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08 November 2014

The Harley Psalter: Devils in the Details

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 103 (Vulgate numbering): The creations of the Lord: valleys and mountains (left) with springs where beasts and birds are drinking, a man ploughing with oxen, a sea with ships on it and beasts in the water (centre); lions and other beasts among the rocks (right), from the Harley Psalter, S.E. England (Canterbury), 1st half of the 11th century, Harley MS 603, f. 51v

The Harley Psalter is one of three manuscripts copied from the very well-travelled Utrecht Psalter, a Carolingian masterpiece made around 825 at the Benedictine monastery of Hautvilliers near Rheims in Northern France. Now MS 32 at the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Utrecht, the Utrecht Psalter spent at least two hundred years in Canterbury from about 1000 AD, where it was the inspiration for our very own Harley Psalter, Harley MS 603. Dating from the first half of the 11th century, the Harley Psalter has a very similar arrangement and many near-identical images to those of the Utrecht Psalter, though the version of the Psalms is different. In each one of the large pen drawings, the artist has attempted to represent the words of the Psalms in pictorial form - not always an easy task. The images often include four or five episodes from the text of the Psalm that follows, depicted in a vibrant yet intimate style. They are extraordinarily detailed, filled with tiny people and animals and many details, some amusing, and some bizarre.  This is the medieval ‘Where’s Wally?’: the reward for hours of searching is an unexpected delight from time to time.

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 5: The psalmist entering a sanctuary (left), from which a winged demon is fleeing (centre), and above him an angel placing a wreath on a martyr's head; on the right, demons are prodding the wicked in a pit of fire, Harley MS 603, f. 3r

There are, of course, the standard variations on the theme of the righteous and unrighteous, such as holy tabernacles and fiery pits, the psalmist appealing to God and his angels for help against foes and demons.  

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 134
: The Lord unleashing the fury of the wind and rain and his angels with spears slaying kings and their armies, Harley MS 603, f. 69r

God’s vengeance is portrayed repeatedly and with relish, as are the agitated gestures of the figures who suffer the consequences, particularly kings and judges.

So much for the standard fare. Here are a few unusual and interesting details we found to enjoy (apart from a medieval umbrella!). Please look for your own favourites in the online images and share them with us via Twitter: unlike the ‘Where’s Wally?’ books, Digitised Manuscripts allows you to zoom in for added searchability.

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Detail from a miniature illustrating Psalm 7: a female demon with quadruplets (below right), Harley MS 603, f. 4r

Here is a female demon with her brood of quadruplets. She seems to have her hands full!

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 21: The themes include: (1) the lamentation of the psalmist, who is shown holding two vials, and is attacked by bulls, dogs and lions, with a unicorn below (lower right); (2) prophetic images of Christ’s passion including an empty cross and two men dividing a garment in front of a lot machine (centre); and (3) praise to heaven, represented by the tabernacle with the meek eating at a circular table and seven women seated with babies (the seed of Israel), Harley MS 603, f. 12r

As those of you who follow this blog will know, we have a soft spot for unicorns. Here is one that seems to be facing up to two men with scythes. One has to wonder what the outcome of that contest will be. Our money is on the unicorn, naturally.

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Detail of a miniature illustrating Psalm 30: People watching acrobats and a dancing bear
, Harley MS 603, f. 17r

Continuing with the animal theme, this image includes a dancing bear and acrobats, presumably as a condemnation of frivolous pastimes.

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 108: Below Christ in a mandorla with angels, a wicked man is seized by a demon (left) and the psalmist with a locust, standing in oil from an oil-horn (right); the sinner is punished (lower left), his wife and children abandoned and his treasures taken from his chest, Harley MS 603, f. 56r

And here a locust is an onlooker to the punishment of a sinful man. The sinner’s treasure is looted, his wife tears her hair out and his children are abandoned, naked.  

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Added miniature illustrating Psalm 59: The Lord in a mandorla handing a pair of shoes to an angel; the defenders of the city of Edom(?) are facing the attacking soldiers
, Harley MS 603, f. 32v

Finally, did you know that angels wore shoes? No, nor did we, but in the picture the Lord is handing a pair to an angel (illustrating the line, ‘Over Edom will I cast out my shoe’). The style of this image is different: it is one of the drawings added to the Psalter in the 12th century. 

There are 112 of these fascinating and skilful illustrations in the Harley Psalter, an impressive achievement by any standard. The artistic style, originally from Reims, was influential in the development of late Anglo-Saxon book decoration and the coloured line drawings that became especially popular in England at the time. For further examples of this style, check out the Tiberius Psalter (Cotton MS Tiberius C VI), which dates to the third quarter of the 11th century. Two copies of the Psychomachia at the British Library also contain similar decoration: Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII and Additional MS 24199 (the latter will soon make an appearance on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts).

- Chantry Westwell

01 November 2014

A Calendar Page for November 2014

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

These two calendar pages for the month of November show a typical labour for this part of the agricultural season – the fattening of pigs for autumn.  On the opening folio, beneath the beginning of the saints’ days for the month, is a roundel of a peasant in the woods.  He is armed with a long stick, and is engaged in knocking acorns from oak trees to feed the pigs that are rooting around near his feet.   On the following folio, we can see a small miniature of a centaur with a bow and arrow, for the zodiac sign Sagittarius.  Beneath him is another peasant, heading home after a day of feeding pigs.  He looks fairly miserable – understandably enough, as he is walking through a heavy rainstorm.  Surrounding this roundel and the continuation of the saints’ days is a frame made up of golden columns, circled by banners with the initials ‘MY’ and ‘YM’.  These initials might be clues to the original owner of the manuscript, whose identity/identities are still unknown.  For more on this mystery, see here.

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Calendar page for November, with a roundel miniature of a man feeding pigs in the woods, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 11v

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Calendar page for November, with a roundel miniature of a man heading home in a rainstorm, with the zodiac sign Sagittarius, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 12r

- Sarah J Biggs

11 October 2014

Heraldic Herrings, Hedgehogs and Hosiery

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Roll up and find your thirteenth-century ancestor in our latest addition to Digitised Manuscripts!  Heirs of knights or otherwise, you can now enjoy the 324 painted coat of arms on the ‘Dering Roll’ in minute detail. This beautiful roll of arms gains its name from its sixteenth-century owner, Sir Edward Dering, first baronet (b. 1598, d. 1644), antiquary and lieutenant of Dover Castle in Kent. 

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Detail of the 10th, 11th and 12th rows of arms, from the Dering Roll, England (?Dover), c. 1270 – c. 1280, Additional Roll 77720, membrane 1

Not only did Dering accumulate quite the collection of historical documents relating both to Kent and to his ancestors, but he also set up an association called ‘Antiquitas Rediviva’ to collect ‘all memorable notes for historicall illustration of this kingdome’. This impulse wasn’t always kept separate from what might be termed ‘historicall embellishment’, as witnessed by the odd occasion when Dering adjusted names on items in his collection in order to support his claims for the antiquity of his family. 

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Detail of shield no. 61, from
Add Roll 77720, membrane 1

A fine example of this occurs on shield no. 61 where both the original arms and name of ‘Nicole de Criel’ have been erased. Nicholas de Criol’s shield was divided horizontally with red paint applied to the lower half, some of which is still visible behind the saltire cross of Sir Edward’s ancestor ‘Ric fiz Dering’. The scribe making the adjustment (presumably Dering himself) has gone to some effort to maintain as much of the original lettering as possible: ‘Nic’ is easily transformed into ‘Ric’ with a cross stroke, ‘o’ is simply expunged, and the ‘l’ in ‘Nicole’ provides a ready-made ascender for the ‘f’ in ‘fiz’. Even the ‘ri’ are recycled from ‘Criel’ to ‘Dering’. Sadly for Sir Nicholas and his own historical record, his name provided a convenient target for Sir Edward who could incorporate six letters written by the original scribe with six new ones, in an attempt seamlessly to blend past and present concerns.  

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Detail of the fourth and fifth rows of arms on the second membrane, from
Add Roll 77720

In designing a new coat of arms, it was (and still is) necessary for it to be distinct from others already in existence, and it was especially useful if it brought to mind the name of the bearer. Puns provide a helping hand, especially if they are of a simple visual kind, and the Dering Roll can be seen to boast a fine line in pictograms. Shield no. 105 (Azure crusily and six herrings or) belonged to William Heringaud (d. 1326). The use of herrings (Ofr. harenc) is what is known as a ‘canting device’, where the word chosen enunciates the name.  Similarly, shield no. 112 shows three hands (Ofr. mains) and this design belonged to Nicholas Malmains (d. 1292). 

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Detail of the third to sixth rows of arms on the fourth membrane, from
Add Roll 77720

In this short section of roll we have the designs for Nicholas le Lou (Ofr. leu, lou ‘wolf’), Henry de Herice (Ofr. heriҫon ‘hedgehog’), Nicholas de la Heuse (Ofr. hose, huese, heuse ‘men’s hose’), and Henry de Cockington, each appropriately represented by two wolves, three hedgehogs, three stockings and nine cocks, respectively. 

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Detail of the arms of Fulk FitzWaryn (d. 1315) from
Add Roll 77720, membrane 4

Literary historians might be interested in shield no. 271, belonging to Fulk FitzWarin of Whittington (d. 1315). This name will be familiar to readers of the anonymous Anglo-Norman romance Fouke le Fitz Waryn, a fictionalised family history from the Conquest to this Fulk’s grandfather (d. c. 1256). The narrative is based on a verse original of c. 1280 but survives in an Anglo-Norman prose version  of c. 1330, now Royal MS 12 C XII, ff. 33–61. The fantastical elements in this family chronicle – Fouke’s fights with Swedish dragons and Irish giants – are balanced by the genealogical concerns of marriage and birth: the prestige of a folkloric heroism meets a more practical purpose in supporting the family’s claims to inherited lands. This impulse for validation recalls Edward Dering’s adjustments to the roll more than three centuries later.

Heraldic punning is not forgotten here either. The chronicle-romance provides a technical description of the FitzWarin coat as: un escu quartilee de goules e d’argent  endentee; the pun dentz aguz or ‘sharp teeth’ alludes to the indented line in these arms. This particular pun is rather subtle, relying on knowledge of heraldic designs and their associated terms. Much more common, in fact, are the simple pictograms such as the herrings, hedgehogs and hosiery shown above. 

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Detail of the first three rows of arms, from
Add Roll 77720, membrane 1

The reign of Edward I (1272–1307) is seen as the golden age for the production of rolls of arms in England and these documents were designed for the identification of knights in battle and in tournaments. The Dering Roll is the earliest extant roll of arms from this period, dating from c. 1270 – c. 1280, and it accounts for an astonishing one-quarter of the entire English baronage of this time. The 324 painted shields stretch over two and a half metres of vellum and this long list of England’s movers and shakers begins with King John’s illegitimate son, Richard FitzRoy of Kent (d. bef. 1253). More interesting, perhaps, is the prominence given to Stephen of Penchester (shield no. 6) who served as constable of Dover Castle from 1268 until his death in 1298. Indeed, knights of Kent and Sussex dominate and it has been argued that the Dering Roll was designed to supply a list of knights owing feudal service to the Constable of Dover Castle. This has led to the suggestion that Penchester commissioned the Dering Roll, given the coincidence of its dating with his tenure in office.

We hope to learn much more about this fascinating roll now that it is available for detailed scrutiny by scholars, genealogists and members of the public alike. Following its sale at Sotheby’s in late 2007, an export licence was blocked and a fundraising campaign led to its purchase by the British Library. We are grateful for the generous aid received from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund, Friends of the British Library, Friends of the National Libraries and from numerous individual supporters, all of whom helped to save this treasure for the nation.

- Holly James-Maddocks

01 October 2014

A Calendar Page for October 2014

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

While the summer growing season may be over, the agricultural labours are by no means at and end, as these calendar pages for the month of October display.  On the opening folio is a roundel miniature of a man scattering grain in a plowed field.  Behind him are some turreted buildings and a bridge, while above, some hopeful birds are circling.   On the facing folio is a small painting of an ominous-looking scorpion, for the zodiac sign Scorpio.  Below, a tired man is heading home from his labours in the field, carrying a bag on his shoulders.  His dog is bounding before him, and swans can be seen swimming in the river beside.

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Calendar page for October, with a roundel miniature of a man sowing grain, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 10v

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Calendar page for October, with a roundel miniature of a man heading home after his work is done, with the zodiac sign Scorpio, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 11r

- Sarah J Biggs

23 September 2014

Guess the Manuscript XV

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Roll up, roll up! It's time to try your luck at another Guess the Manuscript, back by popular demand. As always, the rules are straightforward: the image comes from a manuscript that can be found somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts website, and is part of our medieval collections. Leave guesses in the comments below, or via Twitter @BLMedieval. We'll update this post with an answer on Friday, Sep 26.

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Update, 25 September: Many congratulations to @yorkherald, who correctly identified this image as the fore-edge from Add MS 27861, a 14th-century Greek Gospel book. You can view it in full on Digitised Manuscripts.

- Cillian O'Hogan

this image comes from a manuscript that is located somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and is part of our medieval collections.  You can leave your guesses in the comments below, or via Twitter @BLMedieval.  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/07/guess-the-manuscript-xiv.html#sthash.85jnxkjw.dpuf
this image comes from a manuscript that is located somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and is part of our medieval collections.  You can leave your guesses in the comments below, or via Twitter @BLMedieval.  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/07/guess-the-manuscript-xiv.html#sthash.85jnxkjw.dpuf

01 September 2014

A Calendar Page for September 2014

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

September marks the beginning of the wine-making season in the northern hemisphere, and this is as true today as it was on the pages of our medieval calendar.  In the opening folio, the process is beginning in earnest, as three women are busy picking grapes in a vineyard, loading them into the basket of a waiting man.  Behind them are several grand buildings, while the oenophilic theme of the month is mirrored by the acanthus vines circling round the page.  The labour continues on the facing folio.  Below the saints’ days for September and a woman holding a balance (for the zodiac sign Libra), a man is bringing a full basket of grapes into a barn.  He is greeted by a fellow worker, who stands in a tub full of grapes, crushing them beneath his feet.

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Calendar page for September, with a roundel miniature of people harvesting grapes, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 9v

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Calendar page for September, with a roundel miniature of a men making wine, with the zodiac sign Libra, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 10r

- Sarah J Biggs

28 August 2014

A Temporary Farewell

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As I am preparing to head off for a year’s maternity leave, I thought I would take the opportunity to thank you all for the wonderful opportunity it has been to work on this blog.  It has been a great pleasure to be able to share so many of the glories of the British Library over the past 3 or so years, and very gratifying to have such fabulous responses to our work. 

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Detail of Nature at a furnace, forging a baby, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 140r

If you happen to be feeling as nostalgic as I am, might I suggest that you cast your eyes back on a few of my favourites?  As you may have noticed, I have a great interest in marginalia and bestiaries, so the list would have to include Weird and Wonderful Creatures of the Bestiary, Monkeys in the Margins, More Gorleston Psalter ‘Virility’: Profane Images in a Sacred Space, Marginali-yeah! The Fantastic Creatures of the Rutland Psalter , and naturally, Knight v Snail and the famous Unicorn Cookbook.

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Detail of a marginal painting of a monkey with a swaddled infant, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 189v

Of course my leave-taking isn’t a permanent one; I’ll be returning to the British Library – and to the Medieval Manuscripts blog – in September of 2015.  There will still be a number of posts coming up that I’ve written, and I’m leaving you in the very capable hands of Julian Harrison, Cillian O’Hogan, James Freeman, and the rest of the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts team.  Until we meet again!

- Sarah J Biggs

26 August 2014

Bugs in Books

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Even the most cursory glance over the pages of medieval manuscripts will reveal a plethora of insects.  Bugs are everywhere – although we hasten to add that we are extremely vigilant about avoiding the presence of any actual living insects within the pages of our books.  But there has been little comprehensive scholarship about the appearance of such creatures in medieval manuscripts.  Insects usually live literally in the margins, often not even appearing in catalogue entries despite their profusion. 

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Detail of a border including flowers, moths, and flies, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 64v

Whilst undertaking this very short exploration of the subject, therefore, we would do well to remember the words of one of the earliest writers about these minute creatures.  As Pliny the Elder reminds us in the introduction to his book about insects:  ‘Nature is nowhere to be seen in greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works.  For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.’

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Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with marginal spiders and a praying mantis, Italy (Genoa), c. 1330 – c. 1340, Additional MS 28841, f. 6r

We’ll begin, as we almost always do, with the bestiary, that essential book of medieval beasts.  The early medieval bestiary includes amongst its pages only two species of what we would consider insects today – ants and bees.

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Detail of a miniature of ants in their anthill, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 32r

The humble ant is given quite extensive treatment in the bestiary.  Echoing Isidore of Seville’s somewhat fanciful etymology, the text tells us that the ant is called ‘formica’ because it carries pieces of grain (‘ferat micas’).   It goes on to describe much recognisable ant behaviour, detailing how ants walk in lines to gather food, store it for the winter, carry loads far in excess of their own size, and work together for the good of the group. 

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Detail of a miniature of ants on their anthill, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 50r

A parallel tradition to that of the bestiary is the Physiologus, one of the precursors to the Marvels of the East.  In the Physiologus, a subspecies of ant, as large as dogs, is said to live in Ethiopia and to be adept at digging up gold.  Such skill can be exploited by human beings, but only very carefully, as these ants will try to chase down and kill anyone who attempts to steal from them. 

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Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a camel, while a man loads another camel with gold and escapes, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101r

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Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a group of men who have come to steal their gold, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 96r

The concept of insects as a distinct class of animals was one that didn’t exist in this period.  Bees, for example, are characterised as the ‘smallest of birds’, and accordingly, often come at the end of the bestiary's section on winged animals.  They are described as industrious creatures, living in community under a chosen king.  Born in the decaying bodies of oxen or slaughtered calves, it is said, bees build their homes with ‘indescribable skill’, make honey, and then guard it fiercely against all potential invaders.  Much like ants, bees were praised over the centuries by various authors who considered them humble and loyal animals, ‘wonderfully noble', and worthy of emulation by human beings.

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Detail of a miniature of bees guarding their hives against a marauding bear, from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), Italy (Padua?), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3448, f. 10v

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Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar and returning to their hive, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 45v

That said, bees could sometimes be used as weapons.  A mid-13th century copy of William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer contains a miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch who was bound to a tower and smeared with honey in a gruesome attempt to end his life.

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Miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch being attacked by bees, from
William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer, France (Picardy?), 1232-1261, Yates Thompson MS 12, f. 120r

It is not clear why the early bestiaries omitted so many of the species of insects that people must surely have been familiar with – in many cases, perhaps, far too familiar. Flies, spiders, moths, and butterflies do not put in appearances in texts until later.  The British Library is lucky enough, however, to possess a mid-16th century Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate which includes a cicada (f. 13r), a locust-like insect (f. 19r), and three species of spider – two of which are poisonous (and one of which is apparently six-legged).

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Detail of a painting of three spiders, including a malmignatte, from a Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate, 2nd – 3rd quarter of the 16th century, Burney MS 97, f. 29r

Six-legged spiders are not unusual to find in medieval art, and neither are their ten-legged cousins, as the examples below will show:

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Detail of a six-legged spider in its web, from an herbal, Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 6r

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Detail of a marginal ten-legged spider, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographic Hiberniae, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 – 1223, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 11r

Most insects in medieval art, however, were not designed to illustrate any accompanying text, or at least, not literally. This is particularly the case for manuscripts from the later medieval era.  The vast majority of insect examples we have found are decorative ones, taking their place amongst the flowers, fruit, and jewels that adorn these pages.  Some are occasionally used for humorous purposes, or may have been intended to underscore the message of the text.   An extremely small selection of these sorts of images is below; if we have omitted any gems, please do let us know in the comments or on Twitter: @BLMedieval.  Happy bug hunting!

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Detail of a marginal painting of flies surrounding a dog, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 48r

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Detail of a marginal dragonfly and dragon, from the Lovell Lectionary, England (probably Glastonbury), c. 1400 – c. 1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 13r

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Selection of cuttings of border illuminations, featuring flowers, birds, moths, butterflies, and other insects, Italy (Rome), c. 1572 – c. 1585, Additional  MS 35254, f. N

Add MS 28841 f.7v
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with a caterpillar and a spider catching a fly, Additional MS 28841, f. 7v

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Detail of a grasshopper, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Additional MS 18851, f. 30r

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Detail of a butterfly alighting on a flower, Additional MS 18851, f. 17r

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Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar, and a beekeeper (rotated 180°), from the Exultet Roll, Italy (Monte Cassino), c. 1075 - c. 1080, Add MS 30337, membrane 10

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Miniature of the Crucifixion, with a gold border including flowers, moths, a fly, and a caterpillar, Additional MS 35313, f. 29r

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Detail of a border including a monkey and a fly, Additional MS 35313, f. 71v

Burney MS 132 f. 2r C0192-06b
Detail of a border including a dragonfly and helmets, from De bello gallico, Italy, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Burney MS 132, f. 2r

- Sarah J Biggs