Medieval manuscripts blog

477 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

24 December 2015

Christmas Eve Shepherds' Party

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Every Christmas we publish gorgeous images of the Nativity from our manuscripts: tranquil scenes of the stable in Bethlehem, with the Christ child in the crib, a serene Mary, Joseph and the animals looking on.  Of course on Christmas Eve another amazing event was taking place not far away: the Angel Gabriel appeared to the shepherds on a hillside, and the news he gave them caused quite a stir.  The Annunciation to the Shepherds, usually depicted at the beginning of Office of Terce in the Hours of the Virgin, gave medieval illuminators more scope for creative interpretation – there is some wonderfully strange and anarchic shepherd-behaviour, and then there are the sheep, some cute and cuddly, some looking more like aardvarks !  This Christmas eve we have decided to share some of our favourite shepherd scenes with you.  

We have chosen our favourite image in various categories, but we invite our readers to make suggestions.

The best party atmosphere

Add_ms_47682_f013r copy
The Angel and Shepherds with sheep and dog,  England, S.E., c 1327-1335, from ‘The Holkham Bible Picture Book’,
Add MS 47682, f. 13r 

The most cuddly shepherds and sheep

The Angel proclaims the Good News to two shepherds and a shepherdess, The Netherlands,  (Utrecht or Delft), c. 1410-1420, from a Book of Hours,  
Add MS 50005, f. 36v

The cheekiest shepherds  (with the most fashionable footwear)

Upper half of a two-part image of the Nativity, England, Central (Oxford), 1st quarter of the 13th century, from a Psalter,
Arundel MS 157, f. 3v

The happiest dancing sheepdog

Angels appear to the shepherds and sheepdog, France (Tournai), c. 1480, from a Book of Hours,
Harley MS 2923, f. 66

The most relaxed shepherd

Seated shepherd with angel above and strewn border, Netherlands, S. (Bruges), c. 1500, from 'Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours',
Kings MS 9, f. 99v 

The shepherds with the best dancing style

011LAN000000431U00074V00 copy
The Annunciation to the Shepherds, England, E. (East Anglia?) 1st quarter of the 13th century, from a Psalter, Lansdowne MS 431, f. 74v

The most excited sheep

Royal_ms_6_e_vi_f008r copy
The angel appears to two shepherds on the hillside, England, S.E., c. 1360-c. 1375, from the ‘Omne Bonum’, Royal MS 6 E VI, f. 8r

The shepherds with the most flexible necks

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, France (Paris), last quarter of the 14th century, from the 'Hours of Nicolas Rolin', Yates Thompson MS 45, f. 53

The weirdest-looking shepherds  - note the hat and bagpipes !

Historiated initial of the Annunciation to the shepherds, with full border, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Therouanne), c 1320 from the ‘St Omer Hours’, Add MS 36684, f. 43v

We wish all our readers a festive Christmas Eve!

-  Chantry Westwell

22 December 2015

Bins, Books and Bodian (Preaching): Ælfric and Christmas

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For reformed Anglo-Saxon monks, the year began with Advent and Christmas.

The Nativity, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, England, c. 963-984, Add MS 49598, f. 15v.

Although Easter was considered the more important holiday by Anglo-Saxon churchmen, Christmas and Advent liturgies feature at the start of the year in liturgical manuscripts produced by the monks in the late 10th century in England, as elsewhere. Many of these manuscripts are now preserved at the British Library. For example, in two series of Old English sermons, written by Ælfric of Eynsham, the first sermons were devoted to Christmas. A sermon for December 25th is the first sermon in his Lives of the Saints (Cotton MS Julius E VII), and the second sermon in his first series of the Catholic Homilies (Royal MS 7 C XII). Both these manuscripts are now available online, via Digitised Manuscripts.

The beginning of the sermon for Christmas, Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, Southern England, 1st half of the 11th century, Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 5v

In the sermon in the Catholic Homilies, Ælfric summarizes the story of Christ’s birth as it is found in the Gospels for his Old English-speaking audience, describing how Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem, how they had to stay in a stables, and how Christ was born in a stable and placed in a binn (the Old English word for a manger or basket which is the root of the modern English word ‘bin’). He then provides context for his listeners by discussing some Roman history, the etymology of the name ‘Bethlehem’, the different ways angels appeared to humans in the Old and New Testaments, and compared the shepherds of the Biblical story to contemporary teachers and preachers.

The beginning of the sermon for Christmas, the First Series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies, Cerne, 990s, Royal MS 7 C XII, f. 9v

Ælfric was a monk and the most prolific Old English author whose works still survive. He lived in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. As a boy, he had been trained at Winchester in the school of Bishop Æthelwold, the church reformer whose Benedictional appears above. By about 987, Ælfric had come to the attention of the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the literati, because he was sent to the church which the thegn (important layman) Æthelmaer had founded or refounded at Cerne. There, around 990, Ælfric wrote a series of sermons for two whole liturgical years: the first and second series of the Catholic Homilies. The manuscript which has just been put online is believed to have been written at Cerne: in fact, some of the marginal notes might even be in Ælfric’s own handwriting, as he apparently edits the text and tries to avoid repeating himself. For example, in the image below, Ælfric appears to have put a box around the text he would like to be deleted from future copies of this sermon. A note at the side explains that this information is repeated, in more detail, in the ‘other book’ (presumably his second series of the Catholic Homilies).

Annotations on a sermon, possibly by Ælfric, Royal MS 7 C XII, f. 64r

Ælfric’s career was only just taking off at that point. The Catholic Homilies were copied and distributed with the help of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric. Later in the 990s, Æthlmaer and his father, Ealdorman (senior government official) Æthelweard asked Ælfric to write a further series of homilies about the lives of various saints. The earliest manuscript of this series, Cotton Julius E VII, is now also available on Digitised Manuscripts.

Ælfric’s name begins with a colourful initial in this preface to his Lives of the Saints, Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 3v

The quality of the colourful and ornate initials in this, slightly later manuscript shows how Ælfric had attracted the attention of patrons and scriptoria with better resources than the scriptoria at Cerne, where the earliest surviving manuscript of the Catholic Homilies is believed to have been written.

In addition to his sermon series, Ælfric wrote several instructional works, including a grammar and a colloquy (an imaginary dialogue between men of different professions, designed to teach young monks Latin). Even judging from the number of surviving copies, Ælfric’s Grammar was a popular work in late Anglo-Saxon England, even a bestseller. Eventually, Ælfric became abbot of Eynsham, just outside of Oxford.

So, whether you are looking for a sermon for Christmas, for key texts by the most prolific Old English author, or simply the root of the word ‘bin’, you can click over Digitised Manuscripts to see all these works in more detail.

Alison Hudson, Project Curator, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

20 December 2015

Medieval Festive Survival Guide

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To help you negotiate the festive season, medieval writers, illustrators and patrons had some useful tips …

1. Ensure the prompt delivery of your Christmas greetings by hiring a messenger.

Detail of a messenger from Guillaume de Lorris’s and Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, Low Countries (Bruges), c 1490-c 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 137v

2. If you’re stuck for gift ideas, books always make great presents. The Bedford Hours was once a Christmas gift.

The Wise Men offering Christ gifts, from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 75r

3. On the subject of gifts, if you can’t find a partridge for your pear tree, a king will do…

King Mark Pear Tree
Image of King Mark in a pear tree, from a series of drawings illustrating the Tristan romance, England (London?), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 11619, f. 8r

4. At Christmas parties, don’t get caught out under the mistletoe: timing is everything!

Royal 20 A XVII Pygmalion
Detail of Pygmalion kissing the statue, from Roman de la Rose, Northern France (Artois or Picardy), c. 1340, Royal MS 20 A XVII , f. 171r   

5. Know when you have had enough to drink.

Royal 6 E VII K042592
Ebrietas (Drunkenness) from Omne Bonum (Ebrietas-Humanus), England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375,
Royal MS 6 E VII , f. 1r

6. If you discover you have a headache, though, try tying some crosswort to your head with a red cloth or smearing your temples with pennyroyal boiled in oil or butter or placing ‘stones’ from three young sparrows on your head. This allegedly also works for nightmares, temptations and ‘evil enchantments by song’ (for an edition and translation, see Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, ed. by T. O. Cockayne, Rolls Series, 3 vols (London: Longmans, 1864-66), vol II (1864), pp. 304-07).

Remedies of headaches, from Bald’s Leechbook, England (Winchester?), mid-10th century, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 111r

7. Enjoy Christmas dinner.

Add 15268 Feasting c13842-19a
Detail of feasting from Histoire Universelle, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), c. 1275-91, Add MS 15268, f. 242v

8. Enjoy some seasonal music.

Part of the liturgy for Christmas, from the Leofric Collectar, England (Exeter), c. 1050-c. 1072, Harley MS 2961, f. 12v

9. And remember, a dog is for life not just for Christmas.

Margaret of York dog
Miniature of the resurrected Christ with Margaret of York and a dog, from
Nicolas Finet, Dialogue de la duchesse de Bourgogne, Low Countries (Brussels), c. 1468, Add MS 7970, f. 1v

Dogs Royal MS 20 A II, f 8v
Detail of King John with a hunting dog, from a collection of drawings with various inscriptions and poems, Northern England, c. 1307-1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8v

17 December 2015

Medieval Star Wars

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It can hardly have escaped your notice that a rather major feature film opened across the world this week.  We all are awash in the sights, sounds, and excitement of the newest Star Wars movie, and as you know, the Medieval Manuscripts department is always eager to join in the fun.  It may seem a stretch to discuss medieval manuscripts in the context of a futuristic saga, but have no fear – we’ll give it a good try nonetheless. 

Add MS 11639 f. 517r c11803-08 copy
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… and you know the rest. Image of stars and the heavens from the Northern French Miscellany, France, 1277-1286, Add MS 11639, f. 517r

The jewel in our Star Wars crown is the very Yoda-like creature below, which can be found in an book of canon law now known as the Smithfield Decretals.  Written probably in Toulouse, the manuscript arrived in London in the early part of the 14th century, where numerous marginal illuminations were added.  When we first meet Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back, his age is given as 900 years, meaning that he would have been about 260 at the time of the illumination of the Smithfield Decretals.  It is therefore entirely possible (if not probable) that this is a portrait drawn from life.

Detail of Yoda (or a look-alike), from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (with marginal scenes added in London), c. 1300 – c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 30v

Yoda is not the only inhabitant of the Star Wars universe to be found on the pages of our medieval manuscripts.  For example, a brief suspension of disbelief might allow one to see Leia wielding two light-sabres in the lady below.

Detail of a lady, from the St Omer Book of Hours, France, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, f. 3v

Chewbacca has a precursor in the wodewose or wild man, though these medieval half-human creatures did not generally cooperate with humanity quite as well as the noble Wookiee. 

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 173r G70031-80a
Details of wodewoses, from the Luttrell Psalter, England (Lincolnshire), 1325-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 70r, and 
from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 173r

With diligent searching, a whole host of other characters appears:

An early Sith? Detail from the alchemical treatise Splendor Solis, Germany, 1582, Harley MS 3469, f. 18r

A progenitor of Bib Fortuna: detail of a panotii from the Marvels of the East, England (Canterbury), 2nd quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, f. 83v

Add MS 26968 f. 284v d40054-21a
Royal MS 2 B VII f. 179v G70034-77a
Ewok-ish creatures: from an Italian rite prayer book, Italy, 1383, Add MS 26968, f. 284v, and from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 179v

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f180v copy
Jedi or Jawa?  Detail from the Taymouth Hours, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 180v

A creature at home in Mos Eisley Cantina, from the Luttrell Psalter, Add MS 42130, f.48r

An unguarded (and unhelmeted) Darth Vader, from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 116v

We would love to see or hear about anything else that you might be able to come up with.  As always, you can leave a note in the comments below, or tweet us @BLMedieval.  May the force be with you!

15 December 2015

Help Us Choose our 2016 Calendar

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It has long been a tradition on our blog, hailing back to the distant days of 2011, to highlight pages from a medieval calendar throughout the year.  We have been privileged to bring you the Isabella Breviary, the Hours of Joanna of Castile (or if you prefer, the Hours of Joanna the Mad), the Golf Book, the Huth Hours, and most recently, the London Rothschild Hours

For 2016, we’d like to do something a little different – we’d like for you to help us decide which calendar to feature.  We have selected 4 potential manuscripts, all listed below.  Please let us know which one you’d like to see throughout 2016!  You can leave your favourite in the comments below, or tell us on Twitter @BLMedieval.  Without any further ado, here are the contenders:

Add MS 18850:  The Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410 – 1430 (this manuscript was also included in Turn the Pages)

Calendar page for January from the Bedford Hours, Add MS 18850, f. 1r

Add MS 36684:  The St Omer Hours, France (Saint-Omer or Therouanne), c. 1320 (for more on this fabulous manuscript, see our posts Apes Pulling Shapes and Something for Everyone)

Calendar page for February from the St Omer Hours, Add MS 36684, f. 2v

Egerton MS 1070: The Hours of René of Anjou, France (Paris), 15th century

Calendar page for March from The Hours of René of Anjou, Egerton MS 1070, f. 8r

Cotton MS Galba A XVII:  The Athelstan Psalter (or Galba Psalter), northeast France, 1st half of the 9th century (more on this one: King Athelstan’s Books and Athelstan Psalter Online)

Calendar page from the Athelstan Psalter, Cotton MS Galba A XVII, f. 3r

- Sarah J Biggs

10 December 2015

Important Notice: Temporary removal of Lindisfarne Gospels from display in the Treasures Gallery

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We would like to advise visitors to the British Library that the Lindisfarne Gospels will not be on display on Monday 14 and Tuesday 15 December 2015. The manuscript will be back on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery on Wednesday 16 December 2015. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.

The Lindisfarne Gospels can always be viewed online on Digitised Manuscripts.

Those wishing the visit the Library over the holiday period can find out more information on our seasonal closures here.


Chi-rho page at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, from the Lindisfarne Gospels, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r


Detail of the carpet page at the beginning of the Gospel of John, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 210v


08 December 2015

New Images of the Book of the Queen

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The Book of the Queen is one of the most treasured manuscripts held by the British Library. This beautifully illuminated collection of works by Christine de Pizan was made for Isabel (Isabeau) of Bavaria (b. 1371, d. 1435), queen consort of Charles VI of France. It is believed that Christine herself supervised the assembly of the book and may have even been involved in copying passages of text. You can find out more about Christine and this wonderful book here.

Harley MS 4431_f.3r

Detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan presenting her manuscript to Queen Isabel of Bavaria, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410 – c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

Queen Isabel was not the only medieval female reader to enjoy this copy of Christine’s works. Later in the 15th century, the manuscript was owned by Jacquetta of Luxembourg (b. c. 1416, d. 1472), wife of John [of  Lancaster], Duke of Bedford (b. 1389, d. 1435). Jacquetta was not shy about leaving her trace on this highly prized manuscript, writing her name and her motto, ‘sur tous autres’ [over/above all others], on multiple folios.


Inscription of ‘Jaquete’ in the outer margin of Christine’s Epistre au Dieu d'Amours, Harley MS 4431, f. 52v

Thanks to the work of our fantastic Imaging Scientist, Dr Christina Duffy, we have new images of the ownership marks left by Jacquetta. By comparing the inscription of her motto on f. 387r with the damaged inscription above her name on f. 1r, Christina has helped to establish with more certainty that Jacquetta’s motto was also written on f. 1r.

Harley 4431 motto

Comparison of the damaged inscription on f. 1r with the motto on f. 387r. Images processed at the British Library by Dr Christina Duffy. Copyright of the British Library Board.

Christina has also rendered Jacquetta’s most unusual inscription more legible. It occurs in a miniature on f. 115v, which depicts Aurora bringing the dawn, and below her, a peasant, fastening his trousers and entering a hen house.


Detail of a miniature of Aurora bringing the dawn, with a peasant, fastening his trousers and entering a hen house, from the Epistre Othéa, Harley MS 4431, f. 115v

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Inscription up the right side of the hen house in the miniature on f. 115v. Image processed at the British Library by Dr Christina Duffy. Copyright of the British Library Board.

Of all the dramatic scenes that illustrate the Epistre Othéa, why did Jacquetta choose this one? Did she identify with the resplendent beauty of Aurora? Was she a morning person? Did this half-dressed fellow take her fancy? Share your thoughts with @BLMedieval!

For information on Jacquetta’s marks of ownership see:

Christine de Pizan: The Making of the Queen's Manuscript (London, British Library, Harley MS 4431)

Sandra Hindman, 'The Composition of the Manuscript of Christine de Pizan's Collected Works in the British Library: A Reassessment', British Library Journal, 9 (1983), 93-123.

You can discover more about Christina’s work by following her on Twitter and by checking out the Collection Care blog, which discusses the activities of the British Library’s scientists and conservators. Christina’s most important collaborations with the Section of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts include the creation of a CT scan of the St Cuthbert Gospel and her ground-breaking multispectral imaging work on the British Library’s burnt copy of Magna Carta 1215 .

- Hannah Morcos

03 December 2015

Postgraduate Open Day on our Pre-1600 Collections

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Booking has opened for the British Library’s first open day dedicated to postgraduates working on our pre-1600 western heritage collections. The open day will be held on Monday 1st February 2016 and is aimed at first year PhD students who are new to the Library. You can reserve a place on our website now at

Papyrus deed of sale of a slave boy (P. Lond. I 229), with original seals, Syria, 24 May 166, Papyrus 229

The open day will introduce our very wide ranging manuscript and early printed collections to students working on history, literature, the history of art, religion, and the history of science and medicine. The day will help students to understand the practicalities of using our collections in their research and to find out about our catalogues and other online resources. In the afternoon there will be an opportunity to meet several curators who work with pre-1600 manuscripts and printed books, and to have a look at some collection items. There will also be sessions led by reading room staff and by one of the Library’s digital curators.

Map of the known world, from the Map Psalter, England, 1262-1300, Add Ms 28681, f. 9r

The pre-1600 day is part of an annual series of open days covering different Library collections. The other open days available in 2016 are:

Asian & African Collections – 18 January 2016
News & Media – 25 January 2016 
Music – 05 February 2016
Social Sciences – 12 February 2016
17th & 18th Century Collections – 19 February 2016
19th Century Collections – 22 February 2016
20th & 21st Century Collections – 26 February 2016

Page of music from Magister Sampson, Benedictus de Opitiis and others, Motets, Antwerp, 1516, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 4r

To make the most of the day, you may wish to register for a free Reader Pass in advance if you don’t already have one. Each open day costs £5 and includes lunch and refreshments. Booking in advance is essential as a limited number of places is available. We are looking forward to meeting lots of new postgraduate students on 1st February.

Prologue with woodcut from 2nd edition of Caxton's Chaucer, G.11586, f. 3v

-   Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts