THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

70 posts categorized "Events"

25 June 2015

Getting Under the Covers of the St Cuthbert Gospel

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This week has seen the launch at the British Library on Monday and at Trinity College, Dublin on Wednesday of a new book, The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John, edited by Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, and Bernard Meehan, Head of Research Collections and Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College, Dublin. 

New book cover

 

The St Cuthbert Gospel is the earliest intact European book and a landmark in the cultural history of western Europe. Now dated to the early eighth century by Richard Gameson and Leslie Webster, the manuscript contains a beautifully written copy of the Gospel of John in Latin and is famous for the craftsmanship and outstanding condition of its contemporary decorated leather binding. Found in Cuthbert's coffin when it was opened in Durham Cathedral in 1104, the Gospel was acquired for the national collection following a major fundraising campaign in 2011-12.

One of the most exciting aspects of the long preparation for the new book on the Gospel was the day that we took the manuscript to the Natural History Museum for a CT scan. The videos produced from this scan have allowed us to look inside the book as never before, to appreciate the many remarkable features of this manuscript. We were able to examine the extraordinary refinement and careful shaping of the wooden boards, establishing that at their maximum the left (front) board measures only 2.4mm thick and the right (back) board only 1.5mm. We could see the cords beneath the raised frames in the decoration and we could examine for the first time the much-debated foundation material lying beneath the raised plant-motif decoration in the centre of the left cover. Roger Powell had suggested that the foundation material might be cord or leather, while Jim Bloxam and Kristine Rose found more recently (in making a facsimile of the binding which they generously made available to the project) that gesso could be used to produce comparable results. It was immediately apparent from the CT scan that neither cord nor leather had been used for the foundation of the central motif, as it is a clay-like material which completely fills the space between the leather and the board.

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Cross-section of left board from CT scan, showing clay-like material between the leather and the wooden board.

In the CT scan and in an X-ray image this clay-like material shows as a dull grey, completely different from the gesso used in the most accurate modern facsimile by Rose and Bloxam, which shows as black in the X-ray image.

X-ray of left board (facsimile on left and original on right)
X-ray of left board (facsimile on left and original on right).

Christina Duffy, Imaging Scientist at the British Library, has produced videos of the St Cuthbert Gospel from the CT scan which show the manuscript, its wooden boards, the cords which lie under the raised frames in the decoration and a cross-section through the whole manuscript showing the structure of the book and the raised decoration. You can watch the video (courtesy of Christina Duffy) here:

 

In his chapter in the new book launched this week, Nicholas Pickwoad explains in detail how the central motif on the binding appears to have been made using a matrix, carved with the plant design, to impress the wet leather over the clay-like material on to the wooden board.

This new collection of essays is the most substantial study of the book since the 1960s, and is the culmination of our work to promote new research on the Gospel since its acquisition by the British Library. As well as Nicholas Pickwoad's chapter on the structure and production of the binding, the book includes detailed commentary on: Cuthbert in his historical context by Clare Stancliffe; the codicology, text, script and medieval history of the manuscript by Richard Gameson; the decoration of the binding by Leslie Webster; the Irish pocket Gospels by Bernard Meehan, the other relics found in Cuthbert's coffin by Eric Cambridge; and the post-medieval ownership of the book by Arnold Hunt. The book, which significantly revises the existing scholarship on one of the British Library's most recent acquisitions, is now available through the Library's online shop.

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- Claire Breay

18 March 2015

Magna Carta: A Curators' Eye-View

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Now that our Magna Carta exhibition has finally opened to the public (phew!), we'd like to tell you about a talk by the curators, taking place at the British Library this Friday, 20 March. 'Magna Carta: A Curators' Eye-View' will review how this major exhibition was put together, looking at everything from devising the storyline to choosing the objects and writing the catalogue.

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Revolution Pillar, a parody of the politician Charles James Fox, loaned by the British Museum to the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition

The talk, presented by Julian Harrison (one of the exhibition curators) and Alex Lock (our researcher), is aimed at everyone interested in public history, museum studies and the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Julian and his fellow curator, Claire Breay, have spent four years putting the exhibition together, and also edited the catalogue which accompanies it, featuring a picture of almost every exhibit; Alex joined the team in January 2013, and played a crucial role in researching and choosing the items on show, besides contributing two major essays and other entries to the catalogue.

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A 19th-century Worcester porcelain inkstand in the shape of King John's tomb, on loan from the British Museum in our Magna Carta exhibition

We hope that as many people as possible can join us on Friday for this behind-the-scenes look at our Magna Carta show. We're currently putting together the images for our presentation ... we promise you an entertaining and visual feast!

Magna Carta: A Curators' Eye-View takes place at the British Library on 20 March (11.00-12.15), and entry costs £3.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September, and costs £12 (under 18s get free entry, and other concessions are available).

10 February 2015

Magna Carta Under The Proverbial Microscope

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Last Wednesday, a select group of scholars and other interested observers were the first people in 800 years to compare the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts side-by-side. This one-off event was held at the British Library, and was part of the Magna Carta unification, sponsored by the global law firm Linklaters. Everyone involved was thrilled to be a part of history and, equally importantly, great strides were made towards learning more about the production and later ownership of these four manuscripts, held respectively by Lincoln Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral and the British Library. More details will doubtless be published in due course on the Magna Carta Project website. In the meantime, here are some photos of our special day (you get a bonus point if you can identify all of the participants).

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Chris Woods (Lincoln and Salisbury conservator), Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia), Tessa Webber (Trinity College, Cambridge) and David Carpenter (King's College, London)

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Edward Probert (Salisbury Cathedral), Louise Wilkinson (Canterbury Christ Church University), Philippa Hoskin (University of Lincoln)

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Tessa Webber, Nicholas Vincent and David Carpenter

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David Carpenter getting to grips with the Lincoln Magna Carta

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Trying to identify the inscription on the back of the 'London' Magna Carta

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The examination continues ...

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The lucky few!

26 January 2015

David Starkey on Magna Carta

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If you've been watching and listening closely, you may have realised by now that the year 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta. The British Library is heavily involved in these global commemorations — two of the four surviving manuscripts of King John's 1215 Magna Carta are held at the Library — and tonight you can see one of them in a special television documentary presented by David Starkey.

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Tonight's documentary will explore the origins and later uses of this internationally-renowned document, and it will examine Magna Carta's rôle in establishing that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.

David Starkey's Magna Carta is broadcast on BBC2 at 21:00 (Monday, 26 January). We're really looking forward to seeing our precious manuscripts on television, and we hope that you enjoy seeing them too!

Tickets for our Magna Carta exhibition are now on sale. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy opens to the public on 13 March and closes on 1 September. Among the items on show will be the United States Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights, and the unique medieval writ from Hereford Cathedral, ordering the publication of Magna Carta in 1215 ... there's a very good chance that Magna Carta will also be on display, so don't delay, book today!

23 January 2015

Hereford Writ to be displayed at the British Library

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The British Library's major Magna Carta exhibition opens in less than two months. We're delighted to announce that Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy will feature a very important medieval document, on loan from Hereford Cathedral. On 20 June 1215, just a few days after Magna Carta had been granted, King John of England wrote to all of his sheriffs, commanding them to have the Great Charter read out in public. Only one of those documents — known as a royal writ — still survives, the letter sent to the sheriff of Gloucestershire and today kept at Hereford. The British Library is extremely grateful to the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral for so kindly agreeing to lend us this precious document for the duration of our exhibition, where it will be on display alongside other books and artefacts relating to the history and legacy of Magna Carta.

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The Hereford writ, a unique survival of the letter commanding that Magna Carta be read out in public in 1215

Magna Carta was granted by King John (1199–1216) at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Its most controversial feature was the condition that 25 barons be elected to oversee the implementation of the charter, or to seek immediate redress from the king if its terms were being ignored. The Hereford writ is hugely significant: it demonstrates that the sheriffs were commanded to restore the peace, and that they were ordered to swear obedience to the 25 barons. This particular writ is addressed to the sheriff of Gloucestershire — similar documents would have been sent to the other sheriffs, but this is the only one to have survived — and asks that 'you inviolably observe and cause to be observed, by everyone, everything contained in the charter, lest the peace of our kingdom should happen to be troubled again'.

There is a certain irony here, however. The sheriff of Gloucestershire in 1215 was none other than Engelard de Cigogné (d. 1244), and he was named specifically in Magna Carta as one of the king's evil advisers, who the barons demanded be dismissed from office. The writ's stipulation that Engelard investigate his own malpractices must surely have been difficult to enforce! Engelard also held the post of sheriff of Herefordshire, which may explain how this writ came to be preserved at Hereford Cathedral. It's also interesting to note that the only bishop who joined the baronial rebellion in 1215 was Giles de Briouze, Bishop of Hereford (1200–1215): he was excommunicated by the papal commisioners in September of that year.

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Hereford Cathedral, where the writ has been kept since the Middle Ages

You can read a translation of the Hereford writ below. It will be on display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library from 13 March to 1 September 2015, and tickets are already on sale. Once again, we are indebted to Hereford Cathedral for its generosity in kindly agreeing to lend us this item, so that it can be shown with other items relating to the granting of Magna Carta in 1215. You can read more here about Hereford's participation in the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

'John by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and Count of Anjou to the sheriff of Gloucestershire, foresters, wareners, custodians of rivers and all his other officials in the same county, Greeting.

Know that to restore by the grace of God firm peace between us and the barons and free men of our kingdom, just as you will be able to hear and see by our charter, which we accordingly caused to be made, which likewise we order to be read publically throughout the whole of your bailiwick and to be held firmly; willing and strictly enjoining that you, the sheriff, cause all men of your bailiwick or the majority of them according to the model of the aforementioned charter to swear obedience to the twenty-five barons of whom mention is made in the aforementioned charter to the same command, in their presence or the presence of those assigned to this by their letters patent, and at the day and place which for this purpose the aforementioned or assigned barons established from them for this.

We also wish and order that the twelve knights of your county, who shall be elected by the county in its first session that will be held after receipt of these letters in your parts, swear an inquiry into the corrupt customs of as much the sheriffs as of their agents, of forests, foresters, warrens, warreners, riverbanks and their wardens, and the destruction of the same, as is contained in the charter itself.

Therefore you all, as you love us and our honour, and the peace of our kingdom, inviolably observe and cause to be observed, by everyone, everything contained in the charter, lest for want of you or by your digression, the peace of our kingdom should happen to be troubled again, God forbid. And you, sheriff, cause our peace to be proclaimed through the whole of your bailiwick and order it to be firmly held.

And these our letters patent we send to you thence in testimony of this. Witness myself at Runnymede, the twentieth day of June, in the seventeenth year of our reign.'

 

05 January 2015

Melvyn Bragg and The Road to Magna Carta

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To mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a four-part series on this iconic document. Presented by Melvyn Bragg, Magna Carta was recorded in part at the British Library, and features Claire Breay (our Head of Medieval Manuscripts) and other members of the Magna Carta Project, including Professor Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia), Professor David Carpenter (King's College, London) and Professor Louise Wilkinson (Canterbury Christ Church University).

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Melvyn Bragg looking at Magna Carta with Claire Breay

Episode 1, The Road to Magna Carta, is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday, 5 January, at 09:00, and will subsequently be available to listeners in the United Kingdom via the BBC iPlayer. The remaining episodes, Runnymede, 1215, The Aftermath of Magna Carta, and The Legacy of Magna Carta, will be aired at the same time this Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 6-8 January.

2015 represents a very exciting year for Magna Carta at the British Library. We are holding our own blockbuster exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, opening to the public on 13 March, and curated by Claire Breay and Julian Harrison. In addition to displaying our two manuscripts of the original 1215 Magna Carta, we will be featuring other key documents, books and artefacts associated with the history and legacy of the Great Charter, including two major loans from the United States of America.We will be blogging more about the exhibition in the coming months. Meanwhile, in February we will be hosting all four 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, from the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, when they are brought together for the very first time

Listen if you can to BBC Radio 4 this Monday -- we hope you enjoy the programme!

Julian Harrison

20 November 2014

Magna Carta Ballot: a huge thank-you

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We'd like to thank everyone who entered our recent ballot to see the four original 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, when they are brought together next February for the first time in 800 years. We were overwhelmed by the response: just under 45,000 people entered online, and we received in addition more than 100 postal entries. Everybody at the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral really appreciates the efforts made by members of the public to view our precious Magna Cartas.

The ballot is now closed, and the winning entrants are in the process of being selected. You may recall that we were offering 1,215 people the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the four documents side-by-side. Winners will be contacted between now and 12 December, so please hold tight if you haven't heard from us yet: there's a chance that you may actually be one of the chosen ones!

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Lincoln Cathedral (left), Salisbury Cathedral (middle) and the British Library (right), home to the four surviving manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta

A reminder that the winners will view the four 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts at the British Library in London on Tuesday 3 February 2015. The winners will be given a special introduction to the history and legacy of Magna Carta from historian and TV presenter Dan Jones. They will also each receive a special edition Magna Carta gift bag containing free passes to each of the upcoming exhibitions at the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, plus a Certificate of Attendance, inscribed with the winner’s name and sealed in wax with a special stamp created to mark the day. The event is being sponsored by Linklaters, the global law firm, and we are very grateful for their support.

For anyone who does miss out on this one-off event, remember that all four Magna Carta manuscripts will be on display individually as part of major exhibitions in 2015 at their respective institutions -  the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral. See this webpage for more information.

The 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta by King John will be marked worldwide by numerous events and exhibitions, which will be publicised on this blog and via our Twitter account, @BLMedieval. In the meantime, if you'd like to know more about the history of Magna Carta, please see the British Library's dedicated webpages. It's going to be a very exciting year for all of us!

11 September 2014

Royal Manuscripts Conference Papers Now Online

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We are pleased to announce that selected papers from the two-day international conference associated with the ‘Royal Manuscripts’ exhibition (11 November 2011 – 13 March 2012) are now available on the Electronic British Library Journal 2014 (articles 4–10). 

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God creating the Heavens and the Earth, from Guyart de Moulins, ‘Bible historiale completée’, Genesis to Psalms, France (Clairfontaine and Paris), 1411,
Royal MS 19 D III, vol. 1, f. 3r

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination showcased over 150 richly decorated manuscripts associated with and collected by English monarchs between the ninth and sixteenth centuries.  Drawn mainly from the Old Royal library given to the nation by George II in 1757, the exhibited manuscripts revealed a magnificent artistic inheritance and provided a vivid insight into the lives and aspirations of those for whom they were made.

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The genealogical descent of Henry VI from St Louis in a book presented by John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, to Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, France (Rouen), 1444-45,
Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 3r

On the 12-13 December 2011, seventeen speakers gathered in the British Library to discuss different aspects of the Royal collection, from the makers and users of these books to content as diverse as genealogy and law, legend and history, and liturgy.  An account of the conference, its speakers and their subjects, can be read here.  Many of the manuscripts displayed in the exhibition can still be seen in seven themed facebook albums (The Christian Monarch 700-1400; The Christian Monarch 1400-1600; Edward IV: Founder of the Royal Library; Instruction: How to be a King; The World’s Knowledge; Royal Identities; and The European Monarch), each featuring between 15 and 25 items.  Previous ‘Royal Manuscripts’ blog posts are listed here and here, and are often richly illustrated with items featured in the exhibition.

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Henry VIII at Psalm 1 (where we would expect an image of David), from the Psalter of Henry VIII, England (London), c. 1540,
Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 3r

The research for this exhibition was funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.  Student bursaries for the conference were generously supported by AMARC.

- Holly James-Maddocks