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21 January 2015

Das Ende der Welt: An Overlooked German Apocalypse

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‘Bad work’: that is how M.R. James described an unusual German Apocalypse at the British Library, in his 1927 Schweich Lectures on The Apocalypse in Art. The full-page illustrations in Add MS 15243 – which was published on Digitised Manuscripts at the end of 2014 – may lack some of the finesse of those found in English or French Apocalypses, but a closer look reveals plenty of interest in this manuscript. 

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Detail of large pen flourished initial with zoomorphic grotesques at the beginning of the Book of Revelation, Germany (?Erfurt), c. 1350-c. 1370, 
Add MS 15243, f. 3r 

As followers of this blog will know already, the particular fashion for Apocalypse manuscripts in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century France and England is illustrated by the numerous copies that survive from those countries. Many in the British Library’s collections have been digitised and have featured in such blog posts as Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Then, Fire and Brimstone, and Visions of the Apocalypse. 

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Full-page illuminated miniature depicting an angel casting a millstone into the sea,
Add MS 15243, f. 31r 

How common were German Apocalypse manuscripts? James’s survey – acknowledged at the time as being incomplete – gives a slightly misleading impression of the manuscript’s rarity. Of the 92 Apocalypses he listed, a mere six were from Germany, and only Add MS 15243 among them contained the text in German. Further surveys in the journal Traditio in 1984-86 and the Katalog der deutschprachigen illustrierten Handschriften des Mittelalters have increased the numbers, and Carola Redzich’s 2010 study of the language, transmission and reception of German Apocalypses has revealed a lively tradition in that country as well. (All bibliographical references may be found in full in the catalogue entry). 

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Full-page illuminated miniature depicting the beginning of John’s visions,
Add MS 15243, f. 4r 

The manuscript dates to around 1350-1370 and is possibly from Erfurt in Thuringia, Germany: blind-stamped motifs on the pig-skin binding match those used by a workshop there around 1490-1520. It contains a series of fourteen full-page, unbordered, illuminated miniatures. How closely these illustrations relate to the text varies from image to image. Some are very close to what John described, while others are not, owing to idiosyncratic inclusions or omissions by the artist. The book opens with a miniature of John in a cave on the island of Patmos (which featured in our most recent hyperlinks announcement). This is followed by another that depicts the beginning of his visions (shown above). Here, the artist has compressed two narrative stages together into a single scene: the appearance of Christ with various accoutrements (Rev. 1:12-16), and John’s falling ‘at his feet as dead’ and Christ laying his right hand upon him and saying ‘“Fear not”’ (Rev. 1:17). 

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Full-page illuminated miniature depicting the appearance of the four horsemen,
Add MS 15243, f. 12r 

The miniature illustrating the appearance of the Four Riders diverges from the text (Rev. 6:1-8). The first two Riders are as described in the Book of Revelation: the first on a white horse, wearing a crown and carrying a bow; the second on a red horse and wielding a large sword. Differences emerge thereafter. The third Rider is on a white, rather than a black, horse. Most strikingly, the fourth Rider – an emaciated figure with a skull-head, representing Death – is mounted on a winged lion. According to the text, Death is mounted on a ‘pale horse’. Why does the decorative scheme deviate here, and how common was this in Apocalypse manuscripts? Lion-hybrids are described elsewhere in the Apocalypse text, the closest but by no means exact match being the first of the ‘four living creatures’ described in Rev. 4:7-8. This lion was accompanied by a calf, a man and an eagle, each furnished with six wings and ‘full of eyes’, which are immediately recognisable as the symbols of the Evangelists. A winged lion is also mentioned in the Old Testament, in the first of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions (Daniel 7:4). Their relevance to this particular part of the Book of Revelation, and the reasons for the artist’s choice, are unclear, however, as are the reasons for the artist’s deviation from the text. 

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Full-page illuminated miniature depicting the Woman and the Beast,
Add MS 15243, f. 19r 

The complexity of John’s visions, and the obscurity of the language in which they are expressed, presented obvious challenges to the manuscript illuminator. Here, the artist has included certain elements from the text: the moon being under the Woman’s feet, her bringing forth a child that is delivered up to God, and the Beast with seven heads and crowns that drew stars from the heavens and cast them down to earth. Others he has abandoned: the ten horns on the Beast (Rev. 12:3) and the Woman being ‘clothed with the sun’ (Rev. 12:1). According to the text, the Woman is also ‘crowned with twelve stars’ (Rev. 12:1), which the artist has interpreted as ‘crowned, with twelve stars’, placing the twelve stars around her head like a nimbus or halo. That three are meant to be hidden behind the child is cleverly indicated by the twelfth star emerging from behind his back as the Woman lifts him up to God.

Download Add MS 15243 collation

The collation of this manuscript is highly irregular. Each of these illustrations, as well as two leaves of text, are on single leaves of parchment that have then been inserted into the manuscript. The order in which they have been stitched in is unusual in places, and to add to the complexity in a few instances parchment strips have been added to reinforce the leaves against the sewing. We have provided a detailed description of the collation in the record, but this seems an instance where a visual aid might be helpful!  

- James Freeman

19 January 2015

Surviving the Winter: Medieval-Style

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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).

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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Detail of activities on a frozen river, from
Add MS 18852, f. 2r

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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.

- Holly James-Maddocks

13 January 2015

RIP Æthelwulf, King of the West Saxons

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King Æthelwulf, who died on 13 January 858, has been rather overshadowed by his more famous son, Alfred the Great – but did he lay the foundations for Alfred’s success?

Æthelwulf consolidated the West Saxon kingdom, strengthened his family’s rule over Kent and brought Devon and Cornwall under his influence. It seems that he was quite a networker, currying favour with Pope Benedict III and Charles the Bald, the Carolingian emperor. He travelled to Rome in 855 ‘with a multitude of people’, and gave gifts of ‘a fine gold crown weighing 4 lb, … one sword bound with fine gold; four silver-gilt Saxon bowls; one all-silk white shirt with roundels, with gold-studding; and two large gold-interwoven veils’, as well as lavish donations of gold and silver to ‘the clergy, leading men and people of Rome’ (from the Liber Pontificalis: AD 817–891, ed. by R. Davis (1995)).

On his way home, Æthelwulf stopped off at the court of Charles the Bald for three months and married the emperor’s daughter Judith in an elaborate ceremony. His new bride replaced Æthelwulf’s wife Osburh, who had borne all his children, including five sons. It is not known if Osburh had died before this or was discarded in favour of Judith, who was probably only fourteen. Æthelwulf’s connection to Carolingian royalty is referred to many times in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and was no doubt considered a very prestigious move.

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Detail from a genealogical roll, showing Æthelwulf (centre), his father Ecgberht, King of the West Saxons (above), King Beorhtric (right), and below, 4 roundels containing his sons, Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and Alfred, England, 4th quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 14 B V, Membrane 1.

Here is an image of King Æthelwulf (in the centre) from a genealogical roll chronicle produced in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). He is shown against a shiny gold background, with his left hand on his heart. The French text beside him focuses on the gifts of money he gave to the Pope. Beside him is a man on stilts playing a pipe with an animal head.

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Text page with West-Saxon genealogy to King Alfred, England, S.E. (Winchester), 4th quarter of the 11th century, Add MS 34652, f. 2v.

This is a leaf that has been detached from Cotton MS Otho B XI, one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It contains an Anglo-Saxon genealogy from King Cerdic (519-534) to Alfred (871-899). On the 7th line, Ecgberht (‘ecbyrht’), father of Æthelwulf, is listed as reigning for 37 years and 7 months (802-839).  He was succeeded by his son: ‘þa feng æþelwulf to his sunu 7 heold nigenteolðe healf gear’ (‘his son Æthelwulf took over the kingdom and held it for the nineteenth half year’, i.e. eighteen and a half years) (lines 8-9). There follows a seven-line list of Æthelwulf’s antecedents with their patronymics: Æthelwulf is ‘ecbyrhting’ (son of Ecbyrht), Ecbyrht is ‘ealmunding’ (son of Ealhmund), Ealmund is ‘eafing’ (son Eafa, who married a Kentish princess) and so on back to ‘cynric cerdiccing’, Cynric, son of King Cerdic, who some believe was a Saxon invader and founder of the dynasty of Wessex.

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Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, England, S. E. (Christ Church, Canterbury), 843, Stowe Charter 17

The earliest surviving charter of a king of Wessex is a grant by King Æthelwulf, dated 28 May 843 (Stowe Charter 17). Æthelwulf gave to his thegn Æthelmod land at Little Chart, Kent, including woods called Theodorice-snad and Beaneccer, and swine-pastures at Ætingden, Lidingden, Meredenn and Uddanh. Attached to the bottom of the charter is a small fragment of parchment containing a note of the witnesses, including Æthelwulf himself and Ceolnoð, Archbishop of Canterbury. This must have been used as an aide-memoire by the scribe when writing up the fine copy.

Æthelwulf was succeeded by his sons Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and finally Alfred, his youngest son, who reigned for 22 winters.

- Chantry Westwell

03 January 2015

Cicero's Map to the Stars

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Marcus Tullius Cicero, born on 3 January 106 BC, bestrides Latin literature like a colossus. The combination of an immense output of writings and a strong afterlife in the schools of late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, means that more manuscripts of Cicero’s work survive than of any other classical Latin author. Only Augustine of Hippo can claim a more fertile manuscript tradition.

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Harley MS 4329, f 130r. Miniature of Cicero debating the nature of friendship. From a manuscript containing translations of the De Senectute and De Amicitia into French by Laurent de Premierfait. France, Central (Tours), 1460.

Cicero’s popularity should come as no surprise. His speeches and rhetorical treatises (together with the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, erroneously attributed to Cicero) were the cornerstone of Latin education for generations. Ciceronian style became the benchmark against which other Latin prose was measured. During the Renaissance, the extent to which Cicero should be followed as a model was a matter of fierce debate.

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Harley MS 4796, f 66r, detail. Historiated initial of Cicero and his son in discussion. From a Spanish translation of the De Officiis, De Senectute, and Pro Marcello. Spain, N., 1st half of the 15th century.

In addition to his rhetorical works, Cicero’s letters give a great insight into the world of the late Roman Republic – both the public world, in which he was of course actively involved, and everyday private life. Finally, there is Cicero’s great output of philosophical literature. Not only did this have the virtue of contributing greatly to the development of a Latin vocabulary for philosophical terms, it also constitutes a serious advancement in philosophical learning in itself. Indeed, Cicero’s philosophical works were probably the most popular of his works during the Middle Ages, and provided important points of entry into Greek philosophy for medieval scholars without any knowledge of Greek.

One part of Cicero’s output that has traditionally been less highly valued has been his poetry. Partly because of one notorious verse, o fortunam natam me consule Romam (“Happy Rome, born when I was consul”), and partly because he was eclipsed by the astonishing virtuosity achieved by the poets of the next generation (especially Catullus and Lucretius), it is only recently that scholars have begun to turn a more sympathetic eye to Cicero’s verse.

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Harley MS 647, f 10v, detail. Eridanus.

The situation was different in the Middle Ages, however, and one of Cicero’s most popular works was a translation of the Phaenomena of the Hellenistic poet Aratus. This poem, which describes the constellations, was hugely popular in antiquity, and was repeatedly translated into Latin - by Cicero, Germanicus (grand-nephew of Augustus and father of Caligula), and Varro of Atax in the first century BC alone. Cicero prepared his version of the poem in the 80s BC, when he was in his late teens or early twenties.

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Harley MS 647, f 19r. Solar System.

Astronomical treatises continued to be hugely popular in the Middle Ages, and are frequently to be found in miscellaneous manuscripts. We are fortunate at the British Library to have two particularly fine decorated manuscripts of Cicero’s Aratea: Harley MS 647, and Harley MS 2506.

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Harley MS 647, f 3v. Pisces.

The Ciceronian section of Harley 647 was created in Northern France, around 820. The manuscript is a marvel: Cicero’s text is presented at the bottom of each page, accompanied by a drawing of the relevant constellation. Yet these drawings are formed out of words, taken from the relevant passages of the Astronomica of Hyginus. (You can read more about such text-pictures in a recent blog post by Friend of the Blog Erik Kwakkel). The manuscript later travelled to the Abbey of Saint Augustine at Canterbury. Three descendants of this manuscript are also now in the British Library: Cotton MS Tiberius C I, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, and Harley 2506.

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Harley MS 2506, f 36v. Pisces.

Harley 2506 is laid out a little differently, however. Here, the drawings are rather more traditional, and the text of Hyginus is kept separate (at the beginning of the volume). Attributed to one of the artists of the Ramsey Psalter, it was created at Fleury probably in around the 990s, before being brought to England. It would be interesting to know what Cicero would have made of the fact that of all of his works, it was the Aratea the one that inspired the greatest creativity in medieval scribes and illuminators.

- Cillian O’Hogan

01 January 2015

A Calendar Page for January 2015

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Regular readers will know that one of our blog traditions is to highlight a calendar from a particular medieval manuscript throughout the course of the year.  Past manuscripts have included the Isabella Breviary, the Hours of Joanna the Mad, the Golf Book, and the Huth Hours.  In 2015 we are pleased to present a manuscript that has featured on our blog before, the London Rothschild Hours.  Confusingly, this manuscript is often also called the Hours of Joanna the Mad (or the Hours of Joanna I of Castile), as it has been suggested that the manuscript belonged to that famous lady.

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Miniature of John the Evangelist on Patmos with his symbol the eagle, being tormented by a demon and visions above, at the beginning of his suffrage, from the London Rothschild Hours (The Hours of Joanna I of Castile), Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 10v-11r

Evidence that the book was Joanna’s is tantalising, but inconclusive.  The repeated presence of Joanna’s name saint, John the Evangelist, is a potential clue, and the presence of a number of Spanish saints in the calendar suggests that it was probably produced for a member of the Spanish aristocracy.

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Miniature of the Pentecost, with the Virgin Mary at the centre seated at a lectern, Add MS 35313, f. 33v

In any case, this manuscript is certainly a lavish production, and the prominent places given to women and books in the miniatures indicate that it was prepared for a noble lady who was highly literate.  Every miniature in the manuscript – and there are many – is surrounded by a detailed and extravagant border, often containing animals, flowers, or jewels. 

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Miniature of St George and the dragon, surrounded by a jewelled border, Add MS 35313, f. 223v

The structure of the calendar echoes the beauty of the rest of the manuscript.  Each folio contains a single month, beginning with a small painting of the sign of the zodiac at the top.  Below this is the listing of the saints’ days for the month, and, unusually, every slot is filled with an observance or feast.  Even more unusual are the roundels on the outer edge of the folio that contain illustrations of the most important saints’ days, those days marked in red on the calendar (which is where we get our contemporary phrase ‘red letter days’).  At the bottom of each calendar page is a miniature of the labour for that month, painted by one of the most accomplished Flemish illuminators of the day.

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Calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

Our calendar for January begins with a particularly charming scene.  The traditional labour for this wintery month is to feast before a fire, and at the bottom of the folio we can see a couple preparing to do just that in their bedchamber, watched by an attentive cat.  Outside, a bundled man appears to be making his own way home.   

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Detail of a bas-de-page miniature of a couple feasting indoors, and a man standing outside, from a calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

Four saints’ days have been given red letter status in this manuscript, and one notable one is the conversion of St Paul (see below); the constraints of monochrome still allow for some sense of drama for the scene on the road to Damascus.

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Detail of a roundel miniature of St Paul on the Road to Damascus, from a calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

- Sarah J Biggs

27 December 2014

Saved for the Nation: New Acquisitions in 2014

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During 2014, the British Library has made several new acquisitions. Thanks to such schemes as Acceptance in Lieu, as well as generous funding provided by the Arts Council, the Friends of the British Library and a range of private benefactors, we have been able to save these books for the nation. Each has been conserved and fully digitised, the images being published on Digitised Manuscripts, and so are now available for all to enjoy and study. Just in case you missed them the first time round, let’s take a closer look at each of them:

Catholicon Anglicum 

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Opening page, beginning with the exclamation ‘Aaa’, from the Catholicon Anglicum, England (Yorkshire), 1483,
Add MS 89074, f. 2r 

This is the only complete copy of one of the earliest English-Latin dictionaries ever made, and the first such dictionary in which all the words were placed in alphabetical order. From the dialect of some of the words, it appears to have been written in Yorkshire. Last seen in the late nineteenth century when the text was edited, and thought lost to scholarship forever, it had lain hidden in a private collection in Lincolnshire. The Catholicon Anglicum is of outstanding importance for our study both of the English language and English lexicography (which goes back much further than Dr Johnson!). It has been exhibited in the Treasures Gallery since June, as part of a small display about ‘Languages in Medieval Britain’

Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist 

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Detail of a miniature of the murder of Emperor Galba by Otho and his rebels, from the Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist, southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1465,
Add MS 89066/2, f. 79r 

Probably the finest illuminated drama manuscript to survive from the medieval period, this manuscript in two volumes (Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2) was acquired from the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth. It is the most complete copy of the mystery play, Le Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist, which was written by a Benedictine monk, Eustache Marcadé, in the early fifteenth century. This manuscript ticks all the boxes: it is beautifully decorated and handsomely written; there are surviving records of exactly how much it cost and who made it; and there is an almost unbroken chain of provenance evidence, from its original owner Philip the Good of Burgundy to the present day. It too is on display in the Treasures Gallery; don’t miss your chance to see it! 

John Ponet’s copy of a treatise against clerical marriage 

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Frontispiece to John Ponet’s copy of Thomas Martin’s ‘Traictise’, containing Ponet’s annotations and an old library stamp from the Law Society’s Mendham Collection, printed in London, 1554,
Add MS 89067, f. 1r 

This book is a fascinating witness to one of the major doctrinal disputes of the Reformation, and to the personal rivalry between the Catholics Stephen Gardiner and his acolyte Thomas Martin on one hand, and the Protestant John Ponet on the other. Upon Mary I’s accession, Ponet went into exile, settling in Strasbourg. He acquired this book while on the continent, had it interleaved with blank sheets, and then began a point-by-point (and often ad hominem) refutation of Gardner/Martin’s argument. Many of these densely written notes were later printed – but crucially not all of them – affording us an insight into how contemporaries engaged with one another’s arguments and composed their responses during a febrile period in English religious history. 

And finally, our most recent acquisition, which arrived earlier this month: 

Rental of the lands of Worcester Cathedral Priory

The British Library possesses the largest collection of medieval cartularies in Britain. The newest addition to our holdings is a rental that was made for Worcester Cathedral Priory. Dating to 1240 (with some later additions), it contains records of the possessions of this major monastic foundation and the revenues to which it was entitled. It formed the exemplar for the ‘Registrum Prioratus’, dating to the early 14th century, which remains at Worcester Cathedral, as Muniments, A.2. More details of this exciting new acquisition will be coming in the New Year...

 

- James Freeman

25 December 2014

Merry Christmas Everyone!

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Everyone at the British Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 

Or perhaps that should be ‘¡Feliz Navidad y próspero Año Nuevo!’, since our Guess the Manuscript Christmas Special was taken from a Spanish manuscript: Add MS 28962, the Prayerbook of Alphonso V of Aragon. 

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Miniature of the Nativity, from the Prayerbook of Alphonso V of Aragon, Spain (Valencia), 1436-1443,
Add MS 28962, f. 337v 

This miniature marks the beginning of the Second Joy of the Virgin Mary. In this Book of Hours, there are seven such joys – beginning with the Annunciation (f. 336v), and continuing after the Nativity with the Adoration of the Magi (f. 338v), the Resurrection (f. 339v), Christ’s Ascension (f. 340v), and the Pentecost (f. 341v), and ending with the Dormition and Mary’s Coronation in Heaven (f. 342v). 

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Miniature of the Adoration of the Magi,
Add MS 28962, f. 338v 

The Joys of the Virgin Mary – often paralleled, as here, by a series of Sorrows of the Virgin Mary – was the most popular of the various ‘secondary’ texts that could comprise part of a Book of Hours. The number of Joys is known to have varied between five and fifteen, with such events as the Visitation of Our Lady, the Conception of Christ, the Presentation and Purification in the Temple, Christ among the Doctors and others included in the series. Popularized in thirteenth century Italy and later adopted especially by the Franciscans, the Joys of the Virgin Mary were depicted very widely in manuscripts and other forms of medieval art, such as wall and panel paintings. Mary’s Five Joys are also cited in Gawain and the Green Knight (Cotton MS Nero A X, art. 3) as the source from which the eponymous hero derives his fortitude (‘forsnes’). They were even used by Robert Fabyan (d. 1513) to divide his chronicle into seven parts (the manuscript copy of which survives in two volumes: the first is Holkham Hall, MS 671, the second Cotton MS Nero C XI). 

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Miniature of Alphonso V of Aragon at prayer, with his arms contained within a coloured initial below,
Add MS 28962, f. 312r 

The present Book of Hours was originally commissioned in 1436 by Juan de Casanova (b. 1387, d. 1436), a Dominican monk, for Alphonso V of Aragon, whom he served as confessor. It was taken on by the workshop of Domingo Crespí and his son in Valencia, but repeated delays meant that the book was not finished until 1443. Its intended destination is obvious, however: the manuscript contains a miniature of Alphonso V on horseback and several of him at prayer, in addition to his coat of arms in numerous places.

 - James Freeman

17 December 2014

Tudor Scribe and Spy at No. 2 in the Official Classical Charts

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A new recording of a magnificent choirbook produced for King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, one of the great treasures in the British Library’s music collections, reached number 2 in the Classical Charts in the first week of its release in October 2014.

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Detail of a historiated initial with the Tudor rose and pomegranate, from the Choirbook of Petrus Alamire, Southern Netherlands, c. 1516,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 3r

Containing mostly motets for four voices by Josquin des Prez, Pierre de la Rue and other leading Continental composers, this volume is representative of the finest French and Franco-Flemish repertory of the time. To celebrate the first complete recording of all 34 pieces, full coverage of this beautifully illuminated volume is now freely available on Digitised Manuscripts.

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Cantus and tenor parts of the motet ‘Celeste beneficium’ by Jean Mouton,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v

The rich sounds of early sixteenth-century polyphony, as notated in Royal MS 8 G VII, have been recreated by the choir Alamire and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, under the directorship of Dr David Skinner. Here is a sound-clip of the opening piece:

Celeste beneficium


Released as ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’, the CD’s title refers to the colourful history of its famous scribe, Petrus Alamire (d. 1536), from whom Skinner’s ensemble borrows its name. In addition to making several similar choirbooks for other European courts, Petrus Alamire was a composer, mining engineer, and diplomat. He acted as a spy for Henry VIII, informing him of the movements of Richard de la Pole, the exiled pretender to the English crown. Surviving letters to the King and to Richard de la Pole suggest that Alamire was simultaneously engaged in counter-espionage. Perhaps gifting this manuscript to Henry was one way for Alamire to smooth over his double-dealing.

Royal_ms_8_g_vii_f003r
Alto and bass parts of the motet ‘Celeste beneficium’ by Jean Mouton,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 3r

Naturalistic foliage, birds and insects, common to the south Netherlandish style of illumination, are combined with Tudor symbols such as the dragon and greyhound ‘supporters’ of the royal arms (f. 2v), and heraldic badges including the portcullis, the double rose, and the pomegranate (f. 3r). The exact circumstances of its presentation to Henry and Catherine are unknown, and it has been suggested that the manuscript may originally have been intended for Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany. ‘Celeste beneficium’, for example, was composed for the French couple, and its text calls upon St Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, to help bring forth children.

Royal_ms_8_g_vii_f002v_detail
Detail of ‘HK’ in the place of stamens in the marginal flora and fauna,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v

It is not difficult, however, to imagine the relevance of this text to Henry and Catherine’s pressing need for a male heir. The following two motets (‘Adiutorium nostrum’ and ‘Nesciens mater virgo virum’) continue this theme, and the fusion of Catherine’s emblem, the pomegranate, with the Tudor double rose, is another probable reference to the desire for progeny (see opening image above). Further evidence to support the idea that this manuscript was designed with Henry in mind appears in a tiny detail amidst the flora and fauna of the marginal decoration: the ‘HK’ which serves to substitute the stamens surely refers to ‘Henricus’ and ‘Katharina’. If the intended patrons did change, this must have occurred extremely early in the manuscript’s production.

Adiutorium nostrum


Whatever the case, there is little doubt that this book would have greatly appealed to the King. Henry received a thorough musical education: he played several instruments, sang from sight and composed and arranged music. Indeed, it was Henry’s desire to bring the finest musicians in Europe to play and sing at his court which brought Petrus Alamire into close contact.

Now, perhaps for the first time since Henry’s post-dinner entertainment, we can appreciate the full aural and visual magnificence of this unique volume. See here for further details about the CD, and experience Royal MS 8 G VII in its entirety on Digitised Manuscripts.

- Holly James-Maddocks & Nicolas Bell