Image courtesy of the 'Credo' website.
Image courtesy of the 'Credo' website.
15 August 2013
13 August 2013
Some of you may already have watched the first episode of Michael Wood's new series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, which is still available on the BBC iPlayer. (We're very hopeful that the whole series will eventually be broadcast worldwide.)
Detail of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, from a 13th-century genealogical chronicle (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B V).
King Alfred and his daughter Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B V).
Episode two will be shown tonight on BBC Four (21.00–22.00), and is entitled "The Lady of the Mercians". Æthelflæd (d. 918) was the daughter of Alfred of Wessex, and the wife of Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. Having become sole ruler of the Mercians following her husband's death in 911, Æthelflæd is credited with helping to reconquer the Danelaw (the English lands under Viking rule) in tandem with her younger brother Edward the Elder, king of Wessex (reigned 899–924). As Michael Wood concludes, without her "England might never have happened".
Roundels depicting Alfred, Æthelflæd and Edward the Elder, from a 14th-century genealogical chronicle (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B VI).
Episode three of Michaels Wood's King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons will be shown next week. Many of the manuscripts featured in the series are held at the British Library, and some of them can be explored in more detail on our Digitised Manuscripts site or the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.
06 August 2013
Earlier this year, Michael Wood, the historian and broadcaster, came to film some of the British Library's Anglo-Saxon manuscripts for his new television series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons. Some of you may know Michael's previous books and programmes, such as The Story of England, The Story of India, Conquistadors, and In Search of the Dark Ages; and he is a familiar face at the British Library (for instance, he chaired a discussion with Seamus Heaney, Michael Morpurgo and Benjamin Bagby at our Beowulf festival in 2009, and he was a speaker at our Royal manuscripts conference in 2011).
Two of our curators, one conservator and several British Library manuscripts feature in episode one of the new series, to be broadcast tonight on BBC Four (21.00–22.00). It's always a pleasure to work with Michael Wood, who is a trained Anglo-Saxonist, and we look forward (like everyone else!) to watching his new programme, entitled "Alfred of Wessex". As ever, it will be available subsequently on the BBC iPlayer (United Kingdom viewers only).
15 July 2013
The British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral are delighted to announce that their copies of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215, are to be unified for the first time in 2015. In an event to be staged at the British Library in London, scholars, curators and conservators closely involved in the study of Magna Carta will be given the unique opportunity to examine the Magna Cartas side-by-side. What's more, no fewer than one thousand, two hundred and fifteen (1,215) members of the public, selected in a ballot, will be able to view the original documents together for themselves.
Miniature of King John in Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum: St Albans, c. 1250 (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII, f. 9r)
The year 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. The three institutions have been working closely to organise this one-off event, which will initiate a year of global celebrations of this key constitutional document. Claire Breay, Lead Curator of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts at the British Library, says "Magna Carta is the most popular item in the Library’s Treasures gallery, and is venerated around the world as marking the starting point for government under the law. Bringing the four surviving manuscripts together for the first time will create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for researchers and members of the public to see them in one place, and will be a fantastic start to a year of celebrations." The unification is kindly supported by the law firm Linklaters, whose partner Richard Godden comments: "The arbitrary authority of the state is just as much a threat today as it was in the day of King John and the principles enshrined in Magna Carta remain essential not only in relation to personal liberty but to creating an environment in which business can prosper. We forget them at our peril."
Magna Carta was issued by King John of England in June 1215, in an attempt to stave off the demands of his rebellious barons. Although Magna Carta was annulled by Pope Innocent III within ten weeks, revised versions were issued on behalf of John's successors Henry III (1216–1272) and Edward I (1272–1307), in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297 respectively. On this final occasion Magna Carta was entered onto the statute roll, and thus became enshrined in English law. Its key clause has never been annulled, and has ensured Magna Carta's status as one of the foundations of international law, since it influenced the drafters of the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and other constitutional texts. The relevant clause (actually clauses 39 and 40 combined) reads as follows:
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
Once Magna Carta was sealed (not signed) by King John, a number of copies were distributed to the sheriffs and bishops of England in June and July 1215. Just four of these copies of the original 1215 version of Magna Carta have survived, two of which are now held at the British Library and one each at Lincoln and Salisbury. The Lincoln and Salisbury Magna Cartas are presumably those sent to the respective cathedrals in 1215; the British Library's two copies both belonged to the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), one of them being sent to him in 1630 by the lieutenant of Dover Castle, and the other being found in a London tailor's shop. Only one of the four original documents still has its seal attached, but that copy (at the British Library) was damaged badly by a combination of fire in 1731 and a failed attempt at restoration in 1834.
Lincoln Cathedral's copy of Magna Carta on occasion travels for display at other institutions, while one of the British Library's two copies was loaned to the Library of Congress for the United States bicentennial celebrations in 1976. However, it is still exceedingly rare for these documents to leave their usual homes, and entirely unprecedented for them to be brought together in one place. The fact that they were written and distributed over a number of weeks in 1215 means that this is the first time ever that these copies of the original Magna Carta have been unified.
You can read more about Magna Carta, including seeing the Magna Carta viewer, a complete translation, and virtual curator videos, on the British Library's website.
01 July 2013
The British Library is delighted to be a major lender to the exhibition The Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham, which runs from 1 July to 30 September 2013. No fewer than six of the Library's greatest Anglo-Saxon and medieval treasures are on display at Palace Green Library in Durham, among them the St Cuthbert Gospel, the Ceolfrith Bible and, of course, the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels.
The loan of these treasures marks the culmination of many years' planning and collaboration between the British Library, Durham University, Durham Cathedral and Durham County Council. It provides an outstanding opportunity for visitors to examine these books at close-hand, and in the context of other artefacts including objects from the Staffordshire Hoard and from the tomb of St Cuthbert.
The star object in this exhibition is undoubtedly the Lindisfarne Gospels, which (according to a colophon added on its final page) was made by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (698-c. 721). The monastic community of Lindisfarne fled its home in response to Viking raids, carrying their books with them, settling temporarily at Chester-le-Street and finally at Durham. Every page of the Lindisfarne Gospels is witness to Anglo-Saxon artistic craftsmanship. Particularly noteworthy for art historians are its carpet pages, evangelist portraits and decorated initials; but the meticulous, half-uncial script is also of the highest calibre. The pages currently on display are from the canon tables which precede the four gospels (one of which is shown above). The Lindisfarne Gospels can be viewed in its entirety on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, and can also normally be seen on display in our Treasures Gallery.
Another manuscript to be seen in the Durham exhibition is the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book, still to be found it its original leather binding. This book was purchased for the nation in 2012 following the largest such fundraising campaign ever conducted by the British Library. Most scholars agree that it was made in around AD 698, at the time when Cuthbert's body was translated to a new tomb at Lindisfarne. The coffin was re-opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104, and the book (a copy of the Gospel of St John) found inside. Two of its text-pages can be seen at the Palace Green Library, one of which has a contemporary annotation, as also seen above. Once again, the entire manuscript can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.
An early Bible associated with Anglo-Saxon Northumbria has also been loaned by the British Library to Durham. The fragmentary Ceolfrith Bible (Additional MS 45025) was one of three great pandects (single-volume Bibles) commissioned by Abbot Ceolfrith of Wearmouth-Jarrow (690-716). This Bible seemingly left its home at a very early stage, perhaps as a gift to King Offa of Mercia (757-796), before arriving at Worcester Cathedral Library. After the Middle Ages it was broken up to be used as binding papers in a set of Nottinghamshire estate accounts, before a handful of leaves were subsequently rescued and purchased on behalf of the British Library. This manuscript was the subject of a recent blog-post, describing its fortuitous survival.
As well as the Lindisfarne Gospels, a second Anglo-Saxon gospel-book has been loaned by the British Library to the Durham exhibition. This is the so-called "Royal Athelstan Gospels" (Royal MS 1 B VII), which was also shown at our own recent Royal Manuscripts exhibition, and is described in more detail in its accompanying catalogue. Made in Northumbria in the first half of the 8th century, this book contains an added manumission in Old English, stating that King Athelstan of Wessex (924-939) had freed a certain Eadhelm from slavery.
The fifth British Library manuscript in the new exhibition is the Durham Liber Vitae or Book of Life (Cotton MS Domitian A VII). This book was made in the 9th century, written in gold and silver ink, and was continued by generations of monks until the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. It contains the names of members of the monastic community, together with those of other religious and benefactors, including various Anglo-Saxon kings: you can read more about it in our post The Durham Book of Life Online.
Last, but definitely not least, the British Library's famous illustrated Life of St Cuthbert (Yates Thompson MS 26) forms part of the Durham exhibition. This book contains the text of Bede's prose Life of Cuthbert, accompanied by a series of exquisite full-page miniatures. It has been featured regularly on our blog, most notably in the post entitled A Menagerie of Miracles (who can forget the image of the otters washing Cuthbert's feet?).
Lending these manuscripts to Durham underlines the British Library's commitment to increase access to its world-famous collections, and to promote new research into medieval manuscript culture. To find out more about them, have a look at Digitised Manuscripts, where all six books can be examined in great detail. Lindisfarne Gospels Durham: One Amazing Book, One Incredible Journey is on show at Palace Green Library until 30 September 2013.
29 May 2013
Last September, the Bulgarian Embassy and His Excellency Mr Konstantin Dimitrov, the Ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to the United Kingdom, hosted a private view of two Bulgarian manuscripts that are now on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. On that occasion, we were delighted to announce that the whole of the Gospels of Ivan Alexander can now be viewed on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.
На тази електронна страница можете да разгледате Четириевангелието на цар Иван Александър, най-богато украсеният средновековен български ръкопис.
Now, as part of the British Weeks in Bulgaria, the British Embassy in Sofia will host a screening of the film ‘Portrait of a Quest’ about the Gospels of Ivan Alexander. The event will be held on 5 June 2013 at the British Residence, 6pm to 8pm. Free entrance, RSVP: BritishEmbassySofia@fco.gov.uk.
The British Weeks in Bulgaria is a celebration of Bulgarian-British links that includes more than twenty events to take place in Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna. The events highlight the close links and prospects resulting from the close relationship between Bulgaria and Great Britain. For more information and a full programme, please follow this link.
The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (Additional MS 39627) is the most celebrated surviving example of Bulgarian medieval art. Written over 650 years ago, in the middle of the 14th century, the manuscript contains the Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Accompanying and fully integrated into the text, no fewer than 366 illustrations – one for each day of the year – illustrate an extensive range of events from the narrative of the four Evangelists. The scribe Simeon recounts that the book was created ‘not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration, of colours, gold, precious stones and diamonds, but primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision’. On display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery at St Pancras is a portrait of the Tsar in Paradise between Abraham and the Virgin Mary and within the overall context of a magnificent depiction of the Last Judgment. The starting point for this large illumination is Mark’s account of Jesus’s prophecy of the end of time.
The manuscript is a remarkable survival. Within forty years of the completion of the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, its patron was dead and his empire destroyed. Unlike many other artistic treasures of this remarkable period in Bulgarian history, the Gospels escaped destruction, finding its way north across the Danube. Here it came into the possession of the ruler of Moldavia, also called Ivan Alexander. For several centuries the history of the Gospels is unclear. By the 17th century, however, it appears to have reached the monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos. There it remained until its presentation in 1837 by the abbot of St Paul’s to the young English traveller the Hon. Robert Curzon. Brought by Curzon to England, it was later presented to the British Museum by his daughter.
28 January 2013
2012 was a milestone year for the Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE), the National Library of Spain: throughout the year, the library celebrated the 300th anniversary of its foundation in 1712, by King Felipe V. In this initial incarnation it was the Biblioteca Pública de Palacio, the Palace Public Library, and in 1836 was transferred from ownership by the crown to the Ministerio de la Gobernación (Ministry of Governance). Today, it is Spain's largest library, with collections stretching to 15 million printed books and tens of thousands of manuscripts.
In honour of these 300 years of history and letters, today's
featured manuscript is not from the collections of the British Library,
but from those
of the BNE, as we are excited to contribute here our own 'virtual
exhibition' to a series of joint exhibition projects that have been
taking place throughout Spain.
from the BNE's collections -- including manuscripts, drawings, prints,
paintings, maps, photographs, and books -- are being displayed in
important museums and cultural
institutions across Spain. They will thus reach new publics, be seen in fresh contexts, and inspire
different viewpoints, as well as establish a
dialogue with works from the collections of more than thirty Spanish
intention of the BNE and of Acción Cultural Española (AC/E) is to ensure that
even those who cannot visit the Library in Madrid can still participate in an event that
marks 300 years of a shared cultural history, and the British Library is eager to take part, bringing this cultural exchange to cyberspace!
The focus of today's 'exhibition' is a recently acquired mid-sixteenth-century manuscript, called a códice de trajes, or 'costume book',
made in Germany
by an anonymous artist. This is an
example of a type of book that – while it may seem strange to us today, in our
culturally interconnected world – was quite popular in the sixteenth
century. It is a collection of pictures
of clothing worn by people from different countries and different walks of life,
celebrating the diversity of national costumes.
Books like these are extremely valuable to us today, allowing us to
recreate the dress of people who are far removed from us, not by space, but by
centuries of time.
In addition to pictures of people, grouped together on an
empty ground as a kind of pictorial fashion-show, the manuscript also has an
interest in ceremonial, depicting some of the important events of the period,
along with the people who took part and, most importantly, the clothing they
wore. We can see here, therefore,
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, enthroned between seven of his
electors, identified by coats of arms and carrying imperial regalia. Charles V is depicted as an older man – as he
would have been at the time of the manuscript's production in 1547. His portrait, like the depictions of costumes
throughout the manuscript, is copied from other sources rather than taken from
life, but the images still provide a beautiful and detailed glimpse into the
colour and pomp of the sixteenth century.
Miniature of Englishwomen, being (left to right) the wife of a citizen of London, the wife of a wealthy citizen of London, his young daughter, and 'a country-woman as they go nowadays'; from Lucas de Heere, A Description of England, Scotland, and Ireland, England, 1573-1575, Add. MS 28330, f. 33r.
One of the advantages of electronic media is the ability to
bring together objects that, physically, may be very far apart. It is wonderful, therefore, to be able to
compare side-by-side the pictures from this BNE manuscript with illustrations
from a book in the British Library's own collection. A Description
of England, Scotland, and Ireland, produced in Germany only a few decades later,
contains beautiful coloured drawings by the painter Lucas de Heere, which
clearly partake in the same tradition of descriptive portrayal of costume. The group of Englishwomen shown above
demonstrate the differences in city and country fashions, the three
middle-class and wealthy Londoners on the left presenting a sharp contrast with
the country-dweller on the right. And
perhaps the older among them might recognize in the Englishwomen of the BNE
manuscript the fashions of their youth!
A shared interest in the appearance and costume of the monarch: detail of a miniature of Queen Elizabeth I, from Lucas de Heere, A Description of England, Scotland, and Ireland, England, 1573-1575, Add. MS 28330, f. 4r.
We have been delighted to produce this 'virtual exhibition' with the assistance of the Biblioteca Nacional de España, who have generously contributed images from their collection to appear in this post. Happy Birthday, BNE!
24 January 2013
Machaon and Podalirius butterflies, from Butterfly and Moth Paintings by Elizabeth Dennis Denyer ('Drawings of
Lepidopterous Insects'), England, 1800, Additional MS 6895, f. 8r
As the forthcoming panels at Leeds sponsored by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section will demonstrate, the reading room at the British Library is often the place where exciting discoveries are made (see here and here for our sessions at the 2013 Leeds International Medieval Congress). These discoveries encompass a broad range of topics, from new scribal attributions and previously unknown historical events, to hidden words in illuminations.
It is a pleasure to announce that lepidopterology (the study of butterflies and moths) can now be added to this list.
Iris butterflies, from Butterfly and Moth Paintings by Elizabeth Dennis Denyer ('Drawings of
Lepidopterous Insects'), England, 1800, Additional MS 6895, f. 34r
While conducting research last year on Elizabeth Denyer, an eighteenth-century restorer of medieval manuscripts and early printed books, I came across a book of butterfly paintings which she based on specimens in the collection of her Chelsea neighbour, the renowned entomologist William Jones. After contacting Dick Vane-Wright, I realised that this book has remained unknown since it was bequeathed to the British Museum by Elizabeth, and that further it has much to tell us about the early history of entomology.
Detail of a vignette of John Denyer and Martha Denyer (parents of the artist Elizabeth Denyer) in profile and in silhouette, made on a separate piece of paper and mounted on the page, from Butterfly and Moth Paintings by Elizabeth Dennis Denyer ('Drawings of Lepidopterous Insects'), England, 1800, Additional MS 6895, f. 54r
Our initial findings were recently published in Antenna: the Bulletin of the Royal Entomological Society, and we are delighted to be able to share them with the public. Click Download Antenna 36(4) 239-246 for a PDF of the article.
We are very grateful to the British Library, and our thanks to the Royal Entomological Society for permission to make our article freely available on the internet. (The text is copyright of the RES, Sonja Drimmer and R.I. Vane-Wright. Copyright of the images is noted against each image in the article.)
While lepidopterology only originated as a field of scientific enquiry in the 17th century, the beauty of butterflies was not lost on our medieval forebears. Previous posts on this blog have featured manuscript illuminations showing a monstrously large butterfly supervising (?) the plowing of a field, as well as an ape hunting a butterfly in the margins of a manuscript of the Estoire del Saint Graal.
Chaucer, however, seems to have held the multicolored insects in somewhat lower esteem. Disappointed with the depressing tales told by the Monk, the Canterbury Host exclaims, 'Youre tale anoyeth al this compaigne / Swich talkyng is nat worth a boterflye.'
We hope you find them worth a whole lot more!
Lecturer, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University
Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval