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329 posts categorized "Featured manuscripts"

01 October 2016

A Calendar Page for October 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for October from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

More emphasis on mythology and the naming of months can be found in the calendar pages for October in the Bedford Hours. 

Detail of miniatures of a man sowing and the zodiac sign Scorpio, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

Preparing for winter was the focus of most agricultural labour in the medieval era, and on the lower right of the first calendar folio we can see a peasant at work sowing seed in a barren field (barren save for the seeds, at any rate). Next to this busy man is an oddly-shaped scorpion, minus the tell-tale stinger in its tail, for the zodiac sign Scorpio. 

Detail of a marginal roundel of Saturnus, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a crowned king standing before a group of seated men. This, the rubrics tell us, is Saturn, one of the oldest of the Roman gods. The verses at the bottom of the folio go on to explain that October, which is ‘named after the number eight which signifies justice’, is dedicated to Saturn, and that the time of his reign was a golden one because ‘everyone lived justly’. Saturn’s origins in the Roman pantheon are complex, but interestingly, there is a theory that his name is etymologically derived from the word satu, or ‘sowing’, fitting for a god of agriculture (and echoing the labour on the same folio). 

Calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10v

A particularly charming scene can be found on the following folio. To the left of the remainder of the saints’ days for October is a marginal miniature of a woman, clad in a long blue dress and standing among trees that are shedding their leaves for fall.  She holds in one hand a knife (or pair of scissors), while with the other she is gathering her blonde tresses. This is a lovely illustration of the accompanying rubrics, which tell us that in the month of October ‘the earth takes off its ornaments’. Below is a miniature of another seated man, surrounded by a group of adoring men. This, we are told, is another person to whom October is dedicated: Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War.

Detail of marginal roundels of the earth taking off her ornaments and Scipio Africanus, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10v


Sarah J Biggs


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01 September 2016

A Calendar Page for September 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for September from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

Summer’s end is in the air in the calendar pages for September from the Bedford Hours.

Detail of miniatures of a man treading grapes and the zodiac sign Libra, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

The heavy agricultural work of the summer begins to give way to the preparations for autumn, and this calendar page for September shows one of the most common of these preparations.  On the lower left, a man is carefully treading grapes in a vat for making wine; he has removed his trousers for this messy job, but his jaunty cap remains intact.  To his right is a female figure carrying a set of scales, for the zodiac sign Libra.

Detail of a marginal roundel of Palas, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a king with a forked beard, seated in a garden.  Behind him stands an angel with an open book, which is visible behind the king’s crown.  This scene is only somewhat explained by the accompanying rubric, which describes how the month of September is named after the number seven, which is ‘dedicated to Palas which means wisdom’.  The honorific Pallas was given to the goddess Athena, who was indeed the goddess of wisdom.

Calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9v

More details about the month of September can be found on the following folio.  The first marginal roundel shows a bearded man, clad in green leaves, standing in a walled garden overflowing with plants.  Above him in gold lettering is the name ‘Verto[m]pn[us]’, who the rubric tells us produces fruit ‘in the month of September’.  This figure is almost certainly that of Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasonal change, fruit trees, growth and gardens.  At the bottom is a figure of a regal woman standing in a garden, with a bird flying directly before her.  She is labelled ‘Elul’ and the rubrics go on to explain that the month of September is ‘called in Hebrew elul which means the mother of God.’ (Elul is the sixth month of the Hebrew ecclesiastical calendar, corresponding to parts of August and September in the Gregorian system.)

Detail of marginal roundels of Vertumnus and Elul, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9v

01 August 2016

A Calendar Page for August 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for August from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 8r

It’s a beautiful August on the pages of the Bedford Hours calendar.

Detail of miniatures of a man threshing wheat and the zodiac sign Virgo, from the calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8r

The month of August was one of heavy labour for medieval peasants, and at the bottom of the first folio for August we can see a man hard at work threshing wheat.  The landscape surrounding him seems hotter and drier than in previous months, and this background is mirrored in the accompanying miniature.  A young lady in blue appears to be saluting the noble peasant, for the zodiac sign Virgo.

Detail of a marginal roundel of Augustus, from the calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8r

At the bottom of the folio is a miniature that echoes that of Julius Caesar from the end of July, with a king seated on a throne, surrounded by his counsel (albeit without the treasonous murder).  This is no accident, as this miniature is of Caesar Augustus (Octavian), Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted heir.  August was named after the said Augustus, as the rubrics tell us, for this ‘nephew of Julius wanted a month to be dedicated to him like his uncle’.  And he apparently got his wish!

Calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8v

The emphasis on Caesar Augustus continues on the following folio.  Adjoining the remainder of the saints’ days for August are two miniature roundels that illustrate additional episodes from the life of this Roman Emperor.  At the middle left is a scene of battle; in the midst of this a gray-bearded man looks at the viewer in a similar way as the throne miniature – this may be Augustus himself.  The rubrics tell us that this shows how ‘Augustus won victory from Anthony his comrade’, illustrating the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 27 BC.  Following this is a miniature of company travelling on horseback, many of whom are playing trumpets adorned with banners reading ‘paix’ (peace) in gold lettering.  This mirrors the rubrics yet again, which describe how Augustus ‘gave peace to the whole world in his time’. 

Detail of marginal roundels of Caesar in battle and bringing peace, from the calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8v

-  Sarah J Biggs

14 July 2016

Manuscript the Tube

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Some time ago I was alone in the office on a Friday evening and was left in charge of the @BLMedieval Twitter account. This is sometimes dangerous. Among my sillier inventions is the hashtag #WodewoseWednesday, which created a low-velocity Twitter storm as people sent us images of endearing, furry Wildmen (or Wodewoses) from manuscripts across the world. By the end of that day, Twitter had reduced me to near hysterical giggles and I wondered if I might have to lie down under my desk. 

It all started quite innocently on the Friday in question, when Johan Oosterman @JohanOosterman posted an image of the British Library’s Egerton MS 1900, f. 100r, with the caption ‘Elephant and Castle’. Here is that image, taken from a late 15th-century German travelogue, which describes a journey from Venice to Egypt.

Elephant and castle

Amused by this tweet, I thought of other names of London Tube stations that could be represented by manuscript images. I retweeted the first suggestion and invited people to #manuscriptthetube. The results showed just how inventively people engage with manuscripts that have been made digitally available. It was also a reminder that medieval London is not far from the surface and you do not need to dig deep, not even as deep as a Tube platform, to find its traces. Here, in the most modern of media – digital images representing a modern transport network – was a reminder of the city’s past, of its rich lexicon of medieval place names and the imagination of its inhabitants and an online community further afield.

 Royal 16 F II f73
Earliest known topographically accurate view of London, with the Tower of London and Duke Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower, from Charles d’Orléans, Poetry and Pseudo-Heloise, Epistles, 'Les demands d'amours', and  'Le livre dit grace entiere', Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1483 (this image) with later additions, c. 1492 – c. 1500, Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Tower of London Underground Ralf Roletschek
A 21st-century view of the Tower of London, photographed by Ralf Roletschek, England (London), 13 October 2010. 

Like many Londoners, I have a great affection for the iconic London Tube map. It’s a masterpiece of design. The map was designed by Henry Beck (1902-1974) in 1932. His innovation was to take some liberties with geography and thereby make the stations appear evenly spaced, ordered and legible. In its broad palette and dovetailing lines it’s a visual representation of all of London’s colour and variety. In many ways, Beck's map is similar to a manuscript like Egerton MS 1900, itself a colourfully illustrated travelogue with some distortions of distance. 

Below is a run-down of some of our favourite tweets which #manuscriptthetube. Please continue to send us your suggestions via @BLMedieval. We've embedded the links to all the original tweets in everyone's Twitter handles. 


A Run-Down of Our Favourites

Some suggestions gestured to the medieval history embedded in London's place names, like this one from Buckland Abbey @BucklandAbbeyNT, for Blackfriars. Blackfriars is named after a community of Dominican monks or ‘black friars’, so called because of the black habit they wore. It was established in 1221 near Lincoln’s Inn. The image here is from @thegetty's MS 107, f. 224r


Some punned on the names of Tube stations, like Acton Town from Susannah Davis @aethelflaed with an image from the Bodleian Library @bodleianlibs MS Auct F 2 13

Acton Town

Harrow on the Hill  station proved to be a rich source of inspiration for Adam @pseudomonas, with an image from our 'Taymouth Hours', ?London, c. 1325-50, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 68v

Harrow on the hill, YT

Harrow on the Hill got a second outing in my personal favourite of the punning suggestions from @SLevelt, Sjoerd Levelt, with an image from our Speculum humanae salvationis, England, c.1485-1509, Harley MS 2838, f. 33v

  Harrow on the hill

Geoff Griffiths @Cheoffors offered both Baker Street/Baker's Treat and also Pudding Lane with this image from the Getty Museum @theGetty from a mid 13th-century psalter, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, f. 8v


Baker's treat

@Cheoffors also suggested a wonderful image for Heat-throw/Heathrow (All Terminals) from Codex Skylitzes Matritensis, Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, Vitr. 26-2, Bild-Nr. 77, f.  34 v


Richard Fitch @tudorcook was in playful mood with an image of Arsenal from @MorganLibrary's late 14th-century copy of Jacques de Longuyon's Vows of the Peacock, in MS G 24, f. 25v



And we also loved his suggestion for Hatch End from the Hague's MS MMW 10 B 25, f. 31r

Hatch end


 Commonplace Berk @stambuch was typically witty in his suggestion for Kilburn from the Bodleian Library's Douce MS 332. You can see his other suggestion here (caution advised). 


Others were more literal representations of the names of tube stations, like London Bridge (Mind the gap!) from @DollyJorgensen with an image from our Yates Thompson MS 47, a copy of John Lydgate's Life of Saint Edmund, made in ?Bury St Edmunds, c. 1461-75.

  London bridge


We are thrilled that the Getty Museum @thegetty took up our British challenge and suggested Seven Sisters from an image of Philosophy presenting the seven liberal arts to Boethius by the Coëtivy Master.

Seven sisters

 Geoff Griffiths @Cheoffors also used this image for High Barnet. For our non-British readers, 'barnet' is cockney rhyming slang for 'hair' (it comes from 'Barnet fair') and also means 'head'.

 High barnet

Rayners Lane, from Susannah Davis @aethelflaed was a very British suggestion, with a detail of Croesus from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, ?Bury St Edmunds, c. 1450-60, Harley MS 1766, f. 133r

H 1766 f133r

And there was a bleak and brilliant humour to her suggestion for Amersham from Add MS 18851, the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, made in Bruges in c. 1497. 


Elephant and Castle  got a second outing from @SophieVHarwood with a detail of the death of Codrus, from Speculum humanae salvationis, England (London), c. 1485-1509, Harley MS 2838

H 2838 f27

C R Stillman-Lowe @SICathy sent us this lovely angel for, um, Angel from the 'Taymouth Hours', our Yates Thompson MS 13


C R Stillman-Lowe @SICathy also tagged some bemused-looking barons for Barons Court, with a detail of Merlin standing before King Arthur, from the Lancelot-Grail (The Prose Vulgate Cycle), Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 200v 

Tw Add 10292 f200v

@DollyJorgensen was on fine form, suggesting Hammersmith with detail of a blacksmith, from a fragmentary Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320 - c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, f. 68   

H 6563 f68v

I loved some of the madder ones. Like this suggestion of Oval from Anthony Bale @RealMandeville. Yep, it's a wound. 


Our very own @julianpharrison gave us Fulham Broadway (or possibly Tott[ering]ham Court Road?). No we didn't get it either, but we thought we should put it up in any case to keep him happy. And it does depict a pig on stilts, from Jean Froissart's Chroniques (the 'Harley Froissart'), Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 19v

H 4379 f19v

Finally, Erik Kwakkel @erik_kwakkel gave us a very witty suggestion which gestured to the history of our collection. He suggested Burnt Oak, with an image of some of the charred fragments of manuscripts destroyed in the Cotton Fire. You can read about the terrible fire which destroyed part of the library's Cotton collection here

Burnt oak

 Which are your favourite entries from #manuscriptthetube? We'd love to hear your suggestions: please tweet us @BLMedieval or leave a comment below this blogpost.





Susan Reed @sureed67 reminded us that Saint Pancras was 'Beheaded by the Emperor. So you could say the King was Cross with St Pancras'. Find out more about who this king, or rather emperor, was and why he was cross with St Pancras,  by checking out our St Pancras' Day blog post).

Detail Royal 2 B VII f. 249v

Detail of St Pancras and the Emperor Diocletian, from Queen Mary Psalter, England (Westminster or East Anglia?), c. 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 249v

01 July 2016

A Calendar Page for July 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for July from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 7r

Summer is in full swing in the Bedford Hours calendar pages for the month of July. 

Detail of miniatures of a man scything wheat and the zodiac sign Leo, from the calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7r

At the bottom of the folio is a miniature of a man engaged in a very typical labour of the month for July, scything wheat.  Although he is surrounded by a bucolic landscape including a river and a small bridge, our peasant appears less than pleased about his task.  Happily, his grumpy attitude is not shared by his companion at the bottom of the page, a remarkably jolly looking lion, for the zodiac sign Leo.

Detail of a marginal roundel of Julius Caesar, from the calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7r

On the middle left of the folio is a roundel miniature of an armoured king, crowned, holding a sword and a tablet headed with the letters ‘KL’ – a very simplified version of a medieval calendar.  This king, the rubrics tell us, is Julius Caesar, for whom the month of July was named.  The verses go on to describe how Caesar ‘fixed and put in order’ the months of the year that were ‘confused in the ancient calendar’ and for this achievement he was eternally memorialised. 

Calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7v

The saints’ days for July continue on the following folio, accompanied by two marginal roundels. The first of these, on the middle left, shows a snarling dog who appears to be biting at a bright star; this is most likely intended to represent Canis, the star that the rubrics tell us is ‘reigning’ in the month of July.  At the bottom is a less pleasant scene of Julius Caesar.  He is here seated on this throne, raising his arm in alarm as another man plunges a dagger in his chest.  Two men close by are also pulling daggers from their sheaths in a scene that illustrates how Caesar ‘was killed by his counsel.’

Detail of marginal roundels of Canis and the murder of Julius Caesar, from the calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7v

-   Sarah J Biggs

07 June 2016

‘I Am an Antichrist’: Demons, Vices and Punks

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The British Library’s new free exhibition, Punk 1976-78 is now open to the public (until 2 October 2016). This exhibition examines Punk’s influence on music, fashion, print and politics in the 40 years since the Sex Pistols came to prominence. However, the Medieval Manuscripts Section is here to tell you that rebellious attitudes and rad hairstyles have been around for much longer than 40 years!

Wrath fights Patience, from Prudentius's Psychomachia, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 11r

The British Library’s manuscripts depict a variety of medieval rule breakers or expectation-defiers, from colourful fools to rebels who violently challenged social and political norms.

Detail of Wat Tyler and John Ball leading the Peasants' Revolt, from
Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol. 2, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Royal MS 18 E I, f. 165v

One set of medieval rule breakers seem particularly pertinent to the later punk scene: demons and vices. In the opening lines of the Sex Pistols’ controversial debut single ‘Anarchy in the UK’, Johnny Rotten proclaims, ‘I am an antichrist.’ Since Late Antiquity, artists and poets in Western Europe often used imagery of antichrists—opponents of Christ, conceived of as false prophets or demons or vices—to signal countercultural status. The Sex Pistols were, consciously or unconsciously, tapping into a tradition that was over a thousand years old.

The Antichrist from the Silos Apocalypse, Spain (Santo Domingo de Silos), c. 1091-1109, Add MS 11695, f. 143r

In particular, the British Library is in the process of digitising two sets of texts related to demons, virtues, vices, rulebreakers, antichrists and anarchy. The first are Apocalypse manuscripts, of which we have 19 in our collections, 10 of which have been recently digitised. One of these, Additional MS 19896, a 15th- century Latin copy made in Germany, contains a four-part miniature of the Book of Revelation, Chapter XI, which features a beast often described as the Antichrist:

Add_ms_19896_f008v Add_ms_19896_f009r

Scenes from the Antichrist story, with the Antichrist represented as the beast of the bottomless pit who kills the two witnesses (here Enoch and Elias), followed by the great earthquake, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Germany, Additional MS 19896, ff. 8v-9r

A parallel version of the Book of Revelation in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse, also recently digitised (Royal MS 2 D XIII), contains an illustration of the same scenes: vengeance rains down on the Antichrist and the souls of the two witnesses are taken up into heaven.

Royal_ms_2_d_xiii_f023v Royal_ms_2_d_xiii_f024r

The Antichrist kills the two witnesses; the ascension of the witnesses and the persecution of the Antichrist in the great earthquake (Revelation XI: 7-13), early 14th century, England or France, Royal MS 2 D XIII, ff. 23v-24r

Although the fashions and hairstyles do not obviously call to mind the punk asethetic, wild and wacky characters and dress are everywhere, as you will see if you look at our previous blogposts on the Apocalypse manuscripts.

A different take on anti-christs-- in the sense of opponents of Christ-- comes from the second set of manuscripts depicting rule breakers which we are digitising. These are copies of the Psychomachia by Prudentius, a provincial governor-turned-ascetic from Northern Spain (d. c. 413).  This poem describes seven virtues, such as Faith, Chastity and Patience, duelling seven vices, including Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, Sodomy, and Wrath.  In between, the poet digresses with Biblical examples to emphasize that vices oppose what Christ stands for, whereas the virtues will help save souls. We have already digitised one of the illustrated copies of the Psychomachia in the British Library’s collection (Additional MS 24199), made in England in the late 10th and early 11th century.

Wrath fighting Patience, from Prudentius, Psychomachia, England (Bury St Edmunds?),  c.980-1010, Add MS 24199, f. 10r

In particular, having just seen the Punk exhibition’s cases on punk fashion, some members of the section were struck by the wild hairstyle which the Anglo-Saxon artist gave Wrath. She would not have looked out of place in Vivienne Westwood’s and Malcolm McLaren’s circle 1000 years later (although the illustrator did not intend Wrath to be seen as a trendsetter). Demons, too, were frequently depicted with gravity-defying hairdos and revealing or torn clothing in western medieval art.

Tweet add_ms_24199_f012r
Detail of Pride’s entrance, from Additional MS 24199, f. 12r

But while the punk movement used torn clothing and wild hair as a sign of countercultural rebellion, in the Psychomachia such attire was not, it should be noted, a feature of all vices, nor was it necessarily forbidden from virtues. In the recently digitised copy of the Psychomachia, Pride (Superbia) is depicted with particularly flamboyant and sumptuous attire. Meanwhile, the text describes Faith taking to the field of battle with ‘her rough dress disordered, her arms exposed’ as she faces off against Worship-of-the-Old-Gods (translated by H. J. Thomson, Prudentius, with an English translation (1949), p. 281). The Anglo-Saxon illustrator did depict Faith fully dressed, however, as she crowned a group of martyrs.

Detail of Faith fighting Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, from Additional MS 24199, f. 4v

There are many other parallels that can be drawn between the punk movement and the medieval period. Indeed, punks themselves sometimes explicitly invoked medieval imagery. Tenpole Tudor’s band name may have been a reference to its lead singer’s name, rather than Henry VIII’s jousting exploits, but their song ‘Swords of 1000 Men’ and its accompanying cover art show how they were inspired by neo-medievalism and also subverted it. If any aspiring punk rockers are reading this, please bear in mind digitised manuscripts from the 1470s and 1000s, as well as albums from the 1970s, as a source of inspiration.

~Alison Hudson and Chantry Westwell

Read more about demons in medieval art:

Demons in a Bible moralisée 

Demons (and a medieval umbrella) in the Harley Psalter

Guthlac the Demon Slayer 

Prepare to meet your doom

01 June 2016

A Calendar Page for June 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for June from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 6r

More beautiful summer scenes greet us in the folios for June from the Bedford Hours. 

Detail of miniatures of a man mowing and the zodiac sign Cancer, from the calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6r

On the lower section of the folio are the traditional miniatures of the labour of the month and the zodiac sign.  On the left a peasant is at work mowing grass, with a waterwheel visible in the background.  To the right is a lobster-like crab, for the zodiac sign Cancer.

Detail of a marginal roundel of Juno, from the calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6r

At the right of the folio is a miniature roundel of a crowned woman seated among chests full of gold and jewels.  The rubrics at the bottom of the folio explain this unusual scene: this is Juno (Hera), who was both sister and wife of Jupiter (Zeus).  The month of June is of course named after Juno, who was ‘called the goddess of riches’ and also, interestingly, ‘put all the young men to the test of bravery’. 

Calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6v

Juno’s importance in the month of June is echoed on the following folio.  Amongst the remainder of the saints’ days are two miniature roundels.  The first shows the marriage of Hercules and Hebe, who was the cupbearer of the gods and the daughter of Juno and Jupiter.  Hebe was said to have the power to give eternal youth, and June is a month in which one could believe in such things.  The following scene shows two crowned kings greeting one another while holding branches of peace; the rubric is somewhat confusing but it most likely refers to the legendary peace between the Sabine king Titus Tatius and the Roman king Romulus, following which the two jointly ruled over Rome.

Detail of marginal roundels of the marriage of Hebe and Hercules and the peace between Titus Tatius and Romulus, from the calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6v

-  Sarah J Biggs 

23 May 2016

Size Matters

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The British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website reveals a number of remarkable things in the text and decoration of over 1460 complete manuscripts (and counting). One thing Digitised Manuscripts cannot show you, however, is the actual size of the manuscripts, since our viewer is limited by the size of your screen. Medieval book-makers did not have those limitations, and the British Library’s manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes.

Little and Large 2
The Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VII, next to the Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991

We recently uploaded a two-volume Anglo-Saxon Bible to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 1 E VII and Royal MS 1 E VIII). These volumes are notable for a number of reasons: first, they form one of only two more or less complete Bibles which were made in England before 1066 and which still survive. Secondly, they are remarkable for their large size, measuring 570 x 350 mm (making it the size of a small child). Here’s one of these volumes next to a 22 cm ruler.

Royal_ms_1_e_viii_fblefr (2) 

Front cover of the Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VIII

Many of the British Library’s largest manuscripts are Bibles or liturgical manuscripts. This makes sense, given these texts’ spiritual importance and the role they might have been expected to play in ceremonies and impressive performances. Other texts exist in large formats, too. Cotton MS Augustus V—which recently travelled to the Everlasting Flame exhibition in New Delhi—contains the Trésor des histoires, a middle French version of an anonymous historical compilation in prose from Creation to the pontificate of Clement VI, with other 14th-century texts interpolated. Like many luxurious manuscripts, it was designed to express the social status of its owner. Such manuscripts were sometimes copied more to be seen than read. Cotton Augustus V was made in Bruges and measures an impressive 480 x 230 mm. Its elaborate fifty-five miniatures show a special concern for the treatment of light. This manuscript was part of King Henry VIII of England’s library: it is the 'item 23' in the 1535 Richmond Palace booklist (February 1535). Its size, the high quality of illumination and script, and the rarity of the text make it a perfect example of a deluxe manuscript intended to display the King’s treasures at court.

Page with miniature from Trésor des histoires, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Cotton Augustus V, f. 18r

At the other end of the scale—literally—the British Library recently acquired a very small manuscript, known as the Taverner Prayerbook (Add MS 88991). Probably made for Anne Seymour (b. c. 1497, d. 1587), Countess of Hertford and later Duchess of Somerset, this manuscript contains a number of prayers and beautifully detailed illumination on pages measuring only 70 x 52 mm.

Taverner Pratyerbook Ruler
The Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991, with a 22-cm ruler 

But the Taverner Prayerbook is by no means the smallest manuscript in the British Library’s collection. For example, the tiny Stowe MS 956 may have been worn on a necklace or girdle and is only slightly bigger than a modern postage stamp.

Stowe 956 ff. 1v-2
Portrait of Henry VIII, from Psalms in English Verse, South East England, c. 1540, Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r

In between these, there are many other interestingly shaped manuscripts at the British Library, from long thin almanacs designed to be worn on belts to the earliest surviving ‘pocket-sized’ English law book (Cotton MS Nero A I) to the recently acquired St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000). That handy manuscript is just slightly larger than a person's palm.

CB with Add 89000
The St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), early 8th century, Add 89000

You can see the St Cuthbert Gospel and many of the other manuscripts mentioned in this post on Digitised Manuscripts, but remember to check the dimensions listed in the 'Full Display' page: size matters! 

Laure Miolo and Alison Hudson


Related Content:

 Lady Jane Grey’s Prayer Book

The Ceolfrith Bible

Codex Sinaiticus Online

The Giant Stavelot Bible