THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

131 posts categorized "Decoration"

16 October 2014

Dedicated to You

Add comment Comments (1)

What do you get the person who has everything?  A manuscript book of poetry written in his or her honour, naturally!  

Royal_ms_12_a_xxx_fblefr
Original binding of gold-tooled parchment with the royal coat of arms and initials ‘E R’ (‘Elizabeth Regina’), from a manuscript of complimentary verses to Elizabeth I, England (Eton), 1563,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, front cover 

A lesser known part of the Royal collection is a set of manuscripts of complimentary verses that were presented to royalty and aristocracy during the 16th and 17th centuries.  They are mostly catalogued under the ‘Royal MS 12 A’ range.  Eleven of these, containing verses or epigrams in Greek, have been digitised as part of our ongoing Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project (a list of these is provided below).  They are now available online, allowing us to take a closer look at these intriguing gifts. 

Royal_ms_12_a_xxx_f001r
Title page with coloured border featuring Tudor roses and coats of arms,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 1r 

The focus of today’s blogpost is upon the earliest dated manuscript of this group: Royal MS 12 A XXX, presented to Elizabeth I when she travelled to Windsor in 1563.  The volume opens with a hand-drawn and coloured title page, the border of which contains Tudor roses and the coats of arms both of Elizabeth and Eton College. 

Royal_ms_12_a_xxx_f028v
Poems in Latin by Giles Fletcher, with an acrostic,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 28v 

The Latin verses were composed by pupils of Eton College.  The most frequent contributor to the volume, with eleven poems, was ‘Fletcher’.  Giles Fletcher (bap. 1546, d. 1611) later served as one of Elizabeth’s diplomats, undertaking a perilous embassy to the court of Tsar Feodor I at Moscow between June 1588 and July/August 1589.  Like several of his fellow-pupils, Fletcher employed elaborate acrostics to encode Elizabeth’s name or encomia into his poems: the first and last letters of each line in the above poem read ‘Vivente te vivimus, te remota moriemur’ (‘We live while you live, we will die when you leave’). 

Royal_ms_12_a_xxx_f056v
Poems in Latin by ‘Frankline’ and ‘Flemmynge’, with acrostics,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 56v 

‘Frankline’ and ‘Flemmynge’ (Samuel Flemming, later prebendary of Southwell) used the same device to bid their monarch ‘Farewell [and] prosper’ (‘Valeto, vivito’ and ‘Vive, Vale’).  ‘Hunt’ went one step further, using his acrostic to declare ‘Vestra secundet Christus Iesus’ (‘May Jesus Christ favour your endeavours’) (ff. 33r-33v). 

Royal_ms_12_a_xxx_f072r
Coat of arms of Eton College, with Latin verse,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 72r

What spurred the composition of such a book?  William Malim (b. 1533, d. 1594), Headmaster of Eton College, prefaced the poems with a dedicatory Greek quatrain.  Perhaps he hoped his and his pupils’ praise would secure the patronage and favour of the new monarch (he may have been involved in producing a similar book – now Royal MS 12 A LXVII – when he became High Master of St Paul’s school ten years later).  The coat of arms of both of Elizabeth and the College were painted in at the end of the volume, and lavishly embellished with silver leaf (now oxidised into a dull grey), with verses on both, providing a reminder of the source of the gift. 

Royal_ms_12_a_xxx_f062r
Opening of a prayer in Latin prose against the plague,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 62r 

Yet there was a serious side to all this flattery.  Elizabeth’s departure from London had been prompted by an outbreak of the plague in the city.  Only five years on the throne, and without either husband or heir, the Queen’s position and the stability of the nation as a whole seemed precarious.  After the political and religious upheavals of previous reigns, such anxieties were sharply felt by Elizabeth’s subjects.  After all the plaudits and praise, the elaborate exercises in Latin composition and inventive word-play, a prayer in Latin prose follows: ‘In order that the contagion of the ravaging plague may be diverted as long as possible from our most fair and noble Queen...’ 

- James Freeman

06 October 2014

Waiting List: AMARC Conference on English Fourteenth-Century Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library

Add comment Comments (0)

We are pleased to report that there has been an enthusiastic response to the announcement of the AMARC conference to celebrate the launch of Lucy Freeman Sandler’s book Illuminators and Patrons in Fourteenth-Century England: The Psalter Hours of Humphrey de Bohun and the Manuscripts of the Bohun Family.

As a result, all places are now filled, but we are starting a waiting list. 

If you would like to be added to the waiting list, please contact Dr James Freeman, at james.freeman@bl.uk

English Fourteenth-Century Illuminated Manuscripts in the British Library

Monday, 1 December 2014

British Library Conference Centre

Egerton_ms_3277_f046v - detail
British Library, Egerton MS 3277, f. 46v (detail)

Speakers: Paul Binski, Alixe Bovey, Julian Luxford, Nigel Morgan, Kathryn Smith, and Lucy Freeman Sandler

04 October 2014

Magna Carta Tickets On Sale

Add comment Comments (0)

Tickets for our major 2015 exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, are now on sale. The exhibition runs from 13 March until 1 September 2015, and promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime show which explores the history and resonance of this globally-recognised document.

A standard adult ticket costs £13.50 (with gift aid); entry for under 18s and Friends or Patrons of the British Library is free, and concessions are available for other visitors. Full ticketing details can be found on the British Library's dedicated Magna Carta webpage.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is sponsored by Linklaters, and will feature the British Library's two copies of King John's 1215 Magna Carta, together with other items from our collections and generous loans from other institutions and private individuals, all of which will help to trace the journey of Magna Carta from its medieval origins to its modern significance. Among the exhibits will be a copy of the American Declaration of Independence, in the hand of Thomas Jefferson (on loan from the New York Public Library), and the copy of the US Bill of Rights sent to Delaware (loaned from the US National Archives). You can read more about these documents in an earlier blogpost.

Cotton_ms_claudius_d_ii_f116r Studio c13220-28
King John riding on horseback, from a 14th-century legal collection (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius D II, f. 116r).

We are extremely grateful to Linklaters for their financial support of our exhibition, and to White & Case for sponsoring the loan of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights from the USA.

More Magna Carta news will be posted on this blog in the next few days. Don't forget to follow our Twitter account (@BLMedieval) for news on Magna Carta: 2015 promises to be a very exciting year!

03 October 2014

Apocalypse Then: Further Medieval Visions from Revelation

Add comment Comments (2)

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.’ 

Royal_ms_19_b_xv_f020v - detail

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.

Add_ms_11695_ff147v-148r
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.’

Royal_ms_15_d_ii_f156r - detail
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.

Yates Thompson MS 20, f. 20v
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.

Add_ms_42555_f036v - detail
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.

Add_ms_42555_f043v - detail
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

Add_ms_42555_f060v - detail
Detail of John looking at the three beasts of the Apocalypse with frogs coming out of their mouths,
Add MS 42555, f. 60v

Royal_ms_19_b_xv_f022v - detail
Detail of men battling with a dragon,
Royal MS 19 B XV, f. 22v

A few brave knights are prepared to take on this ferocious creature, while the woman in clothed with the sun flies away.

Royal_ms_15_d_ii_f174v - detail
Detail of John standing before the false prophet, the dragon, and the beast, with frogs emerging from their mouths representing their unclean spirits,
Royal MS 15 D II, f. 174v

These two beasts and the false prophet have frogs in their mouths, according to the text, but they look more like fish, or maybe large tadpoles.

Add_ms_11695_ff151v-152r
The adoration of the Beast with an inscription: 'ubi reges terre bestia[m] et draconem adorant' (Revelation 13:1-10),
Add MS 11695, ff. 151v-152r

And finally, two of the most terrifying beasts of all - and they are being worshipped!

- Chantry Westwell

01 October 2014

A Calendar Page for October 2014

Add comment Comments (0)

For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

While the summer growing season may be over, the agricultural labours are by no means at and end, as these calendar pages for the month of October display.  On the opening folio is a roundel miniature of a man scattering grain in a plowed field.  Behind him are some turreted buildings and a bridge, while above, some hopeful birds are circling.   On the facing folio is a small painting of an ominous-looking scorpion, for the zodiac sign Scorpio.  Below, a tired man is heading home from his labours in the field, carrying a bag on his shoulders.  His dog is bounding before him, and swans can be seen swimming in the river beside.

Add_ms_38126_f010v
Calendar page for October, with a roundel miniature of a man sowing grain, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 10v

Add_ms_38126_f011r
Calendar page for October, with a roundel miniature of a man heading home after his work is done, with the zodiac sign Scorpio, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 11r

- Sarah J Biggs

27 September 2014

The life and death of Pompey the Great

Add comment Comments (0)

Even by the standards of Rome in the first century BC, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus  had an eventful life. The son of Strabo, a man so loathed by the Romans that his body was dragged from its bier during his funeral, Pomey quickly made his own mark on the world and moved beyond the shadow of his infamous father. Plutarch tells us he was helped in this in no small way by the fact that he was quite good-looking, a fact that the illuminator of this historiated initial, in a Latin translation of Plutarch, seems to have taken on board:

 Harley 3485, f190r

Detail of Harley MS 3485, f 190r (Florence, 1470)

A string of military successes ensured Pompey’s accelerated promotion to the consulship at the unusually early age of thirty-five. Shortly after this, he took on the daunting task of ridding the Mediterranean of pirates, who at the time were causing havoc to trade routes across Rome's sphere of influence. Here is a picture of Pompey subduing the pirates:

 

Royal 20 D I f358r
Detail of Royal MS 20 D I, f 358r (Naples, 2nd quarter of the 14th century)

Some time later, Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus formed the First Triumvirate, a political alliance designed to benefit all three. But this alliance was not fated to last, and after the death of Crassus in Parthia in 53 BC, conflict between Pompey and Caesar seemed inevitable.

The story of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar was hugely popular in the middle ages, best known through vernacular accounts of Roman history such as the French Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César  (well represented in the British Library’s collections) and the Irish In Cath Catharda. These draw in part on the epic poem of Lucan, as well as on late antique epitomes of Roman historical works. In a number of medieval accounts, Caesar and Pompey are depicted fighting at close quarters:

 Royal 16 G VII f 339r

Detail of Royal MS 16 G VII, f 339r (Paris, last quarter of the 14th century)

Though a man of outstanding abilities, Pompey was for a bad end. Like many doomed ancient heroes, he had a vision of what was to come in a dream. The ghost of his former wife Julia (the daughter of Julius Caesar) appeared to him and warned him of impending disaster. Here are two images of this dream:

 Royal 20 C I f130v

Detail of Royal MS 20 C I, f 130v (France, 1st quarter of the 15th century)

 

 

Royal16 G VII f305v
Detail of Royal MS 16 G VII, f 305v (Paris, last quarter of the 14th century)

Pompey’s death itself was a sorry affair. After the catastrophic defeat to Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, he made for Egypt. The then king of Egypt, Ptolemy XIII, was persuaded by his advisor Pothinus that Pompey should be executed in order to curry favour with Caesar. In Plutarch’s vivid account of the event, Pompey sailed to shore in a tiny skiff. Just as he reached the shore, and in full view of his men and his wife Cornelia, he was murdered by those in the boat with him:

 Royal17 F II f271r

Detail of Royal MS 17 F II, f 271r (Bruges, 1479)

Plutarch and Lucan tell us that as he was executed he pulled his toga up over his head, something shown in the following picture:

 Royal16 G VIII f310v

Detail of Royal MS 16 G VII, f 310v (Paris, last quarter of the 14th century)

His assassins dumped his body on the shore and took his head away to be presented to Caesar.

 Royal14 E V f318v

Detail of Royal MS 14 E v, f 318v (Bruges, c1479-1480)

-Cillian O'Hogan

21 September 2014

Virgil's Countryside

Add comment Comments (0)

On September 21, 19 BC, Publius Vergilius Maro died of a fever at Brundisium. Though Virgil's birthday, on the Ides of October, is more traditionally the day on which the poet is remembered, we at Medieval Manuscripts can never pass up the opportunity to talk about the man from Mantua.

The finest and most influential of all the Latin poets, it should come as no surprise that his works are well represented in the collections of the British Library. The Libarry's holdings include some eighty-three manuscripts and a single papyrus (Papyrus 2723) – not to mention the many manuscripts containing works about Virgil or translations of his verse.

With such a large collection to choose from, there is a limit to what we can reasonably cover in a single blog post! Many of the Library’s manuscripts of the Eclogues (a collection of pastoral poems) and the Georgics (a didactic poem on farming) are adorned with depictions of country life. An excellent example is Burney 272, created in Germany or Austria c 1473. It opens with a very fine pair of miniatures of Virgil (in the historiated initial ‘T’) and a shepherd (Tityrus?) in the border, at the beginning of the first Eclogue:

Burney MS 272, f 4 detail

Opening of Virgil's Eclogues, detail of Burney MS 272, f 4r.

In this manuscript, the illuminator seems particularly to have been taken by the opportunity to adorn the Georgics: here is an image of a man picking grapes, accompanying the Second Georgic:

Burney 272 f 26 detail

Detail of Burney MS 272, f 26r.

And here is a very modern-looking beehive, on f 43v, accompanying the Fourth Georgic:

Burney MS 272, f  43 detail

Detail of Burney MS 272, f 43v.

Unsurprisingly, the beginning of the Eclogues tends to get a lot of attention. Here is an ink drawing from the mid-14th century of two shepherds, at the beginning of the First Eclogue: the ink has faded so that it is rather difficult to make thm out:

Harley MS 3754, f 1r detail

Detail of Harley MS 3754, f 1r.

Compare this to the majestic ‘King’s Virgil’, Kings MS 24, created in Rome between 1483 and 1485:

Kings MS 24, f 1r

Kings MS 24, f 1r.

Once again, the bee-keeping section of the Georgics is the occasion for a fine illumination:

Kings MS 24, f 47v detail

Detail of Kings MS 24, f 47v.

Even initials provide an opportunity for some thematic illumination: in this early 15th-century Italian manuscript, the opening Q of the Georgics contains a man entangled in some vines:

Harley MS 3963, f 16v detail

Detail of Harley MS 3963, f 16v.

We end with another portrait of the author, hidden in another Q at the beginning of the Georgics:

Sloane MS 2510, f 2r detail

Detail of Sloane MS 2510, f 2r.

- Cillian O'Hogan

16 September 2014

Visualising Stonehenge

Add comment Comments (0)

There has been some exciting news recently about Stonehenge.  The discovery of many new archaeological features around the site itself, including chapels, burial mounds, pits and shrines (which featured in a BBC documentary last Thursday), has emphasised that the famous stone circle should not be seen as an isolated monument but as part of a wider complex in the surrounding landscape. 

Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r
Miniature of Merlin building Stonehenge, from Wace, ‘Roman de Brut’, England, second quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r
 

The British Library has a particular interest in Stonehenge, because it possesses the earliest known depiction of the monument, from a manuscript of Wace’s Roman de Brut, made in the second quarter of the fourteenth century.  The mythical figure of Merlin is shown assembling one of the famous sarsen trilithons by placing a lintel on top of two standing stones.  His actions are observed with wonderment by two mortals, emphasising Stonehenge’s legendary status as well as the mysteriousness of its purpose. 

Lansdowne MS 732, f. 1r
The beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth, ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, England, last quarter of the 12th century or first quarter of the 13th century, Lansdowne MS 732, f. 1r 
 

Earlier accounts, but not illustrations, of Stonehenge also survive in British Library manuscripts.  Wace wrote the Roman de Brut in French verse, using octo-syllabic couplets, and presented his work as a translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (though he included additional information). 

Geoffrey claimed that Stonehenge was built on the orders of Aurelius Ambrosius, a mythical Briton king, with Merlin fulfilling the role of supernatural architect and building contractor.  Merlin had advised Aurelius that this would be a fitting memorial to 480 of his nobles who had been treacherously slaughtered by Hengist the Saxon around the year 470. 

Although Geoffrey’s account is largely fanciful, there are implicit elements of it that have been borne out by modern archaeological study: for example, some of the stones were brought from far away (the bluestones used within the outer circle came from the Preseli mountains in Pembrokeshire), that it is related to stone circles in Ireland, and that there were burial sites in close proximity (as the recent discoveries have shown). 

Egerton MS 3668, ff. 2v-3r
The end of the prologue and beginning of the text, from a copy of Henry of Huntingdon, ‘Historia Anglorum’, England, Egerton MS 3668, ff. 2v-3r
 

Geoffrey’s account of Stonehenge is roughly contemporary with another mid-twelfth century history, the Historia Anglorum by Henry of Huntingdon.  Henry offered no explanation of why or how Stonehenge was built, but merely related (perhaps from second-hand accounts) that the stones were ‘erected after the manner of doorways, so that doorway appears to have been raised upon doorway’.  The description is puzzling at first, since Stonehenge never had a second storey, but it probably refers to a trick of perspective gained when one trilithon is observed through another. 

Add MS 28330, f. 36r
Watercolour sketch of Stonehenge, from Lucas de Heere, ‘Corte Beschryvinghe van England, Scotland, ende Irland, England (London), Add MS 28330, f. 36r
 

The British Library also possesses one of the earliest near-accurate depictions of Stonehenge, in the form of a watercolour sketch done ‘on the spot’ by Lucas de Heere (b. 1534, d. 1584), a Flemish Protestant exile who resided in England between 1567 and 1576.  He evidently took to his adoptive country, compiling a guidebook to Britain, its history and the dress and manners of its inhabitants, entitled Corte Beschryvinghe van England, Scotland, ende Irland.  De Heere’s description and drawing of Stonehenge is important for its observations on the techniques of construction.  Tenons – raised points on the tops of the stone pillars, visible on one of the trilithons in the foreground – locked into mortises – matching indentations in the lintels – which held them in place and prevented them from slipping off.  

Stonehenge has been a source of fascination and speculation for historians, writers and archaeologists as well as casual observers, visitors and tourists.  The questions that they have all asked – how and why? – haven’t changed much over the centuries, like the stones themselves.  The answers have, though, and the recent discoveries are only the latest, exciting chapter in a very long tale of imaginings and interpretations. 

- James Freeman