Medieval manuscripts blog

289 posts categorized "Featured manuscripts"

21 August 2015

When Tristan met Lancelot

Add comment Comments (0)

Add_ms_5474_f027v DETAIL
Tristan swearing an oath and being accepted as a knight of the Round Table. Add MS 5474, f. 27v, France, N., 4th quarter of the 13th century

Who was the best knight ever to wield lance or sword? Was it Lancelot, whose love for Queen Guinevere spurred him on to no end of daring-do? Was it his son, Galahad, so pure-hearted that he could even be entrusted with the Holy Grail? Or was it perhaps Tristan, a dab-hand on the tournament circuit, but also a masterful musician? These are some of the questions at stake in the Old French prose Tristan, composed before 1235 in northern France. Its authors took their raw material from the 12th-century verse romances of Tristan and Iseult, but they fused it with the cast, setting and indeed much of the narrative of the so-called Lancelot-Grail Cycle. The result was a runaway success. The prose Tristan was transmitted in French across much of medieval Europe, inspiring translations and retellings of the Tristan legend in several other European tongues.

Add_ms_23929_f001r DETAIL
Historiated initial depicting Luce del Gast, one of the authors to whom the prose Tristan is attributed in manuscripts. Add MS 23929, f. 1r, Italy, N. (Padua or Bologna?), 1st quarter of the 15th century

About a quarter of the c. 85 manuscripts of the prose Tristan that survive today were produced in Italy. This list includes Add MS 23929, the first of two volumes discussed here. The first part of this manuscript (ff. 1r-64r) was copied in a regular rotunda script of the late 14th or early 15th century. To judge by the large opening historiated initial depicting the author at work and the 14 smaller ones marking the beginning of chapters, it was made in north-eastern Italy, perhaps in Padua. The volume’s binding lends credence to such a localization: the motifs impressed into the leather, which include suns and dogs, tell us that in the 15th century it was just down the road in Mantua in the library of the Gonzaga family. Indeed, the first part of the manuscript may well be one of more than a dozen Arthurian prose romances listed in the Gonzaga inventory dated 1407. Even with their sizeable collection of Tristan manuscripts, however, the Gonzaga clearly hadn’t had enough of Tristan’s exploits: after the inventory was made, further episodes were added in a different hand (ff. 64r-86v).

Add_ms_23929_f037v DETAIL
Small historiated initial illustrating Tristan’s birth. Add MS 23929, f. 37v, Italy, N. (Padua or Bologna?), 1st quarter of the 15th century

The Medieval Francophone Literary Cultures Outside France Project has aimed to trace some of the literary traffic between France and Italy in the Middle Ages, but inevitably some mysteries remain. Add MS 23929 is unusual among the surviving prose Tristan manuscripts made in Italy because it preserves the first part of the romance, including a prologue attributed to the unidentifiable Luce del Gast and the tale of Tristan’s distant (and equally adventure-prone) ancestors. Only after recounting Tristan’s family history does this version give us the story as it begins in other manuscripts of Italian origin, relating Tristan’s birth, his arrival at the court of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, and his potion-induced love for the Irish princess, Iseult. The francophilia and bibliophilia of the Gonzaga family may go some way to explaining the presence of the first part of the prose Tristan in Mantua, but the full details escape us for now.

Add_ms_23929_f086v DETAIL
A note in Italian at the end of the manuscript points to the continuation of the story in another volume. Add MS 23929, f. 86v, Italy, N. (Padua or Bologna?), 1st quarter of the 15th century

Additional MS 23929 ends with Iseult’s disastrous honeymoon: shortly after marrying King Mark she is abducted by the Saracen knight Palamedés and will only be reunited with her husband thanks to Tristan’s intervention. A note in Italian tells us that the adventure continues in another volume, which seems to have been listed in the Gonzaga inventory of 1407 but has not survived.

Add_ms_5474_f074r DETAIL
Tristan outperforms fourteen knights of the Round Table. Add MS 5474, f. 74r, France, N., 4th quarter of the 13th century

In marked contrast to Add MS 23929 is a second prose Tristan manuscript in the British Library’s collections. The text of Add MS 5474 was written in a smaller and rather more angular script, pointing to production in northern France in the (very) late 13th century. Its language bears all the hallmarks of the prestigious Picard scripta of Old French. The conclusions we might draw from the text, moreover, are corroborated by the 26 framed miniatures illustrating the volume: these were in all likelihood painted by the artist responsible for Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, fonds français 110, a Lancelot-Grail manuscript made c. 1295 in the County of Artois or the Cambrésis. There is relatively little evidence of production of Tristan manuscripts in Paris before 1300, but to the north and north-east – beyond the boundaries of the kingdom of France – it was thriving.

Add_ms_5474_f150v DETAIL
Lancelot escaping in his underpants after being tricked into sleeping with King Pellés’s daughter. Add MS 5474, f. 150v, France, N., 4th quarter of the 13th century

Like several other surviving volumes, Add MS 5474 begins about a third of the way through the romance, with King Mark shamefully ambushing Yvain of the White Hands (and feeling pretty smug about it, too). The ensuing narrative, with its countless jousts and tournaments, is dominated by the spectacular Tournament of Louveserp, at which Tristan even outshines Lancelot, and by the story of the Quest for the Holy Grail, which sees Galahad come to prominence. Add MS 5474 bulks up the Grail story with passages borrowed from the Agravain section of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle (ff. 144r-162v). In one of these interpolated episodes, illustrated in the above miniature, Lancelot makes a hasty getaway from Guinevere’s chambers, dressed only in his underwear. He had been tricked into sleeping with the daughter of the guardian of the Holy Grail. Hardly becoming of a Grail knight!

The ‘Voir Disant’ lay, which spreads the unvarnished truth about King Mark throughout the land. Add MS 5474, f. 73r, France, N., 4th quarter of the 13th century

The prose of the Tristan is punctuated throughout by letters, laments and lays in verse. Like the song above, which denounces King Mark as ‘muck and filth’ (to put it politely), these more ‘lyrical’ moments are often easily spotted in manuscripts thanks to their layout as lines and stanzas of poetry, as opposed to the long-lines of prose. The master composer and performer of songs is, of course, Tristan himself. And it is while playing one of his lays on the harp in Iseult’s bedchamber that the villainous Mark murders him. But is Tristan’s musicianship enough for him to be crowned best knight that ever was? You’ll have to explore the prose Tristan to find out...

 - Huw Grange (University of Cambridge)

20 August 2015

The Constitution of the Athenians and the History of Athenian Democracy

Add comment Comments (0)

Building the Ancient City: Athens and Rome begins tonight on BBC2. The first episode includes footage and discussion of the Constitution of the Athenians (Papyrus 131).

While a great many important texts have survived from antiquity, many others have been lost to us. These we know only from sporadic quotations and mentions in extant works, leaving us to wonder what they might have been able to teach us about the ancient world.

For many centuries, Aristotle’s Constitutions, and in particular the Constitution of the Athenians, was numbered amongst the most important of these. According to Diogenes Laertius, Aristotle and his school collected the constitutions of 158 Greek city-states and wrote commentaries on each of them. Of these 158 commentaries, 68 are mentioned by name in other sources, clearly marking the Constitutions as a significant work in antiquity. In addition, the Constitution of the Athenians itself was known from 90 separate quotations, setting it apart from the others in terms of its importance to philosophers, historians, and other scholars in antiquity. Aristotle himself gave us evidence for the existence of the Constitutions, stating at the end of his Nicomachean Ethics that his Politics would be based in part on the “collected constitutions”.

The beginning of the surviving portion of the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 1v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

In light of this, the discovery of nearly the whole text of the Constitution of the Athenians at the end of the nineteenth century was monumental. In 1879, two leaves of a papyrus codex, dating from the fourth century, were acquired by the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin. These contain fragments of the Constitution of the Athenians with marginalia. Then, in 1889, three papyrus rolls, dating from the late first century, were found in Egypt by E. A. Wallis Budge, an assistant at the British Museum. These were sent back to London and accessioned as Papyrus 131. A fourth roll followed in 1890, but unfortunately, this was far more damaged than the other three. Frederic Kenyon, later Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, but then a young assistant in the Department of Manuscripts, was able to identify the text of the papyrus as the Constitution of the Athenians. Unfortunately, the papyrus lacks the opening sections of the work, which are believed to have dealt with legendary figures such as Ion and Theseus. Kenyon’s first edition was published in 1891, along with an English translation.

The second surviving roll of the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 3v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

The importance of this text for our understanding of the development, nature, and challenges of Athenian democracy cannot be overstated, and it has remained an object of scholarly study since its discovery. It recounts the history of Athenian legal and political institutions down to 403 BC and analyses their form and quality in the 330’s and 320’s – it should be noted that it does not declare or create these institutions, as a modern reader may imagine given the title ‘Constitution.’ Instead, along with other Classical texts, particular those by Herodotus, Xenophon (who also has a Constitution of the Athenians credited to his name), and Thucydides, the work gives us a clearer picture of Athenian history and government.

The fragmentary fourth roll containing the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 5v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

It should be noted that since the work’s publication, its attribution to Aristotle himself has been debated – not least because the style of the work is quite different from that found elsewhere in Aristotle. The fact that the work is in a different genre from the rest of Aristotle’s works may, however, be enough to explain the stylistic variance. Certainly, the ancient sources unanimously credit the work to him. Whether written by Aristotle himself or not, the text remains a significant primary source for Classical Athens, and a treasured piece of cultural history.

-          Andrew St. Thomas

11 August 2015

The Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César: A Flemish Chronicle Gone Viral

Add comment Comments (0)

Written c. 1208 – 1213 for Roger, chastellan of Lille in Flanders, the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César recounts world history from Creation up to Caesar’s conquest of France. Although its author initially intended to continue his story up to 13th century Flanders, the project was prematurely abandoned. Nonetheless, the Histoire ancienne is considered the first extant universal chronicle in French. Drawing on Latin and French sources, the chronicle offered an exciting digest of episodes from Genesis, the tragedies of Thebes, adventures of Greek heroes and the destruction of Troy. Additionally, the text tells the history of Rome, starting with Aeneas’ wanderings and the founding of the city, interrupted by a biography of Alexander the Great. Surviving manuscripts suggest that the Histoire gained markedly in popularity from the mid-thirteenth century, when manuscripts were produced in ateliers in Northern France (cf. below, Add MS 19669), in the Latin East (cf. below, Add MS 15268), and sometime later also in Italy. From this point onwards, the chronicle was ready to go viral. For a fuller picture see the article on the Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France website.

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, ateliers in Paris, Flanders and the Mediterranean manufactured copies of the Histoire. In some cases, entire episodes were deleted, inserted, rearranged or replaced by different accounts. The most obvious reason for this was to produce a text that was more pleasing in its new surroundings, answering to local or more recent needs. A good example of this is Royal MS 20 D I, produced in Naples c. 1340. Firmly rooted in the Italian production of Histoire manuscripts, the Genesis and Alexander sections are cut, a much longer version of the Troy story is introduced, and the subject matter rearranged so as to provide a continuous history of Rome.

Full-page image of Troy, Rome, Constantinople, and Galatea from the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Royal MS 20 D I, f. 26v, Italy, S. (Naples), 2nd quarter of the 14th century

Brought to Paris sometime before 1380, where it was copied several times, this deliberate adaptation generated a new, distinct version of the text. In the following I will focus on two earlier manuscripts, kept in the British Library, both of which are characterized by their own centre of production and each with its own history.

By c. 1260, manuscripts of the Histoire had reached Acre in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The decoration of locally manufactured copies (British Library Add MS 15268, Dijon, Bibliothèque municipale MS 562, Brussels Koninklijke Bibliotheek / Bibliothèque royale MS 10175, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale fonds français MS 20125) demonstrates the fruitful cohabitation of both Western and Islamic aesthetics with iconographic traditions from Byzantium. Elements of their illustration, for instance those images depicting Alexander’s army in the exotic Orient, may reflect the real-life experiences of the expat military elite in Acre for whom these copies were most probably produced.

Add_ms_15268_f210v detail
Alexander and the two-headed beast from the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Add MS 15268, f. 210v, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), 4th quarter of the 13th century, before 1291

Add MS 15268 is no doubt the most exquisite of this group. Consider the manuscript’s frontispiece, which depicts creation in a sequence of eight medallions, reminiscent of Byzantine icon painting. The banquet scene in the upper margin has distinct oriental characteristics.

Frontispiece depicting Genesis-Creation from the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Add MS 15268, f. 1v, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), 4th quarter of the 13th century, before 1291

Some have surmised that this manuscript was produced as a gift for Henry II of Lusignan (1270-1324) to mark his entry into Acre in 1286, but there is no real evidence to support this. Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek / Bibliothèque royale, MS 10175 can, however, be associated with the Lusignan family: in the 1430s, the husband of Isabeau Babin (probably Guy of Lusignan, illegitimate son of King Janus of Cyprus) recorded information on their children’s birth and baptism on the flyleaves. These marks also provide evidence of how, after the fall of Acre, manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne like Add MS 15268 made their way to the West, which explains why some manuscripts produced in Italy in the early 14th century show the influence of sources brought from the Crusader Kingdom.

Another four surviving codices were produced at approximately the same time miles away in Flanders or Northern France. Three of these (British Library, Add MS 19669, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS 74 D 47, Pommersfelden, Schloss Weissenstein - Schönbornsche Schlossbibliothek MS 295) share an illustrative programme, which demonstrates that they are intimately related. Nevertheless, none of the individual cycles is slavishly copied from another and there are variations in the scenes that were selected for illustration.

For instance, Add MS 19669 is the only manuscript to depict Achilles’ death. The miniature on folio 84r sets the Greek champion’s demise alongside Hector’s, thus intimately linking their deaths. Note that Paris’ arrows do not hit Achilles in the heel, as we might expect: the account of Achilles’ death in the Histoire differs from tradition. Here, Achilles is wounded in ‘many places’ and not, as legend has it, in the ankle, his only vulnerable spot after his mother Thetis had dipped him in the river Styx.

Add_ms_19669_f084 DETAILr
Four-part miniature showing the deaths of Hector and Achilles from the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Additional MS, f. 84r, France, N., 2nd half of the 13th century

The design of the historiated initial letter at the beginning of the text is common to all four manuscripts and shows Creation in a series of seven medallions around a central mandorla.

Frontispiece depicting Genesis-Creation with added marginal decoration from the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Additional MS 19669, f. 4r, France, N., 2nd half of the 13th century, second set of borders added in the 15th century

This page is also interesting because a second set of decorative borders was added in the 15th century, probably to restyle the page according to contemporary decorative trends. A later owner may have judged that some modern accents could give this vintage codex a new lease of life. This manuscript fashionista should probably be identified as Jean d’Averton, given the coats of arms that were inserted on several folios and the ex-libris: 

Add_ms_19669_f238r DETAIL
Coat of arms and ex-libris of Jean d’Averton in the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Add MS 19669, f. 238r, France, N., 2nd half of the 13th century, arms and ex-libris added in the 15th century

The updating of Add MS 19669 for a more modern readership is by no means unique. In the late 15th or early 16th century, the Brussels manuscript was fitted with a modern table of contents and a new frontispiece. While the table is written in a modern littera hybrida, the text on the illustrated page is a more old-fashioned littera textualis, chosen no doubt to harmonise better with the script used in the following, 13th-century text. The added folios may have replaced damaged or lost ones, but this is not the only plausible explanation. They bring a touch of contemporary style and again added heraldry provides a means of identification. The coat of arms inserted in the lower margin of f. 20r is that of the Du Périer family, which suggests that by the end of the 15th century, the Brussels manuscript had travelled from Cyprus to the South of France.

These books demonstrate the mobile and agile nature of medieval vernacular texts and manuscripts. Not only do they break down the idea of one clear-cut and ‘fixed’ text, they show that each new manuscript, be it through its material realisation, through editorial interventions or a combination of both, had the potential to be a radical remake. Moreover, this potential did not necessarily end with the delivery of the finished manuscript: throughout its existence, new situations, readers and owners could endow a manuscript with renewed relevance. A full list of Histoire ancienne manuscripts may be accessed through the Medieval Francophone Literary Cultures Outside France database.

 - Dirk Schoenaers (University College London and the University of St Andrews)

04 August 2015

'The French Language Runs Throughout The World’

Add comment Comments (0)

Today we feature a guest-post by members of the AHRC-sponsored project, Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France, a partnership between King's College London, University College London and the University of Cambridge, working with the British Library. Several of the project's manuscripts are housed at the British Library, and we're pleased to say that they have been newly digitised and added to our Digitised Manuscripts site. We're delighted to be able to support research of this kind, and hope that it encourages further investigation into the origins, dissemination and uses of these fascinating texts.

‘Lengue franceise cort parmi le monde’ (‘the French language runs throughout the world’, wrote the 13th-century Venetian chronicler Martin da Canale (d. 1275) at the start of his history of Venice, which he chose to write in French. This echoes another 13th-century Italian writer, Brunetto Latini (d.1295-96), who wrote in his very popular encyclopedia, the Tresor, that French was ‘la parleure […] plus delitable et plus comune a touz languages’ (‘the most delightful and popular of all languages’). French language texts were composed and copied in many parts of Europe outside (and even a little beyond) present day France in the Middle Ages, most notably in the British Isles, Flanders and the Low Countries, the Rhineland, Italy, Catalonia, Cyprus, Greece and Palestine. Whereas traditionally this has been seen mainly as a sign of the prestige of French culture, recent research shows that the reasons for the use of French in such a diverse range of places were more complex, often pragmatic, and also that many parts of medieval Europe were profoundly multilingual. French was in fact a supralocal language in much of medieval Europe alongside Latin (and in some places where French was used alongside Greek, Hebrew and even Arabic).

This mobile use of French is nowhere more graphically illustrated than in Matthew Paris’s famous maps showing the route from England to the Holy Land, one copy of which is to be found in Royal MS 14 C VII (ff. 2r-5r). This manuscript was made in the 1250s, almost certainly at St Albans. The language used for the text of these maps is French (with just a bit of Latin). Thus on ff. 4v-5r we see a map of the Holy Land, focusing on the City of Acre (which was to fall in 1291) with explanations almost entirely in French (the flaps on f. 4v relate to Rome and Sicily, which are on f. 4r).

A section of Matthew Paris’s illustrated itinerary to Jerusalem, showing the cities of Damascus, Antioch and Acre. Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 4v, England, S. (St Albans), 1250-1259
A section of Matthew Paris’s illustrated itinerary to Jerusalem, showing the destination, Jerusalem. Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 5r, England, S. (St Albans), 1250-1259

As French is also used in the descriptions of Italy, France and England, French quite literally ‘runs throughout the world’ in this manuscript.

The project Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France aimed to gauge the under-researched phenomenon of the production and circulation of French language manuscripts outside France, since traditional scholarship has often focused on manuscripts that were made in France: One immediate consequence of paying more attention to French language manuscripts that were made outside France is that a rather different view of the literary canon emerges. For example, the vast Arthurian prose cycle, Guiron le Courtois, little known today compared to the other two prose Arthurian cycles the Lancelot en prose and Tristan en prose, is remarkable for its European trajectory. The oldest parts of Guiron were probably written in northern France or francophone Flanders, c. 1230-1240. About 40 manuscripts of Guiron survive, dating from the end of the 13th to the beginning of the 16th century. Direct and indirect attestations are found from Sicily to Britain and from Catalonia to Venice. Unlike Lancelot and Tristan, which were translated and re-written in all the major European languages, as far as we know parts of Guiron were only translated or re-written in Italian. Indeed the cycle had special ties with Italy. Its first attestation is probably in a letter from Frederick II's chancery in Foligno, near Perugia. The letter is dated 1240, and makes reference to 54 quires sent, or about to be sent, to Frederick from Messina after the death of one 'Johannes Romanzor'.

Page from the Roman de Méliadus with the coat of arms of Louis de Tarente (1320-1362), incorporating emblems of the 'Ordre du Nœud', Add MS 12228, f. 4r, Naples, c.1352-1362

Some important Italian witnesses are held in the British Library collections. For example Add MS 12228 (Naples, c. 1352-1362), despite its relatively late date, goes back to an early source and transmits the Roman de Méliadus, the oldest part of the cycle, in a pre-cyclic form. It was commissioned in the context of the Ordre du Nœud, a chivalric order founded by Louis of Taranto, the Capetian and francophone King of Naples on his coronation in 1352 with a view to giving his somewhat discredited court some courtly and chivalric gloss. The hand and some of the illustration appear to be close to Paris BnF ms fr. 4274, which is a presentation copy of the Order's statutes.

Add_ms_12228_f004r DETAIL
Detail of the coat of arms of Louis de Tarente (1320-1362), showing emblems of the 'Ordre du Nœud', Add MS 12228, f. 4r, Naples, c.1352-1362

Guiron le Courtois was composed after Lancelot and Tristan as a sprawling prequel, telling the story of the older generation of knights: Méliadus de Leonois, Tristan's father; le Bon Chevalier sans Peur, father of Dinadan and Brunor le Noir; Lac, Erec's father; and so forth. It is a world without Merlin and without the Graal, muscular and misogynist, in which most of the strongest warriors belong to Guiron's family, the Bruns. They appear larger than life, incredibly strong, isolated – loners who spend their time wandering far from court. They periodically disappear below the surface of the plot, but resurface later in a complex web of intertwined stories. In Old French, Brun recalls the taboo name of the bear. The Bruns’ ancestor, Fébus le Brun, renounced the crown of France: though he was the legitimate heir, he preferred to go seek adventure in England.

In another remarkable Italian witness, Add MS 23930 (Bologna-Padua, before 1369), the beginning of the story of Fébus has a typical northern Italian frontispiece, with bright colours and large motifs, proof of the text’s status among Italian manuscript producers and readers. In several Italian copies, this episode circulated independently from the main narrative, was successful, and underwent many adaptations.

Frontispiece marking the beginning of the narrative sequence telling the adventures of Fébus le Brun in the Roman de Guiron, with the coat of arms of Guido Gonzaga (d. 1369). Add MS 23930, f. 27r, Italy, Bologna-Padua, before 1369

Add MS 23930 once belonged to the Gonzaga family: the coat of arms on f. 1r and f. 27r are identical for instance to those at f. 2r of Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, MS fr. Z. XVIII, another of our project manuscripts, transmitting the Roman de Troie. Both manuscripts are part of a rich group of medium sized manuscripts, copied in a southern Textualis, some of which are wonderfully illustrated in the bas de page, that circulated in northern Italian courts – where Guiron was appreciated well into the 16th century.

Frontispiece from the Roman de Guiron, with the coat of arms of Guido Gonzaga (d. 1369). Add MS 23930, f. 1r, Italy, Bologna-Padua, before 1369

- Simon Gaunt (King’s College London)

- Nicola Morato (University of Cambridge and Université de Liège)

01 August 2015

A Calendar Page for August 2015

Add comment Comments (0)

To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Calendar page for August, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 5r 

It’s harvest time on this month’s calendar page: two male peasants are reaping fully-grown wheat with sickles, while a female peasant is binding it together in sheaves. A cart drawn by two horses is passing by in the background. August’s religious festivals are gruesomely illustrated in a series of roundels to the right: in the second, fourth and fifth roundels, we see St Laurence being roasted alive (note the figure to the right, fanning the flames with a pair of bellows), St Bartholomew being flayed alive, and St John the Baptist about to be beheaded (with a female attendant waiting nearby with a platter).  For more on the depiction of these saints’ martyrdom, check out our earlier blog posts: Happy St Laurence’s Day, St Bartholomew and Bookbindings, and Don’t Lose Your Head. Other feast days illustrated this month are St Peter in Chains (celebrating his liberation from captivity by an angel) and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Zodiac symbol for this month – Virgo the Virgin – is at the top of the page. 

Detail of peasants reaping and binding wheat,
Add MS 35313, f. 5r 

Detail of roundels depicting St Peter in Chains (above) and the Martyrdom of St Laurence (below),
Add MS 35313, f. 5r 

- James Freeman

21 July 2015

Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript

Add comment Comments (0)

We are delighted to announce the publication of a new book, Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript, edited by Scot McKendrick (Head of Western Heritage at the British Library), David Parker (Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham), Amy Myshrall (Research Fellow at the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham) and Cillian O’Hogan (Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies at the British Library).


Codex Sinaiticus was produced in the middle of the fourth century, and is one of the two oldest Christian Bibles to survive largely intact from antiquity (the other being Codex Vaticanus in Rome). It is also the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in existence. Preserved for many centuries at St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, it is now dispersed between four institutions: St Catherine’s Monastery, the British Library, Leipzig University Library, and the National Library of Russia.

The book consists of the proceedings of a conference held in 2009 to mark the launch of the Codex Sinaiticus website, and its publication marks the culmination of the Codex Sinaiticus Project. It contains twenty-two articles, dealing with all aspects of the manuscript and its history, divided into five sections: Historical Setting, the Septuagint, Early Christian Writings, Modern Histories of Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Sinaiticus Today. Together with the extensive research to be found on the Codex Sinaiticus website, the book provides the most up-to-date information available about the manuscript. It includes a general index, an index of Biblical passages, a list of papyri and manuscripts, and numerous high-resolution images of Codex Sinaiticus.

Formally launched at an event at the British Library last night, the book is published by British Library Publishing in association with Hendrickson Publishers. It is available for purchase in the UK now from the British Library Shop, and will be available in the United States from Hendrickson this September.

John 21:1-21:25. Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f 260r), Eastern Mediterranean (?Palestine), mid-4th century.

- Cillian O’Hogan

16 July 2015

Another Apocalypse Manuscript Digitised

Add comment Comments (0)

The British Library has a great collection of Apocalypse manuscripts and we have featured them in a number of recent blogposts. At the end of this post, we provide a list of the best-known Apocalypse manuscripts that have been digitised in recent years. The most recent Apocalypse to be digitised is the rather lesser-known but finely-executed Additional MS 35166, an Apocalypse in Latin with commentary by Berengaudus and a life of St John the Divine, whose visions are recorded in the Book of Revelation.

The earthquake at the opening of the Sixth Seal. Additional MS 35166, f. 9v (detail), England, S.E. (?London), 2nd half of the 13th century

The top half of every recto and verso of the 38 folios (there are a number of leaves missing, from Revelation 10:7 to 16:8) has a miniature, and underneath is a brief passage from the Apocalypse written in black ink, followed by Berengaudus’ commentary in red ink.

The Second Seal: the Red Horse. Additional MS 35166, f. 7v (detail), England, S.E. (?London), 2nd half of the 13th century

The exquisite tinted drawings faithfully portray John's vivid descriptions of his visions. The illuminator has incorporated John into the majority of scenes, which lends a sense of immediacy to the images: the reader witnesses the horror and awe of the Apocalypse alongside him.

Preceding and following the Apocalypse are scenes from the Life of St John. His death at the hands of the Emperor Domitian in a cauldron of boiling oil is depicted here:

John in a cauldron of oil, Additional MS 35166, f. 1v (detail), England, S.E. (?London), 2nd half of the 13th century

The stories from the life of John are from the New Testament Apocrypha and include the tale of a young man who is presented to a bishop by John and becomes his cup-bearer. The young man, riding a white horse, joins a band of robbers and they kill and steal. John is told this by the bishop and rides out to bring the young man back to the bishop.

The young man and robbers stealing and murdering, Additional MS 35166, f. 35r (detail), England, S.E. (?London), 2nd half of the 13th century

This Apocalypse manuscript may have belonged to a religious guild known as the Kalendars, as it is inscribed, ‘Liber Domus Kalendarum’ on the first folio.  The Kalendars were religious guilds of the Middle Ages, composed of clergy and laity, known to have existed in Bristol, Exeter and Winchester in the 12th century.  They met on or around Kalends (the first day of the month), hence the name ‘Kalendars’.

For comparison, here are some images of the opening of the Sixth Seal and the earthquake (Rev. 6:11-15) in several other Apocalypse manuscripts held by the British Library, to give you a sense of the differing styles of illumination:

The Queen Mary Apocalypse

John watching the earthquake, with ruins and fallen stars, and the dead in holes, Royal MS 19 B XV, f 11v (detail), England S. E. (London), or East Anglia, 1st quarter of the 14th century

The Yates Thompson Apocalypse

The earthquake at the opening of the Sixth Seal: six heads in holes in the ground with a river in the foreground and the sun and moon, Yates Thompson MS 10, f. 11r (detail), France (Paris), 1370-1390

The Silos Apocalypse

The opening of the Sixth Seal: Christ enthroned above the dark sun and red moon; below, falling stars and the earthquake, Additional MS 11695, f. 108r, Spain, 1091-1109

The Welles Apocalypse

The opening of the Sixth Seal; the earthquake. At the top, a darkened sun and moon and stars falling from the sky. In the centre, a king, a master and other men hiding in caves. To the right, a building collapsing. To the left, St John is witnessing the scene. Royal MS 15 D II, f 131r (detail), England, c 1310

The Abingdon Apocalypse

The Sixth Seal: St John looking up at a cloud containing the sun and moon; on the right the ruins of a town and men and women in holes in the ground, with fragments of objects falling from the sky. Add MS 42555, f 16v (detail), England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century

- Chantry Westwell


14 July 2015

Caption Competition 2

Add comment Comments (15)

The second of our caption competitions is from a manuscript newly published in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.   There are many possibilities for this image – use your imagination! Leave your suggested caption in the comments, or tweet us @BLMedieval. Results will be published here and on Twitter!

??? England, S. (Westminster or London); 4th quarter of the 13th century, Additional 18719, f. 92.