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82 posts categorized "Decoration"

23 April 2014

The Anatomy of a Dragon

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Happy St George’s Day, everyone!   For some images of this patron saint of England, Portugal, Russia, and many other nations, please see our post from last year.  Today, though, we thought we would turn our attention to St George’s famous opponent, the dragon.

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Detail of a miniature of St George and the dragon, from the Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours, England (London) and Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1401, Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 5v

Dragons are near-ubiquitious in medieval manuscripts.  They take pride of place in bestiaries and herbals, books of history and legend, and Apocalypse texts, to name a few.  They serve as symbols, heraldic devices, and even as ‘just’ decoration, and their physical characteristics can vary widely. Cinematic and literary depictions of dragons today are fairly consistent; they are almost always shown as reptilian, winged, fire-breathing creatures (in a word, Smaug).  But this was by no means constant in the medieval period.

Let’s have a look at a very common medieval trope – of the dragon as the nemesis of a saint or angel.  Below we can see dragons facing off against St George (again), St Margaret, and the Archangel Michael.  All these examples are drawn from late 15th century manuscripts, but their dragons are very different, and range from a lizard-y animal with duck-like feet to a winged leonine creature and a demon.

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Miniature of St George and a lizard-like dragon, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands, c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 139v

Harley MS 2985 f. 37v C12569-03_detail
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the side of a lion-like dragon, from a Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2985, f. 37v

Sloane MS 3049, f. 115r c5473-03a
Detail of a miniature of the Archangel Michael fighting a demon-like dragon, from Francisco de Ximenez’s Livre des anges, France (Tours), c. 1480, Sloane MS 3049, f. 115r

Even within a single manuscript it is possible to find a multiplicity of dragon sub-species.  One notable example is a French copy of the Life of Alexander the Great, in which this famous king is squaring off against three different kinds of dragon (our favourite, of course is the last).

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Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against winged dragons with emeralds in their foreheads, from Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, France (Paris), c. 1420 – c. 1425, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 73r

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Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against winged horned dragons, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 78v

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Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against two-headed, eight-legged, crowned dragons with multiple eyes along their torsos, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 78v

The idea of the dragon as a fearsome foe for all godly and righteous beings stretches back to the late-antique source material that later developed into the 12th and 13th century text of the bestiary.  The book of beasts tells us that the dragon is a variety of serpent, is ‘larger than all other animals in the world’, lives in caves, and possesses great strength in its tail.  Nothing, ‘not even the elephant’, is safe from the dragon, which lies in wait and then suffocates the captured elephant within its coils.  The ominously-curled tail of the dragon is often shown to great advantage in the miniatures illustrating this passage (see particularly the first image below).

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 62r F60101-65a
Detail of a miniature of a dragon attacking and suffocating an elephant, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 118v G70035-41a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a mother elephant giving birth in water to avoid the dragon circling overhead, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London?), 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 188v

The bestiary text also makes explicit the connection between the dragon and the devil, aligning the fantastical creature with evil, deception, ‘vainglory and human pleasures’.  We see this connection repeated again and again in medieval manuscripts, particularly those concerned with describing and explaining evil. 

Add MS 38842 f. 5r c7835-03_detail
Detail of a miniature of men worshipping a dragon and the beast of the Apocalypse, from an Apocalypse with commentary in French prose, England (London?), c. 1325 – 1330, Additional MS 38842, f. 5r

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Detail of a miniature of the Woman and the seven-headed, ten-horned dragon-beast of the Apocalypse, from the Welles Apocalypse, England, c. 1310, Royal MS 15 D II, f. 153r

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Detail of a miniature of a human-headed satanic dragon, representing the papacy of Urban VI whose election was contested and resulted in the appointment of the anti-pope Clement VII, from Joachim de Fiore’s Vaticinia de Pontificibus, Italy (Florence), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 1340, f. 8r

It would be too simplistic, though, to claim that dragons were universally objects of horror and loathing.  They were not even always enemies.  Dragons make appearances in discussions of astronomy and natural history, as elements of decoration, and even within the Tudor coat of arms.

Arundel MS 66 f. 33v G70017-79a
Detail of a miniature of the constellation ‘Draco’, from an astrological compilation with political prophecies, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 33v

Add MS 16577 f. 44v d40053-81a
Detail of a dragon with its tail circling a caption, from a Hebrew festival prayer book, Italian rite, Italy, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 16577, f. 44v

Add MS 39636 f. 28 c13835-71
Detail of a historiated initial ‘S’ of the Pentecost, with the body of the initial formed by two intertwining dragons, Italy (Lombardy), 3rd quarter of the 15th century,  Add MS 39636, f. 28r

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Detail of an allegorical miniature about the Tudor rose with a red dragon, lion, and white greyhound, from Magister Sampson’s Motets for Henry VIII, Netherlands (Antwerp), 1516, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 2r

We’ll be tweeting more fabulous British Library dragons over the next day or so; as always, please let us know your favourites.  And have a wonderful St George’s Day!

- Sarah J Biggs

11 April 2014

On a Roll

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Harley Roll Y 6 – the Guthlac Roll – has been fully digitised, and a new catalogue description and high-resolution images are now available on Digitised Manuscripts.  This newest upload takes place, appropriately, on St Guthlac’s own feast day.  It also coincides with the conclusion of a two-day conference at the University of London, which has marked the beginning of the 1300th year since Guthlac’s death with a series of papers on the saint’s life, his cult, and the surviving sources.  The Guthlac Roll is also on display in the British Library’s newly refurbished Treasures Gallery.

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Drawing of Guthlac being carried to the gates of Hell by demons and being given a scourge by St Bartholomew with which to repel them,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 8.  For more Hell-mouths in BL manuscripts, see ‘Prepare to Meet Your Doom’.

The Guthlac Roll was made around the late twelfth or early thirteenth centuries.  It is regrettably incomplete: a fifth piece of parchment, containing perhaps two or three roundels illustrating the earlier stages of his life, has been lost.  What survives is a series of seventeen compelling and skilful pen-drawings in roundels of Guthlac’s life and deeds – including an entertaining trio illustrating his torment by and ultimate vanquishing of demons, aided by St Bartholomew – plus a final roundel illustrating the benefactors of his shrine at Crowland, in present-day Lincolnshire.

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Drawing of Guthlac deciding to devote himself to a life of religion,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 1 (incomplete).

Born into the Mercian royal dynasty, Guthlac spent his early adult life as a warrior, leading apparently successful raids and battles against hostile neighbouring tribes.  The roll in its present state opens with half of a roundel that illustrates the sleepless night on which the young Guthlac, surrounded by his slumbering fellow-soldiers, resolved to devote himself to a life of religion.

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Drawing of Guthlac leaving military service,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 2.

The roundel scenes are given particular animation by the skill with which the anonymous artist captured facial expressions.  Note the bewilderment of Guthlac’s men as he bade them and the military life farewell.  Stumped by his decision, they turn to one another questioningly; one looks down at the ground, seemingly lost in a moment of doubt.  The soldier at the front appears to be appealing to Guthlac – but too late: his back turned, he is departing with a simple wave.

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Drawing of Guthlac sailing to Crowland with Tatwin,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 4.

Having received the tonsure at Repton Abbey, Guthlac set sail for Crowland, at that time an island amidst the Fens.  The roundel shows that his life of contemplation had already begun: with an open book on his lap, his gaze tilted upwards, he is lost in thought, oblivious to the paddling of Tatwin and his helper (who appears to be using a quant pole).

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Drawing of Guthlac exorcising a demon from Ecgga,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 10.

In a later roundel, two men look on in wonderment, one open-mouthed, as Guthlac is exorcising a demon from Ecgga.  The scene reinforces Guthlac’s saintliness: that he possessed holy powers that were witnessed by his contemporaries.

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Drawing of Guthlac counselling
Æthelbald, Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 12.

According to Felix of Crowland’s Vita Sancti Guthlaci, the main source for the roll, word of Guthlac’s deeds attracted wide attention.  While in exile, Æthelbald, King of the Mercians, sought Guthlac’s advice.  The artist depicted Æthelbald sitting with his eyes fixed upon Guthlac, listening intently to his teaching, his attentive pose echoed by the rapt gaze of his attendant.

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Drawing of Pega setting sail for Crowland with Beccelm,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 15.

After Guthlac’s death, his sister Pega came to Crowland for his burial.  The fifteenth roundel shows her, grief-stricken, being met by Guthlac’s disciple, Beccelm.  Her brow is wrinkled, her eyes downcast; she is holding one hand up to her face mournfully.  Her emotional state is echoed by her unsteady pose: with one foot on land and the other on the boat, she is balanced by Beccelm, who is lending her his hand.

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Drawing of Guthlac’s burial,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 16.

The next roundel illustrates Guthlac’s burial.  Observe the care with which one of the monks is holding Guthlac’s legs, how tenderly Pega is cradling the saint’s head in the crook of her arm, as they lower his shrouded body gently into the coffin.  The depiction of Guthlac in silhouette – rather than wrapped in dramatic loops and whorls of drapery as in the earlier death-bed scenes – was a deliberate artistic decision.  It encapsulates the sudden absence of the central figure in this cycle of roundels and the emptiness of his mortal remains following the departure of his soul.

Harley_roll_y_6_f017r
Drawing of Guthlac’s appearance in a vision to King
Æthelbald during the vigil at his tomb, Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 17.

It also emphasises the miraculousness of Guthlac’s startling reappearance in the next roundel: standing before Æthelbald, who is now looking up in wonder at the newly designated saint.

- James Freeman

10 April 2014

My Kingdom for a Horse

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Recently we had an enquiry about an unusual image that appears in the Rochester Bestiary.  This famous English book of beasts, which dates to the mid-13th century, has featured quite prominently in our ongoing series about medieval animals; have a look at our posts about lions, beavers, dogs, wolves, elephants, and hedgehogs, for example. 

The particular miniature in question can be seen below.  ‘Why,’ asks our slightly tongue-in-cheek correspondent, ‘are those horses having a cuddle?’.

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Detail of a miniature of two horses and two men, from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

At first glance, it certainly does appear that this is what’s going on here.  We are sad to report, however, that the truth is not quite so full of squee – rather than cuddling, these horses are in fact fighting one another.   An inscription in French intended to guide the illuminator can be found beside the miniature, telling us that it is meant to represent two knights and two horses engaged in combat (see below for a detail of this inscription).

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f042v copy
Detail of an inscription beside the miniature of the two horses and two men, altered to increase legibility, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

This is a fascinating scene, and as far as we can tell, a unique one among bestiary images.  The Rochester Bestiary is notable in that the miniatures illustrating each animal appear at the end of the relevant section, rather than at the beginning (for an example of the latter, see the Royal Bestiary:  Royal MS 12 C XIX).  The Royal Bestiary gives us a much more typical example of the kind of horse to be found in the book of beasts:

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Detail of a miniature of a horse at the beginning of the text about that animal, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 34r

A horse (of course) was an animal that every medieval reader would have been familiar with, and so most bestiaries depict the animal just as they are, with little in the way of drama or exposition in the scene.  The Rochester miniature, of course, is different.  However, there are a few clues – albeit indirect ones – in the text preceding this fascinating scene.

Horses in the early medieval period were largely the possessions of the aristocracy and warrior classes, and the bestiary text reflects their crucial role in battle.  Horses, we are told, rejoice in winning and are disheartened by defeat, and some can become so carried away that they will bite their enemies whilst fighting.  But most importantly, a ‘noble’ horse is loyal to his noble master, will ‘suffer no one except their master to ride them’, and will weep upon the death of its owner.  Amongst many examples of loyal horses, the bestiary text provides us with the story of the horse belonging to the king of the Scythians.  This king was killed in single combat, and when his opponent tried to divest him of his armour, the king’s horse attacked, biting and kicking until he was killed himself.

This is not exactly what is going on in the Rochester scene, but it’s as close as we can come.  We can see here a depiction of a story that is not reflected in any of the canonical bestiary texts – nor any others that we have yet uncovered.  We see here two horses so faithful to their masters that when the warriors are fighting, the horses mirror their aggression and attack one another.  Whether this scene is reflective of a parallel narrative tradition lost to us today or simply an artist’s unique interpretation of the instructions left for him remains to be determined.

- Sarah J Biggs

08 April 2014

Fore! The British Library's Golf Book

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The 2014 Masters starts at Augusta this week (that's golf for the uninitiated). And what better way to kick things off -- to mangle a sporting analogy -- than with this famous image from the Golf Book. The modern game of golf has its origins in 15th-century Scotland, when King James II had it banned, in order that his subjects should devote more of their time to practising archery. There were, however, other ancient and medieval games which resembled the game of golf, from China, Persia and Rome, among other places. Some say that golf developed from cambuca (chambot in French), a game played with a stick and a wooden ball that was taken up in the Low Countries and Germany.

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A game resembling golf in the Golf Book (London, British Library, MS Additional 24098, f. 27r).

We very much doubt that the modern golf professionals playing at Augusta will care for these niceties. But they might be interested to see this page from the British Library's Golf Book (Add MS 24098, available in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site). We have featured this manuscript before, most notably as our calendar for 2013 (see the month of September) and in the post A Good Walk Spoiled. The splendid book in question was made at Bruges around the year 1540, and the illumination is attributable to the famous Simon Bening (d. 1561) and his workshop.

You may wonder if the players in the bas-de-page scene are engaged in golf or in a game similar to cambuca. But we do suspect that the name "the Cambuca Book" would never have taken on, don't you agree? Watch out for those flying golf balls ...

Julian Harrison

03 April 2014

Stuck in Limbo: Dante's Purgatorio

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As was the case for the souls condemned to Hell in Dante’s Inferno (described in our previous post No Rest for the Wicked), the punishment for those in Purgatory matches the crime.  But, unlike Hell, the punishments in Purgatory were intended to improve and purify the souls in question, those who could be saved but still needed a little improvement before making their way to Heaven. In one of the first scenes in Purgatory,  the proud bear great stones upon their backs (see below).  

Could the artist of this manuscript know that Dante included among the proud one Oderisi of Gubbio, a famed illustrator of illuminated manuscripts who took a little too much pride in his work!  Is this a warning to all of us who work in the field of manuscripts studies?

F. 82r K004892
The proud in Purgatory, Italy (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century, Egerton MS 943, f. 82r

In Purgatory, the avaricious and greedy are shown lying face down on the ground.  Dante meets Pope Adrian V here.  Dante certainly wasn’t afraid to take the powerful to task for their misdeed – he even sent another Pope, Boniface VIII, straight to Hell!

F. 97v K004914
The avaricious,
Egerton MS 943, f. 97v

After passing through much of Purgatory, Dante, Virgil and another poet, Statius, must pass through a wall of fire to be worthy of reaching the Earthly Paradise, or the Garden of Eden, at the summit of Mount Purgatory (see below).

F. 112r K004934
The wall of fire, Egerton MS 943, f. 112r

Below can be seen the Garden of Eden; Dante (and the capable artist of this manuscript) drew on some unusual biblical imagery to depict the Four Evangelists here as four-headed creatures.  As the three observers in the Garden of Eden look on, a parade of Christian symbols pass them, re-enacting the drama of salvation – much like the parades that would have proceeded through Florence on every holy day.  This parade seems to be building up to something… we sense someone important is on the way, but who could it be?

F. 116v K004943
The four winged beasts in the Garden of Eden, Egerton MS 943,
f. 116v

F. 117r K004944
A griffin pulling a chariot, Egerton MS 943, f. 117r

It is Beatrice Portinari, in a chariot drawn by griffins!  Beatrice was Dante’s muse and true love, despite the fact that they only met twice in real life (and those encounters were more or less in passing).  It is here that many begin to feel a certain distance from the poem.  Dante of course wrote in the tradition of courtly love, where the beloved was meant to be entirely unattainable, but it is difficult for the modern reader to be terribly sympathetic about Dante’s deep longing for Beatrice, considering she probably had no idea who he was.  One also can’t help but feel some sympathy for Dante’s poor wife Gemma di Manetto Donati; she never got a single mention in any of his poetry (so it’s no wonder she didn’t accompany him when he was forced out of Florence!).  

Note that Dante seems a little apprehensive in the miniature below.  It almost appears as though he’s being dragged along; could it be that he senses that Beatrice isn’t very pleased to see him?

F. 121r K004951
Dante is led to Beatrice, Egerton MS 943, f. 121r

Poor Dante.  He has travelled all this way to get to his lady-love and she greets him with anger.  Many consider this to be the funniest bit of the Purgatory – Dante cowering like a hen-pecked husband while Beatrice brutally scolds him for his conduct.  She tells him that was sent by God so that her physical perfection would inspire him to contemplate the beauty of the divine, but instead he got distracted and chased after other girls.  Though she’s presented elsewhere as an idealised and static muse for Dante, our manuscript’s artist perfectly captures something of Beatrice’s fire in this scene.  

This moment really is the dramatic climax of the poem as a whole.  The meeting with Beatrice represents a chance for everything Dante longed for most, forgiveness for his sins, and a final reconciliation with his love.

F. 124v K004959
Dante and Beatrice meeting, Egerton MS 943, f. 124v

Dante is so contrite (and a little pathetic) that Beatrice eventually forgives him, and takes over from Virgil as his guide into the highest reaches of Purgatory and on to heaven.  Dante’s adoration of Beatrice as they travel in the poem is so touching that we can almost forget the strangeness of their real-life acquaintance.  Their second and final meeting, we are told, took place on a bridge in Florence, when Beatrice passed Dante by chance and smiled at him. That single moment was enough for Dante to make Beatrice’s smile the very image of divine beauty.  Heaven is simply full of smiles and laughter, in the Paradiso, the third and final act of the poem.

Stay tuned for another post about Dante’s Paradiso!

-  Arthur Westwell

27 March 2014

Say Your Prayers

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A new addition to Digitised Manuscripts comes in the form of Add MS 50005, a Book of Hours in Dutch, which the British Library acquired from the Dyson Perrins collection in the 1950s.  The core of the book was written by one hand, c. 1410-c. 1420, perhaps in Utrecht or Delft.  It contains devotional texts such as the Hours of the Virgin and the Little Hours of the Cross, as well as prayers to the Virgin Mary and Christ, the Crucifix and God.  Whereas Books of Hours made in England or France would have been written in Latin, this example is written entirely in Middle Dutch.  Nor is it unusual; most Books of Hours from the Netherlands are written in the vernacular.

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Historiated initial incorporating the Nursing Madonna (‘Maria Lactans’) at the opening of the Hours of the Virgin, from a Book of Hours in Middle Dutch, Netherlands (?Utrecht or ?Delft), c. 1410-c. 1420, Add MS 50005, f. 8r

The use of Dutch in this way was the outcome of a religious movement known as the Devotio Moderna, which sought to encourage a personal, emotional style of devotion that was accessible to all literate people.  This Book of Hours is decorated with a series of 66 miniatures illustrating scenes from the lives of Joachim and Anna, their daughter the Virgin Mary, and her son Jesus Christ.  The miniatures are lively and expressive: the characters are shown moving, gesturing or performing ceremonial duties.  Being unframed, this sense of activity spills out into the margins, drawing the scenes and the text closer together.

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Miniature of the Disputation in the Temple, Add MS 50005, f. 60v

The miniatures can also be visceral and unsettling.  On f. 59v, under the orders of Herod, and unmoved by the pleas of its mother, a soldier is stamping on an infant and impaling it with his sword; the child’s blood is shown spilling over his boot and onto the grass.  On f. 106v, Christ is tied to a pillar; his torturers are captured mid-swing, one lifting his whip above his head, the other poised to strike a sideways blow on Christ’s already lacerated body, while Pilate is standing in the background, looking on impassively.  The captions directly address the reader and employ the dramatic present tense to pull them into the action: ‘Here does Herod kill the innocent children’; ‘Here they scourge Jesus’. 

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Miniature of the Massacre of the Innocents, Add MS 50005, f. 59v

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Miniature of Christ’s scourging, Add MS 50005, f. 106v

The artist responsible for these miniatures has been identified by James Marrow as ‘The Master of the Morgan Infancy Cycle’.  He is named after his work in M. 866 at the Pierpont Morgan Library, and he is known only through other decorated Books of Hours: Liège, Bibliothèque de l’Université, MS Wittert 35; Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliothek, MS 5.J.26; Berlin, Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, MS Germ. oct. 680; and Berlin, Kupferstichkabinet, no. 2302 (a single detached miniature). 

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Miniature of soldiers casting lots for Christ’s garments, Add MS 50005, f. 119v

The insertion of other texts by other hands in this book presents not only a challenge to the boldest manuscript cataloguer, but also insights into how medieval Books of Hours could be customised and augmented.  The book was added to in two stages during the fifteenth century.  The first additions were made around the mid-fifteenth century, almost entirely on the blank recto sides of leaves containing miniatures on the verso.  The interspersing of new texts among the old seems confusing to modern eyes, but it reflects the emendator’s thoughtful approach to what would be appropriate in the book. 

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A note on three things necessary for salvation, the first page of additions made by ‘Hand 2’ in the mid-fifteenth century, Add MS 50005, f. 83r.

Placing some of the inserted prayers on blank leaves at the front of the volume would have avoided the chopping and changing between texts from f. 95r to 138r, but it would have upset the textual hierarchy by moving the Hours of the Virgin to second place in the volume.  The emendator began his or her additions immediately after this most important text in the volume, slotting them among the Little Hours of the Cross so that the new prayers were grouped with those originally placed in the volume.

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A prayer to St Erasmus (‘O heilighe martelaer Christi sinte erasme’), the first page of additions made by ‘Hand 3’ in the second half of the fifteenth century, Add MS 50005, f. 159v.

The second additions were made later in the fifteenth century, more straightforwardly to blank leaves and possibly inserted quires at the end of the volume.  Whereas prayers found earlier in the volume are directed to God, Christ, or the Virgin Mary, these address a variety of saints – St Erasmus, St Katherine, St Agatha, St Stephen, St Agnes and St Francis – that might reflect the particular devotional interests of the book’s owner.  

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Miniature of a laywoman kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child, Add MS 50005, f. 155v.

There is no firm evidence of provenance in the manuscript.  The final miniature depicts a laywoman – perhaps the original owner of the book – kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child.  A similarly dressed figure is shown attending upon Anna at the birth of Mary (f. 5v), and upon Mary at the birth of Jesus (f. 22v), sitting with the shepherds at the Annunciation (f. 36v), greeting the Magi at the Adoration (f. 45v), and holding a bell-rope at the Purification (f. 46v). 

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Miniature of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, Add MS 50005, f. 5v.

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Miniature of the Adoration of the Magi, Add MS 50005, f. 45v.

The book seems to have remained in female possession, perhaps belonging a Sister of the Common Life, one of the pious lay groups associated with the Devotio Moderna.  An exhortation on the Passion is addressed specifically to a sister – ‘O mijn gheminde suster’ (‘O my beloved sister’, f. 162r) – and includes the phrase ‘soe moecht ghi een ghewarich dienster Christi worden’ (‘may you become a true servant of Christ’, ff. 164r-164v).  It was with this goal in mind that the many owners of this and other Books of Hours pored over their precious manuscripts, reciting the prayers and meditating upon the suffering of their Saviour.

- James Freeman

22 March 2014

Blogtastic!

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You may recall that we asked for your help earlier this year, when we asked for your votes in the inaugural National UK Blog Awards (Vote for Us Please). We're delighted to tell you that, thanks to your overwhelming support, we have made the list of finalists in the Arts and Culture category. We understand that more than 16,000 votes were cast in total (not all for us obviously), but we are hugely grateful for your support: every little vote really did count! You can read more about the National UK Blog Awards here.

Benedictional
The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, from our blogpost More Unique Than Most (4 February 2014)

The awards ceremony itself takes place on 25 April. We are dusting off our snappiest suits and poshest frocks, to make a good impression on the night itself. Most of our time we spend hovering over our computers, beavering away to make our collections available online or dreaming up ever more outlandish blogposts (and a thousand other things besides). It's great to know that somebody out there is impressed by what we have been doing.

Gawain
Imaging the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from our blogpost Gawain Revealed (23 February 2014)

Since the time we asked for your votes, here are some of the stories we have posted on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. We hope that there will be many more like these to come. Let us know your favourite by tweeting @BLMedieval.

A Medieval Comic Strip

A Papyrus Puzzle and Some Purple Parchment

An Illustrated Guide to Medieval Love

Gawain Revealed

Medieval Drama Acquired by the British Library

More Unique Than Most: The Benedictional of St Æthelwold

She Cares Not a Turd: Notes on a 16th Century Squabble

Two Magnificent Manuscripts Saved for the Nation

Mystere
The Mystère de la Vengeance, from our blogpost Medieval Drama Acquired by the British Library (6 March 2014)

Julian Harrison and Sarah J Biggs

 

20 March 2014

Update to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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Here in the British Library’s department of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, we work tirelessly to make our collections accessible and better known among scholars and the public.  While much attention focuses on our Digitised Manuscripts resource, let’s not forget about the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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Text page fragments in uncial script, from Cyprian’s Epistles, North Africa (Carthage?), 4th – 5th centuries, Add MS 40165A, f. 1r

Recently updated, CIM (as we like to call it) now boasts a total of 4,277 manuscripts and some 36,163 images.  These range from a 4th/5th-century copy of Cyprian’s Epistles, perhaps brought to England by Theodore of Tarsus and Hadrian of Canterbury (Add MS 40165A), to a collection of facsimile manuscript pages produced in 1873 by John Obadiah Westwood, a palaeographer and entomologist (Egerton MS 2263) – with a lot in between.

Since the last update in August 2013, we have been cataloguing Anglo-Norman manuscripts from the Additional collection.  Although some of them only contain only decorated initials, the contents are wide-ranging and filled with surprises.

Here are a few favourites (with more to come, so stay tuned!):

 

The earliest English cookbooks? (Add MS 32085 and Royal MS 12 C XII)

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Puzzle initial, from the legal text 'Sentencia Super Easdem Cartas', England, late 13th or early 14th century,
Add MS 32085, f. 11r.

Both manuscripts contain a varied collection of miscellaneous texts – from prophecies to arithmetical puzzles, from charters to a lapidary – bound together after they were copied.  They have one ingredient in common: collections of recipes in Anglo-Norman French, believed to be the earliest surviving examples of English cuisine.  If you fancy trying your hand at medieval cookery, check out Constance B. Hieatt and Robin F. Jones’s edition and translation.

Some of the recipes are mouth-watering (but no roasted unicorn, sadly), and the names are especially appetising:

Teste de Tourk (Turk’s Head): a type of quiche filled with rabbits and poultry; add eels to ‘enhance’ the flavour!

Nag’s tail: the ingredients include pigs’ trotters and ears, grease and wine.

Sang Dragoun: dragon’s blood is a colourful name for what appears to be rice pudding.

Tardpolene: alas, no tadpoles, but just soft cheese, dates and almonds.

 

Scientific and chiromantic texts (Add MS 18210)

This scientific compilation contains Latin texts by Galen, the ‘Dragmaticon’ of William of Conches (tutor to Henry II), as well as some texts on telling the future.  Two are unique to this manuscript: one on spatulomancy/scapulamancy (divination through the use of a shoulder-bone), and another on haematoscopy (prognostication through the examination of blood).  A less visceral means of forecasting is recorded in a treatise on geomancy, where one must interpret the patterns formed by tossing handfuls of rocks on the ground.  A handy table is provided as a guide:

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Table of patterns, from a treatise on geomancy, England or N. France, c. 1275- c. 1325,
Add MS 18210, f. 93r.

Who wouldn’t want the stones to predict ‘proesces ioie et leesce et richesces et si signifie grant profit’ (nobility, joy, gladness, riches and great profit)?

We have also continued to update and augment entries with further details on the contents, provenance and bibliographies relating to illuminated manuscripts.  Tune in for some further highlights later on.

Don’t forget that it’s possible to find manuscripts in the Catalogue by means other than their shelfmarks.  One can conduct advanced searches by keyword, date range, language, provenance, scribe, artist – and so on!  You can bring together manuscripts of the same period in order to compare decorative styles, or see examples of a specific artist’s work at a glance.  One of the best features is that you can search for keywords within the images (try searching for ‘snail’ and see what comes up!).

The Catalogue also includes virtual exhibitions of British Library manuscripts, and an illustrated glossary (most useful for getting to grips with tricky terminology).  Enjoy!

                                                                                               -  James Freeman and Chantry Westwell