Medieval manuscripts blog

646 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

19 May 2018

Everyone loves a royal wedding

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The wedding of Prince Harry and Miss Meghan Markle on 19 May at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, will include centuries-old royal traditions and ceremonial, as they take their vows before God, their families and the Queen. To celebrate this happy occasion, we are displaying two medieval manuscripts with stunning images of royal weddings in our Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Let’s look at some of the similarities and differences between weddings then and now.

Medieval royal weddings were lavish occasions with full traditional regalia, including gold and ermine, gifts and feasting. But these marriages were usually dynastic arrangements rather than love-matches, and the couple were sometimes still children. English kings often chose brides from among the French royalty, to seal a truce or to guarantee the support of the French king.

The Wedding of King Edward II and Isabella of France


The wedding of Edward II and Isabella, daughter of Philippe IV of France, from Wavrin’s Chroniques d’Angleterre, Bruges, between 1471 and 1483: Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 295v

On 25 January 1308, in Boulogne, northern France, the French princess Isabella, aged only 12, was joined in marriage to the new king of England, Edward II (r. 1307–1327), who was then almost 24. The ceremony was depicted by an artist working in Bruges in the 1470s, who imagined the ceremony taking place outside, on the parvis of a Gothic church, in a beautiful landscape in the Flemish style. The illumination shows the bride centre-stage, dressed in shining blue and gold, with a sparkling crown and gorgeous flowing hairstyle. Both bride and groom wear the royal ermine and the long, pointed shoes that were fashionable in this period. Edward would have had trouble going down on his knees to Isabella, as Prince Harry reputedly did to Miss Markle when he proposed. 600 lucky guests have been invited to the wedding this weekend. Here, Edward and Isabella are accompanied by a crowd of courtiers, all wearing gorgeous coloured robes and hats.

The Wedding of King Henry V and Catherine de Valois

Although royal love-matches were rare in the Middle Ages, King Henry V (r. 1413–1422) seems to have been attracted to Catherine de Valois, if Shakespeare’s Henry V is to be believed. Perhaps the fact that their union guaranteed the English succession in France may have been a factor! Their wedding ceremony took place in 1420 and is shown in this magnificent illumination in a huge copy of Jean Chartier’s Grandes Chroniques de France. It was copied in Calais in 1487, probably being commissioned as a gift for King Henry VII of England.

K90033-32 Royal 20 E vi  f. 9v

The wedding of Henry V and Catherine de Valois, from the Grandes Chroniques de France, Calais?, 1487: Royal MS 20 E VI, f. 9v

Unfortunately Henry V died after only two years of marriage, with the widowed Catherine secretly marrying his squire, Owen Tudor. Henry VII (r. 1485–1509) was their grandson, and needed to establish his legitimate claim to the throne after defeating Richard III. This book was probably a political gift to him and the borders are crammed with royal emblems and devices, and particularly of the new Tudor dynasty. 

You can see the two manuscripts shown above on display at the British Library in London. With the country in the grip of royal wedding fever, we have found more gorgeous images of royal weddings from our manuscripts.

The Wedding of Richard II and Isabel of France

K046161 Royal 14 D vi  f. 268v

Detail of a miniature of Richard II, king of England, receiving his bride, the Princess Isabel, from her father, Charles VI, king of France, in Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Bruges, c. 1480–1494: Royal MS 14 D VI, f. 268v

This picture of the second marriage of Richard II (r. 1377–1399) in 1396 shows the king about to kiss his young bride. Isabel was only six years old when she married Richard, six years younger than the age limit for marriage decreed by canon law, and again a purely political alliance. We should note that the kiss did not take place on the palace balcony, as is traditional with most modern marriages. This Saturday, however, the royal couple will not be posing on the balcony for a photo, according to a palace spokesperson, as they will not be at Buckingham Palace, where the balcony shots are traditionally taken. 

The Wedding of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence

C13123-17 Royal 14 C vii  f. 124v

Detail of a marginal painting of the marriage of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence: Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, St Albans, 1235–1259: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 124v

Royal wedding rings are today made from Clogau or Welsh gold, a tradition dating back to the wedding of George VI and Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (the Queen Mother, Harry’s great-grandmother) in 1923. This marginal painting was done by Matthew Paris in his History of the English to illustrate a passage in which he discusses the marriage between King Henry III of England (r. 1216–1272) and Eleanor, daughter of Ramon Berenguer V, Count of Provence, and Beatrice of Savoy. The ceremony that took place in 1236 in Canterbury Cathedral is symbolised here by the king's gesture of placing the wedding ring on the queen's finger.

The Wedding of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou

No doubt the modern royal couple will receive many gifts. This gorgeous collection of chivalric romances and treatises was a wedding gift probably presented by John Talbot (d. 1453), Earl of Shrewsbury, to Margaret of Anjou, future queen of England.

C12262-10a Royal 15 E vi  f. 2v

Detail of a miniature of John Talbot, identified by his Talbot dog, presenting the book to Queen Margaret, seated in a palace beside King Henry VI, and surrounded by the court, in the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book', Rouen, c. 1445: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v

This glorious miniature shows Henry VI (r. 1422–1461, 1470–1471) and Margaret of Anjou holding hands. The wedding ceremony took place on 24 May 1444 in St Martin's Cathedral at Tours. The English king was not present at the ceremony, and so the Earl of Suffolk acted on his behalf, whereas Prince Harry will be waiting for his bride at the altar of St George’s Chapel.

The Celebrations following the Wedding of Louis XII of France and Mary Tudor 

By all accounts the wedding of Prince Harry and Miss Markle will focus on fun, joy and a chance to celebrate with the public. After the wedding of Mary Tudor (1496–1533), sister of King Henry VIII, to Louis XII of France, a sumptuous pageant was presented to celebrate the entry of the eighteen-year-old bride to Paris on 6 November 1514.


The final pageant, with the Annunciation (above) and with Louis XII and Mary seated, flanked by Justice and Truth, with their royal arms linked by lovers' knots above; below is a pastoral scene with shepherds and shepherdesses, from Pierre Gringoire, Pageants for the Reception of Queen Mary of France, Paris, 1st quarter of the 16th century: Cotton MS Vespasian B II, f. 15r


                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Chantry Westwell

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17 May 2018

The legends of King Arthur

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Have you ever wondered who King Arthur really was? The British Library's Discovering Literature: Medieval site features a fascinating essay on this very subject, written by Dr Hetta Elizabeth Howes of City, University of London. Howes traces and contextualises the evolution of the Arthurian legend, based on the historical and literary sources, and illustrated with images of manuscripts in our collections, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory. As the essay pertinently asks, 'Will the real King Arthur please stand up?'

Among the manuscripts featured in The legends of King Arthur is Wace's Roman de Brut, a poem written in Anglo-Norman French. In the copy shown here, made in England in the 14th century (Egerton MS 3028), Arthur's exploits are described in a series of narrative images.


The coronation of King Arthur, in Wace's Roman de Brut: Egerton MS 3028, f. 37r



The opening page of Wace's Roman de Brut: Egerton MS 3028, f. 1r



Another page from Wace's Roman de Brut, showing the building of Stonehenge: Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r


Wace's work was translated in turn by Laȝamon into Middle English, known as Laȝamon's Brut. This manuscript (Cotton MS Caligula A IX) was made probably in the last quarter of the 13th century. It is one of two surviving copies of Laȝamon's work, but the second (Cotton MS Otho C XIII) was damaged by fire in 1731.


The opening page of Laȝamon's Brut: Cotton MS Caligula A IX, f. 3r


Medieval manuscripts such as these helped to popularise the legend of Arthur. As Howes fittingly concludes, 'King Arthur may not have returned from the dead, as the myths promise, [but] he has certainly enjoyed a number of afterlives in popular culture.'

The legends of King Arthur is one of many essays found on our Discovery Literature website. Other include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: an introduction by Simon Armitage, Old English by David Crystal and Dream visions by Mary Wellesley.


Julian Harrison

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12 May 2018

The female pope

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Rihanna recently created headlines when she appeared at the 2018 Met Gala, wearing a white mitre, in the guise of a bishop or even a pope. People have long been fascinated with the idea and imagery of a female pope. In the later Middle Ages, there was an oft-repeated story about Pope Joan, a highly educated woman who pretended to be a man and was elected to the papacy. Pope Joan almost certainly never existed, but it's interesting to see how this story evolved.

Royal MS 14 E V   f. 468
Image of Pope Joan, from a copy of Laurent Premierfait's translation of Boccaccio's De viris illustribus and De mulieribus claris: Royal MS 14 E V, f. 468r

Some of the earliest references to a female pope appear in 13th-century chronicles, such as the Universal History of Metz, a history of the whole world from the beginning of time. The basis for the most common medieval legend of Pope Joan is found in the Chronicle of Popes and Emperors compiled by Martin of Troppau (d. 1278, also known as Martin of Opava or Martinus Polonus). According to this chronicle, Joan was an Englishwoman who was born in Mainz in the 9th century. She fell in love and dressed as a man in order to follow her lover on his travels to Athens. The brilliant Joan became very well educated and was elected pope. However, her secret was revealed when she gave birth in the middle of a papal procession and died, and the popes never used that route for their processions again. Versions of this story became increasingly elaborate, claiming that Joan had been killed or that a statue was later constructed on the site of her death.

Harley 641   f. 118
Image of Martin of Troppau from an historiated initial in a copy of his chronicle: Harley MS 641, f. 118r

Earlier sources do not support this narrative. Martin and others claimed Joan lived in the 9th century and succeeded Pope Leo IV (d. 855), but they may have confused her with one of the Pope Johns who reigned in the second half of the 9th century. The 9th- and 10th-century papacy was also scorned by contemporary and later writers for its corruption, with some writers suggesting that the popes were controlled by the women in their lives, including their mistresses and such accounts may have fueled ideas about a female pope. The story about Joan's statue may also have resulted from confusion over one of the statues of the Virgin and Child in Rome.
The story of Pope Joan was frequently found in later medieval chronicles, including the 'official' account of the lives of the popes written by the Vatican librarian Bartolomeo Platina (d. 1481). Joan also became a major figure in literature. Boccaccio included Joan in his Book of Famous Women, holding her up as a negative example of a clever woman who had the audacity to infiltrate male institutions and brought dire consequences in her wake. Christine de Pizan certainly knew the story of Pope Joan, but she pointedly omitted Joan from her City of Ladies, a text written primarily to praise women and counteract what she claimed was a misogynistic literary culture.

Royal 16 G V   f. 120
Pope Joan giving birth during a procession, from a French translation of Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris: Royal MS 16 G V, f. 120r

Other writers treated Joan differently. She was praised by the humanist writer Mario Equicola (d. 1525), who wrote: 'What shall I say of John/Joan VII? It is clear that a woman can ascend to the papacy, the highest rank in Christendom.' Equicola's attitudes may have been informed by his role as a courtier of Isabella d'Este, an Italian noblewoman and influential patron during the Renaissance.

One modern commentator, Thomas Noble, has described Pope Joan as 'a woman who never lived but who nevertheless refuses to die'. Given modern fashion trends, it looks as though interest in the idea of a female pope may continue for many more years to come.

Alison Hudson

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06 May 2018

The spectacular Moutier-Grandval Bible

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As part of his plan to reform the Church, Charlemagne gathered scholars and advisors to his court from all over Europe. One of these was Alcuin of York, who prepared a corrected version of the Bible for the Emperor in early 800. Alcuin was appointed abbot of the monastery of St Martin in Tours in 796, and under his direction and that of subsequent abbots, St Martin’s became a major centre for the production of Bibles — over forty copies from the first half of the 9th century survive (for more on this, see David Ganz, ‘Mass production of early medieval manuscripts’, cited in the Bibliography below). Together, these manuscripts constitute impressive evidence of the desire to produce a corrected text of the Bible for use throughout the Carolingian empire. 


Historiated initial ‘B’ with David wrestling a lion, at the beginning of Psalms, in the Moutier-Grandval Bible, Add MS 10546, f. 234r

As noted following a recent discovery at Princeton, the copies of the Bible produced at Tours are large and their text is very legible, with a distinctive ‘export quality script’ (Rosamond McKitterick, ‘Carolingian Bible production: the Tours anomaly’). Of the fourteen surviving Tours pandect Bibles (books bound in a single volume), three are spectacularly illustrated, made during what has been called the ‘high point’ of Tours production, under abbots Adalhard (r. 834–843) and his successor Vivian (r. 844–851). The earliest of these is the Moutier-Grandval Bible (British Library Add MS 10546), an enormous volume of 449 leaves that is over half a metre (over one and a half feet) tall. To get a sense of its sheer size, see these images of the manuscript being filmed in the British Library’s photographic studio.

The Bible takes its name from the monastery of Moutier-Grandval in the diocese of Basel, for which it may have been made originally as an export of the Tours scriptorium. The book includes four miniatures that are celebrated as some of the earliest examples of full-page narrative art in manuscripts from the Middle Ages.


The Creation of Adam and of Eve, the Admonition, the Temptation and Fall, the Expulsion and Eve suckling and Adam toiling, at the beginning of Genesis, Add MS 10546, f. 5v

The first illustration appears at the beginning of Genesis, arranged in four friezes, in which the sequence of events moves from left to right. Individual scenes depict selected events described in the second and third chapters of Genesis: the Creation of Adam and Eve; God’s warning not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge; the Temptation and Fall; and the Expulsion. Within the borders is a poem in verse written in gold letters also summarizing these events; in fact, the poem may have been composed from the pictures. 

Moses receiving the Law from the Hand of God, and extolling the Law to the people, at the beginning of Exodus, Add MS 10546, f. 25v

The book of Exodus also merits a full-page illustration recapitulating some of its most significant episodes, presented in two rather than four registers. In the upper one, Moses receives the law from the hand of God on a mountain erupting in flames, illustrating Exodus 24:17 (‘And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like a burning fire upon the top of the mount’). Below this Moses imparts the commandments from the second set of tablets to the people of Israel (Exodus 34:29–32). Stylistically, the artist’s debt to classical art is clear, in the dress of the figures, the hanging curtains and in particular the architectural backdrop with its arcaded wall, coffered ceiling, and figures in the spandrels reminiscent of Roman wall painting, now known from excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

You can view the Moutier-Grandval in all its splendour on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


Kathleen Doyle

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Further reading

Die Bibel von Moutier-Grandval, British Museum ADD.MS.10546, facsimile commentary by Johannes Duft and others (Berne, 1971).

Die Karolingischen Miniaturen, ed. by Wilhelm Koehler & Florentine Mütherich, 7 vols (Berlin, 1930–2009), II, Die Hofschule Karls des Grossen, ed. by Wilhelm Koehler (1958), pp. 56–69, pls 42–66; II, 2 parts, 3:1: Die Gruppe des Wiener Krönungs-Evangeliars, ed. by Wilhelm Koehler (1960), pp. 22–27, 30–31, 35–45.

Herbert Kessler, The Illustrated Bibles from Tours, Studies in Manuscript Illumination, 7 (Princeton, 1977), pp. 5, 14, pls 1, 44, 48, 87, 107.

David Ganz, ‘Mass production of early medieval manuscripts’ in The Early Medieval Bible: Its production, decoration and use, ed. by Richard Gameson (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 53–62

Rosamond McKitterick, ‘Carolingian Bible production: the Tours anomaly’ in The Early Medieval Bible: Its production, decoration and use, ed. by Richard Gameson (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 63–77 (p. 63)

David Ganz, ‘Carolingian Bibles’, in The New Cambridge History of the Bible, 4 vols (Cambridge, 2012–), II: From 600 to 1450, ed. by Richard Marsden & E. Ann Matter (2012), pp. 325–37.

Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London, 2016), no. 6. 

03 May 2018

Troy ahoy

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Classical legends have an enduring quality that means they have been adapted, translated, read and performed almost continuously from antiquity up to the present day. Such stories certainly captured the medieval imagination, judging by the number of massive, gloriously illuminated copies that were made for those who could afford them — mostly royalty and the nobility — in the 14th and 15th centuries. Medieval aristocrats loved history, particularly when mingled with romance, and the legend of Troy held an extraordinary fascination for them, especially after the crusaders brought back accounts of the exotic lands of the Middle East.

Two British Library manuscripts containing the Troy legend in French have recently been fully digitised and are now available to view on Digitised Manuscripts.

Stowe MS 54

This is a copy of the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César or Histoire Universelle, a universal history from the time of Thebes to the reign of Pompey in ancient Rome 60 BC, and combining legend and historical fact. The artist is thought to have been from the Netherlands, but was working in Paris in the mid-to-late 15th century. Following on from the legends of Oedipus, Thebes and Hercules, this dreamlike view of the legendary city of Troy introduces the famous story, and is followed by a series of smaller images depicting the major characters and events, as well as a double-page spread showing the Greek navy attacking from the sea.


The city of Troy with a ship, from the Histoire Universelle, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Stowe MS 54, f. 30v


The celebrations in Troy on the return of Paris with Helen: Stowe MS 54, f. 64r


Ulysses and Diomedes under the golden pine, arranging a truce with Priam: Stowe MS 54, f. 76r



The Greeks attack Troy from the sea: Stowe MS 54, ff. 82v–83r


The Death of Achilles and Antilogus: Stowe MS 54, f. 178r


The Trojan Horse: Stowe MS 54, f. 201v


The destruction of Troy: Stowe MS 54, f. 206v


Harley 4376

The history of Greece and Troy is given special emphasis in the Chronique de la Bouquechardière, a chronicle that covers the period from Creation to the reign of Caesar. It was compiled by the Norman knight, De Courcy, soon after the Battle of Agincourt (1415), and is named after his estate or fief, Bourg-Achard. His aim was to entertain and instruct his audience, while emphasising the moral lessons to be gained from history, at a time when Normandy was being conquered by the English under Henry V. This image illustrates events leading to the Trojan War, as related in Book II. Here, Paris has abducted Helen from Sparta and they meet his father, Priam, at the gates of Troy. Helen and Paris are dressed in elaborate 15th-century court dress and Priam wears a sumptuous jewelled cloak.


Paris and Helena meeting Priam outside Troy, at the beginning of book II, Rouen, 3rd quarter of the 15th century: Harley MS 4376, f. 90r

Included in both works is the legend of Alexander the Great, based on the exploits of the great military leader who reigned from 356 to 323 BC, but greatly embroidered with miraculous events from his life and campaigns in the East. This chronicle is divided into 6 books, and this illustration occurs at the beginning of Book 5, relating the history of Macedonia and Alexander's conquests. Here he is seen with Lady Fortune and her wheel, a device often used by medieval artists to show the rise and fall of famous heroes.


Alexander and the Wheel of Fortune, and the murder of Alexander II of Macedonia before the throne of Eurydice, at the beginning of book V: Harley MS 4376, f. 271r

On the right is shown the murder of Alexander II, short-lived king of Macedon from 371 to 369 BC. Alexander was murdered during a festival, probably in a plot involving his own mother, Eurydice, wife of Amyntas III.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Chantry Westwell

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01 May 2018

A calendar page for May 2018

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Today is 1 May, which means summer is almost here. Well, it is according to the calendar we are exploring this year, which was made in southern England about 1000 years ago.

Calendar page for May, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

Each day in this calendar has a verse of poetry that describes a notable event associated with that date. These are often saints’ days, but astronomical and other events are mentioned as well. The verse for 9 May, shown below, reads: ‘Here begins the summery heat for 7 multiplied by 13 [days].’ Just to make sure no one missed it, the red text in the margin clarifies: ‘The beginning of summer. It has 91 days.’ That might be a bit much to hope for this year.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f005r summer

Indeed, in case the weather isn’t feeling quite like summer in 9 days’ time, the poem offers a second possible start date for warm weather: ‘Burning summer is born on the ninth day before 1 June’, namely 24 May (in the first line below).

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f005r summer 2

Other special days in May were marked out with gold crosses in the margin of this calendar. These include 1 May, the feast of St Philip and James, although the verse for that day is either incomplete or has been erased. 3 May is also marked out: it was the feast of St Helena’s rediscovery of the Cross. There is also a gold cross by 26 May, which commemorates ‘Augustine, who crossed over the curve of this world [died] seven days before 1 June.’  This was a reference to St Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury, not St Augustine of Hippo. Early medieval people understood that the world was round, so in art and literature part of the world and its atmosphere were sometimes represented in abbreviated form as a curved shape or arch.

Royal_ms_1_d_ix_f070r q
Detail of an historiated initial showing Christ sitting on the arc of the world, from the Cnut Gospels, England, pre-1019, Royal MS 1 D IX
, f. 66r

In addition to containing a poem for each day of the year, this calendar is also one of only two illustrated calendars to survive from 11th-century England. (The other is Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1.) Each page includes depictions of zodiac symbols and agricultural and social activities. For May, those are Taurus the bull and shepherding respectively. Interestingly, one shepherd is portrayed dressed as a layman, with a beard and short tunic, and two others are portrayed wearing long robes. It is unclear if their attire reflects the exemplar of this manuscript or if their long robes allude to the dress of monks and churchmen at this period. Christian leaders were often compared to shepherds. Today, some clergy are still called ‘pastors’, the Latin word for shepherd.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f005r shepherds
Detail of shepherds, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

This calendar also includes a wealth of other information from the movements of the moon to the days of the week, as our post from January explains. Thanks to the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200, you can explore this manuscript in full on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Alison Hudson


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27 April 2018

Medieval manuscripts internship

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Thanks to external funding, the British Library is pleased to be able to offer an internship for a doctoral or post-doctoral student in art history, history or other relevant subject to work on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. As part of this project, 800 illuminated manuscripts made in England and France before 1200 have been digitised. The internship is a six-month position based in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department at the Library in London.


The eagle, in a medieval bestiary: Harley MS 4751, f. 35v

The focus of the internship will be to assist the curatorial team in all aspects of the project, particularly in the promotion of it to general and academic audiences in preparation for its launch later this year. Duties may include researching, creating and enhancing our Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue records, and publicising them in blogposts and other interpretative material. This may involve writing or researching short descriptions of manuscripts and groups of manuscripts. During the internship at the Library, the intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with varied research interests.

This internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the intern to develop research skills and expertise in medieval history and manuscripts, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences. Previous interns have given feedback that they felt a valued member of the team, gained professional confidence and developed their career by carrying out a ‘real’ job with specific duties.

The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed, a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts and who have a right to work in the UK full time.

The term of internship is full time (36 hours per week over 5 days) for 6 months. The salary is £10.20 per hour, which is the current London Living Wage. The internship will start on 30 July 2018 or as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.

To apply, please visit Full details of this internship (reference 01982) can be found here.

Closing Date: 20 May 2018

Interviews will be held on 4 June 2018 and it is hoped that the successful candidate will start on 23 July 2018. The selection process may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.


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22 April 2018

Lover, sorceress, demon: Circe's transformations

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On 30 April the British Library is hosting the launch of a new novel by the award-winning novelist Madeline Miller, whose book, Circe, revisits the powerful story of this mythological witch known from Homer’s Odyssey.


The beginning of Circe’s story in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 81v

Circe’s story features in Book 10 of the Odyssey, where Homer describes how the crew of the wandering Odysseus reached Circe’s beautiful island, where they met this powerful sorceress. Circe invited Odysseus’s comrades to a fatal dinner, offering them a potion that transformed them into pigs while retaining their human souls. Arriving slightly later, Odysseus learned about the imminent danger from the god Hermes, who gave him a special drug making him resistant to Circe’s transformative potions. Realising that Odysseus was immune, Circe not only transformed his crew back to men but offered her love to Odysseus and hosted the entire crew for a year of feasting, while instructing them about their journey home. Circe's advice guided Odysseus through the dangers of the seas and the netherworld and finally back home to his wife.


Circe and her herd of human-beasts with Odysseus’s crew, from the works of Christine de Pizan (Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414): Harley MS 4431, 140r

This strange story of dark magic and unearthly love is full of puzzling details, which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Why does Circe transform the men into beasts so that she is surrounded by a herd of human-minded animals? When she realises that Odysseus is immune to her charms, why does she suddenly agree to help the hero? These questions have intrigued generations of readers and have resulted in many interpretations and retellings of the story, of which Madeline Miller’s book is the most recent.


Circe as a frivolous lover surrounded by her animals from a French translation of Boccaccio’s work on famous women (Rouen, c. 1440): Royal MS 16 G V, f. 42v

Some people have regarded Circe as a simple prostitute, who charmed her clients and held them captive by desire, and whose ultimate aim may even have been to emasculate her lovers. Other interpretations are more subtle. In a marginal note in one Greek manuscript, Circe is explained as an allegory to unchaste pleasure, that for the sake of short-lived satiety offers a life more pitiful than pigs. Odysseus alone is strong and disciplined enough to resist her pleasures and even his own nature.


Marginal note from a 13th-century copy of the Odyssey: Harley MS 5674, f. 52r

Another interpretation is preserved in a 16th-century collection of philosophical extracts at the British Library. The text is attributed to Porphyry, a 3rd-century Greek philosopher, and describes Circe’s story as "the most wonderful theory about the human soul". The enchanted men have an animal form but their mind remains as it was before, and so Circe represents the circular journey of the soul, dying in one form and awakening in another, becoming death and rebirth at the same time. According to this manuscript, "This is no longer a myth nor poetry but the deepest truth of nature”.


An explanation of Circe’s story in a 16th-century philosophical compendium: Harley MS 6318, f. 127r

Re-reading Circe’s story did not stop with the arrival of Christianity. Medieval interpreters regarded her as a demon or an embodiment of fortune or even as the Apocalyptic Whore of Babylon. James Joyce’s Ulysses inherited the age-old understanding of Circe as a prostitute, while Margaret Atwood regarded her as a demon. We are looking forward to hearing Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse, talking about her new book. You can discover more about Circe's world on our Greek manuscripts website.


Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse

The British Library

30 April, 19.00–20.30


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