Medieval manuscripts blog

605 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

19 November 2017

Happy birthday, Statute of Marlborough!

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Earlier this month, we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charter, Magna Carta’s little sibling. It inspired a new Tree Charter, with accompanying events ranging from bike rides to pole launches. Today, we commemorate the Statute of Marlborough. At 750 years old, issued on 19 November 1267, it’s one of the the oldest pieces of legislation in England still in force today.

The Statute of Marlborough almost didn’t make it to this day. Only four of its twenty-nine sections are still in force. In 2014, the Law Commission made plans to scrap it altogether. The surviving sections are now known as the Distress Act and the Waste Act. The Distress Act states that anyone seeking reimbursement for damages must do so through the courts, while the Waste Act ensures that the tenants do not lay waste, sell or ruin their lands and other resources without special permission. This is still a concern in modern agriculture:

Fermors, during their Terms, shall not make Waste, Sale, nor Exile of House, Woods, Men, nor of any Thing belonging to the Tenements that they have to ferm, without special Licence had by Writing of Covenant, making mention that they may do it; which thing if they do, and thereof be convict, they shall yield full Damage, and shall be punished by Amerciament grievously.

The closing page of the Statute of Marlborough: Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 131r
The closing page of the Statute of Marlborough: Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 131r

There are eight pieces of English legislation from the 13th century that have not been repealed. One of those is Magna Carta, which was originally issued by King John in 1215; the earliest versions were repealed, with the version now in force dating from 1297.

One of the two sources for the official Latin text of the Statute of Marlborough is held at the British Library (Cotton MS Claudius D II). It forms part of a book collecting English laws — the medieval version of, you might say. You can see the Cotton manuscript of the Statute of Marlborough right now in our free Treasures Gallery, alongside a copy of the Forest Charter that was narrowly saved from destruction and a plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey

A plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey: Harley MS 391, ff. 5v–6r
A plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey: Harley MS 391, ff. 5v–6r

The plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey is further evidence of how the environment shaped the medieval world. Medieval monasteries aimed to be self-reliant, and water was key to this. This plan of a conduit built in 1220–22 at Waltham Abbey is one of the earliest surviving English maps. The water flows from three round sources at the top, through a filtration system, and into a pipe towards the abbey. It is found in a cartulary made for the abbey, a collection of charters copied into a single volume for reference and preservation. The agreements in this book show that the monks had to negotiate with several different landlords to build across their land.


Andrew Dunning (@anjdunning)


16 November 2017

Boccaccio’s Venus in Cyprus

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A new exhibition, The Venus Paradox, opened this September in Nicosia in Cyprus. It celebrates Venus, goddess of love, and the stories she has inspired through the ages. According to legend, Venus — or Aphrodite as she was called by Greek authors from Hesiod onwards — rose from the sea foam wearing a golden crown and was wafted over the waves to the island of Cyprus, where she was clothed with heavenly garments. The exhibition focuses on Venus’s place in the western artistic tradition, in both image and text, and her significance for the island of her birth.


Venus as Queen of Cyprus, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 16v

One of the British Library's exquisite Boccaccio manuscripts is part of this show. On display is an image of Venus as she appears in a 15th-century volume that has links to another very strong woman (see below). In the image, Venus is depicted as the Queen of Cyprus, wearing a crown (the rubric reads, ‘tres ancienne royne des cipriens’). This is one of 106 glorious illustrations of Des cleres et nobles femmes, an anonymous French translation of ‘De mulieribus claris’ (Concerning famous women). Considered the first collection of biographies in western literature devoted exclusively to women, this popular work, first completed in 1361, provides a fascinating insight into medieval attitudes to women, in a time of changing attitudes. In the section on Venus, Boccaccio discusses various beliefs about her, including her disputed origins (was her father a king of Cyprus or Jupiter himself?), and the assertion that Cupid was her son. Her great beauty is compared to the planet, Venus, but she is harshly judged for her licentiousness; having been unfaithful to both husbands, Vulcan and Adonis, she is accused of the ‘shameful madness’ of founding the first public brothels in Crete.

This precious and beautiful volume is already a celebrity: the opening page with a four-part image and a gorgeous rinceaux border was displayed in our 2011 exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.


A frontispiece in four panels of Boccaccio reading a book, Boccaccio presenting the book to Andrea Acciaivoli, countess of Altavilla, a messenger presenting a letter to Semiramis and a queen with four female musicians, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 5r

It is no surprise that its former owner of this manuscript was wealthy and powerful, a member of the illustrious Beaufort family, probably Lady Margaret Beaufort, one of Britain’s earliest ‘tiger mothers’. She was determined her son, Henry, would become King of England, even if she had to found a new dynasty in the process! She achieved her aim in 1485, when he was crowned King Henry VII aged 28, the first of the Tudors. Perhaps she was inspired by some of the stories in this work, though she is known to have been extremely devout, so it is unlikely Venus was a role model for her.


Table of chapters in Des cleres et nobles femmes, with added Beaufort arms: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 1r

The opening folio has an added initial 'D' containing the Beaufort badge of a portcullis and chains surmounted by a coronet. James Carley has suggested that this manuscript is 'possibly to be identified as the "greatte volume of velom named John Bokas lymned" owned by Lady Margaret Beaufort' (The Libraries of King Henry VIII (2000) p. xxiv).

Venus is described on the Pafos website as ‘mother, woman, mistress, huntress and seductress’. Here are a variety images from our manuscripts depicting the goddess in her many guises, as she was seen in the Middle Ages.


Venus with a mirror, emerging from the sea, from Matfre Ermengaud, Breviari d'Amor, France, S. (Toulouse?); 1st quarter of the 14th century: Royal MS 19 C I, f. 41v (this manuscript was recently featured in a blogpost on Occitan manuscripts)

Venus, Vulcan and Mars, from the Roman de la Rose, France, Central? (Paris?); c. 1380: Egerton MS 881, f. 141v


Venus as the huntress, from the Roman de la Rose, Paris, c. 1400: Egerton 1069, f. 140v


Venus presiding over a group of men and women, who are presenting their hearts to her, in Christine de Pizan’s 'L'Épître Othéa', Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414: Harley 4431, f. 100r


Miniature of Venus arming Aeneas in the foreground, and on the right, Aeneas meeting Evander, at the beginning of book VII of Virgil's Aeneid, Italy, Central (Rome); between 1483 and 1485, King’s MS 24, f. 164r


Miniature of the Judgement of Paris, with Pallas Athena, Juno and Venus sitting at a table, and Paris giving an olive branch to Venus, in the Convenevole da Prato, Italy, Central (Tuscany); c. 1335–c. 1340: Royal MS 6 E IX, f. 22r

Venus playing a musical instrument with her ruling Zodiac signs, from a treatise on astrology by Albumazar, Netherlands, S., 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century: Sloane MS 3983, f. 42v

The Venus Paradox exhibition is open at the A.G. Leventis Gallery in Nicosia from 29 September 2017 until 15 January 2018.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Chantry Westwell

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14 November 2017

Canon tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels now on display

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As a text, the canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of scripture. Over many centuries copies of the Gospels in Latin, Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Gothic, Syriac, Georgian or Slavonic begin with these tables. Devised and created in Greek by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, these tables formed a unifying gateway to the fundamental, but multiple narratives of the Evangelists Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As Eusebius explained in a prefatory letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

Canon 1 lists passages common to all four Gospels, Canons 2-9 different combinations of two or three Gospels and Canon 10 those passages found only in one Gospel. Building on a system of dividing up the text of the Gospels into verses that he attributed to Ammonius of Alexandria, Eusebius assigned consecutive numbers to sections in each Gospel and used these numbers within his tables to correlate related passages. By this means he adduced the unity of the four narratives without attempting to harmonise them into a single text.


Codex Sinaiticus, the folio currently on display at the British Library: Add MS 43725, f. 201r

The earliest known evidence for the use of the tables occurs in Codex Sinaiticus, an extraordinary 4th-century Greek manuscript that is also the earliest surviving complete New Testament. In Codex Sinaiticus the tables themselves do not survive, but the Ammonian section numbers are included throughout the Gospels. These can be seen in the Gospel of St Matthew currently on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, or viewed in detail on our Digitised Manuscripts website. In Codex Sinaiticus, the section numbers (in Greek characters) are added on the left-hand side of each column in red ink, with the number of the canon table that needs to be consulted for parallel texts of that section.


Section 16, canon 5: a note in the Gospel of St Matthew, a detail from Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f. 201r column 2)

For example, in the right-hand page on display in the Gallery, the third number in the second column (in the account of one of Christ’s temptations) is marked as section 16, in Canon 5. Further information about the manuscript is available on the Codex Sinaiticus website, including a full transcription and translation, and in this previous blogpost.


The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th–7th century (Add MS 5111/1)

One of most splendid illuminated examples of the Canon Tables in Greek are the leaves now known as the Golden Canon Tables, because they are written on parchment previously painted entirely with gold. Made in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, the tables are now fragmentary but nevertheless betray a very sophisticated artistic style. They are a rare witness of an early version of these tables.

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The pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels currently on display at the British Library: Cotton MS Nero D IV, ff. 14v–15r

Canon tables are also included in the Latin copy of the Gospels known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, which was probably made on the island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in around 700. The fifth canon, which lists texts that are common in the two Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, is now on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery. This is the same canon as that referred to in Codex Sinaiticus, several centuries earlier. The canons in the Lindisfarne Gospels are surrounded by intricately designed micro-architectural decoration, with wonderful intertwined biting birds. You can view them in more detail with the zoom function on the Digitised Manuscripts website, or visit the Treasures Gallery in the coming months.

07 November 2017

Illumination study day at the British Library

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A couple of weeks ago we held a very successful study day for the University of the Third Age, with the British Library Learning Centre auditorium filled to capacity. We thought it might be helpful to provide a list of the British Library manuscripts and suggestions for further reading, for those who would like to look at the manuscripts again in more detail.

Illuminated manuscripts

Dr Alixe Bovey (Head of Research at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London) discussed 'The World in Illuminated Manuscripts'.  

Harley MS 7182, ff. 58v–59r, a depiction of the world based on Ptolemy’s Geography

Harley MS 3667, f. 8v, an Isidoran ‘T-O’ map of the world, Annals of Peterborough Abbey

Harley MS 2772, f. 70v, Macrobius, Commentary of Cicero’s Dream of Scipio

Egerton MS 2781, ff. 1v, 48r, 190r, the Neville of Hornby Hours: f.1v: diagram of the cosmos; f. 48r: the seasons; f. 190r: possible depiction of the manuscript’s owner

Harley MS 4940, f. 28r, Matfre Ermengau, Breviari d’amor, angels cranking the universe

Harley MS 4431, f. 187v, the Book of the Queen, a sibyl shows Christine de Pizan the firmament

Harley MS 3647, f. 32r, an astronomical miscellany

Royal MS 1 E VII, f. 1v, the Creation, in a Bible made at Canterbury

Add MS 18719, f. 1r, a Bible moralisée, Creation scenes

Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 1v, the Queen Mary Psalter, God and Lucifer

Add MS 18856, ff. 5v and 7v, a Bible historiale: f. 5v: creation of sun and moon; f. 7v: God resting

Harley MS 616, f. 1r, a Bible, Creation scenes

Royal MS 14 C IX, ff. 1v–2r, Ranulf Higden, Polychronicon, map

Harley MS 2633, f. 53v, commentary on Cicero's De somno Scipionis, mappa mundi

Sloane MS 2435, f. 1r, Aldobrandino of Siena, Le Régime du corps, Creation scene

Royal 2 b vi

Miniature of God holding a compass with angels and cherubins, and Lucifer with fallen angels and devils: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 1v

Scribe and illuminator Patricia Lovett MBE gave us a calligrapher’s view on parchment, the preparation of pens, ink and pigments, and the writing and illumination process. Her recent publication includes lots of examples and discussion: The Art and History of Calligraphy (British Library, 2017).

Illuminated manuscripts 5


Dr Kathleen Doyle (Lead Curator, Illuminated Manuscripts, The British Library) focused on the different types of illustration in English Psalters.

Add MS 89250, the Mostyn Psalter

Add MS 42130, the Luttrell Psalter

Cotton MS Vespasian A I, the Vespasian Psalter

Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, the Tiberius Psalter

Cotton MS Nero C IV, the Winchester Psalter

Royal MS 2 B VII, the Queen Mary Psalter

Royal MS 2 A XVI, the Psalter of Henry VIII

Arundel MS 83, the Howard Psalter

Add MS 62925, the Rutland Psalter

Arundel MS 157, a Psalter


Illuminated initial 'Q'(uam) at the beginning of Psalm 83 (84), with a partial foliate border inhabited by a human-headed hybrid creature and geometric line fillers. In the lower margin are two naked wrestlers, one purple and one brown, engaged in a game of foot-wrestling: Add MS 42130, f. 152v


In the afternoon, Dr Mara Hofmann (Sotheby’s) gave us a whistle-stop tour of the highlights of French illuminated manuscripts. Mara has written a detailed guide with lots of examples, as part of the British Library’s online digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts virtual exhibition, available here

Illuminated manuscripts 2

The programme closed with Dr Scot McKendrick (Head of Western Heritage Collections at the British Library), who similarly illustrated the richness of Flemish Illuminated Manuscripts.

Add MS 34294, f. 133v, Gerard Horenbout, Virgin and Child in Glory, in the Hours of Bona Sforza

Add MS 18855, ff. 109r, 108v, Simon Bening, June, December

Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 11v, Master of Beaufort Saints, St Christopher, in the Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours

Add MS 89066/2, ff. 69v–70r, Loyset Liédet, Coronation of the Emperor Galba, in Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur

Harley MS 4418, f. 99r, Créquy Master, Christians fighting Saracens, in the Roman de Mélusine

Cotton MS Vespasian B I, f. 15r, Master of the Harley Froissart, Presentation to Philip the Good

Royal MS 14 E V, f. 29r, Master of the Getty Froissart, Fortune appearing to Boccaccio, in Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes

Add MS 71117, ff. C, J, Simon Marmion, St Matthew and David in Prayer, from the Hours of Ladislas IV Vasa

Add MS 38126, ff. 102v–103r, ff. 240v–241r, Simon Marmion, Virgin and Christ; Virgin and dead Christ, in the Huth Hours

Add MS 18851, ff. 41r, 437r, Gerard David, Adoration of the Kings, Coronation of the Virgin, in the Breviary of Isabella of Castile

Add MS 18852, ff. 411v–412r, St James the Greater, in the Hours of Joanna of Castile

Add MS 54782, f. 230r, Hastings Hours

Add MS 35313, ff. 89v–90r, Master of James IV of Scotland, Nativity and Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, in the Rothschild Hours      

Add MS 17280, ff. 24v–25r, Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, Trinity and Monday Hours, in the so-called Hours of Philip the Fair    

Add MS 18852, ff. 14v-15r, Fall of Man and Mirror of Conscience, in the Hours of Joanna of Castile

Add MS 24098, f. 18v, Simon Bening, Month of December, in the Golf Book

Egerton MS 1147, f. 229r, Simon Bening (?), Agony in the Garden and Arrest of Christ

Add MS 12531, f. 4r, Portuguese Royal Genealogies

Royal MS 16 F II, f. 89r, Poems of Charles of Orleans

Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v, Collection of motets


Miniature with Christ praying on the Mount of Olives, accompanied by a full border with the Betrayal, at the beginning of the Passion of Christ: Egerton MS 1147, f. 229r


Further reading

Christopher de Hamel, Bibles: An Illustrated History from Papyrus to Print (Bodleian Library, 2011)

M. Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery in Medieval England 700-1500 (London, 2003)

Patricia Lovett, The Art and History of Calligraphy (British Library, 2017)

Scot McKendrick, Flemish Illuminated Manuscripts 1400-1550 (London: British Library, 2003)

Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, Bible Manuscripts: 1400 Years of Scribes and Scripture (London, 2007)

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London, Thames & Hudson, and the British Library, 2016)

The New Cambridge History of the Bible, 4 vols (Cambridge, 2012- )


Kathleen Doyle

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02 November 2017

How many horns does a unicorn have?

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How many horns does a unicorn have? It's the kind of trick question you might encounter when watching the British television series QI. One, I hear you say — everyone knows that. Unicorns only have ONE horn (the clue is in the name). And that's what I used to think too, but it seems we’ve all been duped. Sometimes a unicorn can have TWO horns. I know, right? Whatever next?

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A lion-like unicorn: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 18r

I first came across the infamous two-horned unicorn when selecting the objects for the British Library's new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic (#BLHarryPotter). The printed book illustrated below, on show in the show, has a diagram featuring five different species of unicorn. It was published in Paris in 1694 and is the work of Pierre Pomet, a French pharmacist. Apart from realising that you discover something new every day — it's incredible to learn that so many species of unicorn have been identified — your eye is also drawn to the beast in the lower, left-hand corner. It clearly has a pair of horns. That's cheating, surely?

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Five species of unicorn, in Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux (Paris, 1694): British Library 37.h.7., part 2, p. 9

On closer inspection, I learned that the mysterious unicorn in question is known as a pirassoipi. We might be inclined to call it a bicorn. Delving deeper, we learn that it was described as being as large as a mule and as hairy as a bear. But our story then takes a rather distressing turn. Pomet noted that unicorn horn was ‘well used, on account of the great properties attributed to it, principally against poisons’. Unicorns, in other words, were valued for their body parts. The rather grisly image below, taken from a study of the unicorn by Ambroise Paré, published in 1582, depicts in the background the killing and skinning of a pirassoipi. Paré was surgeon to the French Crown and he had a keen interest in strange phenomena (his book also contains chapters on mummies and poisons). In his commentary, he admitted uncertainty whether the body parts of the unicorn would have any medicinal effectiveness.

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An Italian unicorn, in Discours d’Ambroise Paré, Conseiller et Premier Chirurgien du Roy. Asçavoir, de la mumie, de la licorne, des venins, et de la peste (Paris, 1582): British Library 461.b.11.(1.), f. 27r

Let's have another look at the unusual unicorn illustrated at the beginning of this blogpost. It's found in a 16th-century Greek manuscript, accompanying a poem by Manuel Philes called On the properties of animals. According to the poem, the unicorn was a wild beast with a dangerous bite: it had the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion. Distinctly un-unicorn-like, isn't it?


The unicorn with the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 18r

The unicorn is not the only beast illustrated in this manuscript. Its pages are filled with drawings of herons and pelicans, a wolf and a porcupine, and even a cuttlefish. One of my favourites is the illustration of the mythical centaur: it has a pair of over-extended human arms serving as its front legs. The scribe of this manuscript is named as Angelos Vergekios, a Cypriot who had made his home in France, and the illustrator is said to have been his daughter. Here is a selection of those images to whet your appetite. (A few years ago we completed the digitisation of all the British Library's Greek manuscripts thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation: the whole manuscript can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.) We'd love you to take a look at all of them and to tell us your favourites (please use Twitter or the comments form below).


A heron: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 4r


Owls: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 10r


A lioness: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 16v


A centaur: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 19v


A porcupine: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 26v


Is is safe to go back into the water? A swordfish, narwhal, hammerhead shark and whale: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 31v


An upside-down octopus: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 40r


A cuttlefish: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 41v

And this returns us neatly to the theme introduced at the beginning of this blogpost. It is a central premise of our exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, that there are lots of things about the real world that we don't properly understand or don't even know about. When the curators started their research a couple of years ago, I could never have imagined that we would have encountered a unicorn with two horns, and that our journey would introduce us at the same time to such a beautifully illustrated manuscript. And now you can show off to your friends too, whenever someone asks "how many horns does a unicorn have?".

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on display at the British Library in London until 28 February 2018. Tickets are selling fast: for more information, please follow this link.


Julian Harrison, Lead Curator Harry Potter: A History of Magic and Medieval Historical Manuscripts

We'd love you to follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval. If you tweet about the exhibition, don't forget to use the hashtag #BLHarryPotter.


01 November 2017

A calendar page for November 2017

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Ah, November – the days are shorter and it’s getting colder! Let’s dive into the 11th month as shown in Add MS 36684. If you’d like to know more about this fascinating Book of Hours, see January’s post, and for more on medieval calendars, check out our calendar post from 2011. 

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Calendar pages for November, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 11v–12r

The first page of November’s calendar is a riot of colour and decoration. Crowning the page is a lizard-bird hybrid creature, with a green head, lurid red lips, red feet and a long, feathered tail.  

Detail of lizard creature, Add MS 36684, f. 11v

The right margin – known in medieval manuscript parlance as the ‘gutter’, because it falls between the two bound pages – includes the intriguing combination of a tonsured male head stuck between two long legs. Above him stands a stork-like figure with bright orange, spindly legs and a long, pointed beak.  

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Right margin, Add MS 36684, f. 11v

November’s labour of the month is arguably the creepiest scene we’ve had in this calendar, but how was it perceived by contemporary audiences? Our labourer wields an enormous axe. The animal in a box next to him is likely a hunting dog used to help capture the boar depicted at the labourer’s feet. The boar is about to be stunned with the back of the axe, before being slaughtered. This method is called ‘poleaxing’ and is the origin of the modern term. A poleaxe is a butcher’s axe with a hammer as well as a blade.

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Slaughtering a boar: the labour of the month for November, Add MS 36684, f. 11v

A similar scene of slaughter for the month of December appears in the Bedford Hours (f. 12r), except the figure holds a giant mallet.

Slaughtering livestock at the beginning of winter ensured the animals were killed before they began to lose the weight gained over summer and autumn. Rural communities could then feast on the fresh meat and preserve as much as possible for the year’s meanest months. In fact, Blotmonath (blood month) was the Anglo-Saxon name for November. This may seem sinister to us now, but for them it must have held a promise of winter feasts and nourishment when food was scarce.  

November’s calendar finishes on the second page with the zodiac figure of Capricorn, shown as a goat. As we discussed in August’s post, the artist is ahead of himself with zodiac figures; Capricorn is normally shown in December, as its period is December-January.  

Capricorn, Add MS 36684, f. 12r

Please do go and browse all of the wonderful Add MS 36684 in high definition on our Digitised Manuscripts site.  


Taylor McCall

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30 October 2017

The Art of the Bible lecture at Dulwich Picture Gallery

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All writers will know of the struggles, mental and physical, in completing a project. This is nothing new. In April 1091, the monk Dominicus described his relief at having completed writing out a large-scale copy of the book of Revelation and an associated commentary:

My book is ended … For the scribe it has been hard toil; for the reader it will be uplifting and refreshing. The scribe drains his body of strength, while the reader nourishes his mind. So if you gain anything from this work, forget not the labouring scribe … Those who cannot write think it no work at all. Should you, however, wish to know what labour it entails, I shall tell you how heavy a burden writing is. It brings darkness to your eyes, crooks your back, wrecks your ribs and stomach, pains your kidneys and engenders loathing of your body … As sweet as the home port is to the sailor, so is the final line to a scribe. The end. To God be thanks for ever.

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Colophon in which Dominicus describes his relief, from the Silos Apocalypse, Add MS 11695, f. 278r

Dominicus also identified himself and brother Munnio, monks at the abbey of Santo Domingo in northern Spain, as the scribes of the work in an inscription, and possibly also the flowers below it: ‘Scribano Monnio’ and ‘scribano Dominico’.

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Detail of flowers possibly identifying the scribes, from Add MS 11695, f. 278r

These scribes' work, now known as the Silos Apocalypse, and illuminated twenty years later with stunning illustrations, is one of the treasures of the British Library. You may like to know that the manuscript is fully digitised, and available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website: the Silos Apocalypse, British Library Additional 11695. It is also featured in the recent book, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames and Hudson and the British Library, 2016).

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St John before Christ, with a double-edged sword either side of his mouth, with the Seven Churches represented by arches, Revelation 1:10-20, Add MS 11695, f. 24r

The authors, British Library curators Dr Scot McKendrick and Dr Kathleen Doyle will be discussing their feelings of arriving at the ‘home port’, and hopes that readers will find their work ‘refreshing’, at Dulwich Picture Gallery on 15 November, as part of the lecture series, InSight Lecture Series: Book Illustration: Enriching the Story. For more information and to book tickets, follow this link.

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The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames and Hudson and the British Library, 2016) 


Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the British Library

Dulwich Picture Gallery

15 November 2017 (10.30–11.30)

Kathleen Doyle

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26 October 2017

The gladiator saint

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Gladiatorial games were spectacular shows in the ancient world. In theatres built across the Mediterranean, from the Middle East to the site of the Guildhall in London, professional fighters did battle to entertain the public. The origins of these combats went back to the early Roman Republic, when they probably had magical functions. As part of the funerary rituals, they were sacrifices to the netherworld or played a role in war-magic with gladiators bearing the enemy’s names being gloriously defeated by Roman-looking gladiators to ensure their victory in real battles.

King's MS 24  f. 88
Miniature of a wrestling game from a 15th-century illustrated copy of Virgil’s Aeneid: 
King's MS 24, f. 88

From the mid-3rd century, however, gladiatorial games became an integral part of city entertainment and political propaganda. Should anyone like to be a successful politician, all he needed to do was to organise a lavish spectacle of games, lasting for several days, accompanied by banquets and scenic performances, and success would be guaranteed. No wonder then that such combats were especially popular in imperial times. Later Roman emperors were constantly trying to outbid their predecessors by funding more and more luxurious games. They recruited gladiators from all over the empire and purchased exotic animals — elephants, lions and bears — to populate their amazing theatres that could even host miniature sea battles. 

Fragment of a 3rd-century representation of an arena-scene from Oxyrhynchus:
Papyrus 3053

Gladiators, by these times, were professional combatants, some of them fighting as slaves but also for money or fame or simply revenge, not unlike Maximus in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film, Gladiator. From the 1st century CE onwards, a new aspect appeared: Christians, arrested for their faith, started to appear on the stage to serve as mass victims to the slayers.

Add MS 19352  f. 55r
Add MS 19352  f. 55r 2
Details of illustrations showing martyrs tortured in the arena, from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066:
 Add MS 19352, f. 55r

However, we also hear about the opposite: gladiators, warriors and their slayers coould also become saints. In a 14th-century Greek manuscript held by the British Library we find a story about Nestor, a 3rd-century Greek gladiator.

Harley 5069  f. 178v
Lection for 26 October from a 14th-century collection of saints lives: 
Harley MS 5069, f. 178v

On the afternoon of 26 October, so the story relates, the emperor organised luxurious games to celebrate his arrival in Thessalonica. The highlight of the event was when his favourite gladiator, a giant 'barbarian' called Lyaeus, boasted of his numerous victories all over the Empire and challenged the Christians of the city, calling them to fight and defeat him in single combat. The rules were strict: the emperor built a special stage for Lyaeus’s battles, similar to a threshing floor on pillars. Spears, points upward, were planted beneath this platform. When Lyaeus defeated someone in wrestling, he would throw him from the platform onto the forest of spears. No one could beat him in this special combat.

Add MS 19352  f. 125v
Nestor fighting Lyaeus in the arena before the Emperor Maximianus from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: 
Add MS 19352, f. 125v

Nestor accepted this challenge. Jumping onto the stage, he knocked down Lyaeus and threw him onto the sharp spears. According to the story, this made him a champion not only of Christianity but also of Hellenism and civilisation. Although Nestor was put to death immediately by the furious emperor for the murder of his favourite wrestler, Nestor's reputation outlived him. He became renowned as the first holy gladiator, celebrated from Greece to England every 26 October.

Arundel MS 91  f. 107r
Nestor slaying Lyaeus from a 12th-century English lectionary: Arundel MS 91, f. 107r

Nestor's story, whatever historical truth might be in it, offers an account of a special type of gladiatorial games. His story also showed how the memory of gladiatorial games was perpetuated in art, texts and the imagination of later generations who — had the old manuscripts not preserved the story — would know little about these ancient games.

Peter Toth

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