Medieval manuscripts blog

180 posts categorized "Decoration"

19 November 2015

Anglo-Saxon Digitisation Project Now Underway

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The British Library possesses the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world. Many of these manuscripts are already available via our Digitised Manuscripts website, and we are delighted to announce that dozens more will be added in the coming months as part of a new digitisation project.  These manuscripts will include the B, D, and F versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, manuscripts with early musical notation, Archbishop Wulfstan’s letter book, laws, saints’ lives, early manuscripts of Ælfric’s writings, charms, and medical recipes.  This digitisation has been generously funded by a donation made in memory of Melvin R Seiden.

Zoomorphic pen-drawn initial from the beginning of a book in an Old English translation and compilation of Orosius, from the Tollemache Orosius, Add MS 47967, f. 48v

The first five manuscripts have gone already gone online.  These include the earliest copy of the Old English version of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos, an early eleventh-century schoolbook, and two manuscripts associated with Bishop Leofric of Exeter.  So click over to Digitised Manuscripts for images of fantastical creatures in interlace initials, an imaginary dialogue between a monk, a cook, and a baker, and early musical notation! 

Zoomorphic initial ‘H’ at the beginning of a text, Harley MS 110, f. 3r

Add MS 28188:  Pontifical with litanies and benedictional (imperfect), England (Exeter), 3rd quarter of the 11th century

Add MS 32246:  Fragment of Excerptiones de Prisciano with the 'Elegy of Herbert and Wulfgar', glossaries, and Ælfric's Colloquy, England (Berkshire?), 1st half of the 11th century

Add MS 47967:  Orosius, Historia adversus paganos ('The Old English Orosius' or 'The Tollemache Orosius' ), England (Winchester), 900-1000

Harley MS 110:  Glossed copy of Prosper, Epigrammata ex sententiis S. Augustini, Versus ad coniugem, Isidore, Synonyma de lamentatione animae peccatricis; two leaves from a gradual, England, 975-1060

Harley MS 2961:  Leofric Collectar, England (Exeter Cathedral), 1050-1072

Text page with musical neumes, from the Leofric Collectar, Harley MS 2961, f. 10r

Additionally, as this project continues, some manuscripts may be unavailable as they are being digitised.  Readers intending to consult Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that have not already been made available on Digitised Manuscripts should therefore please contact the British Library's Manuscripts Reference Team ( before planning a visit.

Detail of a text page with a sheep drawn around a hole in the parchment, from the Tollemache Orosius,
Add MS 47967, f. 62v

-  Alison Hudson, Project Curator, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

01 November 2015

A Calendar Page for November 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Calendar page for November, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 6v 

In November, the threshing and winnowing is taking place: in the background, a male figure wields a flail, beating wheat to separate the grains from the husks.  Two peasants in the foreground are beating flax to break down the stem fibres, while a woman to the right in the background is using a stick known as a 'swingle' to 'scutch' or dress the flax.  A woman is pouring swill out for the pigs, while doves and pigeons gather in the dovecote and on the thatched roofs of the barns waiting to feed on any loose grains. This month, marked by the Zodiac symbol of the centaur for Sagittarius, saw the celebration of several important festivals in the Christian calendar, each illustrated in the roundels to the left: All Souls’ Day, the Commemoration of Souls in Purgatory, St Martin of Tours (shown mounted on a horse, cleaving his cloak in two and giving half to a beggar), and the deaths of St Clement, Pope and Martyr (shown being thrown into the Black Sea with an anchor tied around his neck, as punishment for converting local pagans), St Catherine (shown being beheaded, her wheel in the background) and St Andrew (shown being crucified on the saltire). 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants beating flax, threshing wheat and feeding pigs,
Add MS 35313, f. 6v 

Detail of a roundel depicting the martyrdom of St Clement,
Add MS 35313, f. 6v 

- James Freeman

01 October 2015

A Calendar Page for October 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Calendar page for October, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 6r 

A slightly grisly bas-de-page scene greets us this month: an ox is about to meet its end, while two men barter over the sale of another on the other side of the wall. Other peasants are carrying baskets of grapes to a shed in the distance, where we can see them being pressed to make wine. The roundels contain depictions relating to the major religious festivals of October: the feast day of Saints Bavo and Remigius, St Dionysius/Denis (shown holding his own head), St Donatian, St Luke (with a bull, his Evangelist symbol, in the background) and Saints Simon and Jude. As we noted last month, the artist has mistakenly reversed the order of September and October’s Zodiac symbols: Libra (in the form of scales) being shown here at the top of the page instead of Scorpio. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of men bartering over the sale of an ox, an ox being slaughtered, and grapes being pressed from wine,
Add MS 35313, f. 6r 

Detail of a roundel depicting St Denis,
Add MS 35313, f. 6r 

- James Freeman

08 September 2015

A Romance from Ward’s Catalogue: Apollonius of Tyre

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Harry Leigh Douglas Ward (1825–1906) worked in the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum for 44 years from 1849, two years after he graduated from Oxford, until his retirement in 1893. During this time he produced the monumental British Museum Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in 3 volumes (the third volume was published posthumously from his notes by his colleague, J. A. Herbert). For medieval scholars this remains an essential reference work on literature, legends and chronicles, as well as a comprehensive overview of the large numbers of manuscripts containing these works in the collections of the British Library. We plan to feature his work in a series of blogposts, focusing on some of the lesser-known tales he catalogued, and featuring images from our online catalogues.

The first volume of the Catalogue, published in 1883, covers the classical romances of Troy and Alexander, the cycles of French and English origin (King Arthur, Charlemagne and William of Orange), and associated legends. 

We will start, as he does, with the CLASSICAL ROMANCES:

Royal_ms_15_e_vi_f011r DETAIL

Alexander on horseback addressing his army, from the ‘Talbot Shrewsbury Book’, northern France (Rouen) 1444-1445, Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 11r

The Troy legend and the Alexander romances have already been featured on this blog. Less well-known is the legend of Apollonius of Tyre, for which Ward lists 10 British Library manuscripts from the 13th to the 18th century, one in French, two in Icelandic and the remainder in Latin (Ward, Catalogue of Romances I (1883), pp. 161–70). The Historia Apollonii regis Tyri, to give it its Latin name, is a prose narrative from the imperial or late antique era, perhaps based on a Greek original, popular throughout the medieval and renaissance periods, and adapted by Gower and Shakespeare. According to Ward, the earliest mention of this work is in a list of books belonging to Wando, abbot of Fontanelle in the diocese of Rouen from AD 742 to 747, which lists ‘Historiam Apollonii regis Tyri in codice uno’. Ward tells us that the booklist is from the Gesta Abbatum Fontanellensium published in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, vol ii of 1829 (Catalogue of Romances, I, p.161).


King Antiochus attacking his daughter in her chamber, with a full border containing a space left for a shield of arms, at the beginning of the ‘Historia Apollonii regis Tyri’, Netherlands, S., last quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 20 C II, f. 210r

The story exists in several different versions, but in a nutshell, is as follows: King Antiochus of Antioch has an exceptionally beautiful daughter, so beautiful that he cannot resist her charms and forces her into an incestuous relationship. Many suitors come to try to win her hand, but the King sets them an unsolvable riddle, then beheads them, whether or not they are able to solve the riddle. Prince Apollonius of Tyre comes to try his luck and is successful, but King Antiochus will not relinquish his daughter. Apollonius flees and is pursued by the king’s men, surviving various shipwrecks and adventures (including more riddle-solving), marrying and later being separated from his wife and daughter, Thasia, both of whom he believes to be dead. He is finally reunited with them and goes on to rule for many years, a virtuous king and faithful husband. In some versions of the legend, the wicked King Antiochus is struck by God’s thunderbolt as he is lying in bed with his daughter — a fitting end!

The earliest manuscript of this text in the British Library is in Sloane MS 1619, dating from the beginning of the 13th century, with a collection of three tales, the others being an abridged version of the Alexander legend and Dares Phrygiusaccount of the Trojan war. It was copied in England, probably at the Priory of St Oswald, Gloucester and contains 10 riddles, which Ward lists (Catalogue of Romances, I, pp. 161–63).


Concluding lines of Apollonius of Tyre and decorated initial at the beginning of Dares Phrygius, England, 1st half of the 13th century, Sloane MS 1619, f. 29r

From the end of the 13th century is Arundel MS 292 (Catalogue of Romances, I, p. 163), in which Apollonius is rather out of place in a devotional miscellany from Norfolk that includes a copy of the Creed, a bestiary in English and various tracts in prose and verse. Ward tells us that this version has only 7 of the 10 riddles and is in 22 sections. There are no photographed folios from Apollonius but here is the opening page of the manuscript with the Creed in Middle English beginning 'I leve in Godd almicten fader / Dat hevene and erthe made to gar':


The Creed and the Lord's Prayer in English, with their titles in Latin in red in the margin : 'Credo in Deum' and 'Pater Noster'.  The pressmark of Norwich Cathedral library in the upper margin, England, E (Norfolk) last quarter of the 13th century, Arundel MS 292, f. 3r

Of course, Edward IV had to have a copy of this popular work with lavish illustrations to add to his collection of classical and historical works in French. His volume, Royal MS 20 C II, begins with a version of the prose romance of Cleriadus et Meliadice, distantly related to the Arthurian tales (this will be featured in a later post), followed by the legend Apollonius. The miniature below is taken from this manuscript, the only illustrated version of the legend in our collections. And here at last, is a picture of the eligible Apollonius, kneeling before his future wife, the daughter of Archestratus of Cyrene! He has been shipwrecked on the shore of Cyrene and becomes her lute teacher, then is chosen by her from among her many illustrious suitors to be her future husband.


The princess of Cyrene giving Apollonius a letter to her father telling him she has chosen the shipwrecked sailor as her husband, Royal MS 20 C II, f. 217v

The two Icelandic manuscripts, Additional MS 4857 and Add MS 4864 are of much later provenance, copied in the 17th century. Ward had a special interest in Norse sagas, and he provides a comprehensive description of the origin of the texts, scribes and quotations in Icelandic (Catalogue of Romances, I, pp. 167–68). His colleague at the British Museum, J. A. Herbert, wrote of Ward in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

In his early official years he made a catalogue of the Icelandic manuscripts in the British Museum; this was never printed, but is preserved among the books of reference in the students' room. His attention was thus directed, by way of the Norse sagas, to the study of mediæval romantic literature in general, which became henceforth the engrossing interest of his life, and in which, through his wide reading, retentive memory, and sound critical instinct, he acquired exceptional proficiency. 

A final word on Apollonius. There is an Old English version of the legend in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 201, a mid-11th century manuscript containing homilies by Ælfric and Wulfstan. It is an extremely rare early example of prose in the vernacular, and has even been described as the first novel in English!

Chantry Westwell

01 September 2015

A Calendar Page for September 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Calendar page for September, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 5v 

A distinctly autumnal feel is creeping into the bas-de-page scene of September’s calendar page. Against a grey backdrop, with trees that are beginning to look a little bare, two peasants are ploughing and resowing a field in preparation for next year. There is a look of concentration on the ploughman’s face as he steers two rather sprightly horses and attempts to cut a straight furrow in the soil. Just above his head is a roundel depicting the Archangel Michael, equipped with sword, shield and crossed spear, vanquishing Satan and his demons. The other roundels on this page show St Giles (accompanied by his emblem, a deer), the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the Martyrdom of St Matthew the Apostle. The artist has mixed up this and October’s Zodiac symbols, erroneously inserting Scorpio here and Libra on the next page. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants ploughing and sowing a field, with a roundel depicting Archangel Michael,
Add MS 35313, f. 5v 

Detail of a roundel depicting St Giles,
Add MS 35313, f. 5v 

- James Freeman

01 August 2015

A Calendar Page for August 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Calendar page for August, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 5r 

It’s harvest time on this month’s calendar page: two male peasants are reaping fully-grown wheat with sickles, while a female peasant is binding it together in sheaves. A cart drawn by two horses is passing by in the background. August’s religious festivals are gruesomely illustrated in a series of roundels to the right: in the second, fourth and fifth roundels, we see St Laurence being roasted alive (note the figure to the right, fanning the flames with a pair of bellows), St Bartholomew being flayed alive, and St John the Baptist about to be beheaded (with a female attendant waiting nearby with a platter).  For more on the depiction of these saints’ martyrdom, check out our earlier blog posts: Happy St Laurence’s Day, St Bartholomew and Bookbindings, and Don’t Lose Your Head. Other feast days illustrated this month are St Peter in Chains (celebrating his liberation from captivity by an angel) and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Zodiac symbol for this month – Virgo the Virgin – is at the top of the page. 

Detail of peasants reaping and binding wheat,
Add MS 35313, f. 5r 

Detail of roundels depicting St Peter in Chains (above) and the Martyrdom of St Laurence (below),
Add MS 35313, f. 5r 

- James Freeman

31 July 2015

Happy Uncommon Musical Instrument Appreciation Day!

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As we are sure you are all aware, today is Uncommon Musical Instrument Appreciation Day, the day on which we are urged to take time to think about the rare and unusual instruments that have gone obsolete, or are otherwise beyond our ken.  We would like to offer a number of examples in the spirit of this momentous occasion - the familiar, the forgotten and the simply odd.  Please be sure to send any other gems you might encounter to us on Twitter @BLMedieval.  Without any further ado:

Add MS 47683 f. 1v G70059-77
Folio with musical instruments, from a leaf from a giant Bible, Italy, 11th-12th century, Add MS 47683, f. 1v

Harley MS 4951, f. 299v E123871
Detail of a man with bells among musical neumes, from the Gradual of Saint-Etienne of Toulouse, France (Toulouse), last quarter of the 11th-first quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 4951, f. 299v

Harley MS 2804 f. 3vE102183c
Detail of two musicians playing the vielle and a harp or psaltery, from the Worms
Bible, Germany (Frankenthal), 2nd-3rd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 2804, f. 3v

Add MS 62925 f. 54r copy copy
Detail of a miniature of a rabbit playing a bell-like instrument, from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 54r

Stowe_ms_17_f061v copy
Detail of two monkeys playing trumpets in an unusual manner, from the Maastricht Hours, Liège, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 61v

Add_ms_49622_f106v copy
Detail of a marginal painting of a rabbit and a dog playing a portative organ, from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk?), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 106v

Royal MS 14 E III f. 89r c13827-54c
Detail of a marginal painting of a man playing a rabbit-trumpet (despite distractions), from La Queste del Saint Graal, France, c. 1315 - c. 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 89r

 Harley MS 6563 f. 40r E123884
Detail of a cat playing a vielle, from a fragmentary Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320 - c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, f. 40r

Add_ms_18851_f419v copy
Detail of a marginal painting of a monkey playing bagpipes, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Bruges, c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 419v

Add MS 18852, f. 98r copy copy
Detail of a marginal painting of bagpipes (?), from the Hours of Joanna the Mad, Bruges, 1486-1506, Add MS 18852, f. 98r

Arundel_ms_263_f136r and f. 137v
Leonardo da Vinci's drawings, including a mechanical organ and timpani/drums, from the Codex Arundel, Italy (Florence, Milan, and Rome), 1478-1518, Arundel MS 263, f. 136r and 137v

- Sarah J Biggs

01 July 2015

A Calendar Page for July 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Calendar page for July, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 4v 

The agrarian labours continue in this month’s bas-de-page scene. Amidst a gently rolling landscape, two men are mowing grass with scythes. To the left, a woman is using a pitchfork to turn the grass to dry into hay in the sunshine. Another woman approaches from the background, bearing a basket on her head and a satchel in her hand – perhaps containing refreshments for the workers. Note how the artist has included little details to convey a sense of the midsummer heat: the broad-brimmed hats the labourers are wearing to protect their faces from the sun, and the rolled-up sleeves of the man on the right. The roundels for July show the key religious dates for the month: the Visitation of the Virgin Mary, the Translation of the Relics of St Thomas the Apostle, and the feast days of St Benedict, St Mary Magdalene, and Sts James and Christopher. A lion – the Zodiac sign for Leo – is included as a header in the calendar. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants making hay,
Add MS 35313, f. 4v 

Detail of a roundel showing St Mary Magdalene,
Add MS 35313, f. 4v 

- James Freeman