Medieval manuscripts blog

519 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

27 October 2016

An African Abbot in Anglo-Saxon England

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To commemorate Black History Month in the United Kingdom, today we remember one of the first Africans to live in Anglo-Saxon England. The man in question was Hadrian (d. 709), the abbot of St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Canterbury, who played a pivotal role in the development of the early Anglo-Saxon Church.

Bede’s description of Hadrian, beginning column 2 line 18, from his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Canterbury?), c. 825: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 94r.

According to Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People was completed in 731, Hadrian was ‘vir natione Afir’ (translated as 'a man of African race' by Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors), who spoke both Greek and Latin. Some scholars have suggested that Hadrian was a Berber, and that he came from the area that is now Libya. The evidence for his origin is found in a series of Biblical commentaries (surviving in a manuscript in Milan), derived from notes on Hadrian’s teaching at his school at Canterbury. These commentaries use vocabulary specific to that region, including terms for furniture and a beautiful bird called a porphyrio, 'said to be found in Libya' ('in Libia sit'). 

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Detail of North Africa, from a world map in a scientific miscellany, England, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v.

Hadrian may have been forced to flee the Arab invasions of North Africa, and at any rate he arrived in Italy as young man. In Europe, he had a remarkable career as the emperor’s translator, diplomat and abbot of a monastery near Naples. He arrived in England in 668, sent by Pope Vitalian to accompany Theodore of Tarsus, the newly-appointed archbishop of Canterbury. The two men immediately set about touring the archdiocese, restructuring the English Church by dividing large dioceses into smaller ones, and legislating through regular synods. They also created an internationally renowned school at Canterbury where they may have introduced the study of Greek to the Anglo-Saxons.

Among the students of that school was Aldhelm, later bishop of Sherborne, who was considered a pre-eminent scholar by many of his contemporaries. Aldhelm praised the school in his letters, including one to Hadrian himself, in which he described Hadrian as his 'revered father and respected teacher' and himself as a 'humble pupil of your holiness'. In another letter, Aldhelm scolded his young correspondent for going to study in Ireland when Hadrian and Theodore offered better educational opportunities in England. Certain manuscripts of Aldhelm’s letters have recently been digitised by the British Library and are now available online (Royal MS 6 A VI and Cotton MS Domitian A IX).

Passage from Aldhelm's letter to Heahfrith where he praises Hadrian as 'endowed with ineffably pure urbanity', the moon to Archbishop Theodore's sun, England (Canterbury?), 1st half of the 11th century: Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 8v.

Judging from commentaries from his school and his students' writings, Hadrian can be credited with introducing Anglo-Saxons to a whole range of ideas, from astronomical thought inherited from Plato and Aristotle to the commemoration of Neapolitan saints venerated at his old monastery in Italy. He may even have influenced Anglo-Saxon literature through types of riddles: Aldhelm also wrote a book of riddles explicitly inspired by the North African writer Symphosius, whose enigmas may have been brought by Hadrian to England.

Aldhelm's prologue invoking Symphosius, from Aldhelm's Riddles, England (Canterbury?), c. 1000: Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 79v.

One of the earliest books known to have been owned in post-Roman Britain also came from Africa, perhaps from Carthage. This book contains a 4th-century copy of letters by another North African, Cyprian. Although this manuscript is now fragmentary, when it first arrived in England it would have been an impressive codex, in fine uncial script and with the Biblical passages picked out in red. This book had come to England by the 8th century, because someone writing in early English script annotated, expanded and added to some of the words. These letters undoubtedly influenced 8th-century Anglo-Saxon writers, including Bede, who quoted from them. Some scholars have suggested that Hadrian himself may have brought this African manuscript to England.


Detail of one of the earliest books known to have been owned in Anglo-Saxon England, containing the letters of Cyprian, North Africa, 4th century: Add MS 40165 A, f. 2r.

Add 40165a f2v
Details of the letters â€˜vr’ added to the manuscript in England by the 8th century: Add MS 40165 A, f. 2v.

According to Bede, Hadrian had been reluctant to come to Kent, so much so that he turned down an offer to be made archbishop of Canterbury and instead nominated several others for that office, including his eventual companion, Theodore. Nevertheless, Hadrian stayed in England for 41 years, and his influence has lasted much longer. He was remembered in saints' Lives at Canterbury later in the Middle Ages, and he helped to shape religious structures and literary traditions which remain in England today.

Beginning of Goscelin's Life of Hadrian, England (Canterbury), 1st quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 233r.

Alison Hudson


25 October 2016

Wonders of Thread: The V&A’s Opus Anglicanum Exhibition

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Until 5 February 2017, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is providing a unique opportunity to view some of the most incredible survivals of pre-modern art in Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery. If you have even a remote interest in the medieval world, textiles, handicrafts or the rituals of society, you won't be disappointed.

The exhibition includes six manuscripts loaned by the British Library, and also available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The curators have brilliantly displayed these alongside works of embroidery to show how they influenced one another in terms of iconography, historical context, and production techniques.


An angel with John Grandisson’s arms: Add MS 21926, f. 2r

Among the manuscripts on display is the ‘Grandisson Psalter’, Add MS 21926, owned by John Grandisson. Next to the book, showing the image of an angel added to the front of the book displaying John's coat of arms, are other objects that he owned and commissioned. The exhibition shows how artwork did not simply sit to be admired, but was a part of a process that allowed members of society to communicate with one another and promote coherence as a community.

The interplay between the artistic styles of manuscripts and embroidery between the 12th and 15th centuries is among the most eye-opening aspects of the exhibition. This gives the opportunity to compare at first hand disparate treasures such as the Syon Cope, highlighted online, with the 'Holkham Bible Picture Book', Add MS 47682:

Christ creating Adam and Eve: Add MS 47682, f. 3r

Christ creating Adam and Eve: Add MS 47682, f. 3r

Other British Library manuscripts in the exhibition are 'Sir Thomas Holme's Book of Arms', Harley MS 4205; the 'De Lisle Psalter' in Arundel MS 83; the 13th-century Psalter of Harley MS 5102; and a sketch of John the Baptist in Royal MS 10 B XIV.

Manuscripts were not created in a vacuum, and this is a rare opportunity to compare them not only with needlework but also with panel paintings, metalwork and sculpture. There has not been a major exhibit on its subject since 1963. If you can't make it to London before February, Clare Browne, Glyn Davies and M. A. Michael have produced the book English Medieval Embroidery: Opus Anglicanum, beautifully illustrated and thoroughly researched.

Andrew Dunning


23 October 2016

Fire, Fire! The Tragic Burning of the Cotton Library

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2016 has been a year of anniversaries, some of them more notable than others. Already this year we have commemorated 350 years since the Great Fire of London (1666), the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings (1066), and 1,000 years since the Battle of Assandun (1016). The 285th year since the infamous Cotton Library fire (1731) falls on 23 October, and although this may not be a date that immediately leaps to mind, it is a cause of great sorrow for many medievalists.


A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was one of the greatest British collectors of manuscripts of all time. His library was vast and of huge national significance, especially when one recounts some of the books and documents it contained: two of the original manuscripts of Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Cotton Genesis, the state papers of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Vespasian Psalter ... one could easily go on. Cotton made his library available to other scholars during his own lifetime, and enabled certain books to be borrowed (which is why some items, such as the famous Utrecht Psalter, ultimately entered other collections). Finally, 70 years after Cotton died, his manuscripts were accepted on behalf of the nation, and in 1753 they formed the first foundation collection of the new British Museum.

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The fire-damaged manuscript of King John's Magna Carta, 1215, rendered almost illegible following the 1731 Cotton fire: Cotton Charter XIII 31A.

Acquiring the Cotton collection for the nation should be regarded as a moment of great rejoicing. This was the first occasion in the British Isles that any library had passed into national ownership, bringing with it such treasures as Magna Carta and the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts assembled by any antiquary. But, sadly, a less joyful event happened in 1731, that threatened to destroy this gift for all time.


The beautiful Vespasian Psalter, 8th century, one of the many treasures of the Cotton Library: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v.

By October 1731, the Cotton manuscripts had been placed for storage at Ashburnham House in London, adjacent to Westminster School. Their former home had been regarded, ironically, as a fire hazard; and so the books had been transferred to the ill-fated (and unfortunately named) Ashburnham House. There, on the night of 23 October 1731, a terrible fire broke out, perhaps starting in a fireplace below the floor where the manuscripts were kept. Despite the efforts of the Deputy Librarian and others, who reportedly were forced to fling scores of books out of the building, a great number of the Cotton manuscripts were badly damaged by the flames and the water used to extinguish them, and a few volumes were destroyed in their entirety. Many unique manuscripts were lost for good, such as Asser's biography of King Alfred of Wessex. The following day, the Westminster schoolboys were said to have gathered fragments of manuscripts floating like butterflies in the wind, some of which have survived until this day (some leaves of the Cotton Genesis, for instance, passed into a collection at Bristol, before being returned to the British Museum in the 1960s).

Cotton MS Fragments XXXII

Boxes containing portions of the manuscripts almost destroyed in the 1731 fire, now classified as Cotton Fragments XXXII.

During the 19th century, a restoration programme was carried out at the British Museum, during which many of the burnt volumes were separated, their pages flattened, inlaid in paper mounts and then rebound. There is a masterful study of this process by Andrew Prescott, in Sir Robert Cotton as Collector, edited by Christopher Wright (The British Library, 1997). Meantime, however, many of Cotton's precious manuscripts had suffered irreversible fortunes. One of the two surviving copies of King John's Magna Carta, 1215, and the only one with the Great Seal still affixed, was rendered illegible as a result of the fire and efforts to save the text, and the seal was reduced to a glob of molten wax. The illustrated Cotton Genesis, already mentioned, suffered severe damage to its illuminations. The pages of Beowulf were burned along their edges, with the result that small portions of the letters reputedly started to crumble, before the volume was inlaid and rebound.

Cotton MS Tiberius E VI

An example of an inlaid Cotton manuscript, following the restoration process: Cotton MS Tiberius E VI.

All of this is extremely tragic, and the story is too detailed and complicated to tell in a single blogpost. Fortunately, the vast majority of the Cotton manuscripts survived the fire, many of them intact: the fate of others is described in an earlier account entitled Crisp as a Poppadom. But today, on 23 October, we should spare a moment to remember the beautiful and historic manuscripts damaged in the Cotton fire, the people who fought valiantly to rescue them, and those who restored them in the 19th century.

Julian Harrison



12 October 2016

England and France, 700-1200: Manuscripts from the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library

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We are delighted to announce a new project to open up further the unparalleled collections of illuminated manuscripts held by the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. In a ground-breaking new collaborative project the national libraries of Britain and France will work together to create two innovative new websites that will make 800 manuscripts decorated before the year 1200 available freely. The Bibliothèque nationale de France will create a new bilingual website that will allow side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection, selected for their beauty and interest. The British Library will create a bilingual website intended for a general audience that will feature highlights from the most important of these manuscripts and articles commissioned by leading experts in the field. Both websites will be online by November 2018.

Illuminated initial 'B'(eatus) and full border at the beginning of Psalm 1, Canterbury, early 11th century (British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 12r).

Before the introduction of printing to Europe, all books were written by hand as manuscripts. The most luxurious of these were illuminated, literally ‘lit up’ by decorations and pictures in brightly coloured pigments and burnished gold leaf. All manuscripts — whether they are luxurious biblical or liturgical manuscripts, copies of classical literature or patristic, theological, historical or scientific texts — are valuable historical documents that can deepen and expand our understanding of the political, social and cultural life of the eras in which they were made. Their research value is inestimable.

The British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France have two of the largest collections of medieval manuscripts in the world. As a result of France and England being so closely entwined through periods of war, conquest and alliance and, in the medieval period, both nations claiming territory in France at times, both libraries have particularly strong holdings of French manuscripts produced in France or in Britain (but written in French or Latin).

This new project will add to the growing numbers of manuscript material available in full online as part of wider programmes to make these cultural treasures available to everyone around the world. At the British Library, over 8,000 items are currently available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Similarly, thousands of items are available from the Bibliothèque nationale de France collections on its website, Gallica.

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Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library and Marc Polonsky of The Polonsky Foundation signing the agreement for the project.

This exciting project is made possible by a generous grant from The Polonsky Foundation. Dr Leonard Polonsky remarks that 'our Foundation is privileged to be supporting these two leading institutions in preserving the riches of the world's cultural heritage and making them available in innovative and creative ways, both to scholars and to a wider public'.

The Polonsky Foundation is a UK-registered charity which primarily supports cultural heritage, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and innovation in higher education and the arts. Its principal activities include the digitisation of significant collections at leading libraries (the British Library; the Bibliothèque nationale de France; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; Cambridge University Library; the New York Public Library; the Library of Congress; the Vatican Apostolic Library); support for Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, New York; and post-doctoral fellowships at The Polonsky Academy for the Advanced Study of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Its founder and chairman, Dr Leonard S. Polonsky, was named a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for charitable services in 2013.

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Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator, Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections and Curation of the British Library, Rachel Polonsky, and Marc Polonsky viewing a manuscript of the Gospel of Mark (British Library Royal MS 4 D II).

The focus on the digitisation project will be on manuscripts produced on either side of the English Channel between 700 and 1200. The manuscripts from this period open up a window on a time of close cultural and political exchange during which scribes moved and worked in what is now France, Normandy and England. Decorated manuscripts containing literary, historical, biblical and theological texts will be included, representing the mutual strengths of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Online access to these manuscripts will support new research into how manuscripts — and people — travelled around Europe in this period. New connections will be made possible by studying the two collections side by side.

For example, the manuscripts selected will include a number of illuminated Gospel-books, providing a witness to the changing tastes, influences and borrowings reflected in the books’ design and script. So a 9th-century, a 10th-century and a late 12th-century Gospel-book all have colourful illuminated initials with geometric patterns, floral decoration or animals heads, yet their execution is very different. The script, colours, style and subjects of the illumination all provide clues to the time and place of their composition. With the digitisation of manuscripts all these features may be studied and enjoyed in detail.

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Decorated initial ‘I’(nitium) from western France, perhaps Brittany or Tours, 9th century (British Library Egerton MS 609, f. 46r).

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A book of Gospels from Thorney Abbey, originally produced in France, possibly Brittany, in the early 10th century, but which made its way to the abbey by the late 10th or early 11th century (British Library, Add MS 40000 f. 34v)

Royal 4 D ii f2v Blog1
Illuminated initial 'I'(nitium) with dragons and human masks in medallions, England or France, late 12th century (British Library, Royal MS 4 D II, f. 2v).

As well as making 800 manuscripts freely available online, the project will be part of a wider programme of activities aimed at researchers and the general public. A number of the manuscripts digitised will be displayed in a major international exhibition on Anglo-Saxon England to be held at the British Library from October 2018 to February 2019, which will highlight connections between Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent. Manuscripts included in the project may also feature in another major exhibition to be held at the Musée de Cluny in Paris focusing on Merovingian manuscripts, opening on 26 October 2016.

A conference at the British Library will coincide with the Anglo-Saxon exhibition (December 2018), and a project conference will be held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. We will also produce an illustrated book showcasing beautiful and significant manuscripts from the collections. Another output will be a film on the digitisation project that, together with the other aspects of the public programme, will open up new paths into our collections for a variety of audiences.

We look forward to working closely with our colleagues at the Bibliothèque nationale de France on this exciting project to enhance access to and understanding of the written cultural heritage of England and France.

Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator


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09 October 2016

New Content on Our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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The British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is a fantastic resource for anyone wishing to discover the richness and diversity of medieval manuscript illumination. We're delighted to report that this Catalogue has been recently updated, with new manuscripts online and new images added to some of the existing entries. Here are some of the new images now available for download and reuse (guidance on the conditions of use of these images can be found here).

The Bedford Hours (Add MS 18850), one of the most magnificent illuminated manuscripts in the British Library, has already been fully digitised. It has also now been added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, with a selection of its most magnificent illuminations. This image shows Anne of Burgundy, wife of John, duke of Bedford, for whom this deluxe Book of Hours was made, probably for their marriage in 1423, by one of the leading Parisian illuminators of the time.


Miniature of Anne of Burgundy, duchess of Bedford, kneeling before Anne, the Virgin, and Christ with a full border incorporating laurel and including miniatures of figures from the Old Testament: British Library Add MS 18850, f. 257v.

In the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, the images are available for download and the search facility allows users to search for details within the images. For instance, a search for Bathsheba in the Image Description field of the Advanced Search page will yield 11 results, including this gorgeous page from the Bedford Hours. 


Miniature from the beginning of the Penitential Psalms, of David depicted playing his harp, while watching Bathsheba, giving an order to kill her husband to a kneeling man, and praying to God, with a full border containing roundels of the virtues and vices and of Paul falling from his horse: British Library Add MS 18850, f. 96r.

The other Bathsheba images are found mostly in the Books of Hours in our collections, including this one from the gorgeous Dunois Hours (Yates Thompson MS 3), decorated for Jean, Comte de Dunois, Bastard of Orleans, by an associate of the artist who painted the miniatures in the Bedford Hours. 


A well-dressed woman riding a white goat, carrying arrows and a mirror, as a personification of Lust (Luxure); behind, David spies upon Bathsheba in her bath, from the Penitential Psalms, the Dunois Hours, Paris, c. 1440–c. 1450 (after 1436): British Library Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 172v. 

Here are some of these other Bathsheba images also available to view online:


Miniature of a man on a ladder climbing a tree and offering a branch to two robed men; marginal drawing shows David watching Bathsheba and her ladies bathing, from the Splendor Solis, Germany, 1582: British Library Harley MS 3469, f. 15r.


Miniatures of the crowning of Bathsheba, the Coronation of the Virgin, and the coronation of Esther from the Biblia Pauperum, Netherlands, N. (The Hague?), c. 1405: British Library Kings MS 5, f. 28r.


Miniature of David seducing Bathsheba, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320: British Library Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 56v.

And here are a few more of the images newly available in the Catalogue:


Historiated initial 'Q'(uant) of the death of King Meliadus, from the Roman de Tristan, Italy, N. (Padua or Bologna?), 1st quarter of the 15th century: British Library Add MS 23929, f. 42r.


Text page with large initials, Ælfric’s Grammar, England, 2nd half of the 11th century: British Library Royal MS 15 B XXII, f. 6r.


Jonah being thrown into the mouth of a whale by his companions. from the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Germany or Netherlands, S. (Bruges), 1st quarter of the 15th century: British Library Add MS 11575, f. 65v.

Finally, we have added images to several of the Apocalypse manuscripts already online on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Here, for example, is a page from a manuscript in Latin with a parallel verse version and prose commentary in French and a translation in English jotted in the margin in the late 15th century, 200 years after it was made.


The winged Abaddon faces his army of locusts, from the Apocalypse, England, 2nd half of the 13th century: British Library Add MS 18633, f. 16r.

We hope you continue to enjoy using the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, for fun, for recreation or for research.



05 October 2016

Reading and Writing Greek in Britain

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The Greek language has a long history in the British Isles. The earliest surviving examples of Greek text found in Britain date from its days as a Roman province, on multi-lingual curse tablets now held by the Museum of London. Although located at the north-western extreme of the Roman Empire, Britain nonetheless saw its share of Greek-speaking soldiers and civilians living within its shores.

It is less clear what happened to any Greek-speakers remaining in Britain after the Romans withdrew around 410. However, by the 7th century, we have clear evidence once again of prominent Greek speakers on the island, when Theodore of Tarsus was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Few in the medieval Latin west could read Greek, but there is clear evidence from early on of an awareness of the importance of Greek as the original language of the Gospels, in particular. So, for instance, we can find Greek letters used occasionally in the Lindisfarne Gospels. At the incipit of the Gospel of Matthew, the word ‘Filii’  (‘son’) is written once with an F and once with a Greek letter Φ instead.


The incipit from the Gospel of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels contains the Greek letter Φ in place of an F in the word ‘Filii’. Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r. England (Lindisfarne Priory), c. 700.

The Athelstan Psalter, an Anglo-Saxon manuscript written in Francia and taken to England shortly afterwards, contains Greek prayers transliterated into Latin letters. These examples indicate that even if Greek was not widely understood, its significance as the language of the early Church was recognised by scholars and clergy in medieval Britain. More information about knowledge of Greek in the early medieval West can be found in an article on the British Library’s new Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

Greek Litany and sanctus written in Latin letters. Athelstan Psalter, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 200v. North-East Francia, 9th century.

The revival of interest in Greek learning in the West during the Renaissance also had an impact on Britain. Schoolboy compositions in Greek written and presented to members of the royal family during the Tudor era are now kept at the British Library. These make it clear that Greek was being taught in some public schools, but as Matthew Adams shows in his article on this topic, its availability varied and depended on a number of factors. There was considerable suspicion of the Greek language in the early 16th century as a result of the appearance of Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament, and the study of Greek was briefly associated with heresy. After the accession of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), however, who was herself a keen student of Greek, the language regained favour and began to be taught more widely in schools.


The Etheridge Encomium, presented to Queen Elizabeth in 1566. Royal MS 16 C X, f. 1r. England, 1566?

Over the following centuries, increasing interest in Greek in Britain saw the arrival on the island of many manuscripts and printed books in that language. Some notable figures whose collections are now in the British Library from this period include Hans Sloane and Robert Harley. But it was the 19th century, and the great increase in philhellenism resulting from the rise of the Grand Tour, sympathy for the Greek War of Independence, and other factors, that saw the most interest in Greek literature and Greek manuscripts in Britain. Many British aristocrats travelled to Greece and Greek monasteries in the Eastern Mediterranean, and returned with substantial collections of manuscripts. The acquisitions of some of these figures are detailed in an article on British collectors of Greek manuscripts.

These are only a few instances of the long history of knowledge of Greek in Britain. Many more can be found in our collection items, or in the articles to be found on our new Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

Cillian O'Hogan


01 October 2016

A Calendar Page for October 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.

Calendar page for October from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

More emphasis on mythology and the naming of months can be found in the calendar pages for October in the Bedford Hours. 

Detail of miniatures of a man sowing and the zodiac sign Scorpio, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

Preparing for winter was the focus of most agricultural labour in the medieval era, and on the lower right of the first calendar folio we can see a peasant at work sowing seed in a barren field (barren save for the seeds, at any rate). Next to this busy man is an oddly-shaped scorpion, minus the tell-tale stinger in its tail, for the zodiac sign Scorpio. 

Detail of a marginal roundel of Saturnus, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a crowned king standing before a group of seated men. This, the rubrics tell us, is Saturn, one of the oldest of the Roman gods. The verses at the bottom of the folio go on to explain that October, which is ‘named after the number eight which signifies justice’, is dedicated to Saturn, and that the time of his reign was a golden one because ‘everyone lived justly’. Saturn’s origins in the Roman pantheon are complex, but interestingly, there is a theory that his name is etymologically derived from the word satu, or ‘sowing’, fitting for a god of agriculture (and echoing the labour on the same folio). 

Calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10v

A particularly charming scene can be found on the following folio. To the left of the remainder of the saints’ days for October is a marginal miniature of a woman, clad in a long blue dress and standing among trees that are shedding their leaves for fall.  She holds in one hand a knife (or pair of scissors), while with the other she is gathering her blonde tresses. This is a lovely illustration of the accompanying rubrics, which tell us that in the month of October ‘the earth takes off its ornaments’. Below is a miniature of another seated man, surrounded by a group of adoring men. This, we are told, is another person to whom October is dedicated: Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War.

Detail of marginal roundels of the earth taking off her ornaments and Scipio Africanus, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10v


Sarah J Biggs


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30 September 2016

Valerius Maximus: A Handbook for the Roman Arriviste?

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In Rome in AD 31, Valerius Maximus finished his collection of almost a thousand stories from the Roman world. It was a time of great change and uncertainty, but also the beginning of a new era, as the great Roman Republic had been replaced by the rule of emperors, a model that would continue in Western Europe until the 20th century. Many people lamented the loss of the values of the past and the poet Lucan wrote, ‘From now on until the end of time we are slaves’. It seems that Valerius wanted to preserve the great stories to entertain, to connect his fellow citizens to their great past, and to provide a noble code of behaviour based on the examples of their illustrious forebears.

Valerius Maximus presents his book to Tiberius, seated in his court; ten sons of Rome are sent to Etruria for religious instruction; Metellus forbids the Consul, Postumius, to leave Rome; Rome is conquered by the Gauls; Numa Pompilius, King of Rome, threatens his people with death if they do not perform religious duties; Jehoiachin, King of Judah, in prison, hears Ezechial prophesying; Publicius Malleolus murders his mother and is placed in a sack to be thrown into the sea as punishment: Book 1, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, Paris, 1473–c. 1480, Harley MS 4374, f. 1r.

Valerius took his stories from the works of great Latin authors including Cicero, Livy and Varro, organised into 9 books with themes such as happiness and ancient customs. The books were divided into 8 or 10 chapters, each dealing with a specific topic and containing stories from Ancient Rome followed by foreign tales, mostly from Ancient Greece, to illustrate the topic.  In his preface, Valerius stated that he wanted to save others trouble, so he organised his stories for easy reference.


Miniature of Gyges, king of Lydia, kneeling before an altar, with a full border containing the royal arms of England and a foliate initial 'I'(cy commence), at the beginning of book 7, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, Bruges, Royal MS 18 E IV, f. 109r.

Valerius's work provides a unique insight into the lives of ancient Romans and their views on many subjects. The picture painted is not entirely rosy; the cruelty and brutality of the Romans towards their enemies and opponents is portrayed honestly, and there are numerous examples of bloody conflict in the civil wars at the end of the Republic. The political changes brought with them huge social changes; it was a time of social mobility, with the old political aristocracy swept away and a new elite from more modest backgrounds, some from the provinces, taking its place. The new administrators, men like Pontius Pilate in Judea, may have used the examples in Valerius’s work to help them acquire the knowledge and values that they needed to govern and to avoid the sneers of the old elite. It was described as ‘Practical ethics for Roman gentlemen’ in the title of a study by C. J. Skidmore. 

An example of nouveau riche conspicuous consumption is provided as a warning at the beginning of the last book, on vice.

Sergius Arata exhibits his hanging baths to his friends and inspects the artificial reserves he has constructed for fish; mid tier: the son of Aesopus feasts on the most costly singing birds; the Roman women plead for the repeal of the Oppian law forbidding female extravagance; lower tier: Sardanapalus, King of Assyria, clothed in women's attire, sits spinning among his wives, then burns himself and his possessions when he loses power, Book 9, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, Paris, 1473–c. 1480, Harley MS 4375, f. 179r.

Although we do not really know how popular Valerius’s work was in antiquity, it was still copied the Carolingian period. In the later Middle Ages it was amazingly successful, with more copies surviving than any other Latin prose text apart from the Bible. Some studies have compared the use of exempla from the Old Testament with Valerius’s moral examples. In the British Library we have copies from France, Germany and Italy.


Historiated initial 'U'(rbis Rome), of a building probably representing Rome, and a three-sided foliate border, at the beginning of Valerius Maximus's Factorum et dictorum memorabilium, Italy, N. (Lombardy?), 2nd half of the 14th century, Arundel MS 7, f. 1r.

Vernacular translations introduced the text to an even wider readership, perhaps the most well-known being the French translation begun for Charles V in 1375 by Simon de Hesdin, a knight hospitaller, and expanded and completed by Nicholas de Gonesse for the Duc de Berry.


Miniature of Simon de Hesdin presenting his book to King Charles V of France; in the foreground, a dog pursues a monkey. Full strew border with acanthus leaves, flowers, figures, and a monkey mounted on a sheep (damaged), Book 1 Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, Netherlands, S., last quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 4430, f. 33r.

Valerius's work was also popular with medieval aristocrats, as evidenced by the number of highly illuminated copies made, with several in the British Library, some now bound in two or more volumes as they are so large. The following manuscripts have just been published in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Harley MS 4372

Harley MS 4373

Harley MS 4374

Harley MS 4375

Other Valerius manuscripts have not been digitised in full but can be found online in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts with a selection of images:

Harley MS 4430

Royal MS 17 F IV

Royal MS 18 E III

Royal MS 18 E IV

Arundel MS 7



A family enjoying good fortune, Book 7, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, France, N. (Amiens or Hesdin), or Netherlands, S., 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 17 F IV, f. 232r.

Chantry Westwell



Further Reading

C. J. Skidmore, Practical ethics for Roman gentlemen: the work of Valerius Maximus (Exeter, 1996).

Valerius Maximus ‘Memorable Deeds and Sayings’: One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome, translated by Henry John Walker (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004).