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529 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

05 December 2016

Polonsky Digitisation Project: Call for Nominations

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Our latest digitisation project has begun as we work to digitise 400 pre-1200 manuscripts from the British Library holdings, with a generous support from The Polonsky Foundation. The joint project between the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France seeks to promote and explore the contacts between France and England from 700 to 1200, as witnessed in medieval manuscript culture. We have already started, and have compiled a list of around 250 manuscripts that are key to the project themes. However, we would welcome ideas from readers about illuminated manuscripts at the British Library that you would like to see digitised.

Harley MS 2719 f001

A glossed copy of De compendiosa doctrina by Nonius Marcellus (British Library, Harley MS 2719, f. 1r) originates from France, either Brittany or Loire, 3rd quarter of the 9th century.

With the wealth of manuscripts from two national libraries, how does one go about choosing the most interesting and vital manuscripts for digitisation? Library catalogues — both published and unpublished — and academic research and publications are a good start, and have yielded plenty of information on wonderful illumination and decoration. We have identified a core of manuscripts we wish to open up for our readers. These will reveal beautiful illuminations and colourful images, and will allow global access to significant medieval copies of interesting texts. 

Harley MS 3020 f113

Decorated initial ‘F’(actum) in British Library, Harley MS 3020, f. 113r, made in southern England in the 10th century, possibly Christ Church, Canterbury.

One of the goals of the digitisation project is to respond to the needs of scholarly research. Published research tells us what has been studied, but we also want to know what is going to be studied in the future! So we would like to turn to our readers and ask you for nominations — which manuscripts would you like to see digitised? What are the manuscripts that would most illuminate the cultural sphere of England and France between 700 and 1200? We can’t promise that your nominated manuscript will be included, as we will need to consider its condition, length and relationship with the other manuscripts to be digitised in each Library, but we will consider all of your submissions carefully. 

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The opening folio of the Life of Saint Birinus from British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 121r. The text was copied in England during the 1st quarter of the 12th century, possibly in Winchester.

You can nominate a manuscript for selection by writing to England&France700-1200@bl.uk or by commenting on this post. Please suggest a British Library manuscript that was written either in England or France before 1200, and explain its importance to you in a few words. We’ll publish the final list of chosen manuscripts on this blog in the New Year. 

Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator

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02 December 2016

Fantastic Beasts at the British Library

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You may have noticed that a certain film is currently wowing audiences worldwide. Fantastic Beasts And Where to Find Them is the first instalment in a new movie franchise written by J. K. Rowling, and takes its inspiration from her book of the same name. But did you know that many of the beasts featured in the film and the book have their origins in Antiquity and the Middle Ages?

In 2014, our Medieval Manuscripts Blog examined some of the creatures found in medieval bestiaries. A typical medieval bestiary contains descriptions of a variety of animals, often accompanied by elaborate illustrations. Many of these animals are familiar to modern readers, including dogs, catselephants and Bad News Birds (better known as owls). Bestiaries also contain a host of more exotic beasts such as the amphivena, manticore and the basilisk, which were an important part of the medieval imagination. Here are some of these fantastic beasts, illustrated with images from manuscripts at the British Library.

Basilisk

Detail of a basilisk wearing a crown, Harley MS 4751 f. 59r.

What makes a beast a 'beast'?

The word ‘bestiary’ derives from the Latin bestia which translates as 'beast' or 'animal'. In the 7th century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, a reference work which functioned much like a modern encyclopaedia. In a chapter entitled De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’), Isidore defined a ‘beast’ as an animal which ferociously attacked either with its mouth or claws. Beasts were characteristically wild, enjoyed natural freedom and were driven by their own desires.

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The opening words of De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’) in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae: Harley MS 3941, f. 153r.

Centaur

Centaurs, half-human and half-horse figures, were frequently depicted in medieval bestiaries. This image of a centaur occurs alongside lions, tigers and hedgehogs in an early 13th-century bestiary. Centaurs held a prominent place in popular folklore, from classical Greek texts, medieval bestiaries and into the modern imagination.

Centaur

Miniature of a centaur holding a snake: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 8v.

Phoenix

Another fantastic beast found in medieval bestiaries is the phoenix. Classical authors described how, when the phoenix reached a certain age, it would build a pyre for itself and be consumed by the flames, in order to rise again from the ashes. These stories were retold by medieval authors who used the phoenix as an allegory for the death and resurrection of Christ, and the promise of eternal life. The image below depicts one phoenix gathering leaves and another phoenix in flame upon a pyre.

Phoenix

Miniature of two phoenixes: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 49v. 

Harley MS 4751

A phoenix rising from the ashes: Harley MS 4751, f. 45r.

Unicorn

Unicorns were another popular animal in the medieval imagination and are often described in bestiaries and other narrative texts. They are frequently said to be too strong and swift for a hunter to catch, unless a maiden was placed in its path. Upon seeing the maiden, the unicorn would place its head in her lap and fall asleep, giving the hunter the chance he needed. This tale is depicted in the image below, found in a 13th-century bestiary.

Unicorn

Miniature of a knight spearing a unicorn, which has placed its head in a virgin's lap: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 10v.

Dragon

Surely one of the most fantastic beasts is the dragon. In the medieval imagination, dragons are characterised by their lizard-like body shape covered in scales, decorated with horns, spikes and wings, and possessing the ability to breathe fire.

Dragon

A green snake and a red dragon: Harley MS 3244, f. 59r.

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A dragon, a snake and a plant identified as 'dragontea' or 'serpentaria', in a 15th-century Italian herbal: Sloane MS 4016, f. 38r.

Basilisk

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry famously encounters a basilisk. The basilisk was renowned for killing people with a single stare. If Harry had done his homework properly (who ever does?), he would have known that one approved way of overcoming a basilisk — according to Pliny the Elder (d. AD 79) — was to throw a weasel down its hole or burrow. Weasel odour was reputedly fatal to the basilisk, although the poor weasel would also die in the struggle.

Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

A basilisk in a 13th-century manuscript, with one of its human victims, while being confronted by a weasel: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

Merpeople

Another frequently occurring beast is the mermaid or merman. Merpeople were characterised by their human torso and tail of a fish, and were associated with perilous events such as floods, storms and shipwrecks. Merpeople were also often depicted with a mirror and a comb, accessories which demonstrated their beauty and vanity.

Mermaid
Detail of a mermaid with a mirror and comb and a traveller being bitten by a dog: Additional MS 42130, f. 70v.

Wodewose

Another anthropomorphised beast often found in medieval manuscripts is the mighty wodewose, a mythical forest-dwelling wildman. Those wishing for a more detailed account of the common characteristics of this wild beast should consult our own field guide to wodewoses.

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A wodewose from the Luttrell Psalter: Additional MS 42130, f. 70r.

We are delighted to announce that, next autumn, the British Library will be staging a major exhibition devoted to the Harry Potter novels of J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter: A History of Magic will run from 20 October 2017 until 28 February 2018, and is curated by a team led by medieval manuscripts curator Julian Harrison: here is his article The Magic of the British Library. We love the fact that many of the fantastic beasts found in the Harry Potter books were inspired by their classical and medieval ancestors; and we hope that they also fascinate the readers of our blog!

Becky Lawton and Julian Harrison

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01 December 2016

A Calendar Page for December 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

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Calendar page for December from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

The calendar pages for the month of December in the Bedford Hours are filled with golden-lettered saints’ and feast days, fitting for this month of celebration. 

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Detail of miniatures of a man killing a pig and the zodiac sign Capricorn, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

In November we saw pigs gorging themselves on acorns, but the day of reckoning is at hand in December.  On the lower left of the first folio for this month is a miniature of a peasant about to slaughter a fattened hog, raising an enormous cudgel above his head.  The hog on the ground looks slightly concerned about the situation it finds itself in (but probably not nearly enough).  On the right is a lovely goat-snail hybrid sitting at east in a landscape, for the zodiac sign Capricorn. 

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Detail of a marginal roundel of the ‘monarche du monde’, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a crowned and bearded man, holding an orb and a sword.  He is described in the banner above him as the ‘monarche du monde’ (emperor of the world).  The rubrics describe how December is ‘named from the number decem (ten)’ and is dedicated to the ’10 principal kings who the Romans had dominion over’.   These ten dominions, which included Greece, Persia, Chaldea, Egypt, Syria and Italy, are illustrated by the ten segments of the landscape in which the Emperor is standing (or hovering, really).

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Calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12v

More on this glorious month follows.  Among the remainder of the saints’ days for December (including an un-erased feast of St Thomas Becket, interestingly) are two final marginal roundel paintings.  On the middle left is a scene of pleasure: in the foreground some lords and ladies are feasting while behind them two gloriously-attired knights are tilting at each other.  The rubrics at the bottom of the folio tell us how during the month of December ‘knights performed jousts and lived deliciously because the country was at peace’.  A lovely image.   The rubrics go on to describe how ‘Seneca teaches that in the month of December one should live soberly’, and the final miniature appears to depict Seneca instructing a group of men (including a king) thusly.  It has to be said, however, that while Seneca’s audience appears less than overwhelmed with enthusiasm for his advice. 

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Detail of marginal roundels of aristocratic pleasures and Seneca speaking to people, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12v

May you have a very happy December and all the best in the new year!

-   Sarah J Biggs (with many thanks again to Chantry Westwell for her French translations!)

28 November 2016

Silence is a Virtue: Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language

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Silence was a virtue to the Anglo-Saxon monks of Christ Church, Canterbury who followed the Rule of St Benedict. These monks followed the Rule’s insistence on silence during daily activities outside the divine office, when monks celebrated the liturgy with the singing of psalms and the reading of prayers. By not speaking outside these times the community attempted to lead a way of life that reflected the Benedictine core values of chastity, obedience and humility. Yet a non-communicative way of life would have proved highly impractical for the Canterbury monks. How could one ask for someone to pass the butter at mealtimes or find his underpants while getting dressed in the dormitory? A manuscript produced at Canterbury in the 11th century (now Cotton MS Tiberius A III) reveals how the monks overcame this dilemma.

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Enthroned St Benedict presented with copies of his Rule by monks, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 117v

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Detail of monks looking upward, Liber vitae Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

The manuscript includes the only Old English copy of Monasteriales Indicia (ff. 97r–101v), a form of sign language used by Benedictine monks at times when forbidden to speak out loud. The Indicia features descriptions of 127 hand signs representing books and items used in the divine office, food consumed in the refectory, tools used daily, and persons met in the monastery and outside. The list offers an intimate glimpse of monks’ lives with signs for clothes they wore and actions concerning washing and hygiene. For example, sign 98 states the sign for soap in the bath-house: Ðonne þu sapan abban wille þonne gnid þu þinne handa to gædere, ‘when you want soap, then rub your hands together’. Sign numbers are provided for clarity in the cited edition, Monasteriales Indicia edited by Debby Banham (Middlesex: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1993). Further bathhouse signs are given for a nail-knife (nægel sexes), comb (camb) and washing one’s head (heafod þwean).  We also learn what monks wore under their cowl, as sign 102 states: Brecena tacen [ms. tancen] is þæt þu strice mid þinum twam handam up on þin þeah, ‘the sign for underpants is that you stroke with your two hands up your thigh’.

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Sign number 102 for underpants: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 100v

Add_ms_49598_f025r

Wash and be cleansed: Baptism of Christ with angels carrying towels from Heaven, Æthelwold’s Benedictional, Add MS 49598, f. 25r

The practice of monastic sign language was probably introduced to England in the late 10th century from the powerful abbey of Cluny in Burgundy as part of the reform movement. The Canterbury Indicia borrows many signs from the Cluniac lists, yet differences show the English abbey tailored the list to better suit the Anglo-Saxon community. This can be seen in the food items that are featured. Cluniac monks enjoyed a rich diet including a range of baked goods, several species of fish, spiced drinks and crêpes. In contrast, the Canterbury food list is much less varied, but features local delights such as oysters, plums, sloe berries and beer. Sign 72 for oysters imitates the action of shucking: Gif þu ostran habban wylle þonne clæm þu þinne wynstran hand ðam gemete þe þu ostran on handa hæbbe and do mid sexe oððe mid fingre swylce þu ostran scenan wylle- (‘If you want an oyster, then close your left hand, as if you had an oyster in your hand, and make with a knife or with your fingers as if you were going to open the oyster’). Signs for butter (buteran), salt (scealt or sealt) and pepper (pipor) are also given, which do not feature on the Cluniac lists.

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Sign number 72 for oysters, lines 1–4: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 99v

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Anglo-Saxon feast: The Tiberius Psalter, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 5v

Evidence demonstrates this monastic sign language was actively practised by monks at Canterbury. The Indicia was adapted from the Latin Cluniac sign lists and composed in Old English, as Latin was a foreign language to most Anglo-Saxon monks. Composing the text in the vernacular ensured it would be understood by readers, particularly children entering the monastery. The manuscript also contains a glossed copy of Ælfic’s Colloquy (ff. 60v–64v), a set of dialogues designed for teaching Latin to monastic students. Furthermore, Benedictine monks in England and France observed a second sign language custom known as finger-counting. A late antique tradition, finger-counting was used in arithmetic to sign from 1 to 1 million, to calculate sums and also to determine the date of Easter each year. For the Anglo-Saxon monks at Canterbury and beyond it was very much a case of talk to the hand!

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Monks counting above a calendar: Arundel MS 155, f. 10v

Alison Ray

@BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

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27 November 2016

The Caption Competition Returns

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We'd love to say that our caption competition returns by popular demand, but that isn't strictly true. The only people who have probably missed it are our lawyers.

Nevertheless, we've decided to don our hard hats and to return to the fray. So what's going on here? You can send your suggestions via the comments button below or tweet us @BLMedieval. The usual terms and conditions apply (in other words, there are none). Oh yes, and if you want to see more of the original manuscript, and it is truly special, you can view it online here: Arundel MS 66.

Remember: no manuscripts were harmed during the making of this competition.

Caption competition

@BLMedieval (your friendly medieval manuscript Twitter account)

10 November 2016

A Feast for the Senses

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The British Library is pleased to announce the loan of three manuscripts to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, as part of their exhibition A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe. This ground-breaking exhibition aims to recreate sensory experiences of the medieval world through sight, hearing, touch and smell. In addition to manuscripts, the exhibition incorporates a wide range of artworks in diverse media, including stained glass, metals and gems, ivories, tapestries and paintings.

We are delighted to be one of many institutions from around the world to have loaned objects for this remarkable exhibition, which incorporates over 100 items. The three manuscripts from our collection represent the various functions of medieval manuscripts in later medieval society.

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Harley Roll T11 — the wounds of Christ

The first is Harley Roll T11, which contains drawings of the five wounds of Christ and was believed to function as an amulet to guard against evil and sickness. This unique manuscript, made in England in the 15th century, is a roll rather than the more common codex or book form, made by sewing together sheets of parchment (called membranes) to create one long scroll. There is evidence that this roll was draped over the stomachs of pregnant women to protect them during childbirth, emphasising the importance of touch and the apotropaic properties of manuscripts in later medieval Christian devotion.

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Egerton MS 1069, f. 1r, the walled garden

The second manuscript is Egerton MS 1069, dating from c. 1400, an illustrated copy of the Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), a popular allegorical French poem written in the 13th century by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The Roman de la Rose follows the attempts of a courtier to woo a lady, and is set within a symbolic walled garden, the traditional setting for many medieval courtly romances. You can see more of the lovely illuminations in Egerton MS 1069 in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

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Add MS 18196, f. 1r, Agnes Enthroned and Scenes from Her Legend

The final manuscript on loan to the exhibition is folio 1 from Additional MS 18196, which is not a single manuscript but rather a compilation of leaves from various hymnals. The folio shows, at the top, a vibrant depiction of St Agnes, the patron saint of young girls and chastity, surrounded by two angels. Below, the scene on the left shows a priest called Paulinus giving an emerald ring to the statue of St Agnes to receive her permission to marry; and on the right, St Agnes appearing to relatives who are holding a vigil around her tomb. Below these scenes is a section of music meant to accompany songs of praise to St Agnes. You can read more about this folio in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

A Feast for the Senses is on view from now until 8 January 2017 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The exhibition is free to enter and open to all members of the public. We hope as many of our North American readers as possible get the opportunity to visit!

Taylor McCall

@BLMedieval/@taylorjmccall

07 November 2016

Picturing the Sacred: Byzantine Manuscript Illumination

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Some of the British Library’s most precious manuscripts are those containing beautiful miniatures from the Byzantine world. The majority of these manuscripts are religious in focus, usually Gospels or Psalters, reflecting the central role played by Christianity in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine court functioned as a theocracy, in which the Emperor was seen as God’s representative on earth, acting with divine authority. Religion infused every aspect of Byzantine life, including book production.

Although it is difficult (and somewhat artificial) to distinguish between late antique and early Byzantine art, a useful starting-point is the splendid Golden Canon Tables. Created in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, the manuscript is covered in gold paint, over which the Canon Tables (used to identify parallel passages between the four Gospels in biblical manuscripts) were written, and adorned with floral decoration and small medallions containing portraits of four men. Although they survive only as fragments, they would originally have formed part of an incredibly lavish copy of the Gospels, a testament to the importance of the Bible for the inhabitants of Constantinople at this time.

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The Golden Canon Tables. Additional MS 5111, f. 11r. Constantinople, 6th or 7th century.

The Iconoclastic period (726–842 CE) saw the destruction of many existing works of religious art, and a ban on the production of any new works of art. The prohibition on graven images in the Bible was a source of concern for Christian thinkers in late antiquity and early Byzantium, who worried about the propriety of producing depictions of Jesus and other holy figures. This concern was particularly felt in Byzantium owing to the particular emphasis placed on icons in religious worship there (an emphasis that is still found in the Greek Orthodox tradition today). The impact of iconoclasm has meant that relatively few examples of early Byzantine illumination survive, and those that do, like the Golden Canon Tables, are thus even more precious to us today.

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Depiction of Iconoclasts in the Theodore Psalter. Additional MS 19352, f. 27v. Constantinople, 1066.

After the prohibition on the production of religious art was lifted for the final time in 842, we see the reappearance of illuminated Biblical manuscripts. A number of illuminated Psalters (discussed in more detail in an article by Kalliroe Linardou) actually include images of iconoclasts erasing icons of Jesus. Such images can be found in the Theodore Psalter. On occasion, later owners of the manuscripts have erased the faces of the iconoclasts themselves!

A great emphasis was placed on tradition in Byzantine art. This is why, for instance, there is such great similarity between portraits of the Evangelists in Gospel manuscripts. Yet this stress on tradition also provided an opportunity for artists to distinguish themselves in more subtle ways, and there is clear variation in Byzantine illumination across the Greek-speaking world, as Elisabeth Yota shows in her article on provincial manuscript illumination. Some Greek manuscripts were illuminated by artists from different traditions, as is the case with Harley 5647, in which the portraits were made by a Syriac artist. Comparison of this with, for instance, the portraits in the Guest-Coutts New Testament, show both the strong tradition in terms of how figures are depicted and the room for innovation that was possible. Further examples can be found in Kathleen Maxwell’s article on illuminated Gospel manuscripts.

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 The Evangelist Luke, by a Syriac artist. Harley MS 5647, f. 137v. Eastern Mediterranean, 11th century.

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The Evangelist Luke, in the Guest-Coutts New Testament. Additional MS 28815, f. 76v. Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), mid-10th century.

There are more fantastic illuminated Greek manuscripts than we can possibly hope to talk about in a single blog post, so we invite you to explore the collections and articles available on our Greek Manuscripts Project Website, and the many manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts!

 Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval/@CillianOHogan

01 November 2016

A Calendar Page for November 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Add_ms_18850_f011r
Calendar page for November from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410–1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 11r

Winter is beginning to close in on the calendar pages for November from the Bedford Hours. 

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Detail of miniatures of a man feeding pigs and the zodiac sign Sagittarius, from the calendar page for November,
Add MS 18850, f. 11r

November saw a pause in the agricultural calendar of the medieval era, and so in this month we often see different sorts of labours.  A common one can be found at the bottom of the first folio for this month; in the miniature on the lower left a man is at work beating acorns from a tree with two sticks. Below him a group of three hogs are feasting on the acorns, a delicacy given to them at this time to fatten them up for winter. To the right is a centaur archer, charmingly dressed in a gorgeous surcoat, for the zodiac sign Sagittarius.

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Detail of a marginal roundel of the Nine Muses, from the calendar page for November,
Add MS 18850, f. 11r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a group of nine women surrounding a stream and pool of water. The banners they carry identify them as the Nine Muses, the Greek goddesses of inspiration for science and the arts that were later adopted into the Greek pantheon. In some versions of their myths they are described as water nymphs, and in one origin story they were born from four sacred rivers which Pegasus caused to spring forth — a possible explanation for the landscape of this miniature. Rubrics at the bottom of the folio tell us that November ‘is attributed to the nine wisdoms’ because of the number nine.

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Calendar page for November,
Add MS 18850, f. 11v

The emphasis on the Muses continues in the following folio. On the middle left an armoured man is mounted on a winged horse that has one foot (somewhat gingerly) in the waters of a fountain or pool. The rubrics tell us that this man is Perseus, and the horse must therefore be Pegasus; we may be seeing a scene of the birth of the Muses. At the bottom of the folio the Muses themselves are in evidence beside their spring, kneeling before a well-dressed lady. This is intended to represent Athena on her visit to ‘the font of wisdom’, although this aristocratic and almost matronly version of the goddess is an unusual one.  


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Detail of marginal roundels of Perseus and Pegasus and Athena and the Muses, from the calendar page for November,
Add MS 18850, f. 11v

Sarah J Biggs

@BLMedieval