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258 posts categorized "Featured manuscripts"

03 January 2015

Cicero's Map to the Stars

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Marcus Tullius Cicero, born on 3 January 106 BC, bestrides Latin literature like a colossus. The combination of an immense output of writings and a strong afterlife in the schools of late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, means that more manuscripts of Cicero’s work survive than of any other classical Latin author. Only Augustine of Hippo can claim a more fertile manuscript tradition.

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Harley MS 4329, f 130r. Miniature of Cicero debating the nature of friendship. From a manuscript containing translations of the De Senectute and De Amicitia into French by Laurent de Premierfait. France, Central (Tours), 1460.

Cicero’s popularity should come as no surprise. His speeches and rhetorical treatises (together with the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, erroneously attributed to Cicero) were the cornerstone of Latin education for generations. Ciceronian style became the benchmark against which other Latin prose was measured. During the Renaissance, the extent to which Cicero should be followed as a model was a matter of fierce debate.

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Harley MS 4796, f 66r, detail. Historiated initial of Cicero and his son in discussion. From a Spanish translation of the De Officiis, De Senectute, and Pro Marcello. Spain, N., 1st half of the 15th century.

In addition to his rhetorical works, Cicero’s letters give a great insight into the world of the late Roman Republic – both the public world, in which he was of course actively involved, and everyday private life. Finally, there is Cicero’s great output of philosophical literature. Not only did this have the virtue of contributing greatly to the development of a Latin vocabulary for philosophical terms, it also constitutes a serious advancement in philosophical learning in itself. Indeed, Cicero’s philosophical works were probably the most popular of his works during the Middle Ages, and provided important points of entry into Greek philosophy for medieval scholars without any knowledge of Greek.

One part of Cicero’s output that has traditionally been less highly valued has been his poetry. Partly because of one notorious verse, o fortunam natam me consule Romam (“Happy Rome, born when I was consul”), and partly because he was eclipsed by the astonishing virtuosity achieved by the poets of the next generation (especially Catullus and Lucretius), it is only recently that scholars have begun to turn a more sympathetic eye to Cicero’s verse.

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Harley MS 647, f 10v, detail. Eridanus.

The situation was different in the Middle Ages, however, and one of Cicero’s most popular works was a translation of the Phaenomena of the Hellenistic poet Aratus. This poem, which describes the constellations, was hugely popular in antiquity, and was repeatedly translated into Latin - by Cicero, Germanicus (grand-nephew of Augustus and father of Caligula), and Varro of Atax in the first century BC alone. Cicero prepared his version of the poem in the 80s BC, when he was in his late teens or early 20s.

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Harley MS 647, f 19r. Solar System.

Astronomical treatises continued to be hugely popular in the Middle Ages, and are frequently to be found in miscellaneous manuscripts. We are fortunate at the British Library to have two particularly fine decorated manuscripts of Cicero’s Aratea: Harley MS 647, and Harley MS 2506.

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Harley MS 647, f 3v. Pisces.

The Ciceronian section of Harley 647 was created in Northern France, around 820. The manuscript is a marvel: Cicero’s text is presented at the bottom of each page, accompanied by a drawing of the relevant constellation. Yet these drawings are formed out of words, taken from the relevant passages of the Astronomica of Hyginus. (You can read more about such text-pictures in a recent blog post by Erik Kwakkel). The manuscript later travelled to the Abbey of Saint Augustine at Canterbury. Three descendants of this manuscript are also now in the British Library: Cotton MS Tiberius C I, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, and Harley 2506.

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Harley MS 2506, f 36v. Pisces.

Harley 2506 is laid out a little differently, however. Here, the drawings are rather more traditional, and the text of Hyginus is kept separate (at the beginning of the volume). Attributed to one of the artists of the Ramsey Psalter, it was created at Fleury probably in around the 990s, before being brought to England. It would be interesting to know what Cicero would have made of the fact that, of all of his works, it was the Aratea that inspired the greatest creativity in medieval scribes and illuminators.

 

Cillian O’Hogan

01 January 2015

A Calendar Page for January 2015

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Regular readers will know that one of our blog traditions is to highlight a calendar from a particular medieval manuscript throughout the course of the year.  Past manuscripts have included the Isabella Breviary, the Hours of Joanna the Mad, the Golf Book, and the Huth Hours.  In 2015 we are pleased to present a manuscript that has featured on our blog before, the London Rothschild Hours.  Confusingly, this manuscript is often also called the Hours of Joanna the Mad (or the Hours of Joanna I of Castile), as it has been suggested that the manuscript belonged to that famous lady.

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Miniature of John the Evangelist on Patmos with his symbol the eagle, being tormented by a demon and visions above, at the beginning of his suffrage, from the London Rothschild Hours (The Hours of Joanna I of Castile), Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 10v-11r

Evidence that the book was Joanna’s is tantalising, but inconclusive.  The repeated presence of Joanna’s name saint, John the Evangelist, is a potential clue, and the presence of a number of Spanish saints in the calendar suggests that it was probably produced for a member of the Spanish aristocracy.

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Miniature of the Pentecost, with the Virgin Mary at the centre seated at a lectern, Add MS 35313, f. 33v

In any case, this manuscript is certainly a lavish production, and the prominent places given to women and books in the miniatures indicate that it was prepared for a noble lady who was highly literate.  Every miniature in the manuscript – and there are many – is surrounded by a detailed and extravagant border, often containing animals, flowers, or jewels. 

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Miniature of St George and the dragon, surrounded by a jewelled border, Add MS 35313, f. 223v

The structure of the calendar echoes the beauty of the rest of the manuscript.  Each folio contains a single month, beginning with a small painting of the sign of the zodiac at the top.  Below this is the listing of the saints’ days for the month, and, unusually, every slot is filled with an observance or feast.  Even more unusual are the roundels on the outer edge of the folio that contain illustrations of the most important saints’ days, those days marked in red on the calendar (which is where we get our contemporary phrase ‘red letter days’).  At the bottom of each calendar page is a miniature of the labour for that month, painted by one of the most accomplished Flemish illuminators of the day.

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Calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

Our calendar for January begins with a particularly charming scene.  The traditional labour for this wintery month is to feast before a fire, and at the bottom of the folio we can see a couple preparing to do just that in their bedchamber, watched by an attentive cat.  Outside, a bundled man appears to be making his own way home.   

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Detail of a bas-de-page miniature of a couple feasting indoors, and a man standing outside, from a calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

Four saints’ days have been given red letter status in this manuscript, and one notable one is the conversion of St Paul (see below); the constraints of monochrome still allow for some sense of drama for the scene on the road to Damascus.

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Detail of a roundel miniature of St Paul on the Road to Damascus, from a calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

- Sarah J Biggs

27 December 2014

Saved for the Nation: New Acquisitions in 2014

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During 2014, the British Library has made several new acquisitions. Thanks to such schemes as Acceptance in Lieu, as well as generous funding provided by the Arts Council, the Friends of the British Library and a range of private benefactors, we have been able to save these books for the nation. Each has been conserved and fully digitised, the images being published on Digitised Manuscripts, and so are now available for all to enjoy and study. Just in case you missed them the first time round, let’s take a closer look at each of them:

Catholicon Anglicum 

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Opening page, beginning with the exclamation ‘Aaa’, from the Catholicon Anglicum, England (Yorkshire), 1483,
Add MS 89074, f. 2r 

This is the only complete copy of one of the earliest English-Latin dictionaries ever made, and the first such dictionary in which all the words were placed in alphabetical order. From the dialect of some of the words, it appears to have been written in Yorkshire. Last seen in the late nineteenth century when the text was edited, and thought lost to scholarship forever, it had lain hidden in a private collection in Lincolnshire. The Catholicon Anglicum is of outstanding importance for our study both of the English language and English lexicography (which goes back much further than Dr Johnson!). It has been exhibited in the Treasures Gallery since June, as part of a small display about ‘Languages in Medieval Britain’

Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist 

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Detail of a miniature of the murder of Emperor Galba by Otho and his rebels, from the Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist, southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1465,
Add MS 89066/2, f. 79r 

Probably the finest illuminated drama manuscript to survive from the medieval period, this manuscript in two volumes (Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2) was acquired from the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth. It is the most complete copy of the mystery play, Le Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist, which was written by a Benedictine monk, Eustache Marcadé, in the early fifteenth century. This manuscript ticks all the boxes: it is beautifully decorated and handsomely written; there are surviving records of exactly how much it cost and who made it; and there is an almost unbroken chain of provenance evidence, from its original owner Philip the Good of Burgundy to the present day. It too is on display in the Treasures Gallery; don’t miss your chance to see it! 

John Ponet’s copy of a treatise against clerical marriage 

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Frontispiece to John Ponet’s copy of Thomas Martin’s ‘Traictise’, containing Ponet’s annotations and an old library stamp from the Law Society’s Mendham Collection, printed in London, 1554,
Add MS 89067, f. 1r 

This book is a fascinating witness to one of the major doctrinal disputes of the Reformation, and to the personal rivalry between the Catholics Stephen Gardiner and his acolyte Thomas Martin on one hand, and the Protestant John Ponet on the other. Upon Mary I’s accession, Ponet went into exile, settling in Strasbourg. He acquired this book while on the continent, had it interleaved with blank sheets, and then began a point-by-point (and often ad hominem) refutation of Gardner/Martin’s argument. Many of these densely written notes were later printed – but crucially not all of them – affording us an insight into how contemporaries engaged with one another’s arguments and composed their responses during a febrile period in English religious history. 

And finally, our most recent acquisition, which arrived earlier this month: 

Rental of the lands of Worcester Cathedral Priory

The British Library possesses the largest collection of medieval cartularies in Britain. The newest addition to our holdings is a rental that was made for Worcester Cathedral Priory. Dating to 1240 (with some later additions), it contains records of the possessions of this major monastic foundation and the revenues to which it was entitled. It formed the exemplar for the ‘Registrum Prioratus’, dating to the early 14th century, which remains at Worcester Cathedral, as Muniments, A.2. More details of this exciting new acquisition will be coming in the New Year...

 

- James Freeman

25 December 2014

Merry Christmas Everyone!

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Everyone at the British Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 

Or perhaps that should be ‘¡Feliz Navidad y próspero Año Nuevo!’, since our Guess the Manuscript Christmas Special was taken from a Spanish manuscript: Add MS 28962, the Prayerbook of Alphonso V of Aragon. 

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Miniature of the Nativity, from the Prayerbook of Alphonso V of Aragon, Spain (Valencia), 1436-1443,
Add MS 28962, f. 337v 

This miniature marks the beginning of the Second Joy of the Virgin Mary. In this Book of Hours, there are seven such joys – beginning with the Annunciation (f. 336v), and continuing after the Nativity with the Adoration of the Magi (f. 338v), the Resurrection (f. 339v), Christ’s Ascension (f. 340v), and the Pentecost (f. 341v), and ending with the Dormition and Mary’s Coronation in Heaven (f. 342v). 

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Miniature of the Adoration of the Magi,
Add MS 28962, f. 338v 

The Joys of the Virgin Mary – often paralleled, as here, by a series of Sorrows of the Virgin Mary – was the most popular of the various ‘secondary’ texts that could comprise part of a Book of Hours. The number of Joys is known to have varied between five and fifteen, with such events as the Visitation of Our Lady, the Conception of Christ, the Presentation and Purification in the Temple, Christ among the Doctors and others included in the series. Popularized in thirteenth century Italy and later adopted especially by the Franciscans, the Joys of the Virgin Mary were depicted very widely in manuscripts and other forms of medieval art, such as wall and panel paintings. Mary’s Five Joys are also cited in Gawain and the Green Knight (Cotton MS Nero A X, art. 3) as the source from which the eponymous hero derives his fortitude (‘forsnes’). They were even used by Robert Fabyan (d. 1513) to divide his chronicle into seven parts (the manuscript copy of which survives in two volumes: the first is Holkham Hall, MS 671, the second Cotton MS Nero C XI). 

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Miniature of Alphonso V of Aragon at prayer, with his arms contained within a coloured initial below,
Add MS 28962, f. 312r 

The present Book of Hours was originally commissioned in 1436 by Juan de Casanova (b. 1387, d. 1436), a Dominican monk, for Alphonso V of Aragon, whom he served as confessor. It was taken on by the workshop of Domingo Crespí and his son in Valencia, but repeated delays meant that the book was not finished until 1443. Its intended destination is obvious, however: the manuscript contains a miniature of Alphonso V on horseback and several of him at prayer, in addition to his coat of arms in numerous places.

 - James Freeman

19 December 2014

Handle With Care: The Conservation and Digitisation of the Phillipps Lectionary

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Before British Library manuscripts reach your computer screens through the Digitised Manuscripts site, they are subjected to conservation assessments. These cover such matters as the angle at which the manuscript may be opened safely, the condition of the binding and the leaves, and any repairs that are required. The assessment for Add MS 82957 – the Phillipps Lectionary – was particularly detailed. The content and decoration of this manuscript, and the damage it sustained during its nine-hundred-and-fifty-odd-year life, have been covered in earlier blog posts. This latest instalment concerns the most recent chapter in its history: the repairs that were conducted to make it fit to be handled and photographed, and the digitisation process itself. 

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Details of the joints between the front (L) and rear (R) binding and the spine, showing small splits, from the Phillipps Lectionary,
Add MS 82957 

The first conservation task was to do minor repairs to the binding, as the joints were starting to split. A delicate balance had to be struck between doing as little as possible to an unusual binding, and making it strong enough to cope with the repeated opening and closing that the rest of the conservation process would involve. 

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Detail of repairs to rodent damage along the fore-edge of the manuscript,
Add MS 82957, f. 65r 

The objective was then to make the leaves safe enough to be handled for digitisation. The edges of the leaves had been weakened by mould and shredded by rodents – a grim combination! To repair these, fine Japanese tissues were used. They were pre-coated with a 2% isinglass solution and then reactivated with the same solution, in order to minimise the addition of moisture to the parchment. A benefit of isinglass is that it has immediate tack.  With heavily cockled parchment, as here, this is very useful, as it means that the parchment does not have to be flattened first before repairs are made. Fleeces, which can conform to such uneven surfaces better than blotting paper, were used to dry the repairs. 

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Detail of repairs made to rodent damage and a tear,
Add MS 82957, f. 12v 

In very weak areas, tissues were pre-coated with Klucel G: a consolidant that can be reactivated with ethanol. This avoids any moisture at all being added to the parchment – but it must be used with great care, because ethanol can also damage the structure of the parchment. 

Some areas were dry cleaned before repairs were placed, so long as it could be done safely, but the manuscript was not especially dirty overall. Detached fragments were reattached where their original location could be determined; a small number of other loose fragments are now stored separately with the manuscript. 

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A detached portion of a partial leaf, now reattached in its original position,
Add MS 82957, f. 229r  

Two leaves that had been cut in half and left loose were rejoined in their original positions. 

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The silk bookmark after its repair,
Add MS 82957, f. 161r 

The silk bookmark attached to the binding was also in two pieces, and was joined together using silk crepeline. 

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Full shot of the manuscript in a V-shaped cradle, with two people using fingers to hold the leaf in place
 

Once the manuscript had been conserved, it was possible for it to undergo digitisation. To protect against any further damage, our conservator and a member of the manuscripts team accompanied the manuscript throughout. A condition of digitisation was that a V-shaped cradle be used, in order best to support the manuscript. The photographer used an angled camera to shoot the manuscript. Two assistants were ‘on hand’ (literally!) to keep the leaves in place (a future blog post will look at the plastic ‘fingers’ that are being used). The photography took a full day to complete, with further image processing and quality checking taking some additional hours on top of that. 

The fragility of the Phillipps Lectionary means that, for the sake of its conservation, access to the manuscript must be restricted. Digitisation – undertaken with proper preparation and the assistance of skilled conservators and photographers – means that it is still possible for researchers to consult the object in the digital realm, and arguably enjoy a closer look through high resolution images than would ever be possible with the naked eye. In cases such as this, where the book’s covers must remain closed, digitisation is opening them up again to the world, for all to see. 

- James Freeman & Ann Tomalak

17 December 2014

Tudor Scribe and Spy at No. 2 in the Official Classical Charts

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A new recording of a magnificent choirbook produced for King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, one of the great treasures in the British Library’s music collections, reached number 2 in the Classical Charts in the first week of its release in October 2014.

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Detail of a historiated initial with the Tudor rose and pomegranate, from the Choirbook of Petrus Alamire, Southern Netherlands, c. 1516,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 3r

Containing mostly motets for four voices by Josquin des Prez, Pierre de la Rue and other leading Continental composers, this volume is representative of the finest French and Franco-Flemish repertory of the time. To celebrate the first complete recording of all 34 pieces, full coverage of this beautifully illuminated volume is now freely available on Digitised Manuscripts.

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Cantus and tenor parts of the motet ‘Celeste beneficium’ by Jean Mouton,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v

The rich sounds of early sixteenth-century polyphony, as notated in Royal MS 8 G VII, have been recreated by the choir Alamire and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, under the directorship of Dr David Skinner. Here is a sound-clip of the opening piece:

Celeste beneficium


Released as ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’, the CD’s title refers to the colourful history of its famous scribe, Petrus Alamire (d. 1536), from whom Skinner’s ensemble borrows its name. In addition to making several similar choirbooks for other European courts, Petrus Alamire was a composer, mining engineer, and diplomat. He acted as a spy for Henry VIII, informing him of the movements of Richard de la Pole, the exiled pretender to the English crown. Surviving letters to the King and to Richard de la Pole suggest that Alamire was simultaneously engaged in counter-espionage. Perhaps gifting this manuscript to Henry was one way for Alamire to smooth over his double-dealing.

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Alto and bass parts of the motet ‘Celeste beneficium’ by Jean Mouton,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 3r

Naturalistic foliage, birds and insects, common to the south Netherlandish style of illumination, are combined with Tudor symbols such as the dragon and greyhound ‘supporters’ of the royal arms (f. 2v), and heraldic badges including the portcullis, the double rose, and the pomegranate (f. 3r). The exact circumstances of its presentation to Henry and Catherine are unknown, and it has been suggested that the manuscript may originally have been intended for Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany. ‘Celeste beneficium’, for example, was composed for the French couple, and its text calls upon St Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, to help bring forth children.

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Detail of ‘HK’ in the place of stamens in the marginal flora and fauna,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v

It is not difficult, however, to imagine the relevance of this text to Henry and Catherine’s pressing need for a male heir. The following two motets (‘Adiutorium nostrum’ and ‘Nesciens mater virgo virum’) continue this theme, and the fusion of Catherine’s emblem, the pomegranate, with the Tudor double rose, is another probable reference to the desire for progeny (see opening image above). Further evidence to support the idea that this manuscript was designed with Henry in mind appears in a tiny detail amidst the flora and fauna of the marginal decoration: the ‘HK’ which serves to substitute the stamens surely refers to ‘Henricus’ and ‘Katharina’. If the intended patrons did change, this must have occurred extremely early in the manuscript’s production.

Adiutorium nostrum


Whatever the case, there is little doubt that this book would have greatly appealed to the King. Henry received a thorough musical education: he played several instruments, sang from sight and composed and arranged music. Indeed, it was Henry’s desire to bring the finest musicians in Europe to play and sing at his court which brought Petrus Alamire into close contact.

Now, perhaps for the first time since Henry’s post-dinner entertainment, we can appreciate the full aural and visual magnificence of this unique volume. See here for further details about the CD, and experience Royal MS 8 G VII in its entirety on Digitised Manuscripts.

- Holly James-Maddocks & Nicolas Bell

14 December 2014

Important notice: Temporary removal of Lindisfarne Gospels from display in the Treasures Gallery

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We would like to advise visitors to the British Library that the Lindisfarne Gospels will not be on display on Tuesday 16 and Wednesday 17 December 2014. The manuscript will be back on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery on Thursday 18 December. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.

The Lindisfarne Gospels can always be viewed online on Digitised Manuscripts.

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The Lindisfarne Gospels: London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D. IV, f. 16r.

- Cillian O'Hogan

01 December 2014

A Calendar Page for December 2014

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For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

The slaughtering of animals and preparing of meat for the winter are the labours highlighted in these final calendar pages of the year.   On the opening folio can be found the beginning of the saints’ days for December.  Below, a roundel miniature shows two men in a barn; one has his hands firmly on the horns of a bull, holding him steady, while the other man is preparing to deliver the coup de grâce with a wooden mallet.   In the facing folio, another man is butchering a hog outdoors, wielding a long, sharp knife.  A bucket of blood is beneath the slaughtering table, and above, we can see a wooly ram (perhaps aghast at the carnage), for the zodiac sign Capricorn.  Surrounding this scene is another golden architectural frame, populated with angels playing musical instruments, and a kneeling monk above, perhaps in honour of the feast of the Nativity.

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Calendar page for December, with a roundel miniature of two men slaughtering a bull, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 12v

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Calendar page for December, with a roundel miniature of a man butchering a hog, with the zodiac sign Capricorn, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 13r

- Sarah J Biggs