THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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277 posts categorized "Featured manuscripts"

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.

Cross-section from CT scan
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

23 June 2015

Livy Among the Humanists

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Harley MS 2493 contains a copy of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. Being over 800 years old, however, means this manuscript has more than one story to tell. A manuscript’s provenance, its journey to the present day through its various former owners, is often as interesting and edifying as the text itself. This manuscript, for instance, becomes a key source for Livy’s classical text only after passing though the hands of two immensely significant Renaissance figures: Francesco Petrarch and Lorenzo Valla.

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Harley MS 2493, f 145r: long comment in Valla’s hand at the bottom of the folio.

The manuscript came to the Library in 1753 as part of the collection acquired by Robert and Edward Harley in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Prior to this, it was in the custody of the Jesuit College in Agen, which was in operation between 1591 and 1762. It is unknown how the manuscript made its way to the college, but the manuscript itself indicates that it was in the hands of Lorenzo Valla before that. Valla was an influential Italian humanist in the early 15th century, apostolic secretary to Pope Nicholas V and professor of rhetoric in Rome, and this manuscript was likely his own copy: he makes a great number of annotations, jotted down in the manner of personal notes, and even signs several of the pages.

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Harley MS 2493, f 167v: Valla’s signature, LAV VAL, in the inner margin.

While the editing of classical texts was by no means new in Valla’s time, the humanists, driven for learning and motivated in particular by classical literature, proved themselves remarkable as Greek and Latin editors – though not always free of error. There was a strong desire in the Renaissance to produce a trustworthy text, as true as possible to the original. Valla was at the forefront of Latin scholarship, and his own desire for an accurate text led him to many great successes.

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Harley MS 2493, f 93r. Portion of the manuscript copied in the 12th century.
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Harley MS 2493, f 92r. Portion of the manuscript copied by Petrarch in the 14th century.

But Valla was not the first (or last) to handle this manuscript. Although much of the codex dates from the 12th century, it was completed in the 14th-century by Francesco Petrarch himself, the famed Italian scholar and poet. Petrarch personally copied some thirty folios of the manuscript, comprising the final sections of Decades I and III, and added copious notes to the text. These notes were used by Valla, and influenced his Emendationes in T. Livium. There are many pages where this cooperation can be seen quite clearly.

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Harley MS 2493, f 105v. Emendations by Petrarch (between the lines) and marginalia by Valla.

Livy’s history of Rome remains a work of incredible literary value, and the text we read today is in part the result of the efforts of humanist scholars. On Digitised Manuscripts, you can explore Petrarch and Valla’s own copy!

-          Andrew St. Thomas

20 June 2015

Ex(odus)-Men: Adventures in a Medieval Bible Picture Book

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In a couple of previous blog posts (Superheroes, True Romance, Blood and Gore and Comic Mania), we demonstrated how medieval picture books easily compete with the action, intrigue and visual appeal of the modern comic book (who could forget the dancing camels of The Old English Hexateuch?!). One of the newest additions to our website of Digitised Manuscripts, Additional MS 15277, offers yet another reason to put down your latest graphic novel.

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Moses (with horns) returns from Mount Sinai for the second time, from the 'Paduan Bible Picture Book', Northern Italy (Padua?), c. 1400, Add MS 15277, f. 15r

This Italian manuscript is loaded with tension, violence and transgressive behaviour, bringing to life the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua. The manuscript is imperfect at both the beginning and the end (the Books of Genesis and Ruth are now at Rovigo (Biblioteca dell'Accademia dei Concordi, MS 212, a facsimile of which can be ordered in our Reading Room as MS Facsimile 605)). Nonetheless, what remains is an exciting and rich example of a late medieval Bible picture book. From the plagues of Egypt to the conquest of the Promised Land, the Books of the Old Testament are vibrantly animated.

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Detail of a miniature of the plague of hail (Exodus 9:22-25), Add MS 15277, f. 7r
 
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Bezalel and Aholiab are selected to build the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-11), Add MS 15277 f. 15v
 
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Detail of a miniature of a fight between an Israelite and a man with an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father who blasphemes (Leviticus 24:10), Add MS 15277, f. 23r
 
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Detail of a miniature of the blasphemer being stoned (Leviticus 24:23), Add MS 15277, f. 23v
 
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God tells Moses to punish those who have been transgressing with Moabite women and worshipping their gods; Phinehas thrusts a spear through an Israelite man and Midianite woman in the midst of copulation (Numbers 25:1-9), Add MS 15277, f. 51v
 
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War against the Midianites (Numbers 31:1-12), Add MS 15277, f. 53r
 
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Detail of two miniatures of Joshua killing the King of Makkedah (Joshua 10:28), Add MS 15277, f. 72r

Visit our website of Digitised Manuscripts to explore more incredible images from the Paduan Bible Picture Book.

- Hannah Morcos

 

16 June 2015

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

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Papyrus 3053, scene from the arena. Found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, among documents dating from the third century.

A recent addition to Digitised Manuscripts is one of our true hidden treasures: possibly the oldest illuminated manuscript in the British Library’s collections. Papyrus 3053, also known as P. Oxy. 2470, was found along with a range of third-century documents at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. Blank on the verso, the recto contains a vivid fragment of a scene from the arena. The papyrus depicts a bear, caught just on the moment of rising up, or perhaps about to leap, to try to catch the figure whose legs are visible in the top left. The hoop in the top right is perhaps a ring through which the figure is aiming to jump. The red swoosh to the right of the fragment is harder to make any sense of, but it seems to serve the purpose of marking off the acrobatic scene from something else. Perhaps it is supposed to designate the curve of the seating at the amphitheatre? Just above the legs of the acrobat are the feet of some letters, reconstructed as ερσωις, though what exactly that might mean (a name, perhaps?) is unclear.

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Papyrus 3053, detail of feet of letters, possibly ερσωις

Such feats of acrobatic dexterity, with the goal of escaping wild beasts, were hugely popular in antiquity, and the papyrus calls to mind the words of the late Latin poet Prudentius (348-c. 405), who notes in his poem the Hamartigenia that “rash figures spring with flying leap over wild beasts and sport amid the risks of death” (inde feras uolucri temeraria corpora saltu | transiliunt mortisque inter discrimina ludunt, Ham. 369-70, trans. Thomson). The prevalence of scenes drawn from the world of Roman spectacle in mosaics and in the few illuminated papyri now extant give further attestation of the popularity of these shows (see, for instance, the famous Antinoopolis Charioteers papyrus , or this fine hunting-scene (perhaps a uenatio?) in a Berlin papyrus. Bears were particularly prized: see, for instance, the many references to the difficulties involved in getting good bears for the games in the letters of the fourth-century senator Symmachus, or the splendid scene depicted by Apuleius in the fourth book of his novel the Metamorphoses.

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Papyrus 3053, sewing repairs

What was the original context of this fragment? Clearly visible are the remains of some sewing along two vertical folds, similar to the sort of sewing we often find in papyrus codices. However, the fact that these two folds are so close to each other makes it clear that the image was not spread across two facing pages of a codex. It has been suggested that the sewing was intended to repair tears that resulted from the folds. Did this image form part of a bookroll, then, or was it perhaps inserted into a codex? In the absence of further information, it’s impossible to say.

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Royal MS 1 D VIII (Codex Alexandrinus) f 41r, detail. Decorated tailpiece at the end of the Gospel of Luke, containing a pomegranate plant and two vines. 5th century.

I mentioned at the beginning that this is possibly the oldest illuminated manuscript in the British Library. We can perhaps exclude papyri that have simple decorative ink coronides on the grounds that these are not illuminations as we would commonly think of them today. But there remains the fact that establishing a clear date for Papyrus 3053 is tricky: while it was found among documents from the third century, there is no hard evidence for dating it exclusively to that century, and we should allow for the possibility that it is from a later period, possibly even the sixth century. Such a dating would make it a near-contemporary of the Cotton Genesis, generally dated to the fifth or sixth century, and later than Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century), which contains tiny miniatures in the tailpiece (such as the one above). Whatever its date, however, Papyrus 3053 is a rare example of a coloured illustration on papyrus, and a precious glimpse into the world of book decoration in the ancient world.

-          Cillian O’Hogan

01 June 2015

A Calendar Page for June 2015

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

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Calendar page for June, 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. 4r 

In June, we are taken back to the labours of the peasantry with a scene of sheep-shearing. Two men sit and remove two sheep’s wool with hand-clippers, while a third bundles another unwilling sheep out of a nearby barn. A freshly shorn sheep grazes to the right, before a gaggle of geese. Five religious festivals have been depicted in roundels this month: the feast days of St Boniface, St Barnabus, St Eligius, and Sts Peter and Paul, and (in the middle) the Nativity of St John the Baptist. The Zodiac sign for this month is Cancer. 

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants shearing sheep,
Add MS 35313, f. 4r 

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Detail of a roundel portraying the Nativity of St John the Baptist,
Add MS 35313, f. 4r 

- James Freeman

01 May 2015

A Calendar Page for May 2015

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

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Calendar page for May, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, architectural column and roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 3v 

The Zodiac sign for May is Gemini, portrayed here unusually as conjoined twins (cephalothoracopagus twins, to be precise, who are joined at the thorax and share a single head). May is the month in which the Finding of the Holy Cross is celebrated. The event is depicted in one of the roundels, with the Pope and other figures standing as witnesses. In the scene below, the gentlewoman and her lapdog make a reappearance, boating on a river. She is playing music on a lute, while one of her companions accompanies her on an instrument resembling a recorder. In the background, two gentlemen are out hunting: they are riding on horseback, one of them bearing a hawk on his wrist. A servant follows, carrying a lance and also a hunting bird. 

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Detail of the Zodiac sign for Gemini, portrayed as conjoined twins,
Add MS 35313, f. 3v 

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Detail of a roundel depicting the Finding of the Holy Cross,
Add MS 35313, f. 3v 

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of boating and hunting,
Add MS 35313, f. 3v

- James Freeman

22 April 2015

Ointments and Potions

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We have recently published to Digitised Manuscripts Sloane MS 345, a Dutch scientific manuscript of the early 16th century containing a cornucopia of scientific texts, from prescriptions for ointments and suppositories, to a treatise on varnishes for the conservation of paintings, to a recipe for brandy or aqua vitae. Some of the texts are in Latin and others in Middle Dutch.

The format is of a plain, workaday text, a collection that was probably compiled for a physician and was in fact in the collection of Francis Bernard (d. 1698), apothecary and physician to King James II of England in the seventeenth century.

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Page of recipes with the rubrics ‘Gebrande wyn te maken’ and ‘de aq[ua] viva’ in the margin, from a Dutch scientific compendium, the Netherlands, c. 1500, Sloane MS 345, f. 50v

One of the key texts is the ‘Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum’, a collection of didactic verse on health, diet and medicine, put together for oral transmission by doctors at the School of Salerno, Italy, and assembled in written form in the 13th century by Arnoldus de Villa Nova (b. c. 1240, d. 1311), professor of medicine. He is credited with coining the label ‘aqua vitae’, which he described as ‘a water of immortality….that clears away ill-humours, revives the heart and maintains youth’. It is interesting to note that in this manuscript, ‘aqua vitae’ or ‘gebrande wyn’ in Middle Dutch, is found in a collection of culinary recipes rather than among the medicinal waters, suggesting that it was starting to be seen as more of a lifestyle choice than a medicine in the early 16th century.

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Arnoldus de Villa Nova, 'T[ra]ctat[us] de laudibus virtutib[us] querci', a letter to Richard, Bishop of Canterbury, from a Dutch scientific compendium, Netherlands, c. 1500, Sloane MS 345, f 15r

A further contribution by Arnoldus de Villa Nova is a letter to Richard, Bishop of Canterbury, on the medicinal properties of the oak tree. Oak bark was used to treat infections, burns and cuts.

There are several collections of recipes for medicinal waters and herbal remedies. Here is an image from another manuscripts showing the apparatus used for alchemical processes and to prepare alcohol for medicinal uses and for the infusion of herbs, from Sloane MS 3548, a 15th-century English manuscript.

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Scientific apparatus from John Arderne, Medical Miscellany, England, 15th century, Sloane MS 3548, f. 25r

A work on the treatment of wounds is attributed in Sloane MS 345 to the young Lanfranc of Milan and a treatise, ‘De signis mortis’, gives examples of skin conditions and pustules indicating impending death. This treatise includes the Hippocratic facies, the description of a countenance often present at the verge of death, still used in medical prognosis today.

This image is from Sloane MS 6, another manuscript of John Arderne’s medical works. It shows Hippocrates (or Galen) holding up what is perhaps a urine glass to the sun on the lower left page.

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Drawings of medical practitioners at work and medical diagrams from John Arderne, Medical treatise, England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Sloane MS 6, ff. 175v-176r

Sloane MS 345 also contains medical works such as Chirurgia Parva (ff 118r-127v) and Liber de matrice mulieris et impugnatione (ff 128r-130r),attributed to Johannes de Ketham, a German physician living in Italy at the end of the 15th century. His Fasciculus medicinae, published in Venice in 1491, was the first printed book to contain anatomical illustrations.

De Ketham’s treatise on the conservation of easel paintings, De diversis coloribus picturis et tincturis contains recipes for pigments, oils, painting and guilding, provides insights into the techniques or materials used by Dutch artists in the early 16th century.

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St Luke at his easel painting the Virgin, Gospels of Luke and John, England, S.E. , 1st quarter of the 16th century, Royal 1 E V, f. 3r

Sloane 345 is a treasure trove of information on medical practices and remedies, but so as not to disappoint our readers who would like to see more graphic representations of medieval medical practices, here are two examples from other medical manuscripts in our collections.

Harley MS 1585 is another Dutch manuscript, this time from the southern Netherlands in the 12th century, a medical miscellany with a pharmacopeial compilation, including a herbal and bestiary. The full online version is available on Digitised Manuscripts.

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Miniature of medical and surgical procedures, inscribed 'a podagric is incised and burned thus', Netherlands, S. (Mosan region), or England? Harley MS 1585, f. 9r

Sloane MS 1977 is a collection of medical texts including Roger of Parma’s Chirurgia , translated into French, with full-page illustrations. It was in the Royal library in the 16th century, but later became part of the scientific collection of Sir Hans Sloane. It is partially digitised in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

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An operation to repair a compound fracture of the skull, France, N. (Amiens), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Sloane 1977, f. 2r



-          Chantry Westwell

18 April 2015

The Devil is in the Detail: A Thirteenth-Century Bible Moralisée

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Detail of a medallion with souls being taken by demons and placed in a cauldron, from a Bible moralisée, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 1526, f. 21r

Bibles moralisées (‘Moralised Bibles’) were a source of instruction and status for the royalty of thirteenth-century France. In these intensely illustrated Bibles, the images play a more fundamental role than the text. Each page features eight medallions accompanied by a thin column of text, which together represent extracts from the Bible followed by moralisations. These incredible picture books are precursors of the Bible pauperum, which you might remember from one of our previous blog posts.

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The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-10), and John beholds Jesus (John 1:35-36), from a Bible moralisée, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 1527, f. 18v

Harley MS 1526 and Harley MS 1527 form the final part of a Bible moralisée now divided between three cities: Paris (Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS latin 11560), Oxford (MS Bodley 270b) and London. Together the Paris-Oxford-London volumes cover material from almost all of the books of the Bible and feature close to 5,000 illustrations!

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Medallions depicting the Apocalypse, Harley MS 1527, f. 136v

Monks Behaving Badly

In order to edify the book’s royal owners, there are many depictions of moral transgressions to avoid, such as greed and lustfulness. In most of these images, however, the figures succumbing to sin are not members of the laic aristocracy, but misbehaving members of the clergy!

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Detail of a medallion with a queen holding a chalice, a cleric with a demon on his back embracing a woman, and another sipping wine, Harley MS 1527, f. 49v

 

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Detail of a medallion with a couple kissing whilst others listen to a sermon, Harley MS 1527, f. 95r

 

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Detail of a medallion with monks being seduced, Harley MS 1527, f. 96v

 

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Detail of a medallion with two monks embracing a woman, Harley MS 1527, f. 115r

 

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Detail of a medallion with a monk kissing a woman, Harley MS 1527, f. 110v


You can now explore both Harley MS 1526 and Harley MS 1527 in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website!

- Hannah Morcos