Medieval manuscripts blog

461 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

31 October 2015

Things That Go Bump in the Night

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Happy Halloween! Just for you we’ve compiled a spook-fest from the British Library’s medieval manuscript collections. You might want to keep the lights on tonight… 

Don't be fooled by first impressions.

  Arundel 83_f.127

Detail of a miniature of the Three Dead from the the 'De Lisle Psalter',  England (London?), c. 1308-c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 127r

YT 13_f. 180r

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of the Three Dead, from the 'Taymouth Hours', England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 180r

Stowe ms 39_f.32r

Detail of a miniature of a pope, a king, and a knight, being threatened by a skeleton with a spear illustrating the Dialogue with Death, from a collection of Middle English devotional texts, England, 1st half of the 15th century, Stowe MS 39, f. 32r

 Harley 2953_f. 19v

Detail of miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from a psalter, Germany, last quarter of the 15th or 1st quarter of the 16th century, Harley MS 2953, f. 19v

 Harley 4979_f. 46

Detail of miniature of the hanging of the murderers of Darius, with their detached heads below the gallows, from the Roman d'Alexandre en prose, S. Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4979, f. 46r


 Detail of a miniature of Perseus holding the head of Medusa from a collection of works on mathematics,  W. Germany (possibly Cologne), 10th century-Mid 11th century, Harley MS 3595, f. 49r


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two men ('tyrauns' [=tyrants]) removing the bones of John the Baptist from his sarcophagus, from Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 109r

Harley ms 3240_f. 44v

Detail of a coloured drawing of the torments of the damned in Hell, from the Speculum humanae salvationis, Germany or Switzerland, last quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 3240, f. 44v

 YT 13 f. 151v

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of the devil trying to drown a monk who was walking on a bridge, from Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 151v

Royal ms 19 c I_f. 33r

Detail of a miniature of the fall of the rebel angels, from the Breviari d'Amor by Matfre Ermengaud,  France, S. (Toulouse?), Royal MS 19 C I, f. 33r

What would a Halloween-themed medieval manuscripts blog be without some gruesomeness from Dante’s Inferno? 

Detail of a miniature of Graf Ugolino della Gherardesca gnawing on the scalp of his political rival, Archbishop Ruggiero, from Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia, N. Italy (Emilia or Padua), 1st half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 943, f. 58v

Discover more of this frightful manuscript here.

And perhaps most terrifying of all... the mutant bunny murderer.


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a rabbit beheading a man, from the 'Smithfield Decretals', Southern France (Toulouse?) and England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 61v

 We’d love to know your favourite Halloween-themed scenes – tweet your favourites to @BLmedieval

And if you’ve still not decided what to wear, you might want to read this post on medieval-style Halloween costumes!

Thirsty for more? Check out the gory Tarantino-esque depictions of martyrdom in Egerton MS 2019.

- Hannah Morcos

28 October 2015

Pierre Sala’s Return to Lyons

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We are thrilled to let our readers know that Pierre Sala’s Petit Livre d’Amour is currently on display in the exhibition Lyon Renaissance Arts et Humanisme at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. From now until 25 January 2016, you can explore a collection of almost 300 artistic works produced in 16th-century Lyons, a city regarded in this period as the ‘deuxième œil de France’ (second eye of France) and the ‘clef du royaume’ (key of the kingdom). This short video brings to life a selection of the items on display, from illuminated books to embroidered silk.

Pierre Sala (b. 1457, d. 1529) is one of the leading Lyonnais figures from this period. As well as serving both Charles VIII and Louis XII of France, he was a notable humanist and poet. However, the manuscript on loan concerns his personal rather than public allegiances.


Miniature featuring a man playing blind man’s bluff with three women, from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d'Amour, France (Paris and Lyons), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955f. 7r

Despite measuring only 13 centimetres high, Pierre Sala’s Petit Livre d’Amour makes a big impression. You might remember this sumptuous little book from a special Valentine’s Day edition of the blog published a few years ago. Through a carefully compiled collection of quatrains with complementary illustrations, Pierre Sala makes a statement of his love for mistress Marguerite Bullioud. The discrete openings evocatively appeal to the reader, sometimes in more subtle ways than others.

In the opening dedication, he underlines the combined purpose of the words and images and their intended effects on his lover:

‘peincture et parolle qui sont les deux chemins pour ou l’on peult entrer dedans la meson de memoyre car peincture sert a l’eiul et parolle a l’oureille et font de la chose passee come si elle estoit presente’ (ff. 4r-4v)

(image and word are the two routes by which one is able to enter the house of memory, for images serve the eye and words [serve] the ear and make a thing of the past appear as if it were present)


Extract from Pierre Sala’s dedication of the book to his mistress Marguerite BullioudStowe MS 955f. 4r

This intriguing book also provides an exceptional witness of the work of Pierre Sala’s friend Jean Perréal. Another key figure active in 16th-century Lyons, this artist in the service of the French royal court is most famous for his portraiture. Whilst Jean Perréal is not responsible for the other miniatures in Stowe MS 955, who else would Pierre choose to paint his likeness in a book intended for his lover?! This dashing portrait certainly did the trick – Marguerite eventually became his second wife!


Portrait of Pierre Sala, made by his friend Jean Perréal, Stowe MS 955, f. 17r

You can see Jean Perréal’s portrait of Pierre Sala in the Petit Livre d'Amour at Lyon Renaissance Arts et Humanisme until 25 January 2016.

- Hannah Morcos

23 October 2015

Hybrids and Shape-Shifters

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Animal Tales, an exhibition exploring the role of animals in literature and what it says about us as humans, is open in the entrance hall of the British Library until 1 November 2015. One of the exhibition cases is devoted to shape-changing: stories where human and animal identity is blurred, with humans taking on the shapes and characteristics of animals. Works on display include illustrated editions of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Little Red Riding Hood.

The Library's collections of medieval manuscripts contains a wealth of the most incredible images of animals, humans and everything in between. For example, an advanced search for ‘Hybrid’ in Iour Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts gives 196 results! Here are some of the most intriguing.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is perhaps the earliest example of, well, metamorphosis, and it was widely copied and adapted in medieval manuscripts. Here is an example from 15th-century Germany.


Decorated initial 'I'(n) with acanthus leaves, a lion, a lady with pointed headdress and the head of a hybrid creature holding arms in its mouth, at the beginning of book 10 in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Germany, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2489, f. 120r

Of course, most of the shape-shifters in our manuscripts are in the marginalia livening up the pages of a wide variety of texts, some of them religious. This image, illustrating an episode from the Old Testament apocryphal legend of Tobit, has a knight-centaur and a hairy man in the border.


Miniature of the blinding of Tobit, lying in bed in his house; outside, Tobias leading the angel Raphael into the house; with a full border including a wildman holding a banner bearing the royal arms of England and a centaur, with a banner inscribed with the Yorkist motto, 'Dieu et mon droit', Netherlands, S. (Bruges); 1470 and c. 1479, Royal MS 15 D I, f. 18r

The Luttrell Psalter, featured many times in this blog, is filled with fantastical marginal creatures and here are two delights: a bishop and a king with bird/animal/reptile-like bodies.


A page from the Psalms with marginal hybrids, from the Luttrell Psalter, England, N. (Lincolnshire), 1325-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 175r

The Gorleston Psalter has a variation on the knight versus snail theme, one of our favourites. Here a knight with a horse’s body holds up a face-shield to the snail, while attacking it with curved blade.


Marginal image of a knight/horse attacking a snail from the Gorleston Psalter, England, E. (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 179r

This Book of Hours from St Omer, formerly owned by John Ruskin, has some of the cutest marginal creatures, and what a great hairstyle for a hybrid!


Marginal images of a male hybrid holding a fish and a female hybrid in the St Omer Hours, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Therouanne) c. 1320, Add MS 36684, f. 96v

Legends and romances are often decorated with marginal creature too and this manuscript of Arthurian tales, known as the Prose Lancelot-Grail contains an image in the top left-hand margin of a hybrid man reading an almanac, with an ape trying to snatch it away.


Opening page of Lancelot du Lac with the lines ‘En la marche de Gaule’, a large miniature in colours on a gold ground of King Ban of Benoith and King Bohort of Gaunes, and a full bar border with hybrid creatures, animals and human figures, one side consisting of a 3-storey chapel, each storey containing a courtly character, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 1r

This page from a book of canon law, the ‘Smithfield Decretals’, is a riot of imagination. The lower margin contains some great hybrids doing what hybrids do!


Two hybrid creatures blowing trumpets on either side of a castle full of people, from the Smithfield Decretals, England, S. E. (London), 1325-1350, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 2v

Of course, hybrid creatures are found not only in the margins. This miniature illustrates an episode from Froissart’s Chroniques: the Dance of the Wodewoses. These were mythical satyr-like creatures or men of the woods who were popular figures in medieval folklore. The episode illustrated is the tragedy at the Bal des Sauvages in Paris on 28 January 1393. King Charles VI of France and some of his courtiers were dressed as wild men and chained together for a masquerade. Their costumes contained flammable glue attaching a hemp-like material that made them appear ‘hairy from head to foot’. As they were dancing, a spark from a torch set their highly-flammable costumes alight, so that some of them were burned alive; the king's life was saved through quick action by his aunt, the Duchesse de Berry, who used her dress to smother the flames.


Miniature of the dance of the Wodewoses, from the Harley Froissart, Netherlands, S. (Bruges), c. 1470 and 1472, Harley MS 4380, f. 1r

Animal Tales is a free exhibition at the British Library until 1 November 2015.

Chantry Westwell


21 October 2015

A Kestrel for a Knave

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Set in a coal-mining community in northern England, Ken Loach’s film Kes (1969) portrays the solace a young boy finds when nurturing a kestrel. The film is based on A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), a novel by Barry Hines currently on display in the British Library’s free exhibition Animal Tales. This 20th-century tale of social realism may seem out of place in a blog post about medieval manuscripts. However, it has an unexpected connection to an item in the British Library’s Harley collection and provides the perfect opportunity to explore one of the most frequently written about and depicted human-animal interactions in medieval books.

  YT MS 19_f.54r

Detail of a miniature of different types of hawks, from Brunetto Latini’s Livres dou Tresor, N. France (Picardy), c. 1315-1325, Yates Thompson MS 19, f. 54r

 In the preface of A Kestrel for a Knave, Hines alludes to the source of his title:

‘“An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, a Saker for a Knight, a Merlin for a Lady; a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, a Musket for a Holy water Clerk, a Kestrel for a Knave.”

Selected from the Boke of St. Albans, 1486, and a Harleian manuscript.’ (Kes: A Kestrel for a Knave (London:  Michael Joseph, 1974), p. 7)

The manuscript mentioned is Harley MS 2340, a 15th-century collection of treatises on hawking. It is one of a number of English hunting and hawking manuals created during this period. For an intriguing illuminated example, check out this blog post on the Kerdeston Hawking Book.

The first item in Harley MS 2340 is The Booke of Hawkyng after Prince Edwarde Kyng of Englande (ff. 1r-22v), which includes such useful information as treatments ‘ffor the hawke that hath lost his corage and luste’ (f. 12r). This text was also incorporated into the hawking section of The Boke of St. Albans (1486), the first source mentioned by Hines, which is the earliest printed English treatise on hawking and hunting.  

  Photo of harley ms 2340_f. 50r

The hierarchy of owners and hawks from a collection of treatises on hawking, England, 1st half of the 15th century, Harley MS 2340, f. 50r

 The hierarchy of owners and hawks modernised by Hines is largely the same in both Harley MS 2340 (f. 50r) and the printed Boke of St. Albans (Hands (ed.), ll. 1164-1203). However, the famous line ‘a Kestrel for a Knave’ is only found in the Harley manuscript (‘A kesterell for a knafe’ (f. 50r)), despite The Boke of St. Albans being widely cited as the source of the title.


Detail of marginal drawing of a man hawking, from the Luttrell Psalter, N. England (Diocese of Lincoln), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 42130, f. 41r

It is unlikely that the hierarchies in the printed book and the Harley manuscript represent actual medieval practices. Indeed, specific types of bird were selected according to the nature of the prey or the location of the hunt. The two principal categories of bird, hawks and falcons, manifest different ways of attacking prey. Whereas falcons dive from a height and are better suited to hunting in open countryside, hawks swoop on their prey from a lower altitude, making them also suitable for woodland hunts.   


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a mounted king, hawking, and a stag feeding, from the 'Smithfield Decretals', Southern France (Toulouse?) and England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 254r

The hierarchy of birds and owner does, however, make clear how hunting with birds was a socially-coded activity. The circumstances surrounding this form of venery distinguished the rich and powerful from the lowly knave. What game keepers did to make a living, the aristocracy enjoyed as sport.


Portrait of King John with a hawk from a genealogical roll of the kings of England, England (East Anglia?), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 14 B VI, membrane 6

The equation of falconry with nobility is frequently found in manuscript illumination. Aristocratic figures were often portrayed holding hawks as a sign of their status, even the ignominious King John. The time and wealth required to train and keep these often very valuable birds was substantial. As Robin S. Oggins sums up, hawking was ‘an almost perfect example of conspicuous consumption: it was expensive, time-consuming, and useless’ (The Kings and Their Hawks, p. 111).

 Detail of a bas-de-page scene of three kings, Royal MS 10 E IV,  f. 258v   

Participation in hawking as a leisure activity increased by the 15th century, and so too did the ways of marking social superiority. It not only counted how one hunted, but also how one spoke about it. For example, after the hierarchy in Harley MS 2340, we find a list of the collective nouns for different types of bird, a terminology that distinguished the elite from the uneducated.

In addition to high social status, falconry was also associated with youth, as seen in this roundel from the Ten Ages of Man.


Detail of a roundel from the section on Youth from the Wheel of the Ten Ages of Man, in the De Lisle Psalter, Arundel MS 83, f. 126v 

Hunting with birds was also an activity open to women. Two of our most famous illuminated manuscripts, the Taymouth Hours  and the Smithfield Decretals, both feature multiple scenes of ladies using hawks to hunt for hares and ducks.


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady observing her hawk fly towards a duck, from the 'Taymouth Hours', England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 73r


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady observing her hawk bringing down a duck, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 73v


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady hawking for a hare, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 74r


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady holding her hawk and a dead duck, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 74v


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two women with hawks catching ducks, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 78r


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a woman hawking, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 79r

Venery and courtship were often connected in medieval literature and art. As well as the sexual connotations of the hunt, birds of prey represented the ultimate luxury accessory for the courtly lover.


A couple courting and hawking, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 243r

Images of lovers hawking also often accompany the month of May in calendars at the beginning of books of hours, such as the manuscript from our recent caption competition and the Huth Hours discussed in this blog post.


Calendar roundels for the month of May depicting Adam and Eve and two lovers hawking, Book of Hours, Paris, 1440-1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 5r

As with other symbols of social status or authority, the margins of the page provided the space to parody the prestigious connotations of hawking. Rather than an aristocratic male, here a monkey is depicted wooing a lady. Instead of a bird of prey, an owl rests on his arm, a nocturnal bird laden with negative and ignoble connotations, and even used as bait. The lewd sexual nature of these animals subverts the courtly erotic evoked in the images of lovers above. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a courting monkey holding an owl, Stowe MS 17, f. 62r

In other examples, parodic monkey falconers are depicted riding goats instead of horses. This fellow looks like he's having a hoot!


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a monkey holding an owl and riding a goat, Additional MS 42130, f. 38r

You have until 1 November 2015 to explore the fascinating books (and sounds) on display in the British Library’s free Animal Tales exhibition.


Further reading

Rachel Hands, ‘Juliana Berners and The Boke of St. Albans’, The Review of English Studies, 18 (1967), 373-86.

Rachel Hands, English Hawking and Hunting in ‘The Boke of St. Albans’. A facsimile edition of sigs. a2–f8 of ‘The Boke of St. Albans’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

Robin S. Oggins, The Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004).

Jean Wirth, Les Marges à drôleries des manuscrits gothiques (Geneva: Droz, 2008).


- Hannah Morcos

14 October 2015

The Unicorn Lives On

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On 20 September of this year our eagle-eyed friend and former colleague Dr Alixe Bovey drew our attention to that day’s edition of The Sunday Times.  In that issue was an article about the latest work by the artist Sir Peter Blake, who is perhaps best known for designing the iconic album cover for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Sir Peter had created a mural to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Lord Mayor’s Parade, compiling dozens of images to capture the spirit of the parade across the centuries.

Peter Blake mural

In the earliest years of the parade can be found the familiar figure of our ‘unicorn lady’; can you spot her amongst the crowds?  She first made an appearance on 1 April 2012 in our post Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library, and now you can see her between the years 1315-1415 and 1514-1515 (click the above image for a larger version).  It is a testament to the power of medieval images that they can continue to be reused and remixed today in such interesting ways, and to such astounding effect.  We are absolutely thrilled. 

Unicorn Head
Bringing the unicorn to table, from the Unicorn Cookbook

We’ve found a number of other images from British Library manuscripts in Sir Peter’s work, including the dancing nun of the Maastricht Hours (for more on that manuscript, see Monkeying Around with the Maastricht Hours).  Please do let us know if you discover any others, either in the comments below or on Twitter @BLMedieval

-   Sarah J Biggs

10 October 2015

Medieval Animal Tales

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You have until 1 November 2015 to run, gallop, canter, fly, swoop or simply walk down to the British Library to catch the brilliant (and free!) Animal Tales exhibition, on display in the Entrance Hall Gallery. 

Press shot

Curated by Matthew Shaw, Alison Bailey and Barbara Hawes, Animal Tales explores the relationship between beasts and humans in works of literature and artistic books: the many ways in which human feelings and thoughts have been projected onto animals, and how the animal kingdom has served as a mirror to human foibles. A full list of exhibits is available on our American Collections blog

Two items likely to be of interest to readers of this blog are Guillaume Apollinaire’s Le Bestiaire, ou Cortège d’Orphée (1977) and Pablo Neruda’s Bestiary/Bestario (1965). These 20th-century re-imaginings of a medieval genre provide the perfect opportunity for us to look over the British Library’s rich collection of bestiary manuscripts.

  Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f050r - detail

Detail of a miniature showing vultures feeding on human carrion, from the Rochester Bestiary, south-eastern England (?Rochester), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 50r

When we think of medieval bestiaries, what first comes to mind are richly illuminated manuscripts: for example, the 13th-century Rochester Bestiary (Royal MS 12 F XIII). Some 55 miniatures illustrate passages of text that describe animals and their behaviour, from the lion to vulture (via the elephant, beaver, dromedary and mole). The 13th century was the heyday of the Latin bestiary, and based on the distribution of surviving examples and entries in contemporary book-lists, they were most popular in England.

Sloane MS 278, f. 48v

Detail of a miniature showing elephants, a dragon and a mandrake, from a bestiary, northern France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Sloane MS 278, f. 48v

Such manuscripts represent the culmination of a very long textual tradition. Bestiaries were primarily based on the Physiologus, a Greek text from Alexandria written between the 2nd and 4th centuries. The Latin translation that followed shortly thereafter provided the basis for the medieval bestiary, along with interpolations from Pliny the Elder’s Historia naturalis and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae.

Royal MS 12 C XIX, ff. 31v-32r

Miniatures of goats and a bull, from a bestiary compiled with other theological texts and medical recipes, northern or central England, 1st quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 12 C XIX, ff. 31v-32r

In monastic libraries, bestiaries were usually classified along with theological works and shelved with similar materials, such as sermons, penitentials, and lives of saints. The compilation of a bestiary in Royal MS 12 C XIX along with two sermons and extracts from the Bible, the Imago mundi and the Etymologiae further illustrates the context in which contemporary readers encountered this text. This manuscript (omitting the French and Latin recipes at the end) is a direct copy of the Worksop Bestiary (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M. 81).

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f034v - detail

Detail of a miniature of Adam naming the animals, with a stag, a lion, a donkey, a rabbit, and a man riding a camel, from the Rochester Bestiary, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 34v

While the Physiologus began its life as a treatise structured around the subjects of virtue and vice, the interpolations from other texts gradually changed the bestiary’s form to reflect the organisation of the natural world as described in Genesis. The moralising content remained, however, and many medieval sermons and preaching handbooks contain such material derived from bestiaries. It was as source-books for edifying and instructive stories, complementary to those derived from the Bible or hagiographies, that the bestiaries derived their success and widespread circulation.  

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f044v - detail

Detail of a miniature of moles burrowing underground, from the Rochester Bestiary, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 44v

For a more in-depth look at the bestiary genre, its origins and evolution, and links to further images, check out our online exhibition, Books of Beasts in the British Library: The Medieval Bestiary and its Context.

Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

Detail of a miniature of hunters spearing a bonnacon, and protecting themselves from its burning dung with a 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

Past posts on animals – real or fantastic – are among the most popular ones published on this blog. Who could forget the Unicorn Cookbook? Or Medieval Lolcats and Bugs in Books? We’ve had dancing monkeys in Apes Pulling Shapes, the humble hedgehog in The Distinguished Pedigree of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and How to be a Hedgehog, and the mighty lion in A Royal Beast and the Menagerie in the Tower. There’s also a handy guide to possibly the oddest creatures in Weird and Wonderful Creatures of the Bestiary; beware of the bonnacon, that’s all we can say.

Animal Tales runs until 1 November 2015 in the Entrance Hall Gallery at the British Library. Entry is free.


- James Freeman

01 October 2015

A Calendar Page for October 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Calendar page for October, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 6r 

A slightly grisly bas-de-page scene greets us this month: an ox is about to meet its end, while two men barter over the sale of another on the other side of the wall. Other peasants are carrying baskets of grapes to a shed in the distance, where we can see them being pressed to make wine. The roundels contain depictions relating to the major religious festivals of October: the feast day of Saints Bavo and Remigius, St Dionysius/Denis (shown holding his own head), St Donatian, St Luke (with a bull, his Evangelist symbol, in the background) and Saints Simon and Jude. As we noted last month, the artist has mistakenly reversed the order of September and October’s Zodiac symbols: Libra (in the form of scales) being shown here at the top of the page instead of Scorpio. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of men bartering over the sale of an ox, an ox being slaughtered, and grapes being pressed from wine,
Add MS 35313, f. 6r 

Detail of a roundel depicting St Denis,
Add MS 35313, f. 6r 

- James Freeman

26 September 2015

How to Make the Most of Digitised Manuscripts

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What is Digitised Manuscripts?

One of the British Library’s most valuable electronic resources is our ever-growing Digitised Manuscripts website. It features complete digital copies and descriptions of thousands of manuscripts in the British Library’s collection, including almost 2,000 items curated by the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section.


Portrait of Mark at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, from the Arnstein Bible (Job to Revelation), North-West Germany (Arnstein), c. 1172, Harley MS 2799, f. 166r

Some of the highlights from our collection are the Codex Alexandrinus, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Articles of the Barons, the Book of Margery Kempe,  the Macclesfield Alphabet Book, and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook.

Digitised Manuscripts allows you to access for free every single folio, flyleaf, and fragment of these magnificent manuscripts, any time day or night, anywhere in the world.

How do I find a manuscript?

If you know the manuscript you are looking for, enter the shelfmark in the ‘Manuscripts’ field of the search engine. You need to include ‘MS’ after the collection name. For example, enter ‘Cotton MS Nero C IV’ for the Winchester Psalter, or ‘Royal MS 19 C IV’ for Le Songe du vergier, attributed to Évrart de Trémaugon.

N.B. ‘Additional’ shelfmarks are abbreviated (without a full stop) to ‘Add MS [number]’.

If you do not know the shelfmark, enter the commonly used title of the manuscript or its main text in the ‘Keyword(s)’ field. If you search for ‘Beowulf’ you will find Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, the single witness of this famous piece of Anglo-Saxon literature. To find the Bedford Hours write ‘bedford+hours’, or for the 3 volumes of the Parc Abbey Bible, write ‘parc+abbey’ (if you do not add ‘+’, it will bring up every entry with either word). 

What other search options are available?

As well as providing complete coverage of some of the most important manuscripts in our collection, it is also possible to discover new items through the search engine. In addition to searching by shelfmark or keyword, you can also explore the collection by specifying content in the following fields:

Date range – restrict or expand the scope of your search by using the two slider controls. Limit your searches to a particular century or time period. For example, search for entries dated earlier than 600 AD, and discover amazing items such as this papyrus fragment with a drawing of a bear in the arena!

Title – enter any keywords to be matched against the item or text title. Entering ‘Apocalypse’ in this field will identify all of the items which include the Book of Revelations, such as the illuminated Abingdon Apocalypse.

Author/Scribe – enter any keywords to match against the names of the authors and scribes. A search of ‘Homer’ filters all of the items by this epic Ancient Greek author, including the 2nd century papyrus with the Bankes Homer.

Provenance/Acquisition – enter any keywords to match against the ownership field. You can search for the name of an individual or institution, or a specific geographical location. For example, the manuscripts made in ‘Bruges’ include this exceptional copy of the Bible historiale by Guyart des Moulins.

Bibliography – enter any keywords to match against the bibliography field.

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The Bankes Homer, 2nd century, Papyrus 114

Search Results

There are four options for viewing your search results: by manuscript, author, title, or date. The default option organises your results according to manuscript shelfmark. The author or title tabs display your findings alphabetically according to these two different fields. The date tab presents the items in chronological order, beginning with the earliest.

Once you have found your chosen manuscript(s), select the image or title on the search results page.

What information is included on the manuscript page?

Each entry begins with the date, title, and a description of both the text and the decoration. Below this you will find details of the language(s) in the manuscript, and its physical properties, such as the materials, dimensions, and type of binding. The next section traces the history of ownership, beginning with the geographical origin before moving on to the manuscript’s owners over the centuries and concluding with the date it entered the British Library’s holdings. At the end of every entry is a select bibliography.

How do I open the viewer?

To access the digital images you need to select the image of the manuscript which appears after the description of content. The Digitised Manuscripts viewer then opens in a new tab. You can also select ‘bindings’ to go directly to the front and back boards, and spine.   

The numbers used in the viewer reflect the modern foliation of the manuscript. Blank leaves are numbered according to the previous foliated leaf plus an asterisk (*), or if there are multiple blank leaves, the number of the previous foliated leaf is followed by a letter, beginning with ‘a’. Flyleaves are numbered with roman numerals. The binding is identified as ‘front’, ‘back’, ‘spine’, and ‘front-i’[nner] and ‘back-i’[nner].

What are the viewing options?

There are three different options for viewing each item. The default option is ‘Single’ page, which presents the individual images of the recto or verso pages of the manuscript. In the ‘View’ drop-down menu, you can also select ‘Open book’, which presents the opening of two adjacent pages. The third option is ‘Folio’, which allows you to view both the recto and verso sides of a given leaf.

The pages can be browsed using the arrows in the round circles at the top or by selecting a specific folio from the drop-down menu on the right.

The Digitised Manuscripts viewer offers a zoom facility. You can zoom in/out of a page using the scroll of your mouse or by using the magnifying glass with the ‘+’ or ‘-’ symbols.

  Eg 2019_f. 97 r and v

The ‘Folio’ viewing option allows you to compare the mirror-image borders on the recto and verso of a leaf from this petite Book of Hours, France (Paris), 1440-1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 97r and f. 97v 

Can I download images?

The Digitised Manuscripts viewer does not facilitate the download of images. Each image is formed of multiple tiles, which, whilst ensuring the excellent zoom facility, cannot be saved as a single file. The content in the Digitised Manuscripts viewer is intended for research and study purposes only. More information on the reuse of images can be found here:

If you are interested in purchasing a particular image, please direct your order to Imaging Services, or try Images Online, which has a large supply of images of individual pages readily available. 

How are manuscripts selected for digitisation?

The British Library prioritises the digitisation of our manuscripts, with the goal of providing users with access to the manuscripts in greatest demand as well as ensuring their preservation. This is a continuous process, which involves the selection of a number of key items each year.  

The majority of the manuscripts on Digitised Manuscripts have been digitised as part of large-scale projects, funded by external donors, such as the Greek Digitisation Project, the Harley Science Project and Royal Illuminated Manuscripts. An overview of these projects can be found here.

  Royal MS 15 E VI_f. 2v

Detail of a miniature of John Talbot, identified by his Talbot dog, presenting the book to queen Margaret, seated in a palace beside king Henry VI, and surrounded by the court, from the Talbot Shrewsbury book, France (Rouen), 1444-1445, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v

What other online resources are available?

Explore Archives and Manuscripts is the British Library’s online manuscript catalogue. In addition to detailed descriptions of the items in our collection, the ‘Copies’ field highlights if the manuscript has been digitised. 

The British Library’s online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts contains images of over 2500 illuminated manuscripts, which are all in the public domain and available to download. Information on the reuse of images from the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is available here.