wishing to discover the richness and diversity of medieval manuscript illumination. We're delighted to report that this Catalogue has been recently updated, with new manuscripts online and new images added to some of the existing entries. Here are some of the new images now available for download and reuse (guidance on the conditions of use of these images can be found here).

The Bedford Hours (Add MS 18850), one of the most magnificent illuminated manuscripts in the British Library, has already been fully digitised. It has also now been added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, with a selection of its most magnificent illuminations. This image shows Anne of Burgundy, wife of John, duke of Bedford, for whom this deluxe Book of Hours was made, probably for their marriage in 1423, by one of the leading Parisian illuminators of the time.


Miniature of Anne of Burgundy, duchess of Bedford, kneeling before Anne, the Virgin, and Christ with a full border incorporating laurel and including miniatures of figures from the Old Testament: British Library Add MS 18850, f. 257v.

In the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, the images are available for download and the search facility allows users to search for details within the images. For instance, a search for Bathsheba in the Image Description field of the Advanced Search page will yield 11 results, including this gorgeous page from the Bedford Hours. 


Miniature from the beginning of the Penitential Psalms, of David depicted playing his harp, while watching Bathsheba, giving an order to kill her husband to a kneeling man, and praying to God, with a full border containing roundels of the virtues and vices and of Paul falling from his horse: British Library Add MS 18850, f. 96r.

The other Bathsheba images are found mostly in the Books of Hours in our collections, including this one from the gorgeous Dunois Hours (Yates Thompson MS 3), decorated for Jean, Comte de Dunois, Bastard of Orleans, by an associate of the artist who painted the miniatures in the Bedford Hours. 


A well-dressed woman riding a white goat, carrying arrows and a mirror, as a personification of Lust (Luxure); behind, David spies upon Bathsheba in her bath, from the Penitential Psalms, the Dunois Hours, Paris, c. 1440–c. 1450 (after 1436): British Library Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 172v. 

Here are some of these other Bathsheba images also available to view online:


Miniature of a man on a ladder climbing a tree and offering a branch to two robed men; marginal drawing shows David watching Bathsheba and her ladies bathing, from the Splendor Solis, Germany, 1582: British Library Harley MS 3469, f. 15r.


Miniatures of the crowning of Bathsheba, the Coronation of the Virgin, and the coronation of Esther from the Biblia Pauperum, Netherlands, N. (The Hague?), c. 1405: British Library Kings MS 5, f. 28r.


Miniature of David seducing Bathsheba, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320: British Library Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 56v.

And here are a few more of the images newly available in the Catalogue:


Historiated initial 'Q'(uant) of the death of King Meliadus, from the Roman de Tristan, Italy, N. (Padua or Bologna?), 1st quarter of the 15th century: British Library Add MS 23929, f. 42r.


Text page with large initials, Ælfric’s Grammar, England, 2nd half of the 11th century: British Library Royal MS 15 B XXII, f. 6r.


Jonah being thrown into the mouth of a whale by his companions. from the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Germany or Netherlands, S. (Bruges), 1st quarter of the 15th century: British Library Add MS 11575, f. 65v.

Finally, we have added images to several of the Apocalypse manuscripts already online on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Here, for example, is a page from a manuscript in Latin with a parallel verse version and prose commentary in French and a translation in English jotted in the margin in the late 15th century, 200 years after it was made.


The winged Abaddon faces his army of locusts, from the Apocalypse, England, 2nd half of the 13th century: British Library Add MS 18633, f. 16r.

We hope you continue to enjoy using the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, for fun, for recreation or for research.



01 October 2016

A Calendar Page for October 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for October from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

More emphasis on mythology and the naming of months can be found in the calendar pages for October in the Bedford Hours. 

Detail of miniatures of a man sowing and the zodiac sign Scorpio, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

Preparing for winter was the focus of most agricultural labour in the medieval era, and on the lower right of the first calendar folio we can see a peasant at work sowing seed in a barren field (barren save for the seeds, at any rate). Next to this busy man is an oddly-shaped scorpion, minus the tell-tale stinger in its tail, for the zodiac sign Scorpio. 

Detail of a marginal roundel of Saturnus, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a crowned king standing before a group of seated men. This, the rubrics tell us, is Saturn, one of the oldest of the Roman gods. The verses at the bottom of the folio go on to explain that October, which is ‘named after the number eight which signifies justice’, is dedicated to Saturn, and that the time of his reign was a golden one because ‘everyone lived justly’. Saturn’s origins in the Roman pantheon are complex, but interestingly, there is a theory that his name is etymologically derived from the word satu, or ‘sowing’, fitting for a god of agriculture (and echoing the labour on the same folio). 

Calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10v

A particularly charming scene can be found on the following folio. To the left of the remainder of the saints’ days for October is a marginal miniature of a woman, clad in a long blue dress and standing among trees that are shedding their leaves for fall.  She holds in one hand a knife (or pair of scissors), while with the other she is gathering her blonde tresses. This is a lovely illustration of the accompanying rubrics, which tell us that in the month of October ‘the earth takes off its ornaments’. Below is a miniature of another seated man, surrounded by a group of adoring men. This, we are told, is another person to whom October is dedicated: Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War.

Detail of marginal roundels of the earth taking off her ornaments and Scipio Africanus, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10v


Sarah J Biggs


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16 September 2016

Snakes, Mandrakes and Centaurs: Medieval Herbal Now Online

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Cannabis can be used to treat swollen breasts. The urine of a child has wrinkle-busting properties. Fern, mixed with wine, is a good treatment for wounds. (Sounds promising, although I might go easy on the fern part.) And should you fear encountering snakes, it is best to carry Adderwort with you. These are some of the nuggets of medical wisdom to be found in our recently digitised Sloane MS 1975. The manuscript is an illustrated collection of medical texts, made in England or Northern France in the last quarter of the 12th century.


A man attempting to vanquish a serpent and an image of the Teazle plant, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 21r

Sloane 1975 contains a collection of different works, including a treatise on herbs by Pseudo-Apuleius (the name pseudo-Apuleius is used to refer to an anonymous 4th-century Roman author whose work was sometimes erroneously attributed to Apuleius), Pseudo-Dioscorides, 'De herbis femininis', and a text by Sextus Placitus of Papyra (active c. 370 CE), entitled 'De medicina ex animalibus'. It is extensively illustrated, and the images are a joy.

The image below depicts the Mandrake plant, which was used as an anaesthetic and treatment for melancholy, mania and rheumatic pain. (The plant can induce hallucinations  -- it produces tropane alkaloids: tropane alkaloids are also produced by Erythroxylum novogranatens, the plant which is used to create cocaine.) The roots of the mandrake have the habit of forking in two directions, and can appear to resemble a human figure. Depictions of it often show the plant with a human body or head. It was thought that the plant would scream when pulled from the earth and any who heard the screams would be condemned to death or damnation. Harvesting the plant would therefore pose some problems. The manuscript advises that strings should be attached to the plant and the other end of the strings attached to a dog, which would then pull the plant from the ground. Below, the dog can be seen harvesting the mandrake.


A Mandrake, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 49r

The manuscript’s illustrations serve a variety of purposes. This one, below, shows the appropriate way to deal with a rabid dog. (Can you tell it’s rabid? The clue is in its *rabid*, red face.)


Red faced dog

Man and dog, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 24r

Should you be bitten by a rabid dog, the herbal elsewhere advises, it is best to consult a hen. If the hen has a good appetite, it bodes well for a speedy recovery.

Hen appetite

A hen bodes well for speedy recovery, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 14v

Many of the images illustrate the properties of particular plants, like the one depicting the mandrake. Others, however, appear to have a more incidental purpose. The illustration for Carmel gestures to the alternative names for the plant. Curmel is called ‘Centauria Maior’ in Greek, hence the image below depicts a centaur holding the plant.  


To the left, the plant Carmel, to the right a centaur holds the plant, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 23r

Centaurs make an appearance elsewhere. This image shows the centaur Chiron giving herbs to the goddess Diana or Artemis (who was his foster mother according to some sources). He has apparently named three plants of the genus Artemisia after her. 


Chiron gives herbs to Artemis, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 17v

The manuscript also contains a text called 'De medicina ex animalibus', which has some wonderful images of animals, including something that bills itself as an elephant, but in person looks more like a disappointed tapir vomiting up a tusk.

Elephant crop

An Elephant (apparently), England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 81v

Yet, alongside endearing images of animals, this manuscript also contains grisly images of medical treatment. In this image, a patient’s hands are tied behind his back, while a doctor performs surgery on his head – a grim reminder of the realities of medical treatment before anaesthetics were discovered.


Grim images of medicine before anaesthesia, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 91v

A few folios on and the images get decidedly worse (yes, we also thought they couldn't get any worse). In the top left-hand corner of this image we can see a doctor removing haemorrhoids from a patient (the bowl on which the patient is standing may have been intended to catch the blood). Below this a doctor is excising a nasal growth, and to the right a doctor is removing cataracts. 


Variety of hideous medical procedures, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 93r

This manuscript is currently on show in Cambridge, at the Fitzwilliam Museum's Colour exhibition. Read more about this exhibition and the manuscripts we have loaned to it here

Mary Wellesley 


01 September 2016

A Calendar Page for September 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for September from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

Summer’s end is in the air in the calendar pages for September from the Bedford Hours.

Detail of miniatures of a man treading grapes and the zodiac sign Libra, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

The heavy agricultural work of the summer begins to give way to the preparations for autumn, and this calendar page for September shows one of the most common of these preparations.  On the lower left, a man is carefully treading grapes in a vat for making wine; he has removed his trousers for this messy job, but his jaunty cap remains intact.  To his right is a female figure carrying a set of scales, for the zodiac sign Libra.

Detail of a marginal roundel of Palas, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a king with a forked beard, seated in a garden.  Behind him stands an angel with an open book, which is visible behind the king’s crown.  This scene is only somewhat explained by the accompanying rubric, which describes how the month of September is named after the number seven, which is ‘dedicated to Palas which means wisdom’.  The honorific Pallas was given to the goddess Athena, who was indeed the goddess of wisdom.

Calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9v

More details about the month of September can be found on the following folio.  The first marginal roundel shows a bearded man, clad in green leaves, standing in a walled garden overflowing with plants.  Above him in gold lettering is the name ‘Verto[m]pn[us]’, who the rubric tells us produces fruit ‘in the month of September’.  This figure is almost certainly that of Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasonal change, fruit trees, growth and gardens.  At the bottom is a figure of a regal woman standing in a garden, with a bird flying directly before her.  She is labelled ‘Elul’ and the rubrics go on to explain that the month of September is ‘called in Hebrew elul which means the mother of God.’ (Elul is the sixth month of the Hebrew ecclesiastical calendar, corresponding to parts of August and September in the Gregorian system.)

Detail of marginal roundels of Vertumnus and Elul, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9v

20 August 2016

The Grandisson Psalter

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When John Grandisson (1292–1369) became bishop of Exeter in 1327, he was not taking up an easy job. His predecessor, Walter Stapeldon, had been murdered in London the previous year. The cathedral was half-finished. By 1348, the city was struck by the Black Death, bringing poverty everywhere.

John struck back at the confusion with beauty, ensuring that building works could continue, amassing a library, and making space to write. Perhaps the most stunning book he owned was his Psalter, held at the British Library, Add MS 21926, is now available on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


An angel with John Grandisson’s arms: Add MS 21926, f. 2r

Although the ‘Grandisson Psalter’ was made long before he was born, around 1270–80, we know that it was owned by John because he conveniently had his coat of arms added to the opening page. His will also survives, in which he bequeathed the book to princess Isabella (1332–79), the eldest daughter of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. He called it ‘my rather beautiful Psalter’, with good reason.

The manuscript opens with a delightful calendar – like almost every liturgical book, as regular readers will know – showing the labours of the months and signs of the zodiac. Following this is a marvellous series of miniatures, first showing various saints. Opening the line-up are a cheerful St Christopher, carrying Christ, and St Margaret, triumphantly slaying a dragon with an extended cross/spear.


St Christopher (‘Cristoforus’) and St Margaret (‘Margareta’): Add MS 21926, f. 9v

Following the saints are scenes from the life of Christ. Among these are an incredibly creepy Judas. He often comes across in medieval art as a merely pathetic figure, but here he looks to be aiming to replace Moriarty in the next series of Sherlock.


Judas eating at the Last Supper and kissing Christ: Add MS 21926, f. 18v

Another scene shows an appropriately sceptical Thomas touching the side and hand of Christ. In the panel below is another scene of physical contact, showing Christ having dinner, presumably with Martha and Lazarus: he looks mildly embarrassed to have Mary Magdalene washing his feet.


A doubting Thomas touching Christ and determined Mary Magdalene washing his feet: Add MS 21926, f. 23r

Following the miniatures, the psalms are beautifully written, with large decorated initials and intricate patterns filling in the white space at the end of the lines to create a unified block of text. Like several other illuminated Psalters from the period, some figures are included that act out the literal meaning of the text in a mildly humorous manner, probably meant as a memory aid. One page shows a man on a journey grabbing his tongue to illustrate the phrase, ‘I said, I will take heed to my ways that I offend not in my tongue. I placed a guard on my mouth’ (Psalm 39:1/Vulgate 38:2, ‘Dixi custodiam uias meas ut non delinquam in lingua mea. Posui ori meo custodiam’).


‘I said, I will take heed to my ways that I offend not in my tongue’: Add MS 21926, f. 66v

John Grandisson’s use of the book also comes through beyond his coat of arms. At the beginning of most psalms, music has been added in the lower margin giving the text and music of the antiphon, a sentence sung before and after the psalm. Since the music used for the antiphon is also used for the entire psalm, these small additions would have allowed him to sing the entire book.


A motley crew of engaged and not-so-engaged clerics singing from a book on a lectern, with the chant for ‘Cantate domino canticum nouum’ (Psalm 97/98) later added: Add MS 21926, f. 132v

The continuing active use of the book is confirmed by the last section, which includes the text of the Office for the Dead. A later reader, probably John, used a slightly different variant on the rite than that recorded in the book. A scribe has carefully erased and modified sections of the text, also making changes to the punctuation of the text to fit local usage. These pages must have become particularly poignant for John in the context of the pestilence he faced.


The beginning of the Office for the Dead, with the initial showing a body under a shroud being sprinkled with water: Add MS 21926, f. 208v

John Grandisson’s Psalter is a brilliant witness to the skill of artists and scribes in the late 13th century. We hope you love it as much as its original owners and creators.

Andrew Dunning


08 August 2016

True Colours

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Our friends at the Fitzwilliam Museum have recently opened a spectacular new exhibition, called Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. This exhibition showcases some of the Fitzwilliam's greatest manuscript treasures, integrated with scientific and art historical research into medieval painting materials and techniques.

The British Library is delighted to have been able to loan four of our own manuscripts to this show, which is open until 30 December 2016. We highly recommend that you make a special journey to Cambridge to view the exhibition, and to take in all these manuscripts in their breath-taking glory.


Add MS 5112, f. 134r: St John the Evangelist, from a gospel book (Byzantium, late 12th century)

This astonishingly beautiful miniature depicts St John the Evangelist, about to sharpen his quill with a knife while a blank codex rests on his lap. This is a particularly fine example of painting with gold leaf; the vermilion red and ultramarine blue of the drapery make a sharp contrast with the gold leaf, and help to distinguish between the gold background and the yellow building in the lower half of the portrait. The miniature itself was not created for the volume in which it was found, and the high quality of the materials and the painting technique strongly suggests a Constantinopolitan origin.


St John the Evangelist, from a gospel book (Byzantium, late 12th century): Add MS 5112, f. 134r


Harley MS 3915: Theophilus, De diversis artibus (NW Germany?, late 12th or early 13th century)

This medieval craft treatise contains instructions for painting, glassmaking and metalworking, as well as pigment recipes and painting instructions for manuscript illumination. The pages shown below describe the manufacture of 'salt green' followed by 'Spanish green', both of which are types of verdigris; next come the production methods for lead white (cerosa) and red lead (minium). Harley 3915 is the most complete and one of the oldest surviving copies of this treatise, the script and ornament of which suggest that it was made somewhere in North-West Germany. We had it digitised a few years ago as part of our Harley Science Project.

Harley_ms_3915_f018v   Harley_ms_3915_f019r

Making green, white and red pigments, in Theophilus, De diversis artibus (NW Germany?, late 12th or early 13th century): Harley MS 3915, ff. 18v–19r 


Sloane MS 1975: A medical and herbal collection (France or England, late 12th century)

This medical treatise concludes with a series of illustrations of medical procedures. The spots represent cautery points, showing doctors where to apply hot irons to treat patients suffering from ailments such as toothache, fever and kidney disease. On the second page shown here, not for the squeamish, are operations to excise haemorrhoids, a nasal growth and cataracts. This manuscript belonged to the Cistercian monastery of Ourscamp in the 14th century, and it later entered the collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753).

Sloane_ms_1975_f092v   Sloane_ms_1975_f093r
Cautery points, in a medical collection (France or England, late 12th century): Sloane MS 1975, ff. 92v–93r)


Harley MS 4336: Boethius, De consolatio philosophiae (Bourges, 1476)

Produced in Bourges in 1476, this manuscript of Boethius's famous treatise, De consolatio philosophiae, is displayed open with this allegorical figure of Fortune, identifiable by the gold letters f emblazoned on her garment. The figures that surround her may represent two different families, one blessed and one cursed by Fortune, or a once prosperous household that has fallen on hard times.

Harley MS 4336 f. 1v

Personification of Fortune, in Boethius, De consolatio philosophiae (Bourges, 1476): Harley MS 4336, f. 1v

Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts is on at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 30 December 2016.


05 August 2016

Medieval Selfies

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It is tourist season here in London, so while dodging groups armed with selfie sticks and smart phones, it's easy to wish that selfies didn’t exist. (Apologies to anyone whose holiday photos have been accidentally photobombed by a befuddled British Library curator.) But such curmudgeonly attitudes to self-portraitists overlook the fact that selfies have existed for a very long time and offer unique insights into some brilliant and multi-talented artists.

Self-portrait of John Dee, mathematician, astronomer, occultist and adviser to Elizabeth I, from a genealogical roll, England, late 16th or early 17th century, Cotton Ch XIV 1

The Oxford English Dictionary limits the definition of ‘selfie’ to ‘photographic self-portraits’. However, if we extend the definition of ‘selfie’ to cover self-portraits made with pen and ink, selfies have existed in Britain for over 1000 years. One of the earliest known manuscript self-portraits to survive from England was made by St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 988), in the 10th century. He depicted himself kneeling before Christ in a manuscript now known as ‘St Dunstan’s Classbook’ (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Auct F.4.32).

How can we tell if an image is a self-portrait? First, we can sometimes identify an artist by analysing brushstrokes, penwork, design or the accompanying handwriting, especially if the artist is well-known or worked on other manuscripts. However, even if we can identify the artist, how can we be sure that an image was intended as a self-portrait, rather than as an image of somebody else? This is where captions come in handy. Most known self-portraits are identified by nearby text which states or suggests that an image depicts its own artist.

Tw royal_ms_14_c_vii_f006r
Detail of a self-portrait of Matthew Paris with his name, from the prefatory material to Matthew Paris’s Historia Anglorum, St Albans, c. 1250-1259, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r 

For example, the image above is a self-portrait of the noted medieval writer, scribe, artist and polymath Matthew Paris. We have other manuscripts which are known to have been copied by Matthew Paris, so we can be confident that the first part of this manuscript contains his handwriting and drawing. He also conveniently labelled this self-portrait of him kneeling beneath the Virgin and child: ‘Frater Mathias Parisiensis’.

Self-portrait of Matthew Paris kneeling beneath the Virgin and child, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r 

Similarly, red letters next to two historiated initials in a 13th-century Book of Hours (Add MS 49999) identify the self-portraits of William de Brailes, the book’s artist. William and his workshop are important as some of the earliest known producers of books in England who were not based in a religious institution. Although his self-portraits portray him with a tonsure, William did not depict himself wearing the habit of a religious order, and legal documents from Oxford suggest that he was based at a workshop on Catte Street, at the centre of the Oxford book trade. If selfies never existed, we would know much less about this important figure in the history of book production, and about the way he presented himself.

  Tw add_ms_49999_f043r
Self-portrait of William de Brailes, from the de Brailes Hours, Oxford, c. 1240, Add MS 49999, f. 43r 

In other cases, unlabelled self-portraits have been identified with comparison to labelled self-portraits by the same artist. For example, some scholars claim the image below is a self-portrait of the artist John Siferwas or Cyfrewas (fl. 1380-1421) presenting a work to his patron John, Baron Lovell, because its features and content resemble a labelled self-portrait of Siferwas in the Sherborne Missal. Siferwas drew himself next to the Missal’s scribe, John Whas.

Harley 7026   f. 4v

Left: possible self-portrait of John Siferwas with John, Baron Lovell, from the Lovell Lectionary, Glastonbury?, c. 1400-1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 4v Right: self-portrait of John Siferwas with John Whas, from the Sherborne Missal, Sherborne, c. 1399-1407, Add MS 74236, f. 276v

Other medieval images could be self-portraits, but this is more difficult to prove. Some scholars have argued that the Eadui Psalter contains a self-portrait of its scribe and possible artist, Eadwig (also spelled Eadui) Basan. Eadwig (fl.1012-1023), a monk of Christ Church Canterbury, was one of the most talented Anglo-Saxon scribes, writing charters, the Grimbald Gospels and part of the Harley Psalter, among other works. That said, there is no agreement whether Eadwig really depicted himself in this Psalter and, if he did, which figure he is supposed to be.

Arundel 155   f. 133
Miniature of monks presenting the Rule of St Benedict to St Benedict, with a prostrating figure, from the Eadui Psalter, Christ Church Canterbury, c. 1012-1023, Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

Some believe the figure kneeling at Benedict’s feet might be a self-portrait of Eadwig. Others argue that the prostrate figure could be a patron or could simply have been copied from an earlier exemplar. Still other historians have argued that Eadwig appears as a member of the crowd presenting a book to Benedict. Nevertheless, some of these figures seem a little slim to be Eadwig: it has been suggested that Eadwig’s second name, basan, was derived from a Hebrew word for ‘the fat’.  Or maybe this was just a very flattering self-portrait!

Whereas modern selfie-takers are often stereotyped as vain and self-promoting, medieval selfies frequently involved a different type of self-promotion, one focused on humility before the divine and saints. In other contexts, medieval artists and writers emphasized the dangers of narcissism and of being too concerned with one’s own appearance. The story of Narcissus, the figure from Greek myth who became obsessed with his own reflection, was retold throughout the Middle Ages, notably in the Roman de la Rose

Harley 4425   f. 20
Detail of Narcissus, from the Roman de la Rose, Bruges, c. 1490-1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 20r 

So, you can see that self-portraiture is not strictly a modern phenomenon. If you come to the British Library’s current major exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts (open until 6 September 2016), you can even view a possible self-portrait of Richard Burbage, the actor who first played Hamlet, Richard III, Othello and King Lear.

Alison Hudson