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26 August 2014

Bugs in Books

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Even the most cursory glance over the pages of medieval manuscripts will reveal a plethora of insects.  Bugs are everywhere – although we hasten to add that we are extremely vigilant about avoiding the presence of any actual living insects within the pages of our books.  But there has been little comprehensive scholarship about the appearance of such creatures in medieval manuscripts.  Insects usually live literally in the margins, often not even appearing in catalogue entries despite their profusion. 

Add_ms_35313_f064v detail
Detail of a border including flowers, moths, and flies, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 64v

Whilst undertaking this very short exploration of the subject, therefore, we would do well to remember the words of one of the earliest writers about these minute creatures.  As Pliny the Elder reminds us in the introduction to his book about insects:  ‘Nature is nowhere to be seen in greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works.  For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.’

Add MS 28841 f. 6r detail
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with marginal spiders and a praying mantis, Italy (Genoa), c. 1330 – c. 1340, Additional MS 28841, f. 6r

We’ll begin, as we almost always do, with the bestiary, that essential book of medieval beasts.  The early medieval bestiary includes amongst its pages only two species of what we would consider insects today – ants and bees.

011HRL000004751U00032000 detail
Detail of a miniature of ants in their anthill, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 32r

The humble ant is given quite extensive treatment in the bestiary.  Echoing Isidore of Seville’s somewhat fanciful etymology, the text tells us that the ant is called ‘formica’ because it carries pieces of grain (‘ferat micas’).   It goes on to describe much recognisable ant behaviour, detailing how ants walk in lines to gather food, store it for the winter, carry loads far in excess of their own size, and work together for the good of the group. 

Harley_ms_3244_f050r detail
Detail of a miniature of ants on their anthill, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 50r

A parallel tradition to that of the bestiary is the Physiologus, one of the precursors to the Marvels of the East.  In the Physiologus, a subspecies of ant, as large as dogs, is said to live in Ethiopia and to be adept at digging up gold.  Such skill can be exploited by human beings, but only very carefully, as these ants will try to chase down and kill anyone who attempts to steal from them. 

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f101r detail
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a camel, while a man loads another camel with gold and escapes, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101r

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 96r dog-size ants G70031-02a
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a group of men who have come to steal their gold, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 96r

The concept of insects as a distinct class of animals was one that didn’t exist in this period.  Bees, for example, are characterised as the ‘smallest of birds’, and accordingly, often come at the end of the bestiary's section on winged animals.  They are described as industrious creatures, living in community under a chosen king.  Born in the decaying bodies of oxen or slaughtered calves, it is said, bees build their homes with ‘indescribable skill’, make honey, and then guard it fiercely against all potential invaders.  Much like ants, bees were praised over the centuries by various authors who considered them humble and loyal animals, ‘wonderfully noble', and worthy of emulation by human beings.

Harley MS 3448 f. 10v bees c13744-42a
Detail of a miniature of bees guarding their hives against a marauding bear, from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), Italy (Padua?), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3448, f. 10v

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 45r bees F60101-62a
Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar and returning to their hive, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 45v

That said, bees could sometimes be used as weapons.  A mid-13th century copy of William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer contains a miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch who was bound to a tower and smeared with honey in a gruesome attempt to end his life.

Yates_thompson_ms_12_f120r detail
Miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch being attacked by bees, from
William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer, France (Picardy?), 1232-1261, Yates Thompson MS 12, f. 120r

It is not clear why the early bestiaries omitted so many of the species of insects that people must surely have been familiar with – in many cases, perhaps, far too familiar. Flies, spiders, moths, and butterflies do not put in appearances in texts until later.  The British Library is lucky enough, however, to possess a mid-16th century Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate which includes a cicada (f. 13r), a locust-like insect (f. 19r), and three species of spider – two of which are poisonous (and one of which is apparently six-legged).

Burney_ms_97_f029r detail
Detail of a painting of three spiders, including a malmignatte, from a Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate, 2nd – 3rd quarter of the 16th century, Burney MS 97, f. 29r

Six-legged spiders are not unusual to find in medieval art, and neither are their ten-legged cousins, as the examples below will show:

Sloane MS 4016 f. 6r c13578-09b
Detail of a six-legged spider in its web, from an herbal, Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 6r

Royal MS 13 B VIII f. 11v E124037
Detail of a marginal ten-legged spider, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographic Hiberniae, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 – 1223, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 11r

Most insects in medieval art, however, were not designed to illustrate any accompanying text, or at least, not literally. This is particularly the case for manuscripts from the later medieval era.  The vast majority of insect examples we have found are decorative ones, taking their place amongst the flowers, fruit, and jewels that adorn these pages.  Some are occasionally used for humorous purposes, or may have been intended to underscore the message of the text.   An extremely small selection of these sorts of images is below; if we have omitted any gems, please do let us know in the comments or on Twitter: @BLMedieval.  Happy bug hunting!

Stowe_ms_17_f048r detail
Detail of a marginal painting of flies surrounding a dog, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 48r

011HRL000007026U00013000 detail
Detail of a marginal dragonfly and dragon, from the Lovell Lectionary, England (probably Glastonbury), c. 1400 – c. 1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 13r

Add MS 35254 K N and P F60002-30
Selection of cuttings of border illuminations, featuring flowers, birds, moths, butterflies, and other insects, Italy (Rome), c. 1572 – c. 1585, Additional  MS 35254, f. N

Add MS 28841 f.7v
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with a caterpillar and a spider catching a fly, Additional MS 28841, f. 7v

Add_ms_18852_f030r detail
Detail of a grasshopper, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Additional MS 18851, f. 30r

Add_ms_18852_f017r detail
Detail of a butterfly alighting on a flower, Additional MS 18851, f. 17r

Add_ms_30337_f010r detail
Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar, and a beekeeper (rotated 180°), from the Exultet Roll, Italy (Monte Cassino), c. 1075 - c. 1080, Add MS 30337, membrane 10

Add_ms_35313_f029r detail
Miniature of the Crucifixion, with a gold border including flowers, moths, a fly, and a caterpillar, Additional MS 35313, f. 29r

Add_ms_35313_f071v detail
Detail of a border including a monkey and a fly, Additional MS 35313, f. 71v

Burney MS 132 f. 2r C0192-06b
Detail of a border including a dragonfly and helmets, from De bello gallico, Italy, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Burney MS 132, f. 2r

- Sarah J Biggs

10 August 2014

Happy St Lawrence's Day!

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Today is the feast day of St Lawrence of Rome, an early Christian martyr who suffered a grisly death (we are aware that we highlight these types of saints quite frequently here on the blog; see here for St Apollonia, St Catherine, St Margaret, and St George).  The church which was built on the site of St Lawrence’s tomb became one of the principal churches in Rome, and a popular site of pilgrimage.  He features extensively in medieval art, and is often shown carrying his attribute, the gridiron on which he was martyred.

Add_ms_18851_f431r detail 2
Detail of a miniature of St Lawrence holding a book and a gridiron, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 431r

Not much is known of St Lawrence’s early life, but he was believed to have been born in Spain, and to have studied under future pontiff Sixtus in Zaragoza, which was then a renowned centre of learning in the Roman empire.  When Sixtus became pope, he appointed Lawrence as a deacon despite his young age.  Lawrence’s responsibilities included the maintenance of the treasuries of the church as well as the giving of alms to the poor, and he took the latter charge in particular very seriously, as we will soon see. 

Add MS 18197 f. H K90054-08
Detail of a miniature of St Lawrence holding a book and standing near a gridiron, cutting from a choirbook, Italy (Lombardy) 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 18197, f. H

In 258 the Roman Emperor Valerian commenced a persecution of the church, and ordered that all bishops, priests, and deacons should be put to death.  Pope Sixtus was seized while celebrating the liturgy and was immediately executed.  Seeing that his death was also imminent, Lawrence, according to his legend, worked as quickly as he could to distribute all the wealth of the church to the poor, crippled, and suffering people of Rome.  When he was ordered by the prefect of Rome to turn over the riches in his care, Lawrence gathered up these unfortunates and presented them to the prefect, telling him that these were the true treasures of the church. 

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 260v G70033-94a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Lawrence being brought before the Roman prefect, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London?), 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 260v

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 261r G70032-70a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Lawrence being martyred on the gridiron, from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 261r [more on this gorgeous manuscript can be found in our post Beautiful Contraband: The Queen Mary Psalter]

The prefect was enraged by this act of holy defiance and ordered that Lawrence should die a horrible death; the future saint was sentenced to be burnt alive on a gridiron.  Lawrence did not lose his faith (or his sense of humour) even while in the midst of this torture, however; after several hours he is said to have quipped to his executioners, ‘Turn me over; I’m done on this side!’.

Yates_thompson_ms_3_f273v detail
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Lawrence being martyred on the gridiron, watched by a sympathetic marginal character, from the Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 273v

St Lawrence is one of the most beloved saints in the calendar – perhaps owing in some small sense to this humour in the face of adversity, but also because of his love of the suffering and downtrodden of society.  He is the patron saint of the poor, and, rather insensitively, of cooks.  We hope you have a very happy St Lawrence’s Day!

Add_ms_35313_f217v
Miniature of St Lawrence at the beginning of his suffrage, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 217v

Stowe_ms_12_f292r detail
Detail of an historiated initial of St Lawrence being martyred on the gridiron, from the Stowe Breviary, England (Norwich), 1322 – 1325 and c. 1350 – 1380, Stowe MS 12, f. 292r

Yates Thompson MS 49, f. 39v c1311-05a
Detail of an unfinished miniature of St Lawrence being martyred on the gridiron, from Jacobus de Voragine’s La légende dorée, France (Paris and Rouen), c. 1470, Yates Thompson MS 49, vol. 2, f. 39v

Yates_thompson_ms_29_f008r_detail
Detail of a young St Lawrence with his gridiron, at the bottom of a calendar page for August, which contains his feast day, from the Hours of Bonaparte Ghislieri, Italy (Bologna), c. 1500, Yates Thompson MS 29, f. 8r

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f085r detail
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Lawrence being martyred on the gridiron, from the Taymouth Hours, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 85r [for more on this fabulous manuscript, please see our post The Taymouth Hours.  And the sharp-eyed among you may have noticed here certain odd similarities to the work of the artist of the Unicorn Cookbook!).

- Sarah J Biggs

07 August 2014

Parallel Lines

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During our work here at the British Library, we have been struck recently by the different arrangement of the text in Psalter manuscripts – especially where the Psalms are written in more than one language. 

Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_i_f053r
Detail of a historiated initial depicting David as a shepherd, with an illuminated word panel, and the text of Psalm 14 in Latin (‘Dixit insipiens’) with an interlinear Old English gloss, from the Vespasian Psalter, England (?Canterbury), 2nd quarter of the 8th century, Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 53r
 

Interlinear glosses were a common way of providing a commentary upon a text.  In the Vespasian Psalter, the Psalms were written out in Insular uncial script during the second quarter of the 8th century.  A century later, a scribe translated many of the words into Old English, writing them between the lines in Insular cursive minuscule.  The wide spacing of the Latin text meant that an almost continuous gloss could be accommodated with ease.  This ‘gloss’ is the oldest surviving translation into English of any Biblical text.  It reconfigured the manuscript into one that could be used to aid comprehension of the Latin text through a vernacular translation. 

Harley MS 5786 f 73r
Detail of the opening of Psalm 51 (‘Miserere mei’) in Greek, Latin and Arabic, from a trilingual Psalter, S. Italy (Palermo), 1130x1153, Harley MS 5786, f. 73r
 

Other Psalters were specifically designed to accommodate a translation.  Harley MS 5786 is a trilingual Psalter, with three parallel vertical columns containing the Psalms in Greek, Latin and Arabic.  The manuscript was made at Palermo, within the court circle of King Roger II, between 1130 and 1153.  The Psalter reflects the multilingual culture of twelfth-century Sicily, which was inhabited by both Arabs and Greeks.  It may have been intended as a homage to Roger’s dominion over southern Italy and parts of northern Africa and Byzantium. 

Add MS 47674 f 58v
The opening of Psalm 69 (‘Salvum me fac’) in Greek and Latin, with a foliate scroll initial C and a historiated initial S of Christ Pantocrator and David in waters, from a bilingual Psalter, France (Paris), c. 1220-c. 1230, Add MS 47674, f. 58v
 

Trilingual psalters are very unusual; it is more common to find bilingual versions.  This example was made around 1220-1230 in Paris – the most important centre for the production of Bible manuscripts in the thirteenth century.  The appeal of a bilingual Psalter in Paris is obvious: a major preoccupation of university study was the understanding of the original meaning of the words of the Bible.  The Latin Vulgate in the right-hand column is accompanied in the left-hand column by the Greek Septuagint (itself a translation from the Hebrew Old Testament).  A reader could thus trace the translation of the Bible text back to an earlier version, and understand how Greek words had been rendered in Latin.  Some university scholars, such as Hugh of St Victor, advocated the study of Hebrew in order to obtain the original and literal meaning of the Bible.   

Harley MS 1770 f 77v
Detail of the opening of Psalm 81 (‘Exultate Deo’), in Latin and Middle French, with puzzle initials, from a bilingual Psalter, England, 1st half of the fourteenth century, Harley MS 1770, f. 77v
 

The translation of the Psalms into vernacular languages reflects the desire for a different kind of comprehension on the part of the reader: not of its ancient, ‘original’ meaning, but of its meaning in his or her own language.  Harley MS 1770 belonged to the Augustinian Priory at Kirkham in Yorkshire.  It is a sort of trilingual Psalter.  The first part of the manuscript contains the Psalms in Latin and French, again in parallel columns.  

Harley MS 1770 f 158r
Detail of the opening of Psalm 1 (‘Beatus vir’), in Middle English with a Latin title and marginal rubric, from a bilingual Psalter, England, 1st half of the fourteenth century, Harley MS 1770, f. 158r
 

In the second part of the manuscript, the Psalms have been translated into Middle English rhyming couplets.  The author used an earlier Middle English interlinear gloss on the Vulgate, which was itself a modernised version of an Old English glossed Psalter.  The opening line of each Psalm is given in Latin: the Psalms were not numbered in medieval Bibles, but were cited using their opening words, so these were essential for navigating the text.  Extracts from the Latin Psalms were written in the margins, showing the reader which verse was being translated into Middle English at that point.  A reader could also compare the two vernacular versions through the Latin text that accompanied both. 

Arundel MS 104 f 364v
Detail of the opening of Psalm 118 (‘Conftemini Domino’) in a Middle English Psalter, with a historiated initial C and marginal Latin rubric, N. England, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Arundel MS 104, f. 364v
 

The need for such Latin prompts is illustrated by Arundel MS 104, a copy of the Wycliffite version of the Psalms.  Its owner cut selected historiated initials from two other manuscripts (one a Psalter commentary of c. 1220, the other a Psalter of c. 1370) and pasted them into the margins.  The subject of an initial rarely corresponds to the content of the Psalm it accompanies.  The letter itself, however, always matches the opening letter of the Psalms in Latin – and the Middle English text is glossed in the margin with the opening words of the Psalm in Latin. 

Harley MS 1896 f 16r
Detail of the opening of Psalm 27 (‘Dominus illuminatio mea’), in Latin and Middle English, with a foliate initial D and border, from a bilingual Psalter, Harley MS 1896, England, mid-15th century, Harley MS 1896, f. 16r
 

An altogether different layout is adopted in this Wycliffite version of the Psalms.  The text is arranged in a single column and alternates between the Latin and the Middle English translation – with elements of presentation rather than layout used to differentiate the two.   The Latin verses are written in red ink, each prefaced by a small blue initial; the vernacular verses in brown ink, each prefaced by a small pink initial.  Incorporating the two versions within a single column meant that the Psalms could be read as a single continuous text.  The Latin and Middle English versions may have functioned as a kind of ‘call and response’, aiding the reader’s comprehension of the Latin through the vernacular, like in the Vespasian Psalter.  Alternatively, the different coloured inks and initials could also have enabled the reader to focus his or her eyes on one version in particular: to skip over the translated passages and concentrate on the Latin – or, more controversially, to do the reverse, and read the Psalms solely in Middle English.

- James Freeman

24 July 2014

Choosing a Husband: Brains or Brawn, Money or Looks?

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Career options for medieval women were limited.  If they were lucky they could choose between getting married or entering a convent.  For some, the latter was preferable to becoming a wife, who was often treated as little more than one of her husband’s possessions.  The majority of women, of course, still chose marriage and family, and the important question was: what type of man made the best husband?  There is a tradition of love debates in courtly society in Anglo-Norman England, which can be found in La Geste de Blanchflour e de Florence and Melior e Ydoine, both based on Latin poems about the relative merits of knights or clerks as husbands.  In other words, should you go for brawn or brains?  Perhaps the first place to look for an answer to these questions is the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, where we searched under ‘clerk’ and ‘knight’ and found some interesting images on the subject.

The one below shows a man, described as a ‘devoted clerk from Pisa’ riding with his future wife to their wedding.  He appears a good husband, perhaps, if a tad boring (but maybe not  – keep reading!).

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f223v
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a clerk from Pisa and a woman, being led on horseback to their wedding ceremony, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 223v

In the next image the clerk has deserted his wife - the Virgin Mary appeared at his wedding and reminded him of his promise to take holy orders!

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f224r
Detail of a bas-de-page of the devoted clerk of Pisa, having left his bride to become a monk, from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 224r

Below another clerk seems to be behaving badly. On the left hand side, he grabs a woman, who looks rather startled and on the right he attacks someone, perhaps a rival.

Royal MS 10 D VIII f. 176r
Detail of a miniature of a clerk and a woman, and the clerk committing a homicide, with a foliate initial 'Sacerdos', at the beginning of causa 15 of Gratian’s Decretum,  France (Paris?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Royal 10 D VIII, f. 176r

So let’s see what the knights were like…

This one is stabbing a unicorn; not a good start!

Harley MS 3244 f. 38r E043080
Detail of the lower miniature, depicting a knight spearing a unicorn as it rests in a maiden's lap, from a theological miscellany, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, after c. 1236, Harley MS 3244, f. 38r

And this one seems to be offering the lady a lift on his horse, but is he planning to carry her off?

Royal_ms_10_e_iv_f086v
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady and a knight, who is pointing towards his waiting horse; two hounds stand nearby, from the Smithfield Decretals, France (Toulouse?), Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 86v

So, what was a poor girl to do?  The answer is, ask her mother for advice.

Fortunately, one of our manuscripts, Additional MS 46919, a well-known collection of texts in Anglo-Norman French and Middle English from the 14th century, contains a unique copy of a verse debate between a mother and daughter on choosing a husband.  The volume, which has (unfortunately) not been fully photographed yet, is known as the ‘William Herebert Collection’ after the Franciscan friar of Oxford, who compiled it and copied some of the texts, which include Bibbesworth’s Tretiz de langage.

Photo 1 detail
Detail of the beginning of a dialogue between mother and daughter, Add MS 46919, f. 59r

The short debate beginning on f. 59r of this manuscript consists of five 10-line verses alternating between mother and daughter.  In the first verse, the daughter asks her mother how she should choose between her two lovers: one is handsome, the other rich:

Jole mere ke frai? / de deus amanz su mis en plai

Li uns est beaus cu[m] fleur de maii / li autre est riches ben le sei

Or quei ke me seit a fere / pite del douce meyre

Dear mother what should I do? / I am torn between two lovers

The one is as beautiful as the mayflower / The other is rich as I well know

So what should I do? / Have pity on me, sweet mother.

 

The mother replies:

Fille fetes cu[m] les fiz  / kant ieo esteie jeovenette jadis

Volu[n]ters a douns me pris / jeu sanz pru nest ben asis

Daughter, do as girls did / back when I was young.

I soon learned / that a game without a prize is not a good bet

 

She goes on to say that those who let their emotions rule will repent later.  The daughter protests that her handsome lover’s kisses are so delightful and that ill-gotten spoils soon turn sour:

Meuz vaut joie orphanine / ke rischesce a marrement

Ky mel leche d’espine / cher l’achate et poi en prent.

Better to be happy in poverty / than to have wealth but a dreary life

He who licks honey from a thorn / pays dearly and gets little in return.

 

Of course the mother has the final say – she gets her two verses worth, first delivering a stern lesson on the ways of the world:

Le secle est or de tel manere / les riches avaunt les poveres arere

Poi engard hom en la chere / si le riche atorn n’i siet

Marchant a voide almonere / fet a feire poi de espleit.

Such is the way of the world that the rich are in front and the poor behind

And nobody pays any attention to a man’s beautiful face

If he does not have stylish attire and a full purse.

 

But then she tempers this with wisdom.  In the end, it is goodness and honour that count.

Aver est en aventure / Mut est fous ke trop l’aseure

Mes honur et bunte dure / Coment ke del aver alt:

Ke seit entendre mesure / Cil est riche ke moult vault.

Material possessions are transient / only a very foolish person trusts in them too much

But honour and goodness last / whatever happens to possessions.

He who knows moderation / he is rich, for this is valuable.

 

And if all ends well, the outcome will be a wedding - to the right man!

Add MS 24678, f. 22r .K90054-29
Miniature of a marriage, Italy (Bologna), last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 24678, f. 22r

-  Chantry Westwell

22 July 2014

Conservation in the 17th Century

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The ‘Mayerne manuscript’, Sloane MS 2052, is on display at the National Gallery’s exhibition Making Colour and is also available to view on Digitised Manuscripts.  Compiled over twenty-six years, it reflects Mayerne’s abiding interest during his middle age in the chemistry of painting and the preparation of pigments, glues, varnishes and other substances.  As Making Colour reveals, before the synthesis and manufacture of pigments in the nineteenth century, artists made their own colours from the raw materials, experimenting and developing them through trial and error. 

Sloane_ms_2052_f026r
Tests for the preparation of a pigment from blackberry juice, from the Mayerne manuscript, England (London), 1620-1646, Sloane MS 2052, f. 26r (inverted)
 

Such information is vitally important for conservators: understanding the chemical make-up of early modern or medieval pigments can help them to determine why paintings have degraded in certain ways, and inform any interventions that they might make to rectify or halt such deterioration.  The Mayerne manuscript is also of interest in the history of conservation as a discipline, since it also contains notes about how paintings were repaired and cleaned nearly four centuries ago. 

1417.c.44
Title page of ‘Inaccessible Glory: or, The impossibility of seeing God’s face whilst we are in the body’, England (London), 1655, 1417.c.44
 

At the close of his sermon, preached at the funeral of Sir Theodore de Mayerne on Friday, 30th March 1655 at St. Martin-in-the-Field, Rev. Thomas Hodges remarked that: 

‘He [Mayerne] was a person of rare accomplishments...I confess I know not any subject which might be either for necessity or delight whereof he was ignorant, nay in which he was not a great proficient, and expert master.  And, which is more admirable, this variety was not attended with the least discernable confusion, but so methodised and digested that he readily at his pleasure commanded it when occasion required, and brought it forth clothed in such language as he spoke him no less an orator than an artist.’ 

Sloane_ms_2052_f023v
Notes on cyan and pigments derived from blackberries with samples, Sloane MS 2052, f. 23v
 

However tidy-minded and articulate Mayerne might have been in life, his manuscript Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium is something of a jumble.  In Sloane MS 2069 (f. 172r), we find a letter from Mayerne to his friend Dr Monginot in 1630, in which he recognised the need ‘to take up my pen, if I wish to leave to posterity some of my dearest children – that is, the fruits of my genius – as my conscience dictates, and as my friends invite me’.  Yet, as with his medical case notes, Mayerne never succeeded in imposing order upon his artistic notes or preparing them for print during his lifetime.  Those illustrated with pigment samples or coloured diagrams have naturally attracted most attention and, until 2004, there was no complete edition in English of this manuscript.  

Sloane_ms_2052_f057r
Assorted notes, recipes and observations, Sloane MS 2052, ff. 56v-57r
 

Buried among them are fascinating insights into conservation, 17th-century style.  The above page, for example, contains a note that to repair a cracked painting, it should be washed and rinsed thoroughly, and coated on the back with a thick water paint, that may be removed when necessary.  It is tucked among miscellaneous observations on the purification of light linseed oil by filtering it through a cow’s bladder, or the transparency of ox intestines in which gold has been wrapped. 

Sloane_ms_2052_f153v
Notes on the repair of oil paintings gleaned from Sir Anthony van Dyck, Sloane MS 2052, f. 153v
 

Sir Anthony van Dyck was a source of other conservation tips.  To repair a peeling oil painting and protect it from a damp wall, he advised painting the reverse with umber very finely ground in oil – a recipe essential for paintings undercoated with glue or water colours. 

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Notes on the cleaning of surface impurities and dirt from oil paintings, Sloane MS 2052, f. 14v
 

An unfortunate incident with paintings imported from Italy for Charles I prompted Mayerne to formulate his own ideas.  The paintings had been shipped, ill-advisedly, with a cargo of currants and mercury sublimate.  The former fermented and the latter vaporised, blackening both the oil and tempera paintings in the hold.  Mayerne jotted in the margins that the oils were apparently cleaned with milk – but observed that a more watery liquid would have been better: the oil would have resisted it and prevented the washing away or smearing of the pigments. 

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Notes on the cleaning and restoration of oil paintings, Sloane MS 2052, f. 15r
 

Mayerne continued with further, more specific instructions: that a picture soiled with dust should be washed with a wrung-out sponge, with any parts painted with the pigment Dutch pink protected from spoiling by glued-on paper.  Apparently, potash from crushed grape skins or urine are also effective! 

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Notes on the bleaching of paper, Sloane MS 2052, f. 61r
 

Mayerne’s interest extended beyond oil paintings to include prints, and he sought information from craftsmen such as Mark Anthony, a painter from Brussels, the royal apothecary Louis le Myre and Jean Anceaux, a bookseller from the French town of Sedan.  From the latter, Mayerne acquired some of the earliest recorded information about the bleaching of paper: one stage involved the soaking of paper in water in which a cod has been boiled. 

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Mayerne’s recipe for cleaning tempera paintings, Sloane MS 2052, f. 147r
 

These and many other such notes formed the basis for subsequent experimentation, also recorded in the manuscript.  The same motivation drove Mayerne’s medical and artistic pursuits – a passion for the study, development and application of chemistry – and sustained the compilation of this notebook over twenty-six years.  He also had an eye for the commercial potential of his discoveries.  Towards the end of the manuscript, there is a recipe for ‘freshening tempera pictures and making them equal to those painted with oil’.  To distinguish it from his other notes, many of which had been obtained second-hand, he recorded in the title that it had been ‘invented by T. de Mayerne, 1632’, perhaps with the aim of ensuring that it remained his or his heirs’ intellectual property. 

- James Freeman

15 July 2014

Set in Stone

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One of the most famous images from our collection is this one from Egerton MS 3028. It is the earliest picture we have of Stonehenge and is one of close to 100 coloured pen drawings accompanying an abridged version in verse of Wace’s Roman de Brut, copied in Britain between 1338 and 1340. This manuscript is currently on display at the Stonehenge Visitors’ Centre, as part of the temporary Set in Stone exhibition.

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Stonehenge, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

Wace’s version of the legend, adapted from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, tells of King Aurelius, son of Constantine, who, having conquered the usurpers Vortigern and Hengist, decides to erect a monument to the British nobles murdered by the Saxons.  Merlin suggests using huge stones that were brought by a giant from Africa to create a stone circle known as the Ring of Killaraus in Ireland.  When the King is incredulous at this suggestion, saying that the stones are much too heavy to transport so far, Merlin replies that ‘wit is more than strength’.  With the help of his magic powers, the stones are indeed brought back to the Salisbury plain by Uther and an army of men, who defeat the Irish on the way. The image above shows either a giant helping Merlin to erect Stonehenge or helping to take down the stones from the Giant’s ring to be carted off to England.  Of course, modern scientific research has shown that Stonehenge was built from two types of rock that must have been transported from far away: the sarsen stones, a type of sandstone, are believed to come from Marlborough Downs, 20 miles away and the smaller bluestones (even they weigh 25-30 tons) are believed to be from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales, 250km away! There have been many hypotheses as to how they were transported, but none, it could be argued, are any more plausible than Wace’s account involving Merlin and the giant.

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The Shipwreck of St Ursula and the 11 000 virgins, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 10r

The Stonehenge image is one of many delights in Egerton MS 3028.  The shipwreck of the 11000 virgins is another.  The story goes that the mainland Bretons sent an army across the channel to help the British fight off the Saxons, and in return they were sent a shipload of young maidens, descendants of Brutus, to be their wives.  Unfortunately the ship was blown off course and the ladies fell into the hands of the pagans of Cologne, who slayed them all, including St Ursula, when they refused to surrender their virginity.  In some versions of the legend, they die in a shipwreck, as we see here.  St Ursula was a popular saint and the story of the 11000 martyred virgins captured the popular imagination for centuries.  Christopher Columbus named the Virgin Islands after them, Cologne has the Basilica of St Ursula and even London may have had a memorial, the Church of St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, on the site of what is now the ‘Gherkin’ in St Mary Axe street in London, where it was said that one of the axes used by the murderous Saxons was kept.

On more familiar territory, here is the coronation of King Arthur, who sports a magnificent red beard.

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King Arthur crowned by bishops, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 37r

Wace, a cleric from Jersey, composed his French version of the Historia for Henry II, who was keen to portray himself as a worthy successor to King Arthur.  Wace cleverly focused on parts of the story which served the king’s aims, giving it a more factual bent and introducing new details such as the Round Table, which became a symbol of the English court.  The name Brut refers to Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of Britain, and Arthur is portrayed as one of a long line of kings including Henry.

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The Death of King Arthur, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 53r

In this manuscript a section has been added updating the chronicle to the reign of Edward III, who established the Order of the Knights of the Garter, an institution with its foundation in the Arthurian legends.

Real historical events are chronicled in the continuation from ff. 56-63, including the reign of Henry I, who is described as the king who made just laws (‘fist fair[e] les bones leis’).

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The Coronation of Henry I, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 60r

The final part of the manuscript contains two romances from the cycle of Charlemagne: Fierabras, and its ‘prequel’, the Destruction of Rome.  Each one is preceded by a full-page image of one of the heroes :

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Fierebras , England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028,  f. 63v

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Charlemagne, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 83v

Once again, pen drawings are inserted in the text, and this one of a trebuchet is from the story of Roland. Note the two fearful knights peeping over the battlements.

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Attacking a tower with a trebuchet, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 106r

It has been suggested that this manuscript may have been produced in the Gloucester area or South Wales, far from the centres of London and East Anglia, where a more sophisticated  style of illumination was common in the mid-14th century.  Though lacking refinement of technique, the artist of Egerton MS 3028 uses gesture and facial expression to bring out the full drama of the events portrayed.   This image of Lucifer is a wonderful example:

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Lucifer is cast into the fire, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 101r

For more images (105 in total), see the entry for Egerton MS 3028 in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Egerton MS 3028 will shortly be fully digitised and available on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Chantry Westwell

08 July 2014

Up Close and Personal with the Holy Grail

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A picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes the impact of the thousand words themselves can also be stunning, even without the picture. 

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Space was left for a half-page illustration on the first page of Merlin, but we can only guess what might have been planned, since the picture was never added; from Merlin, England, 1300-1325, Add MS 32125, f. 206r

One of my favorite British Library manuscripts has recently been made available on the Digitised Manuscripts website.  This book (Add MS 32125, which includes copies of the monumental Arthurian romances The History of the Holy Grail and Merlin) is not embellished with gold leaf or lavishly painted illustrations, but it remains a jewel nonetheless.  Digital photography, meanwhile, allows us a unique aesthetic experience of the book.

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Two corrections do not mar the beauty of the text: on the second line, a word is crossed out and further cancelled by the three dots written below, while on the third line the erroneous text was written-over, after being physically scraped off with a knife (literally “rasored out,” or “erased”); from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 200v

The manuscript is not a large one – less than ten inches by seven – and such a close-up view gives a perspective on the page that would be impossible in person.  We can see the richness of the colors of the ink and parchment (far from simple black on white), and their texture as well, as the letters almost seem to have a three-dimensional quality sitting on the page: the text almost glows.  And the beauty of the letters is no accident.  ‘Gothic’ handwriting, of which this book is an extremely legible example, sometimes even sacrificed clarity to aesthetic concerns, emphasizing the regularity of letters’ vertical lines at the expense of making those letters easily distinguishable from one another.

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Detail of a pointing hand drawing attention to a moment of textual interest, where a fifteenth-century reader has helpfully recopied his predecessor’s fainter note, still slightly visible underneath; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 82r

This book is not a favorite of mine simply because of its visual appeal, however.  It also offers a highly unusual opportunity to enjoy the dialogue between the text of two of the Middle Ages most important Arthurian romances, and their medieval reading audience.  Often, romances from the so-called ‘Vulgate Cycle’ (see, for example, Royal MS 14 E III and Royal MS 20 D IV are deluxe productions, fit for a king and kept in pristine condition by their royal owners (for more on these manuscripts, see our posts Lancelot and the Quest for the Holy Grail, and Arthurian Manuscripts in the British Library).  This partial copy, however, is on a more modest scale, and must have seemed more approachable to its fifteenth-century readers, who have not hesitated to write notes in the margin or sketch in a tempting blank space.

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Drawings of trees added by a medieval reader; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 205v

Even better, these marks offer clues about the way medieval readers understood the romances they enjoyed.  The twisted trees drawn at the end of the Grail story are not just distracted doodles or spooky blasted oaks.  They are literally ‘family trees’, inspired by the closing words of the text itself: ‘And so now’, the author writes, ‘the story is silent about all the lineages which have come from Celidoine’, founding father of a hereditary line culminating in the Grail knights Lancelot and Galahad, ‘and returns to another ‘branch,’ which is called The History of Merlin’, the story beginning on the following page.

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Detail of one of this manuscript’s several inhabited initials, ‘Ore dit li contes’, ‘Now the story says...’; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 191r

Above, a more professional version proves that this medieval reader was correct in being so struck by the text’s ‘branches’.  A passage on the lineage of Sir Gawain is introduced by an inhabited initial that recalls traditional depictions of a fertile family tree sprouting from the genitals of a sleeping ancestor – but here the foliage sprouts not from the patriarch’s groin, but from his mouth, since the branching of the family-tree is partially conflated with the branching of the story itself.

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Detail of a marginal grotesque tooting his own horn – surely with excitement at his new digital form!; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 127r

 

-          Nicole Eddy

28 June 2014

Art and Alchemy

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Attention all budding alchemists!  Four of the British Library’s ‘Ripley Scrolls’ (Add MS 5025) are the latest additions to our Digitised Manuscripts website. They are currently on loan to the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf as part of an exhibition on ‘Art and Alchemy: The Mystery of Transformation’ until 10 August, starring alongside works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens and many others.

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Detail of a man (?George Ripley) in rustic dress, bearing a staff with a horse’s hoof, from the Ripley Scrolls, late 16th/early 17th century,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

Based on The Compound of Alchemy of George Ripley (d. c. 1490) and other pseudo-scientific texts, these scrolls are intriguing, bizarre and perplexing in equal measure.  They date from around the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the seventeenth century, however their origins are unknown.  An inscription on the second scroll records that ‘This long Rolle was Dra[ur]ne for me in Cullers at Lubeck in Germany  Anno 1588’ – however, two other scrolls bear a similar note, so neither the date nor the location may be established with any certainty.

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Detail of a hermetic illustrating stages in the alchemical process and the revelation of alchemical wisdom,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

The scrolls illustrate stages in the alchemical process of preparing the philosopher’s stone, which was needed to turn base metals into gold.  The scrolls give visual form to the furnaces, flasks and other paraphernalia its practitioners were supposed to use.  They also contain emblematic imagery whose meaning remains obscure to scholars as well as more familiar symbols, such as the zodiac.

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Detail of a zodiac diagram enclosing two dragons, a sun and a moon,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

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Detail of an alchemist, probably Hermes Trismegistus, holding a hermetic flask,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

The large figure at the top of the second, third and fourth scrolls probably represents Hermes Trismegistus, the ancient and likely mythical author of hermetic texts that later formed the basis of alchemical experimentation in the medieval and early modern periods. Alchemists (often holding flasks or overseeing experiments) are depicted throughout the scrolls, alongside symbolic figures of unknown significance. Labels on some of these figures suggest they represent the elements that alchemists sought to transpose during their experiments.

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Detail of alchemists holding flasks,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

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Detail of symbolic men and a woman surrounded by flasks, within an enclosure decorated with a dragon vomiting a frog,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

Alongside them is an array of fantastical and grotesque anthropomorphic creatures: a woman with the tail of a dragon, a Bird of Hermes (a bird with the head and torso of a human), and a winged dragon with female features (perhaps representing Satan). There are also real and mythical creatures worthy of any medieval bestiary: toads and frogs, dragons aplenty, lions, and a cockatrice.

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Detail of a Bird of Hermes,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

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Detail of a dragon with a cockatrice perched on its head,
Add MS 5025, f. 1r.

George Ripley was an Augustinian canon of Bridlington. He claimed to have studied at the University of Louvain, and there is evidence to indicate connections with Edward IV beyond Ripley’s dedication of The Compound to the king. Another British Library manuscript, Cotton MS Vitellius E X, contains a drawing of Ripley’s tomb at Bridlington, upon which alchemical symbols feature prominently, indicating the integration of alchemy with medieval Christianity.

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Detail of an alchemical distillation furnace,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

Seventeen other Ripley scrolls are known to survive, scattered across institutional collections in Britain and the United States. Recent studies have concentrated on comparative study of the different designs found on these scrolls. The four that make up Add MS 5025 represent each of the three main designs – and their availability on Digitised Manuscripts constitutes an important scholarly resource for the study of alchemy in the late medieval and early modern periods. There are two further Ripley Scrolls held at the British Library: Add MS 32621 and Sloane MS 2524A.

- James Freeman