Medieval manuscripts blog

570 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

23 May 2017

Frying pans, forks and fever: Medieval book curses

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Have you ever lost, forgotten to return or accidentally damaged a library book? If so, you may have been asked to pay a fee to replace or repair the book — but you still got away easy! During the Middle Ages, the fate of both your body and soul could have been at serious risk. Medieval librarians often added curses to their books upon those who did not return or damaged borrowed books, or stole them from their libraries. These curses usually invoked God, suggesting that these punishments would be made effective with divine authority.

Royal 15 D V   f. 107v
The sort of fate medieval librarians wished on book thieves: detail of a miniature illustrating Gregory's Homily 40, of a man with two demons in Hell, from Les Omelies Saint Grégoire pape, Low Countries (Bruges), 2nd half of the 15th century, Royal MS 15 D V, f. 107v

Some book curses guaranteed an immediate, physical punishment. The British Library has recently digitised a Middle Dutch natural encyclopaedia and bestiary (Add MS 11390) that contains a ‘dear oath’ (‘dieren eet’) below an image of a cross, with which the borrower had to swear that he or she would return the book or die. At least one borrower, a woman who identified herself as a midwife (‘Abstetrix heifmoeder’), dared to subscribe to this oath.

The ‘animal oath’ in Jacob van Maerlant’s The Flower of Nature (Der Nature Bloeme), Western Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 11390, f. 94v 

A similar curse is found in a manuscript with a commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels (Royal MS 4 E II) from Evesham Abbey. A colophon that praises the scribe’s work — and requests high-quality wine (‘vini nobilis haustum’) for him as a reward — ends with a curse in which the book’s thief is wished a ‘death from evil things: may the thief of this book die’ (Morteque malorum: raptor libri moriatur).

  British Library  Royal MS 4 E II  f. 471r
A colophon in which the scribe curses a book’s thief to death, from William of Nottingham’s Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, Evesham, c. 1381, Royal MS 4 E II, f. 471r 

Other curses give us an insight into how some librarians imagined that the book thieves should die. A quickly scribbled curse in a liturgical manuscript (Add MS 30506) from the church of St Aldate in Gloucester states, ‘This book is of St Aldate: he that takes this book shall be hauled by the neck’ (f. 170r: ‘Thys boke ys sancht audatys; he þat stelys þe boke shall be haulynth by þe neck’). An even more harmful curse was issued by the Premonstratensian abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas in Arnstein. The so-called Arnstein Bible (Harley MS 2798), as noted by Marc Drogin (Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses), damned a book thief to a bloody death by torture, sickness and execution:

A book of [the Abbey of] SS Mary and Nicholas of Arnstein: If anyone steals it: may he die [the death], may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [i.e. epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.

(Liber sancte Marie sancti que Nycolai in Arrinstein Quem si quis abstulerit Morte moriatur in sartagine coquatur caducus morbus instet eum et febres · et rotatur et suspendatur Amen)

One of the most harmful book curses written in the Middle Ages? From the Arnstein Bible, W. Germany (Arnstein), c. 1172 Harley MS 2798, f. 235v 

Other physical punishments were given explicit religious overtones, such as those that the Benedictine monastery of St Albans wished upon anyone who damaged one manuscript (Royal MS 8 G X) they loaned to monks studying at Gloucester College in Oxford:

British  Library  Royal MS 8 G X  f. 1v
A curse that identifies a book thief with Judas Iscariot, from ‘Doctrinale Antiquitatum Ecclesie Ihesu Christi contra blasfemios Wycleuistas’, mid-15th century, Royal MS 8 G X, f. 1v 

This book is given in use to the brothers of Oxford by John Wethamstede, father of the flock of the proto-martyr of the English [St Alban]; if anyone secretly tears this inscription or removes it, may he feel Judas’s noose [around his neck] or forks [presumably handled by demons!].

(Fratribus Oxonie datur in munus liber iste Per \Johannem Whethamstede/patrem pecorum prothomartiris Angligenarum. Quem si quis raptat · raptim titulum ue[l] retractet uel Iude laqueum · uel furcas sensiat Amen.)

Royal 19 C I   f. 185v
Devils wielding implements which may include a fork, from Breviari d'Amor, Southern France (Toulouse?), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 185v

Gruesome as these punishments seem, to most medieval readers the worst curses were those that put the eternal fate of their souls at risk rather than their bodily health. A spiritual condemnation was often expressed with the Greek ‘Anathema’, sometimes followed by the Aramaic formula ‘Maranatha’ (‘Come, Lord!’). Both terms were used in a curse that was added to a manuscript with spiritual letters and sermons (Royal MS 8 F XVII) from Lesnes Abbey:

This book belongs to the church of Thomas the Martyr of Lesnes. Anyone who removes it or does damage to it: if the same person does not repay the church sufficiently, may he be cursed [Anathema Maranatha]. Let it be done. Let it be done. Amen

(Hic liber est ecclessiae beati Thome martyris de Liesnes. Quem qui ei abstulerit . aut illi super eo fraudem fecerit . nisi eidem ecclesie plene satisfecerit ; anathema sit maranatha. fiat. fiat. Amen.)

British Library  Royal MS 8 F XVII  f. 1r
A book curse with the Anathema-Maranatha formula, from a collection of Latin sermons and letters, 13th century, Royal MS 8 F XVII, f. 1r

A monk from Rochester Abbey emphasised the severity of the ‘Anathema’ by claiming that his book’s thief would be condemned by the entire religious community at Rochester Cathedral:

A volume of Aristotle’s Physics from the monastery of Rochester by John, prior of Rochester: whosoever steals this book from the monastery, conceals it, or erases this inscription, he incurs the curse of ‘Anathema’ for one long year from the Priory and the entire community of the Chapter of Rochester. 

Volumen de naturalibus · aristotelis · de Claustro Roffensis · Per Johannem Priorem Roffensis Hunc librum quicumque alienauerit ab hoc cla[u]stro · alienatum celauerit · uel hunc titulum in fraudem deleuerit ; dampnacionem incurrit Anathematis lati singulis annis a Priore et totu cetu capituli Roffensis.

British Library  Royal MS 12 G II  f. 1v
A year-long curse from the monastery of Rochester: Royal MS 12 G II, f. 1v 

Other scribes gave weight to their curses by attributing them directly to God-Christ. The aforementioned liturgical manuscript from the church of St Aldate, for example, contains another book curse, written in Middle English, purportedly originating from Christ himself:  

This book belongs to the church of St Aldate

This book is one and Christ’s curse is another

He that takes the one takes the other Amen.


Thys boke ys one and chryst curse ys Anoþer

he þat take þe one take þe oþer Amen.)

British Library  Add MS 30506  f. 169r
Christ’s book curse: Add MS 30506, f. 169r 

Just like physical punishments, scribes could also specify the particular spiritual punishments they had in mind for their books’ thieves. One example comes from a manuscript from St Albans Abbey whereby the thief was excommunicated. The latter could have learned about what this entailed simply by consulting the stolen book, since the topic of excommunication was discussed in its contents, the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX.

This book belongs to the monastery of St Albans, anyone who steals it from the said monastery should know that he will incur the punishment of excommunication.

(Hic est liber monasteri sancti Albani quem qui a dicto monasterio alienauerit sentenciam excommunicacionis se nouerit incursurum) 

British Library  Royal MS 10 C XIII  f. 1r
A book curse excommunicating a book thief, from a copy of Gregory’s Decretals, St Albans, mid-13th century, Royal MS 10 C XIII, f. 1r 

Another monk from Rochester specified that the thief’s name would be deleted from the ‘Book of Life’. According to biblical sources, this records the names of those to be saved at the Last Judgement; stealing the manuscript would be turned into a one-way ticket to hell:

This book of the Distinctiones belongs to the monastery of Rochester: anyone who takes it from there, hides or keeps it, or damages or erases this inscription, or makes or causes it to be deleted, may his name be deleted from the Book of Life.

(Liber distinccionum de claustro Roffensis quem qui inde alienauerit · alienatum celauerit aut retinuerit · uel hunc titulum in fraudem deleueritur · deleri ue[l] fecerit aut procurauerit · deleatur nomen eius de libro uite · Amen ·) 

British Library  Royal MS 10 A XVI  f. 2r
A book curse for deleting a book thief’s name from the Book of Life, from the Distinctiones, 13th century, Royal MS 10 A XVI, f. 2r

The use of these book curses seemingly sits at odds with the monastic lifestyle. Medieval monks dedicated their lives to imitating Christ, including his virtues of patience, forgiveness and love for mankind. The fact that monks used these curses testifies to the immense material and spiritual value that they attributed to their libraries: their books had not only been extremely costly and labour-intensive to produce, but often they also contained the only copies of a particular work to which their communities had access. The loss of a book did not only mean a material loss, but it could have permanently deprived a religious community of a work of knowledge that was essential for preserving or developing its religious identity. This may explain why some religious communities went to great lengths to protect their books. Book curses were a radical but effective way of preserving their book collections. 

Clarck Drieshen

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19 May 2017

King Arthur: not just a man of the sword?

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Warning: this blogpost contains spoilers for all versions of the King Arthur Legend, medieval and modern

A popular hero of our blog, King Arthur, is once again in the news with this week's UK release of Guy Ritchie’s new film, King Arthur, Legend of the Sword. In yet another variation on the legend, the young Arthur in the film is a gangster in the back streets of Londinium, who is unaware of his royal lineage until he draws the sword Excalibur from the stone. He fights to conquer his inner demons, avenge his parents’ murder by defeating the tyrant Vortigern and win back his rightful crown. This all sounds rather violent, and violence is certainly a key element in the Arthurian tales. But there is so much more to the various legends of our favourite hero-king. 

Of course, medieval stories about Arthur featured lots of fighting. Medieval manuscripts often depicted Arthur battling demons and giants, as well as heathen kings.

Arthur and the black beast, from L'estoire de Merlin,  Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 209v

Drawing of King Arthur finding a giant roasting a pig, from Wace, Roman de Brut, England, c. 1325–1350, Egerton MS 3028, f. 49r

Miniature of King Arthur and three knights slaying the heathen kings England, from The Fall of Princes, South-East England (?Bury St Edmunds), Harley MS 1766, f. 218r

Sometimes Arthur and his followers fought to rescue a maiden.

A miniature of Arthur slaying the 'swine-eating' Spanish giant on the island of Mont St Michel, and rescuing Helena, niece of Hoel of Brittany, from Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d'Angleterre, volume 1, Royal MS 15 E IV  f. 156r

And sometimes they acted in self-defence.

King Arthur and knights are attacked, from Guiron le Courtois, Southern Italy, (Naples?), between 1352 and 1362, Add MS 12228, f. 126v

But often it seems he and his knights just enjoyed a good battle.

A battle, from La Queste del Saint Graal, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 125r

There are, however, differences between the modern film and common medieval stories about Arthur. Although the film focuses on Arthur’s youth, it does not include a character called 'Merlin', in contrast to medieval legends about Arthur's early life.

Merlin at Arthur's baptism, from Le Livre de Merlin, Northern France  (Arras), 1310, Add MS 38117,  f. 66r

This version of the sword in the stone incident is a bit different, too. For a start, it does not feature David Beckham!

Arthur removes the sword from the stone and is blessed by Archbishop Brice, from Le Livre de Merlin, France, N. (Arras), 1310, Add MS 38117, f. 73v

And in this version of the story, it is Merlin and two dragons who confront Vortigern, not Arthur.

Detail of Merlin showing Vortigern two dragons, in L'estoire de Merlin, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 84v

There are many more stories about Arthur, and not all the incidents emphasize violence. This manuscript of the Chronicles of England features an image of Arthur’s coronation.

The coronation of King Arthur, from the Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d'Angleterre, Netherlands, S. (Bruges); after 1471, before 1483, Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 141v

Once crowned, King Arthur is busy with many varied activities according to the legend, not all of them involving bloody battles.

King Arthur blowing a horn while hunting with Urien and Accalon, from the Suite de Merlin, Add MS 38117, f. 193r

Arthur dictating to a scribe, from Le Morte Artu, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), Royal MS 14 E III, f.  140r

Arthur on the wheel of fortune, from Le Mort Artu, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316,  Add MS 10294, f. 89r

He seems to end up in prison quite often, although there tends to be a damsel to look after him on these occasions.

Arthur in prison, from Lancelot du Lac, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316,  Add MS 10293, f. 144v

And he also enjoys many a great banquet with Lancelot, Guinevere and his courtiers.

Arthur and Guinevere at a banquet, while Lancelot kneels before them, requesting permission to leave the court, La Queste del Saint Graal, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), Royal MS 14 E III, f.  89r

Royal 20 D IV f. 1
Arthur engaged in conversation with his barons, while Lancelot and Guinevere are whispering together, and on the right, the king and queen presiding over a banquet, from Lancelot du Lac, Southern England (Pleshey Castle), c. 1360–1380, Royal MS 20 D IV, f. 1r

Finally (SPOILER ALERT), in medieval versions there is no happy ending.  Arthur is killed at the Battle of Salisbury Plain and his noble vision of the Round Table is destroyed.


The death of Arthur, from Boccaccio, Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1479–c.1480; Royal MS 14 E V, f. 439v

But the legend lives on …. on the British Library website. You can find a virtual exhibition of some of our Arthurian manuscripts here.

Of our large collection of Arthurian manuscripts, some are fully digitised online on Digitised Manuscripts:

Add MS 5474: Le Roman de Tristan en prose

Add MS 10292/Add MS 10293/Add MS 10294: The entire Prose Lancelot-Grail cycle

Add MS 12228: Guiron le Courtois

Add MS 23929: Le Roman de Tristan en prose

Add MS 23930: Guiron le Courtois

Add MS 32125: Wace, Roman de Brut; the Anglo-Norman Description of England; Estoire del Saint Graal; Robert de Boron, prose Merlin

Add MS 38117: Robert de Boron, Joseph d'Arimathie, Le Livre de Merlin, Suite de Merlin ('the Huth Manuscript')

Add MS 59678: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur

Egerton MS 3028: Wace, Roman de Brut and other texts

Harley MS 4419: Lancelot du Lac

Lansdowne MS 757: Lancelot-Grail

Royal MS 14 E III: Estoire del Saint Graal, La Queste del Saint Graal, Morte Artu

Royal MS 20 A II: Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, the Lament of Edward II, fragments of Arthurian romances

Royal MS 20 D IV: Lancelot du Lac

Prose Brut Chonicles

Royal MS 12 C XII: Prose Brut Chronicle and other texts

Royal MS 20 A III: Prose Brut Chronicle and other texts

Prophecies of Merlin

Add MS 25014: An excerpt from the prologue of the Prophecies of Merlin and other texts

Add MS 25434: Prophecies of Merlin

Arundel MS 66: Astrological compilation including Prophecies of Merlin

Harley MS 1629: Prophecies of Merlin

Harley MS 3908: Prophecies of Merlin and other texts

And others are partially digitised in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, with downloadable and searchable images, including:

Add MS 17443

Egerton MS 2515

Lansdowne MS 757

Royal 14 E V 

Royal MS 19 B VII

Royal MS 19 C XII

Royal MS 19 C XIII

Royal MS 20 B VII

Royal MS 20 D III

Chantry Westwell

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01 May 2017

A Calendar Page for May 2017

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Spring has well and truly sprung — let’s celebrate with a look at the calendar pages for May in everyone’s favourite Additional MS 36684! For more information on the manuscript, take a peek at January’s post, and for an excellent general guide to medieval calendars, please see our original calendar post from 2011.

Fig 1_add_ms_36684_f005v Fig 2_add_ms_36684_f006r

Calendar pages for May, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 5v–6r

While May doesn’t have quite as many frolicking nude figures as April, there is still plenty of fun going on. The labour of the month showcases the traditional aristocratic pastime of falconry (or hawking), with a gentleman astride his horse, a falcon perched on his right hand. A popular sport for the moneyed upper classes and royalty, falconry entailed using trained birds of prey to hunt small animals, and remained an elite status symbol for centuries.

Fig 3_add_ms_36684_f005v hawking
Falconry, Add MS 36684, f. 5v

The marginal figures next to the falconer are the usual mash-up of animal and human hybrids, save for the man labouring at the bottom of the margin. As the page has been cut down some point after the manuscript was made, we can only guess what activity he might be up to.

Fig 4_add_ms_36684_f005v marginalia
Detail of marginalia, Add MS 36684, f. 5v

The zodiac symbol for May is Gemini, represented by a pair of human twins. In Additional MS 36684, the twins are — as was typical — partially nude, their lower halves modestly covered by a large red shield marked by a white bird (perhaps a pelican?). They embrace congenially — everyone is in a good mood in May, when the weather is nice!

Fig 5_add_ms_36684_f006r gemini
Gemini, Add MS 36684, f. 6r

Don’t forget that you can digitally flip through all of Additional MS 36684 online on Digitised Manuscripts. See you back here on 1 June for more fun!

Taylor McCall
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29 April 2017

The end of the world as we know it

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You never know when the end of the world is going to happen, and so here at the British Library we've been in a race against time to digitise our Apocalypse manuscripts, before it's too late! Here is a selection of images from newly digitised manuscripts, so everyone knows what to expect when it happens.

Angels with trumpets and incense from a picture-book of the Life of St John and the Apocalypse, Northern France or Low Countries, c. 1400, Add MS 38121, f. 11v

Let’s start off with some optimistic scenarios. In the beginning it is all visions of heaven, with starry skies, cute lambs and choirs of angels.

John the Evangelist sees the Heavenly Choir worshipping the Lamb and the four Evangelists’ symbols, from an Apocalypse with commentary by Berengaudus, in parallel Latin and French, France (Normandy), c. 1320–1330, Add MS 17333, f. 24v

The vision of Heaven (Revelation IV 2–8), from an Apocalypse in Latin with a verse translation and prose commentary in French and a paraphrase in Middle English prose, England, 2nd half of the 13th century, Add MS 18633, f. 7r

But then the trumpets sound.

The Third Trumpet, a burning star falls from Heaven; the Fourth Trumpet: the sun and moon are darkened from the Huth Apocalypse, Add MS 38118, f. 15r

And its not long before things start to get nasty. There are murders and earthquakes.

The earthquake, from Add MS 17333, f. 8r

The earthquake from an Apocalypse in Latin and Anglo-Norman French, England or France, early 14th century, Royal MS 2 D XIII, f. 41r

Fire rains down on the earth as Judgement Day approaches.

Fire raining on the earth from the Apocalypse in French prose with a prologue by Gilbert de la Porree, Lorraine, 1275–1325, Harley MS 4972, f. 14v

The lake of fire and brimstone and the Judgement from an Apocalypse Picture Book with a preface by St Jerome, Germany, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 19896, f. 22r

Pretty soon there are weird and nasty beasts everywhere, even in the text, and all hell breaks loose, literally.

Zoomorphic initial from a Commentary on the Apocalypse by Haimo of Halberstad, from the area that is now Belgium (Tournai?), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 25312, f. 55v

The dragon wages war on humans (Revelation XII: 17), Royal MS 2 D XIII, f. 31r

The beasts of the Apocalypse attack the people, from an Apocalypse in prose with gloss in French, France, 4th quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 17399, f. 22v 

A dragon and a beast with 7 heads, Add MS 38121, f. 23v

And then there is the pale horseman and the wicked woman of Babylon.

The pale horseman of the Apocalypse, Add MS 22493, f. 3v 

The wicked woman seated on the beast, from an Apocalypse in Latin with a verse translation and prose commentary in French with a paraphrase in Middle English prose, Add MS 18633, f. 35v

Finally, kings and others in power don’t seem to come out of this too well!

The birds, summoned by the angel in the sun, attacking and eating the flesh of kings and powerful men, Lorraine (Metz or Verdun), 4th quarter of 13th century, Add MS 22493, f 4v

So dear readers, don’t say we didn’t warn you ! If you don’t believe us and want to see it all for yourself, here is a list of our recently-digitised Apocalypse manuscripts:

Add MS 17333, Apocalypse in parallel Latin and French. 

Add MS 17399, Apocalypse in prose with gloss in French  

Add MS 18633, Apocalypse in Latin with a verse translation and prose commentary in French and a paraphrase in Middle English prose  

Add MS 19896, Apocalypse Picture Book with Latin text 

Add MS 22493, Apocalypse, fragment with commentary by Berengaudus 

Add MS 25312, Commentary on the Apocalypse in Latin by Haimo of Halberstad, 

Add MS 35166, Apocalypse in Latin with commentary 

Add MS 38118, The Huth Apocalypse, in French prose with gloss 

Add MS 38121, Picture Book of the life of St John and the Apocalypse 

Harley MS 874, Apocalypse in Middle English 

Harley MS 4972, Apocalypse in French, Prophecy of the Tiburtine Sibyl 

Royal MS 2 D XIII, Apocalypse in Latin and Anglo-Norman French 

And old ‘favourites’ that have been on our Digitised Manuscripts website for some time and have featured in previous blog posts are:

 Add MS 11695, The Silos Apocalypse 

Add MS 15243, Apocalypse in German 

Add MS 38842, Apocalypse with commentary in French prose (fragment)

Add MS 42555, The Abingdon Apocalypse 

Royal MS 15 D II, The Welles Apocalypse 

Royal MS 19 B XV, 'The Queen Mary Apocalypse' 

Yates Thompson MS 10, Apocalypse in French

Chantry Westwell

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21 April 2017

Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks Spring 2017

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From ancient papyri to a manuscript given by the future Queen Elizabeth I to King Henry VIII for New Year's Day, from books written entirely in gold to Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, there is a wealth of material on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. At the time of writing, you can view on Digitised Manuscripts no fewer than 1,783 manuscripts made in Europe before 1600, and more are being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this file: Download PDF of Digitised MSS Spring 2017. This is also available in the form of a spreadsheet (although this format can not be downloaded on all web browsers): Download Spreadsheet of Digitised MSS Spring 2017 .

Image of St Æthelwold, King Edgar and St Dunstan, at the beginning of a copy of the Regularis Concordia, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 2v

If you are looking for something more specific, there are separate lists of Greek manuscripts, pre-1200 manuscripts digitised thanks to funding from the Polonsky Foundation and manuscripts written or owned in England before 1066.

Image of the patron, Lord Lovell, and possibly the artist, John Siferwas, from the Lovell Lectionary, Southern England (Glastonbury?), c. 1400–1410, Harley MS 7026/1, f. 4v

If you'd like to know how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts, we highly recommend this blogpost. Downloadable images of portions of our manuscripts can also be found on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (which allows for searches by image content, origin, scribe, etc) and on the British Library's Collection Items pages, which includes the only known playscript to contain William Shakespeare's handwriting and the burnt copy of Magna Carta

The Anastasis, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), c. 1131–1140, Egerton MS 1139, f. 9v  

Please follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, to get the latest news about our digitisation projects, exhibitions and events. 

10 April 2017

The Wonders of Rome

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Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome never lost its draw. Objects of Roman provenance, whether art, saints’ relics, or even copies of texts, often continued to be treated with reverence. They were integrated into new creations and imitated in new artistic endeavours. Rome’s reception is the subject of a new exhibition in Germany, at the Diözesanmuseum Paderborn, running from 31 March to 13 August 2017, to which the British Library is delighted to be a lender: the exhibition is called (in English) The Wonders of Rome from a Northern Perspective.


A view of the exhibition at Paderborn

One medieval manuscript included in the Paderborn exhibition is Matthew Paris’s Liber additamentorum (British Library Cotton MS Nero D I). Matthew Paris (d. 1259) was a monk of St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, and is renowned as a historian, artist and cartographer. His Liber additamentorum ('Book of Additions') is a collection of documents relating to the history of his abbey, and includes, among other texts, Matthew's Lives of the Two Offas and his Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans Abbey. On display in the exhibition is Matthew Paris's description of the gems and rings that belonged to the church of St Albans in his day (De anulis et gemmis et pallis que sunt de thesauro huius ecclesie), with his own illustrations.


Matthew Paris’s description of the gems of St Albans: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 146v.

Among the gems depicted by Matthew Paris is one passed on from antiquity: a cameo now thought to have depicted an emperor, Jupiter, or Asclepius. Matthew describes it in extensive detail, noting that it was used in childbirth: ‘For an infant about to be born escapes the approaching stone’ (Infantulus enim nasciturus lapidem subterfugit appropinquantem, f. 147r). This seems to have come about through interpretation of the classical imagery, which he describes as showing a man with a spear in his right hand, with a serpent crawling up it, and a boy on his left hand.

Also on display at Paderborn is the British Library’s Additional MS 12154, containing a description of Rome written in Syriac by Pseudo-Zacharias in the 6th century. It outlines its splendours in detail, including what is believed to be the first mention of Christian buildings in the city.


Installing the exhibition at Paderborn

The British Library is a regular lender to exhibitions in the United Kingdom and overseas. We are very pleased to have been able to lend two of our early manuscripts, one in Latin and the other in Syriac, to the Diözesanmuseum, and we hope that our German readers are able to view these books in person at Paderborn. You may like to know that Matthew Paris's Liber additamentorum is also available to view in full, online and in high definition, on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

Andrew Dunning

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


07 April 2017

Hairy Mary

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Recently I was going through the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery with a friend, who asked how we know which saint is which. This is a fair question; medieval manuscripts rarely supply captions with their images. But luckily for future curators, medieval artists often identified saints and other figures by means of special attributes associated with them. St Peter often holds a set of keys. St Catherine often rests on a wheel, since she was said to have broken the wheel on which she was supposed to be martyred. And if you see a woman completely covered in long hair and holding three loaves, chances are it's a depiction of Mary of Egypt.

Royal 2 B VII   f. 308v
Mary Magdalene (holding an unguent pot), Mary of Egypt, Margaret piercing a dragon, and a martyr holding a palm, from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 308v

According to a saint’s life written by Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, Mary of Egypt was born somewhere in Egypt in the middle of the 4th century. At the age of 12, she ran away from her parents to Alexandria, where she appears to have lived a Late Antique version of ‘Sex and the City’. Sophronius particularly condemns her enjoyment of her numerous amorous liaisons.

Opening of Paul the Deacon's Latin translation of the Sophronius's Life of Mary of Egypt, from the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, Cotton MS Nero E I/1, f. 179r

According to Sophronius, Mary eventually went to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. She was not interested in the religious festival, but was rather looking for more sexual partners. However, she found she could not enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre until she repented of her lifestyle and promised to become a hermit. Stricken with remorse, she travelled into the wilderness, taking only three loaves of bread as sustenance.

Mary and her loaves, from the Taymouth Hours, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 188v

While in the wilderness, Mary was spotted by St Zosimas, who tossed her his mantle and persuaded her to tell him her story. Zosimas went looking for her again a year later, but found her dead, and buried her with the aid of a helpful lion (as you do).

Yates Thompson 3   f. 287
Zosimas hands Mary his cloak, from the Dunois Hours, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 287r

Mary became a popular figure in medieval art and literature. This is perhaps not surprising, given her memorable life, openness about her previous lifestyle, and her distinctive appearance. A whole series of bas-de-page scenes in the Smithfield Decretals were devoted to her, and she appears in countless devotional texts.

Royal 10 E IV   f. 271v
Detail of Mary heading into the wilderness with her three loaves, from Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 271v

Detail of Mary of Egypt and some monkeys, from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 275r

Nevertheless, different artists interpreted her story slightly differently. 

Don't look now! St Zosimas decorously looks away as he hands St Mary a cloak, from the Theodore Psalter, Add MS 19352, f. 68r 

Be warned, however: not all hairy ladies are Mary of Egypt. Mary Magdalen, who was also construed as an ex-prostitute in some medieval accounts of her life, was sometimes depicted with long hair, as seen in the Sforza Hours.

Miniature accompanying prayers relating to Mary Magdalen, from the Sforza Hours, Add MS 34294, f. 211v

In some of the Alexander romances, Alexander is said to have come across women with hair down to their feet who lived in the forest—sort of female versions of wodewoses.

Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 58v

And, of course, there’s always the bearded lady of Limerick, as noted by Gerald of Wales.

Royal 13 B VIII   f. 19
Detail of the bearded lady of Limerick and the ox man of Wicklow, from a copy of Gerald of Wales' Topographia Hiberniae, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 19r

Medieval artists—and modern curators—certainly loved ladies who knew how to let their hair down.

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05 April 2017

An illustrated Old English Herbal

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Plant-based remedies were a major feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Thanks to our current digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, one of the British Library’s earliest illustrated collections of such remedies has just been digitised.

Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v

This manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. (There are other, non-illustrated manuscripts of the same text, for example in Harley MS 585.) The text is an Old English translation of a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognised as  several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined. The manuscript also includes Old English translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers (framed as a fictional letter between Octavian and a king of Egypt) and another on medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals. Together, the herbal and the text on four-legged animals are now known as part of the so-called 'Pseudo-Apuleius Complex' of texts.

A man and a centaur presenting a book to a figure in a blue veil or hood, captioned 'Escolapius Plato Centaurus', from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 19r

Each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal; its name in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it. Remedies for poisonous bites were marked out with drawings of snakes and scorpions. For instance, a snake appears near the entry for sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes. 

‘Snakeplant’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57r

Although it might seem like a practical guide to finding plants and preparing remedies, this manuscript's uses are debated. First, the illustrations are not always very useful for identifying plants and animals in the wild: take, for example, these depictions of strawberries and elephants.

‘Streawberian’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 33v

A monkey and elephant, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Secondly, the texts include plants and animals from Mediterranean regions and beyond which are not known to be native to the British Isles, such as cumin and licorice. Scholars debate whether the Anglo-Saxons knew these plants through trade or whether the early medieval climate could have permitted such plants to grow in England. Alternatively, the scribes and artists could simply have copied them from their Mediterranean source. The text sometimes explicitly acknowledges that plants are best found in distant regions. For example, ‘dragonswort… is said that it should be grown in dragon’s blood. It grows at the tops of mountains where there are groves of trees, chiefly in holy places and in the country that is called Apulia’ (translated by Anne Van Arsdall, in Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 154). The Herbal also includes mythical lore about some plants, such as the mandrake, said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons. To pick it, the text claimed you needed an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes.

A mandrake, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v

However, while this manuscript’s exact uses are debatable, it continued to be used into the 16th century: later users added numbers to the table of contents, some recipes and variants of plants' names in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English. Eventually, a later copy of Peter of Poitiers’ Chronicle and a 9th-century copy of Macrobius’s Saturnalia were bound with the herbal. The volume may once have belonged to William Harvey (b. 1578, d. 1657), who discovered the circulation of blood. Some of his own recipes — featuring ‘licoris’, ‘cinemon’ and opium — are found at the end of the volume.

Recipe for ‘A Diet Drinke’ in the hand of William Harvey, 1624, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 140v


Le printemps s'annonce et en Angleterre les jardins commencent à renaître. La British Library vient de numériser un manuscrit rempli d’images de plantes (et d’animaux). Ce manuscrit (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) contient des textes médicaux attribués à Pseudo-Apulée: un herbier, qui précise les usages médicaux des plantes, et aussi un texte qui concèrne les usages médicaux des animaux. Tous ces textes sont traduits en vieil anglais.

Ce manuscrit est le seul exemple d’un herbier anglo-saxon illustré. Les images dépeignent les plantes et les animaux décrits dans le texte.  Cependant, les images des fraises et de l’éléphant révèlent un certain manque de vraisemblance de la part de l’artiste.

Malgré cela, plusieurs lecteurs ont utilisé ce manuscrit: il y a des additions dans des mains datant de l'onzième jusqu’au seizième siècle. Il est possible que William Harvey, le médecin qui a découvert les lois de la circulation du sang, l’ait possédé : des recettes médicales, dans sa propre main, se trouvent maintenant à la fin du manuscrit. Aujourd’hui, ce volume contient aussi une copie du Compendium historiae de Pierre de Poitiers.


Alison Hudson

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