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348 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

11 July 2014

Benedict Rules

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There is simply no earthly honour greater than a British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog post in your memory.  So it is with all due reverence – and a selection of manuscripts from our collections – that we observe the feast day of Benedict of Nursia, saint and progenitor of the first monastic order. 

Egerton MS 1070, f. 89r
Detail of an historiated initial depicting St Benedict, from the Hours of René of Anjou, France (Paris), c. 1410,
Egerton MS 1070, f. 89r

Born c. 480 in Nursia, Benedict was educated in Rome but abandoned his studies in order to pursue a spiritual life.  After living variously as a hermit or with other religious recluses, and narrowly escaping being murdered by a local priest in Subiaco, he founded Monte Cassino with his followers and there died, tradition has it, on 21st March 543.  11th July marks the translation of his relics to the abbey of Fleury (those of his sister, the wonderfully named Scholastica, were taken at the same time to Le Mans). 

Burney MS 319, f. 22r
Detail of an historiated initial depicting St Benedict, from the opening of the second book of Gregory the Great’s ‘Dialogues’, Italy (?Bologna), 1st half of the 14th century,
Burney MS 319, f. 22

Scant details of Benedict’s life survive.  The main source is the second book of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great, which recounts mainly miraculous events intended to edify and inspire rather than specific details suited to historical biography. 

Benedict’s principal literary legacy was his Rule, in which he set forth the practical and spiritual guidelines by which communities of monks ought to live.  Composed c. 526, it comprises 73 chapters, covering such diverse matters as the qualifications required of an abbot of a Benedictine monastery, the twelve ways in which a monk can seek humility, how a monk should pray, read and eat and behave towards his brothers, a scale of punishments of increasing severity for misdemeanours, and the reception and treatment of guests.  A chapter of the Rule was read aloud to the monks at their daily convocation: hence ‘chapter meetings’, and the ‘chapter house’ in which they took place.

Harley MS 5431, f. 7r
Opening of the Prologue, with zoomorphic initials and coloured display capitals, from the Rule of St Benedict, England (Canterbury), c. 1000,
Harley MS 5431, f. 7r

The Rule survives in three main textual versions – ‘pure’, ‘interpolated’ and ‘received/mixed’.  The British Library possesses the oldest surviving copy of the ‘received’ recension, shown above: it dates from c. 1000 and the presence of a fourteenth-century pressmark suggests that it was written and illuminated at St Augustine’s, Canterbury.  The unusually narrow format indicates that the manuscript may have been made to fit ivory covers recycled from an older book.

Harley MS 948, f. 24v
Chapters 38 and 39 from the Rule of St Benedict, with coloured initials and rubrics, England, 2nd half of the 12th century,
Harley MS 948, f. 24v

Since the Rule was an essential text for the monastic life, it was copied and circulated very widely, and the British Library possesses numerous copies.  The above example is taken from Harley MS 948, and contains Chapters 38 and 39 (mislabelled as 39 and 40): the first dealing with the care of elderly brethren and child oblates, the second with the duties of the monk appointed each week to read to brothers in the refectory while they ate in silence.  Instructions to the rubricator can still be seen at the foot of the page.  Old English translations of the Rule are found in two Cotton manuscripts (Titus A IV, Faustina A X part B) and there is a Latin-Middle English bilingual version in another (Claudius D III).

Arundel MS 155, 133r
Full-page miniature of St Benedict, ?Eadwig Basan and the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, from the Eadui/Arundel Psalter, England (Canterbury), 1012x1023, Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

As one of the major saints of the medieval Christian church, St Benedict was frequently depicted in liturgical or devotional texts, such as this Psalter from Christ Church, Canterbury.  It was produced a little later than the Rule from neighbouring St Augustine’s, and was written by one of the priory’s monks, Eadwig Basan.  The full-page miniature of St Benedict – at first glance apparently incomplete – recalls that of St Aethelwold in his eponymous Benedictional (Add MS 49598, 963x984).  Fully illuminated, the enthroned figure of St Benedict on the left sits in stark contrast to the more simply tinted figures of monks on the right – as in the Benedictional, likely a deliberate artistic decision that privileges the founder of a monastic order beside whom its followers at Canterbury are metaphorically and visually pale imitations.  Only one of them is fully coloured: a figure, perhaps Eadwig himself, dressed in dull brown monastic robes and girded with a ‘belt of humility’ (zona humilitatis), and kneeling in adoration at St Benedict’s feet.  St Benedict, described in his nimbus as ‘father and leader of monks’ (pater monachorum et dux), is bestowing upon the Christ Church monks a copy of his Rule, the opening words of which are clearly visible in the open book.

Cuttings from late medieval Italian liturgical manuscripts have been attracting quite a bit of interest among followers of this blog recently, so we conclude with two especially fine historiated initials from Benedict’s native country.

Add MS 18196, f. 68r
Historiated initial depicting St Benedict in colours and gold, cut from a choirbook, Italy (Lombardy), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 18196, f. 68r

Add MS 39636, f. 13r
Historiated initial depicting St Benedict in colours and gold, with a hedgehog, cut from a gradual, Italy (Lombardy), 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 39636, f. 13r

 - James Freeman

10 July 2014

Thirty-three Greek Biblical manuscripts added to Digitised Manuscripts

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The third phase of the British Library's Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project is now well underway. So far, the following items, all Greek biblical items, have been added to Digitised Manuscripts. We will continue to update the blog with new additions over the course of the year, and will also look at some individual manuscripts in more detail in later posts. We are extremely grateful to the foundations and individuals who have funded this project, especially the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the A. G. Leventis Foundation, Sam Fogg, the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation and the Thriplow Charitable Trust.

Add MS 24112, Four Gospels in Greek (Gregory-Aland 694; Scrivener evan. 598; von Soden ε 502), written throughout with space for a Latin translation, which has been added for a small number of verses. 15th century, possibly Italy.

Add MS 24373, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 695; Scrivener evan. 599; von Soden ε 327), with illuminated Evangelist portraits. 13th century. Also online is an old 19th-century binding for this manuscript.

Add MS 24374, Fragments from a Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic notation (Gregory-Aland l 325; Scrivener evst. 273). 13th century.

Add_ms_24376_f103v

Add MS 24376, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 696; Scrivener evan. 600; von Soden ε 328), with illuminated Evangelist portraits (St Mark illustrated above). 14th century (illuminations added in the 16th century), Constantinople.

Add MS 24377, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 326; Scrivener evst. 274), with ekphonetic notation, imperfect. 2nd half of the 12th century, possibly from the Monastery of Patir in southern Italy.

Add MS 24378, Menaion for September, October, November, December, January and February (Gregory-Aland l 927; Scrivener evst. 275). 13th/14th century.

Add MS 24379, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 327; Scrivener evst. 276), imperfect. 14th century.

Add MS 24380, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 328; Scrivener evst. 277), with ekphonetic notation, imperfect. 14th century.

Add MS 27860, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 329; Scrivener evst. 278), imperfect at the beginning, with marginal decorations thruoghout. Late 10th/early 11th century, Southern Italy (possibly Capua). Also online is an old 17th-century binding for this manuscript.

Add MS 27861, Gospels (Gregory-Aland e 698; Scrivener evan 602; von Soden ε 436), imperfect (lacking Matthew). 14th century.

Add MS 28815, New Testament, imperfect (Gregory-Aland 699; Scrivener evst. 603; von Soden δ 104), with Evangelist portraits and a silver-gilt plated cover. Mid-10th century, Constantinople. The subject of a recent blog post along with Egerton 3145.

Add MS 28816, New Testament, from Acts onwards (Gregory-Aland 203; Scrivener act. 232; von Soden α 203), with Euthalian apparatus, and other works. Written between 1108 and 1111 by the monk Andreas in March 1111, in the cell of the monk Meletius in the monastery of the Saviour.

Add MS 28818, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 331; Scrivener evst. 280). 1272, written by the monk Metaxares.

Add MS 29713, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 332; Scrivener evst. 62), imperfect at the beginning. 14th century.

Add MS 31208, Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic notation (Gregory-Aland l 333; Scrivener evst *281), imperfect. 13th century, possibly Constantinople.

Add MS 31920, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 335; Scrivener evst 283), imperfect and mutilated. 12th century, South Italy (possibly Reggio).

Add MS 32051, Lectionary of the Acts and Epistles, imperfect, with ekphonetic notation (Gregory-Aland l 169; Scrivener apost. 52). 13th century.

Add MS 32341, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 494; Scrivener evan. 325; von Soden ε 437), imperfect. 14th century.

Add MS 33214, New Testament: Acts and Epistles (Gregory-Aland 1765; von Soden α 486). 14th century.

Add MS 33277, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 892; von Soden ε 1016; Scrivener evan. 892). 9th century, with replacement leaves added in the 13th and 16th centuries.

Add MS 34108, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 1280; Scrivener evan. 322; von Soden ε 1319). 12th century, with some replacement leaves added in the 15th century.

Add_ms_34602_f001r

Add MS 34602, Fragments from two Psalters (Rahlfs-Fraenkel 2017, 1217) (illustrated above). 7th century and 10th century, Egypt.

Add MS 36751, Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic neumes, called ἐκλογάδι(ον) (Gregory-Aland l 1491). Completed in 1008 at the Holy Monastery of Iviron, Mount Athos, by the scribe Theophanes.

Add MS 36752, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 2280). 12th century.

Add MS 37005, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 1493). 11th century.

Add_ms_37006_f001v

Add MS 37006, Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic neumes (Gregory-Aland l 1494 [=l 460]). 12th century, with late 13th-century replacements, including a full-page miniature of Christ and a figure identified as Andronicus II Palaeologus (Byzantine emperor 1282-1328) (illustrated above).

Add MS 38538, New Testament, Acts and Epistles (Gregory-Aland 2484), with Euthalian apparatus. Written by the scribe John in 1312

Add MS 39589, Psalter (Rahlfs 1092) with introduction and commentary based on that of Euthymius Zigabenus (PG 128), attributed in the manuscript to Nicephorus Blemmydes, imperfect, with ornamental headpieces and the remains of a miniature of the Psalmist. 2nd half of the 12th century.

Add MS 39590, New Testament, without the book of Revelation (Gregory-Aland 547; Scrivener evan. 534; von Soden δ 157). 11th century.

Add MS 39593, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 550; Scrivener evan. 537; von Soden ε 250), with prefaces taken from the commentary of Theophylact, and synaxaria. 12th century.

Add MS 39612, Revelation (Gregory-Aland 2041; Scrivener apoc. 96; von Soden α1475). The quire-numbers on ff 1v and 10v show the manuscript formed part of a larger volume, possibly Athos, Karakallou 121 (268) (Gregory-Aland 1040). 14th century, possibly Mount Athos.

Add MS 39623, Fragments from a Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 1742). Late 14th century, possibly Mount Athos.

Egerton MS 3145, Epistles and Revelation (Gregory-Aland 699; Scrivener paul. 266; von Soden δ 104), concluding portion of the manuscript of the entire New Testament of which Add. MS 28815 is the earlier portion. Mid-10th century, Constantinople. Also online is an old (18th century?) binding for this manuscript.

- Cillian O'Hogan

08 July 2014

Up Close and Personal with the Holy Grail

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A picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes the impact of the thousand words themselves can also be stunning, even without the picture. 

Add_ms_32125_f206r
Space was left for a half-page illustration on the first page of Merlin, but we can only guess what might have been planned, since the picture was never added; from Merlin, England, 1300-1325, Add MS 32125, f. 206r

One of my favorite British Library manuscripts has recently been made available on the Digitised Manuscripts website.  This book (Add MS 32125, which includes copies of the monumental Arthurian romances The History of the Holy Grail and Merlin) is not embellished with gold leaf or lavishly painted illustrations, but it remains a jewel nonetheless.  Digital photography, meanwhile, allows us a unique aesthetic experience of the book.

F200vcorrection
Two corrections do not mar the beauty of the text: on the second line, a word is crossed out and further cancelled by the three dots written below, while on the third line the erroneous text was written-over, after being physically scraped off with a knife (literally “rasored out,” or “erased”); from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 200v

The manuscript is not a large one – less than ten inches by seven – and such a close-up view gives a perspective on the page that would be impossible in person.  We can see the richness of the colors of the ink and parchment (far from simple black on white), and their texture as well, as the letters almost seem to have a three-dimensional quality sitting on the page: the text almost glows.  And the beauty of the letters is no accident.  ‘Gothic’ handwriting, of which this book is an extremely legible example, sometimes even sacrificed clarity to aesthetic concerns, emphasizing the regularity of letters’ vertical lines at the expense of making those letters easily distinguishable from one another.

F82r
Detail of a pointing hand drawing attention to a moment of textual interest, where a fifteenth-century reader has helpfully recopied his predecessor’s fainter note, still slightly visible underneath; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 82r

This book is not a favorite of mine simply because of its visual appeal, however.  It also offers a highly unusual opportunity to enjoy the dialogue between the text of two of the Middle Ages most important Arthurian romances, and their medieval reading audience.  Often, romances from the so-called ‘Vulgate Cycle’ (see, for example, Royal MS 14 E III and Royal MS 20 D IV are deluxe productions, fit for a king and kept in pristine condition by their royal owners (for more on these manuscripts, see our posts Lancelot and the Quest for the Holy Grail, and Arthurian Manuscripts in the British Library).  This partial copy, however, is on a more modest scale, and must have seemed more approachable to its fifteenth-century readers, who have not hesitated to write notes in the margin or sketch in a tempting blank space.

Add_ms_32125_f205v
Drawings of trees added by a medieval reader; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 205v

Even better, these marks offer clues about the way medieval readers understood the romances they enjoyed.  The twisted trees drawn at the end of the Grail story are not just distracted doodles or spooky blasted oaks.  They are literally ‘family trees’, inspired by the closing words of the text itself: ‘And so now’, the author writes, ‘the story is silent about all the lineages which have come from Celidoine’, founding father of a hereditary line culminating in the Grail knights Lancelot and Galahad, ‘and returns to another ‘branch,’ which is called The History of Merlin’, the story beginning on the following page.

F191r
Detail of one of this manuscript’s several inhabited initials, ‘Ore dit li contes’, ‘Now the story says...’; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 191r

Above, a more professional version proves that this medieval reader was correct in being so struck by the text’s ‘branches’.  A passage on the lineage of Sir Gawain is introduced by an inhabited initial that recalls traditional depictions of a fertile family tree sprouting from the genitals of a sleeping ancestor – but here the foliage sprouts not from the patriarch’s groin, but from his mouth, since the branching of the family-tree is partially conflated with the branching of the story itself.

F127r
Detail of a marginal grotesque tooting his own horn – surely with excitement at his new digital form!; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 127r

 

-          Nicole Eddy

01 July 2014

A Calendar Page for July 2014

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

The aristocratic pleasures of April and May have been left far behind in these pages for the month of July.  Set amongst a riot of red flowers (perhaps characteristic of this month) is a roundel in which two peasants are kneeling and harvesting the wheat crop.  Behind them is a peasant’s hut and what may be a cathedral in the background, while overhead, lightning strikes as a summer storm rolls in.   On the next folio, beneath the continuation of saints’ days for June, is a roundel containing a bushy-tailed lion, for the zodiac sign Leo, within a frame of similarly-threatening clouds.  Below him is a shepherd, standing in a rather downcast manner among his flock (he is not as unlucky as our April shepherd, however), which his dog relaxes in the foreground.

Add_ms_38126_f007v
Calendar page for July, with a roundel miniature of people working in the fields, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 7v

Add_ms_38126_f008r
Calendar page for July, with a roundel miniature of a shepherd with his flock, with the zodiac sign Leo, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 8r

- Sarah J Biggs

28 June 2014

Art and Alchemy

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Attention all budding alchemists!  Four of the British Library’s ‘Ripley Scrolls’ (Add MS 5025) are the latest additions to our Digitised Manuscripts website. They are currently on loan to the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf as part of an exhibition on ‘Art and Alchemy: The Mystery of Transformation’ until 10 August, starring alongside works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens and many others.

Add_ms_5025_f002dr
Detail of a man (?George Ripley) in rustic dress, bearing a staff with a horse’s hoof, from the Ripley Scrolls, late 16th/early 17th century,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

Based on The Compound of Alchemy of George Ripley (d. c. 1490) and other pseudo-scientific texts, these scrolls are intriguing, bizarre and perplexing in equal measure.  They date from around the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the seventeenth century, however their origins are unknown.  An inscription on the second scroll records that ‘This long Rolle was Dra[ur]ne for me in Cullers at Lubeck in Germany  Anno 1588’ – however, two other scrolls bear a similar note, so neither the date nor the location may be established with any certainty.

Add_ms_5025_f004ar
Detail of a hermetic illustrating stages in the alchemical process and the revelation of alchemical wisdom,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

The scrolls illustrate stages in the alchemical process of preparing the philosopher’s stone, which was needed to turn base metals into gold.  The scrolls give visual form to the furnaces, flasks and other paraphernalia its practitioners were supposed to use.  They also contain emblematic imagery whose meaning remains obscure to scholars as well as more familiar symbols, such as the zodiac.

Add_ms_5025_f003dr
Detail of a zodiac diagram enclosing two dragons, a sun and a moon,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

Add_ms_5025_f002ar
Detail of an alchemist, probably Hermes Trismegistus, holding a hermetic flask,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

The large figure at the top of the second, third and fourth scrolls probably represents Hermes Trismegistus, the ancient and likely mythical author of hermetic texts that later formed the basis of alchemical experimentation in the medieval and early modern periods. Alchemists (often holding flasks or overseeing experiments) are depicted throughout the scrolls, alongside symbolic figures of unknown significance. Labels on some of these figures suggest they represent the elements that alchemists sought to transpose during their experiments.

Add_ms_5025_f002br
Detail of alchemists holding flasks,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

Add_ms_5025_f004br
Detail of symbolic men and a woman surrounded by flasks, within an enclosure decorated with a dragon vomiting a frog,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

Alongside them is an array of fantastical and grotesque anthropomorphic creatures: a woman with the tail of a dragon, a Bird of Hermes (a bird with the head and torso of a human), and a winged dragon with female features (perhaps representing Satan). There are also real and mythical creatures worthy of any medieval bestiary: toads and frogs, dragons aplenty, lions, and a cockatrice.

Add_ms_5025_f004cr
Detail of a Bird of Hermes,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

Add_ms_5025_f001dr
Detail of a dragon with a cockatrice perched on its head,
Add MS 5025, f. 1r.

George Ripley was an Augustinian canon of Bridlington. He claimed to have studied at the University of Louvain, and there is evidence to indicate connections with Edward IV beyond Ripley’s dedication of The Compound to the king. Another British Library manuscript, Cotton MS Vitellius E X, contains a drawing of Ripley’s tomb at Bridlington, upon which alchemical symbols feature prominently, indicating the integration of alchemy with medieval Christianity.

Add_ms_5025_f003br
Detail of an alchemical distillation furnace,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

Seventeen other Ripley scrolls are known to survive, scattered across institutional collections in Britain and the United States. Recent studies have concentrated on comparative study of the different designs found on these scrolls. The four that make up Add MS 5025 represent each of the three main designs – and their availability on Digitised Manuscripts constitutes an important scholarly resource for the study of alchemy in the late medieval and early modern periods. There are two further Ripley Scrolls held at the British Library: Add MS 32621 and Sloane MS 2524A.

- James Freeman

26 June 2014

A Well-Travelled Medieval Map

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In a blog post back in January (An Even Older View of the New World) we mentioned the Map Psalter, one of our manuscripts that had travelled all the way to Australia for an exhibition of maps in Canberra.  The exhibition, Mapping our World: Terra Incognita to Australia, is now over and we are happy to say that the Psalter, Add MS 28681 (and the other manuscripts that went with it) has returned safely to it shelf in the manuscripts storage at the British Library. And it is now fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Add_ms_28681_f009r
Psalter World Map, England, c. 1265, Add MS 28681, f. 9r

The Map Psalter gets its name from a very detailed map of the world on the first page, dating from the mid-13th century, one of the most important maps to survive from this period.  The world is represented as a flat circle, with Jerusalem in the middle.  The upper part of the circle is occupied by Asia, and the lower half divided into two quarters for Europe and Africa. Beneath Jerusalem it is quite easy to make out the names Roma, Grecia,  Dalmatia, Burgundia, etc.  The countries of the British Isles are discernable in the lower left quadrant, and despite the very limited space available one can make out rivers such as the Thames and Severn, and London is marked with a gold dot.

So, while the map is not accurate in our sense, it shows the places that were of interest to the people using it, and of course, most importantly, the earth is presided over by Christ and two angels: it is very much God’s creation.

There are indications that this manuscript was made in London and it has been suggested that the map may even be a miniature version of one that is known to have been painted on the wall of King Henry III’s bed-chamber in the Palace of Westminster.

Add_ms_28681_f009v
Psalter World Diagram, England, c. 1265, Add MS 28681, f. 9v

On the verso of the world map is this diagram of Christ with angels, holding a globe divided into the three continents containing the names of the principal kingdoms and cities of Asia, Europe, and Africa.

The two diagrams are followed by a table and then the calendar, which allows us to date the manuscript to after 1262, the year in which Richard of Chichester was made a saint, as he appears among the saints in the calendar page for June. Other saints in the calendar, for example the relatively obscure St Erkenwald, a seventh-century Bishop of London, added to the style of the decoration, seem to indicate that the book was probably made in or near that city.

 The Psalms are decorated with historiated initials at the major divisions, including this image of Jonah at the beginning of Psalm 68.  He must have known he was going swimming as he has taken off all his clothes, and yet he clutches vainly at a tree while the whale has him by the foot – poor Jonah!

Add_ms_28681_f082v
Jonah and the Whale, England, c. 1265, Add MS 28681, f. 82v

At the beginning of Psalm 97, the initial ‘C’ of ‘Cantate’ contains these three monks, who seem to be singing with great gusto, thoroughly enjoying themselves:

Add_ms_28681_f116v
Monks singing, England, c. 1265, Add MS 28681, f. 116v

Following the Psalter-proper are petitions and collects, and then the Psalter of the Virgin or Ave Psalter, preceded by this full page image of the Virgin and Christ enthroned, with the Virgin’s feet resting on a lion. The Christ-child is in a curiously contorted pose, playing with his mother’s hair:

Add_ms_28681_f190v
Virgin and Christ enthroned, England, c. 1265, Add MS 28681, f. 190v

There follow a series of prayers to the Cross in Anglo-Norman French (ff. 212-217), whereas the rest of the Psalter is in Latin. At this time French was still the language of the English court.

A series of 6 full page miniatures on a gold background of scenes from the New Testament were added to the front of the Psalter.  They are different in style to the decoration within the Psalter, but date from the same period, or slightly later.  This one shows the Nativity with Christ in a chalice-shaped manger.

Add_ms_28681_f004r
The Nativity, England, 1275-1300 Add MS 28681, f. 4r

Welcome back to the Map Psalter!

- Chantry Westwell

21 June 2014

English Fourteenth-Century Illuminated Manuscripts in the British Library: a Conference

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The British Library is pleased to announce an AMARC conference to celebrate the launch of Lucy Freeman Sandler’s book Illuminators and Patrons in Fourteenth-Century England: The Psalter 'Hours of Humphrey de Bohun and the Manuscripts of the Bohun Family.  Details are as follows:

English Fourteenth-Century Illuminated Manuscripts in the British Library

Monday, 1 December 2014

British Library Conference Centre

Bohun Hours
British Library, Egerton MS 3277, f. 46v (detail)

Speakers:  Paul Binski, Alixe Bovey, Julian Luxford, Nigel Morgan, Kathryn Smith, and Lucy Freeman Sandler 

Evening book launch and reception hosted by Sam Fogg, at the Sam Fogg Gallery 

Registration fees: £20 general, £15 for AMARC members, £10 for students.  Lunch provided.

To register, send a cheque made out to AMARC to Kathleen Doyle, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB.  Foreign delegates may register and pay on the day.  Places limited to 80.

 

17 June 2014

Weird and Wonderful Creatures of the Bestiary

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Those of you who follow our blog regularly will surely have noticed our deep and abiding love for medieval animals and bestiaries; in the past we’ve done posts about dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers, owls, and more.  But today we thought we would have a look at a few of the more fantastic creatures that are featured in medieval bestiaries, many of which are scarcely known today. 

The amphivena

The name of this beast is variously given as anphivena, amphisbaena, amfivena, and many other variations.  But the true spelling of its name is not the least of its mysteries; the exact nature of the amphivena’s form was also a source of considerable uncertainty. 

Harley_ms_3244_f062r detail
Detail of a miniature of an amphivena, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 62r

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 138vg70035-21a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two amphivenas, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London?), 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 138v

The bestiary text tells us that this animal is so called because it has two heads, one in the ‘normal position’ and one at the end of its tail, and that its body forms a round shape.  Isidore of Seville says that the amphivena can ‘move in the direction of either head with a circular motion’, which seems, understandably, to have been confusing to some bestiary artists.  Pliny characterises it as a violent, poisonous beast, which might account for many of the depictions of it in the act of doubly attacking itself.

The manticore

The manticore is a fearsome beast indeed, and one that is also apparently vulnerable to the whims of the various artists attempting to portray it.  Bartholomaeus Angelicus describes this animal by saying that ‘among all the beasts of the earth is none found more cruel, nor of more wonderly shape’.

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Detail of a miniature of a leonine manticore, Harley MS 3244, f. 43v

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Detail of a miniature of a manticore from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 29v

 This wonderly shape is essentially a composite one; the manticore is said to have a lion’s body – ‘blood-red in colour’ - the face of a man, a triple row of teeth, and the tail of a scorpion.  It is extremely swift, can jump great distances, and, according to the bestiary, ‘delights in eating human flesh.’

Royal MS 12 F XIII f. 24v E031715
Detail of a miniature of a manticore from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24v

The bonnacon

The bonnacon is reported by the bestiary to be found simply somewhere ‘in Asia’, and has a deceptively normal appearance.  In general, it looks like a bull, but has horns that curl backwards so that if someone were to fall on them, they would be uninjured. 

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Detail of a miniature of a bonnacon repelling pursuit, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 16r

Banish any thoughts that the bonnacon is a considerate and gentle animal, however!  This creature’s true claim to fame is its unique defense mechanism; when threatened, we are told, a bonnacon will spray its attacker with poisonous dung.  This excrement ‘produces such a stench over an area of two acres that its heat singes everything it touches’, and needless to say, it is extremely effective at ending a pursuit.  For obvious reasons, bestiary artists were fond of depicting this sort of scene, but some, perhaps moved by delicacy, have declined to illustrate it.

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Detail of miniature of a lioness, a crocote, and a bonnacon, Harley MS 3244, f. 41r

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Detail of a miniature of hunters pursuing a bonnacon with a very long lance and strategic shield, from a bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

The leucrota

Another composite animal, the leucrota, takes its place in the bestiary just before the section on reptiles. 

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Detail of a miniature of a leucrota, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 37v

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Detail of a miniature of a leucrota, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 23r

The leucrota is somewhat confusingly described as having the rear parts of a stag, and the chest and legs of a lion, but with cloven hooves.  Its most distinctive characteristic is its charming wide-mouthed grin, which stretches across its head.  Its teeth are single, continuous pieces of bone, and it is capable of imitating the sound of a human voice.

The basilisk

The basilisk is included among the reptiles in the bestiary.  We are told that its alternate name – regulus – is particularly apt, as a basilisk is the ‘king of creeping things’.  A basilisk is an exceedingly dangerous animal, as its scent can annihilate almost anything, and its gaze is terrible enough to cause the death of any man foolish enough to look at it. 

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

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Detail of a basilisk killing a man with its gaze and being attacked by a weasel, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

It is, however, vulnerable to the weasel, which can pursue the basilisk into its hiding hole and kill it.  In the bestiary text, much is made of the example of the basilisk; the writer takes the opportunity to expound on the nature of evil embodied in this horrible creature.  He assures us that no matter how frightening an animal might be, ‘the creator of all has made nothing for which there is not an antidote’.  So take heart, and keep your weasels close!

We’ll have a look at some more of our bestiary favourites in the months to come (of course we will!), and please send along some of your finds to us on Twitter @BLMedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs