Medieval manuscripts blog

519 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

26 September 2016

Every People Under Heaven

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A major new exhibition on the art of medieval Jerusalem opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, the exhibition brings together art from multiple religious and cultural traditions, providing new insight into the international nature of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, and highlighting the stunning artistic richness that survives from the period.

The British Library is proud to be a lender to this exhibition. In addition to a number of items loaned by our colleagues in Asian and African Collections,  three items from Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts will be on display. The exhibition offers a rare opportunity for these items to be viewed in the context of many other works of art created around the same time, and helps to reveal the many threads of cross-cultural influence to be found in works from the medieval Eastern Mediterranean and Levant.

The Harley Greek Gospels was produced some time around 1200 either in Cyprus or Palestine. Like many illuminated Byzantine Gospels, it contains portraits of the four Evangelists, one at the beginning of each Gospel book, as well as canon tables decorated with curtains, capitals and birds, and decorated headpieces at the beginning of three of the Gospels. But in addition, Harley 1810 contains 17 framed miniatures depicting narrative scenes from the life of Jesus and his followers throughout the manuscript. Most of these scenes appear in the course of the text of the Gospels, but one, depicting the Nativity, is given special prominence by being placed as the headpiece to the Gospel of Matthew.


Dormition of the Virgin Mary, Harley MS 1810, f. 174r. Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1200.

These narrative cycles appear in some Byzantine Gospel books from the second half of the 11th century, but they are relatively unusual. The cycle of images includes depiction of scenes that do not appear in the Bible, for instance on f. 174r, where the depiction of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary can be found, an account that is not found in the text of the Bible. The art is characteristic of Eastern Mediterranean/Levantine book production at this period. The Met has chosen to display the scene of the Annunciation, on f 142r, which comes near the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. In this miniature, the architecture depicted is distinctive and perhaps reminiscent of local style.


The Annunciation, Harley MS 1810, f. 142r. Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1200.

In addition to Harley 1810, visitors to the exhibition will be able to see the Melisende Psalter and its ivories on display. Readers of our blog will know our deep love for this manuscript, one of the most stunning works of 12th-century Crusader Art. Probably created for Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem between 1131 and 1153, the manuscript is written in Latin, but shows on every illuminated page the influence of Eastern Mediterranean art. The gold backdrop and architectural styles on display are particularly reminiscent of Byzantine illumination. On display at the Met are the folios depicting the Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazarus.


The Transfiguration, Egerton MS 1139, f. 4v. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem) 1131-1143.


The Raising of Lazarus, Egerton MS 1139, f. 5r. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143.

The Melisende Psalter was originally encased in an exquisite binding of two ivory plaques, which contain scenes from the life of David on the upper cover and the six vices and six works of charity on the lower cover. As if carved ivory plaques were not ornate enough, this binding was further adorned with small gemstones.


Ivory plaque from the upper binding of the Melisende Psalter, depicting scenes from the life of David. Egerton MS 1139/1, f. vr. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143.

We are delighted to be able to contribute to the exciting new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to enable our North American friends to see some of our favourite manuscripts in person! The exhibition opens on 26 September, and continues until 8 January 2017.

Cillian O'Hogan


21 September 2016

A Field Guide to Wodewoses

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It’s #WodewoseWednesday, people. You might not know what a wodewose is, but you surely should. They are mythical forest creatures that are guaranteed to improve your midweek. I would describe myself as an avid wodewose-ophile and hence have compiled this handy guide to the behaviour and habits of the wodewose, in case you meet one, one day. 



Name:  Wodewose, faunis ficariis*

Range: The Wirral Peninsula, Africa

Habitat: Forest

Predators: Alexander the Great

Threat Level: Endangered, possibly extinct

*faunis ficariis is translated as 'wodewose' in the Wycliffite Bible (Jeremiah 50:39).


What is a wodewose? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the creature as ‘a wild man of the woods; a satyr, faun’. Wodewoses are wild creatures. They seem not to like being disturbed in their forest habitat. In this image some dogs have woken a wodewose from its nap and he is displeased. Or he might be trying to hug them. It’s unclear.

  Barking and wodewoseWodewose surrounded by dogs from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, c. 1310–1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 173r

Wodewoses do not always dwell in the forest. Sometimes they like to be involved in pageantry. This one is sporting the arms of England.


Wodewose pageantry

  Woodwose 2

Wodewose holding the arms of England, La Bible Historiale, c. 1470–79, Southern Netherlands, Royal MS 15 D I, f. 18

Wodewoses don’t seem to be very concerned about personal grooming. They have large bushy beards which cover most of their bodies, like a beard in onesie form.

Wodeswose luttrell 2A wodewose from the Luttrell Psalter, England, c. 1325–1340, Add MS 42130, f. 70r

Wodewoses don't often like to wear clothes. Here's a wodewose in its Sunday best, wearing a fetching leaf ensemble and matching head-dress.

Wodewose paste-in

A pasted-in wodewose from the end of Book I of John Lydgate's 'Fall of Princes', England, c. 1470, Harley MS 4197, f. 34v

It would be erroneous, however, to think that wodewoses are not sometimes quite stylish. These two dashing wodewoses are from the genealogy of the Portuguese and Spanish kings. 

Wodewose bluesteelWodewose Bluesteel, The Genealogy of the Royal Houses of Spain and Portugal (the 'Portuguese Genealogy'), Lisbon and Bruges, 1530–1534, Add MS 12531, f. 1r

  Wistful wodewoseWistful wodewose, The Genealogy of the Royal Houses of Spain and Portugal (the 'Portuguese Genealogy'), Lisbon and Bruges, 1530–1534, Add MS 12531, f. 1r 


Wodewoses appear to live in diverse parts of the world. In the late 14th-century romance poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we hear how Gawain encounters wodewoses in the Wirral Peninsula in northwest England (line 721). But, they also apparently live in Africa as well. In John Trevisa’s 14th-century Middle English translation of a zoological text called De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Nature of Things) by the Franciscan monk and scholar of the 13th-century, Bartholomaeus, there is a warning that in Africa one might find ‘satires, wodewoses, tigris, and oþer horrible bestes’. [satyrs, woodwoses, tigers and other horrible beasts]. Although, given that this text suggests that there are tigers in Africa, it might not be the most trustworthy source.


Wodewoses are terrible pick-up artists. I can’t be sure, because I’ve never met one, but it seems that wodewoses get tongue-tied around ladies. They just don’t have the right words; they can’t woo. Consequently they sometimes just have to make their affections clear to ladies after they’ve carried them off to their lairs. Unfortunately, the manuscript evidence suggests that this isn’t always a fool-proof strategy for winning the women of their dreams.


Ineffectual wodewose wooing from the Taymouth Hours, England, c. 1325–50, Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 62r–63v

With thanks to the marvellous @iandouglas for stitching this little beauty together. This GIF makes us a teeny bit sad. As Ian observed, ‘poor guy. Can’t a wodewose attempt to carry off Princess Leia without being skewered for his trouble?’

In the beautiful Smithfield Decretals we can see some more wodewose wooing and wodewose repelling. In this image we’ve got a lady seemingly more taken with the embrace of a tree than that of the wodewose. Read more about this manuscript here

  Wodewose wooing 72r

Wodewose attempts to embrace lady; lady appears more taken with the tree, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f 72r

Wodewose wooing 72v

Wodewose votes with his feet (and captivating arms), Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 72v

Wodewose and lady in redWoman demonstrates displeasure at wodewose's advances, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 73r

Smithfield 74rWodewose reaches lovingly for woman, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 74r 

Smithfield 74vWodewose rewarded for his advances, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 74v 

Smithfield 101Yet again wodewose gets speared for his trouble, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 101 



Wodewoses have few known predators. However, some versions of the story of Alexander the Great describe the king encountering marvellous races in India, who are sometimes depicted as wodewoses. 

  Wodewose predator

Alexander the Great predating some wodewoses, 'Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre', Paris, c. 1420–1425, Royal MS B XX , f. 64



On 28 January 1393, a masquerade ball was held at the court of Charles VI of France. The ball, held at the Palace of Saint-Pol, was to celebrate the marriage of Catherine de Fastaverin -- one of the queen's waiting women. The king and several of his companions decided to dress up as wodewoses and perform a wild dance to entertain the guests. They wore masks and linen costumes soaked in flax which made them appear shaggy. At some point in the proceedings, Charles' brother, the Duc d'Orléans, arrived with a lit torch. Disaster struck: the torch somehow came into contact with the dancers' costumes and they caught fire. 

The king was only saved when his cousin, the Duchesse de Berry threw her voluminous skirts over him to extinguish the flames. One other dancer — Sieur de Nantoillet — survived by jumping into a vat of wine. All the others were burnt to death. Impersonating a wodewose can have dire consequences. 

Health and safety

The 'Bal des Ardents' from Froissart’s ‘Chroniques’, Southern Netherlands, c. 1470–72 Harley MS 4380, f. 1


What is your favourite wodewose image? Send us your favourite suggestions to @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #WodewoseWednesday

Mary Wellesley



Further Reading: 

Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment and Demonology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952). 

Timothy Husband, The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980). 




19 September 2016

The British Library's Greek Manuscripts Project

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Have you ever wondered what books looked like in antiquity? Perhaps you have pondered why some manuscripts are written on paper and some on parchment? Did you know that the ancient Greeks thought up machines and robots powered by steam? These issues and more are taken up on a new web resource dedicated to the study of Greek written heritage. Greek Manuscripts, which officially launches today, is intended to complement and promote the hundreds of Greek manuscripts digitised by the British Library in recent years. The website contains articles on a wide variety of subjects relating to Greek papyri and manuscripts, written by experts from the UK, continental Europe, and North America. Additionally, several videos provide short visual introductions to key topics. Collection items discussed in the articles are given separate item pages, with links to the online catalogue entry and full digital coverage on Digitised Manuscripts.


The Constitution of the Athenians, written on papyrus in Egypt c. 100 CE (Papyrus 131).

Drawing on the rich collections of Greek manuscripts held by the British Library, the website provides succinct introductions to major themes and issues, directed towards a non-specialist audience. The project’s aim is not to present new scholarship, although some of the most exciting developments in recent research are reflected in several articles and videos. We especially hope that the website will be helpful to students, scholars in related fields, and members of the public, in orienting themselves in a subject area that can often appear daunting from the outside.

The articles are organised into five overlapping themes, reflecting some of the most important aspects of Greek manuscripts, classical antiquity, and Byzantine culture: art, religion, scholarship, the Greek world, and the makers of Greek manuscripts. They cover the entire chronological period represented by the British Library’s Greek collections, from classical antiquity down to the early 20th century. Many of the most famous items in the collections, such as the Golden Canon tables, the Theodore Psalter or the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, are included on the site, but so are many lesser-known volumes that are of major importance in their own way.


The earliest manuscript of the classical author Lucian, written in Constantinople in the early 10th century (Harley MS 5694, f. 60v).

A number of articles introduce complicated topics to the general reader. For instance, James Freeman surveys the shifting use of paper in Greek manuscripts, while Matthew Nicholls and Georgi Parpulov provide a clear overview of the history of libraries from Classical and Late Antiquity to the Byzantine Middle Ages. Other pieces take on a staggering range of material, to provide a succinct overview of a very broad theme: for instance, Dimitris Krallis’s article on Byzantine historiography, or Aileen Das’s survey of the transmission of Greek philosophy and medicine.


The Harley Trilingual Psalter contains the text of the Psalms in Greek, Latin and Arabic. Sicily (Palermo?), c. 1230-1250 (Harley MS 5786, f. 158r).

The biblical manuscripts that make up a substantial portion of the British Library’s holdings are well-represented on the website. Kathleen Maxwell shares her expertise in the Library’s illuminated Gospels, and the multifaceted transmission of the Old Testament in Greek is also surveyed. Greek manuscripts did not develop in a vacuum: they were circulated far beyond the limits of Greek-speaking antiquity and the Byantine empire. Peter Tóth presents just some of the examples of multilingualism that can be found in Greek manuscripts, while other articles look at topics such as the tradition of schoolboy compositions in Greek in Elizabethan England.

We will introduce more articles on the new website over the coming weeks, advertising them in a series of blog posts. The project, and indeed the preceding Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, has been generously supported by a range of donors, including the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the A. G. Leventis Foundation, the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation, and many others. We are grateful to them and to the many experts who have shared their knowledge on the site. We invite everyone to explore the articles and videos and learn more about the British Library’s unparalleled collection of Greek manuscripts!


The Golden Canon Tables, created in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century (Add MS 5111, f. 11r).


16 September 2016

Snakes, Mandrakes and Centaurs: Medieval Herbal Now Online

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Cannabis can be used to treat swollen breasts. The urine of a child has wrinkle-busting properties. Fern, mixed with wine, is a good treatment for wounds. (Sounds promising, although I might go easy on the fern part.) And should you fear encountering snakes, it is best to carry Adderwort with you. These are some of the nuggets of medical wisdom to be found in our recently digitised Sloane MS 1975. The manuscript is an illustrated collection of medical texts, made in England or Northern France in the last quarter of the 12th century.


A man attempting to vanquish a serpent and an image of the Teazle plant, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 21r

Sloane 1975 contains a collection of different works, including a treatise on herbs by Pseudo-Apuleius (the name pseudo-Apuleius is used to refer to an anonymous 4th-century Roman author whose work was sometimes erroneously attributed to Apuleius), Pseudo-Dioscorides, 'De herbis femininis', and a text by Sextus Placitus of Papyra (active c. 370 CE), entitled 'De medicina ex animalibus'. It is extensively illustrated, and the images are a joy.

The image below depicts the Mandrake plant, which was used as an anaesthetic and treatment for melancholy, mania and rheumatic pain. (The plant can induce hallucinations  -- it produces tropane alkaloids: tropane alkaloids are also produced by Erythroxylum novogranatens, the plant which is used to create cocaine.) The roots of the mandrake have the habit of forking in two directions, and can appear to resemble a human figure. Depictions of it often show the plant with a human body or head. It was thought that the plant would scream when pulled from the earth and any who heard the screams would be condemned to death or damnation. Harvesting the plant would therefore pose some problems. The manuscript advises that strings should be attached to the plant and the other end of the strings attached to a dog, which would then pull the plant from the ground. Below, the dog can be seen harvesting the mandrake.


A Mandrake, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 49r

The manuscript’s illustrations serve a variety of purposes. This one, below, shows the appropriate way to deal with a rabid dog. (Can you tell it’s rabid? The clue is in its *rabid*, red face.)


Red faced dog

Man and dog, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 24r

Should you be bitten by a rabid dog, the herbal elsewhere advises, it is best to consult a hen. If the hen has a good appetite, it bodes well for a speedy recovery.

Hen appetite

A hen bodes well for speedy recovery, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 14v

Many of the images illustrate the properties of particular plants, like the one depicting the mandrake. Others, however, appear to have a more incidental purpose. The illustration for Carmel gestures to the alternative names for the plant. Curmel is called ‘Centauria Maior’ in Greek, hence the image below depicts a centaur holding the plant.  


To the left, the plant Carmel, to the right a centaur holds the plant, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 23r

Centaurs make an appearance elsewhere. This image shows the centaur Chiron giving herbs to the goddess Diana or Artemis (who was his foster mother according to some sources). He has apparently named three plants of the genus Artemisia after her. 


Chiron gives herbs to Artemis, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 17v

The manuscript also contains a text called 'De medicina ex animalibus', which has some wonderful images of animals, including something that bills itself as an elephant, but in person looks more like a disappointed tapir vomiting up a tusk.

Elephant crop

An Elephant (apparently), England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 81v

Yet, alongside endearing images of animals, this manuscript also contains grisly images of medical treatment. In this image, a patient’s hands are tied behind his back, while a doctor performs surgery on his head – a grim reminder of the realities of medical treatment before anaesthetics were discovered.


Grim images of medicine before anaesthesia, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 91v

A few folios on and the images get decidedly worse (yes, we also thought they couldn't get any worse). In the top left-hand corner of this image we can see a doctor removing haemorrhoids from a patient (the bowl on which the patient is standing may have been intended to catch the blood). Below this a doctor is excising a nasal growth, and to the right a doctor is removing cataracts. 


Variety of hideous medical procedures, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 93r

This manuscript is currently on show in Cambridge, at the Fitzwilliam Museum's Colour exhibition. Read more about this exhibition and the manuscripts we have loaned to it here

Mary Wellesley 


29 August 2016

Monster Monday

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You may have noticed the recent trend for naming days on Twitter. We've had #WorldElephantDay, #InternationalDogDay and even #nationalburgerday (seriously, who makes this stuff up?!). So, without more ado, we've decided to make a stand and to reclaim Mondays as our very own #MonsterMonday. (You know it makes sense.)


A man without a head, with eyes and a mouth in his chest (a blemmye): Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 102v

For the inaugural #MonsterMonday (the trademark application is in the post), we thought we'd kick off with the Marvels of the East, from the copy that forms part of the famous Beowulf manuscript. A quick advert for our Digitised Manuscripts site here: you should know that you can view digitised images of Beowulf and hundreds of the British Library's other medieval manuscripts, for free and online, from the comfort of your own office/living room/bathroom, 24/7. The manuscript of the Marvels of the East featured here was made sometime around the year AD 1000, most likely during the reign of King Æthelred the Unready (978–1016) or his successor, King Cnut (1016–35). Sadly, it was damaged during the Cotton Library fire of 1731, but the pages containing the images of fantastic beasts are mostly intact, even when the parchment has warped under the intense heat of the flames.

Which monsters do you recognise here? We'd love you to tweet us your favourites, to @BLMedieval, and to join in our little game of Monday mayhem, using the hashtag #MonsterMonday. Otherwise, someone else will come up with an equally daft idea, like #GlobalTurnipWeek, and we wouldn't want that to happen, would we?


A serpent and a two-horned beast: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 99r


A cynocephalus (a man with a dog's head): Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 100r


A man 15 feet high with white bodies and two faces: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101v


A beast-headed man, holding a human leg and foot, alongside a person with long hair: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 103v


A man with ears like winnowing fans: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r


A woman with long hair: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 105v


Julian Harrison


24 August 2016

The Great Medieval Bake Off

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The return of a certain baking contest to British television screens this evening marks the time of year when viewers are struck by a peculiar kind of ‘baking fever’. Typical symptoms include: massively overestimating your own baking talents; buying and using peculiar ingredients you would never usually use; and avidly discussing whose cake had more of a ‘soggy bottom’. This fascination with the baking process and an enjoyment of bread, cakes and pies has long been an important part of society. Baking is, after all, one of the world’s oldest professions, and baking guilds were among the earliest craftsmen guilds established in medieval Europe.

The high level of skill required in the baking craft was certainly recognised in medieval society. In the passage below, the Anglo-Saxon monk, Ælfric, implied that everyone can cook, but it took special skills to be a baker! 'You can live a long time with my skills', he described a baker saying, 'but you cannot live well without them.'

Detail of passage from Ælfric’s colloquy which claims that everyone can cook, but it takes special skills to be a baker (pistor), from marginal additions to a copy of Priscian’s De Excerptiones, Abingdon, 11th century, Add MS 32246, f. 16v

The realities of medieval baking are also depicted in the beautiful illustrations of the Smithfield Decretals. This manuscript contains a collection of 1,971 papal letters, heavily illustrated with scenes which complement the letters and aspects of medieval life. These two illustrations depict two figures, one putting a loaf of bread into the oven and another who waits nearby with a basket of loaves. It is likely that this depicts a communal bread oven, which was popular in the 1300s and allowed all members of the village to bake their own loaves.

Detail of a baker putting a loaf in an oven, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145r


Detail of a man with loaves in a basket and a baker putting loaves in an oven or taking loaves out of an oven, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145v

Another illustration from a 14th-century manuscript depicts a rabbit baking its own bread in a miniature oven!


Detail of marginal image of a rabbit, from Lansdowne MS 451, f. 6r

In medieval society, bakers also provided extravagant fare at feasts and celebrations. Feasts were a fundamental part of medieval society and were used to celebrate victories, proclaim social bonds and enjoy the products of the land.

Detail of men feasting, from the Tiberius Psalter, England (? Old Minster Winchester), 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 5v 

It is easy imagine that preparing for these feasts could be an extremely stressful experience for the cooks and bakers. The illustration below depicts an angry cook brandishing his knife at a member of the service staff.


Marginal illustration from the Luttrell Psalter, Additional MS 42130, f. 207v

Like their modern counterparts, medieval bakers created and used cookbooks, containing recipes and lists of ingredients. A particularly fascinating cookbook was recently discovered here at the British Library, which included recipes for hedgehogs, blackbirds, and even unicorns! The image below, however, is taken from the Forme of Cury, the oldest known instructive cookbook in the English language, dating to the 14th century. The world ‘cury’ is the Middle English word for ‘cookery’. This recipe is for a ‘toastee’, in which two pieces of toasted bread are flavoured with a spiced honey and wine sauce. This cookbook also includes recipes for ‘Pygg in sawse sawge’ or ‘Pig in sage sauce’ and ‘Bank mang’, the predecessor of blancmange.

Recipe for a ‘tostee’, from the Forme of Cury, England, c. 1390, Add MS 5016

Other medieval recipes can be found in the 15th-century cookbook known as the ‘Boke of Kokery’. This manuscript contains 182 recipes, instructing the reader how to ‘hew’ (chop), ‘mele’ (mix), and ‘powdr’ (salt). The page below describes some of the dishes served at a feast for the ordination of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1443. The page also describes a ‘sotelte’ or ‘subtlety’, which was an elaborate sugar sculpture, designed to replicate a biblical scene.


Description of sugar sculptures and other subtleties at a feast for the ordination of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1443, from A Boke of Kokery, England, c. 1443, Harley MS 4016, f. 2r

It is clear that there are many similarities between the medieval and the modern baker. Bakers are still valued members of society, use cookbooks and recipes, and cook for a wide range of functions. One particular difference, however, is the more tolerant approach that modern critics have for bakers whose culinary skills are just not up to scratch. No matter how bad their skills, modern bakers will not be drawn through the streets on the back of a horse with the evidence of their failure tied around their neck.

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a bad baker being dragged on a horse-drawn hurdle with his deficient loaf of bread around his neck, from the Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (Toulouse?), c. 1300-1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 94r

Neither will modern bakers be strung up for their failures of the kitchen, and meet the same fate as the baker in the image below. This is taken from the illustrated Book of Genesis in the Old English Hexateuch, and accompanies the story of the hanging of the Pharaoh’s baker.


Depiction of the hanging of the Pharaoh’s baker in the Old English Hexateuch, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 59r.

Thankfully to many an aspiring baker, modern society is far more tolerant of the varying talents of bakers and the cakes an loaves that they produce!

Becky Lawton


20 August 2016

The Grandisson Psalter

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When John Grandisson (1292–1369) became bishop of Exeter in 1327, he was not taking up an easy job. His predecessor, Walter Stapeldon, had been murdered in London the previous year. The cathedral was half-finished. By 1348, the city was struck by the Black Death, bringing poverty everywhere.

John struck back at the confusion with beauty, ensuring that building works could continue, amassing a library, and making space to write. Perhaps the most stunning book he owned was his Psalter, held at the British Library, Add MS 21926, is now available on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


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

Although the ‘Grandisson Psalter’ was made long before he was born, around 1270–80, we know that it was owned by John because he conveniently had his coat of arms added to the opening page. His will also survives, in which he bequeathed the book to princess Isabella (1332–79), the eldest daughter of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. He called it ‘my rather beautiful Psalter’, with good reason.

The manuscript opens with a delightful calendar – like almost every liturgical book, as regular readers will know – showing the labours of the months and signs of the zodiac. Following this is a marvellous series of miniatures, first showing various saints. Opening the line-up are a cheerful St Christopher, carrying Christ, and St Margaret, triumphantly slaying a dragon with an extended cross/spear.


St Christopher (‘Cristoforus’) and St Margaret (‘Margareta’): Add MS 21926, f. 9v

Following the saints are scenes from the life of Christ. Among these are an incredibly creepy Judas. He often comes across in medieval art as a merely pathetic figure, but here he looks to be aiming to replace Moriarty in the next series of Sherlock.


Judas eating at the Last Supper and kissing Christ: Add MS 21926, f. 18v

Another scene shows an appropriately sceptical Thomas touching the side and hand of Christ. In the panel below is another scene of physical contact, showing Christ having dinner, presumably with Martha and Lazarus: he looks mildly embarrassed to have Mary Magdalene washing his feet.


A doubting Thomas touching Christ and determined Mary Magdalene washing his feet: Add MS 21926, f. 23r

Following the miniatures, the psalms are beautifully written, with large decorated initials and intricate patterns filling in the white space at the end of the lines to create a unified block of text. Like several other illuminated Psalters from the period, some figures are included that act out the literal meaning of the text in a mildly humorous manner, probably meant as a memory aid. One page shows a man on a journey grabbing his tongue to illustrate the phrase, ‘I said, I will take heed to my ways that I offend not in my tongue. I placed a guard on my mouth’ (Psalm 39:1/Vulgate 38:2, ‘Dixi custodiam uias meas ut non delinquam in lingua mea. Posui ori meo custodiam’).


‘I said, I will take heed to my ways that I offend not in my tongue’: Add MS 21926, f. 66v

John Grandisson’s use of the book also comes through beyond his coat of arms. At the beginning of most psalms, music has been added in the lower margin giving the text and music of the antiphon, a sentence sung before and after the psalm. Since the music used for the antiphon is also used for the entire psalm, these small additions would have allowed him to sing the entire book.


A motley crew of engaged and not-so-engaged clerics singing from a book on a lectern, with the chant for ‘Cantate domino canticum nouum’ (Psalm 97/98) later added: Add MS 21926, f. 132v

The continuing active use of the book is confirmed by the last section, which includes the text of the Office for the Dead. A later reader, probably John, used a slightly different variant on the rite than that recorded in the book. A scribe has carefully erased and modified sections of the text, also making changes to the punctuation of the text to fit local usage. These pages must have become particularly poignant for John in the context of the pestilence he faced.


The beginning of the Office for the Dead, with the initial showing a body under a shroud being sprinkled with water: Add MS 21926, f. 208v

John Grandisson’s Psalter is a brilliant witness to the skill of artists and scribes in the late 13th century. We hope you love it as much as its original owners and creators.

Andrew Dunning


18 August 2016

Explore our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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When we started this blog, back in the distant past (2010 to be precise, though sometimes it seems longer), we never anticipated how many people would take an interest in the beautiful world of medieval manuscripts. Who ever knew that unicorn cookbooks, knights fighting snails, magical swords and cats in submarines would inspire so many people worldwide. (And no, we never expected to discover we have readers in Antarctica and Greenland either!)


A cat, a rat and a mouse, from a 13th-century miscellany (Harley MS 3244)

Some of our readers, of course, study manuscripts and ancient documents for their profession, being art historians, palaeographers and papyrologists, to name but a few. But we do appreciate that others may have less technical expertise; and for that reason we wanted to remind everyone of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. This is a free online resource, supplying selected images of some of our greatest treasures alongside other useful information for the specialist and non-specialist alike.

The Nativity, from our introduction to Bible manuscripts 

Here are some of the key features of our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

a search function by keyword, with the ability to select a specific date range

a search function by manuscript number

an advanced search function, with fields including scribe, artist, language, illumination and script

a number of virtual exhibitions, including An introduction to liturgical manuscripts, Arthurian manuscripts and the medieval bestiary

illustrated glossaries of terms, including Hebrew terms

guidance notes on access and re-use


A zoo-anthropomorphic initial, from our online glossary

We hope that as many of you as possible find our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts as useful as possible. Go on, give it a try. You might find out the difference between channeling (ooh, painful) and rinceaux (bless you). And you might just discover the manuscript that will change your life ...