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490 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

18 January 2014

A Map at the End of the World

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Now fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and currently on loan to the National Library of Australia for the Mapping Our World exhibition, Royal MS 14 C IX is one of the British Library’s copies of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, and one of numerous manuscripts in our collection containing medieval maps of the world.

Higden coined the name Historia Polychronicon – meaning ‘a history of many ages’ – to encapsulate the universal scope of his chronicle, which encompassed not only the history of the entire world from Creation to his own era of the fourteenth century, but also its geography as well.

Map of the world from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, ff. 1v-2

This marrying of history and geography can be seen with particular clarity in the large mappa mundi at the beginning of Royal MS 14 C IX, unique among the nearly 150 surviving copies of the Polychronicon in containing two maps (see above).  Unlike their modern counterparts, medieval maps were not concerned solely with landmasses, mountains, rivers, borders and cities, nor with ‘to-scale’ representation.  They were conceptual objects, upon which time as well as space were plotted, with historical events shown alongside visual or prose descriptions of the topography and people of the world. 

Detail of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v

Following a pattern laid down by earlier maps, this one divides the world into the three known continents: Asia in the upper half (f. 1v), Africa stretched along the right and Europe in the lower left-hand corner (f. 2r), with England coloured in red. 

Detail of England, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v

All is surrounded by green ocean, and buffeted by the winds, which are represented by twelve heads, each huffing and puffing.  Major rivers are shown: the Euphrates and the Tigris enclosing Mesopotamia (which means ‘between two rivers’; see above), the Nile snaking its way across Africa, the Rhine coming down from the Alps, and even the Thames meandering past Oxford and London.  Many of the descriptive labels are excerpted from the text of the Polychronicon, indicating that its creator was familiar with Higden’s book, and perhaps used this very copy to annotate the map.

Detail of the Garden of Eden, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 2v

The map also charts the flow of Christian history.  The blank panel at the top is intended to feature a drawing of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (as seen on the other map in this Polychronicon on f. 2v; see above).  Babylon and the Tower of Babel are beneath it, followed by a rather charming sketch of Noah in his ark with a ram, a lion and a stag. 

Detail of Noah in the ark with a ram, lion, and a stag, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v

Jerusalem is given particular prominence, but most remarkable is possibly the tiniest representation of the Crucifixion in a manuscript in the British Library. 

Royal_ms_14_c_ix_f001v_crucifixion_detail copy
Detail of the city of Jerusalem and the Crucifixion, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v

Beneath the label ‘Mons Caluarie’ (Mount Calvary), we see Christ on the cross, the nails in his hands and feet and the wound in his side all clearly visible, accompanied by two figures, presumably the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist. 

Important sites in subsequent Christian history are marked in the lower half of the map: Rome and St. Peter’s as the centre of the Catholic Church, and Santiago de Compostela as the last stage in the Christianization of Europe.

Detail of the pilgrimage trail ending in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v

In Genesis, there are six days of Creation, followed by a seventh day of rest.  St Augustine interpreted this as a prefiguration of the course of human existence, dividing history into six ‘ages of the world’ and proposing that the Last Judgement would occur at the end of the sixth age.  Although Higden divided the historical books of the Polychronicon along different lines, nevertheless he retained the sixfold structure that had been a common feature of universal history since Orosius’s Historia aduersos paganos.  Higden wove together universal and insular historical divisions of time, concentrating the first five ages in the first two historical books of the Polychronicon, and dividing the remaining four according to successive invasions – Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, and Norman – which had long been depicted in history books as divine punishment for people’s sinfulness.  God was immanent in the medieval world and his intervention in human history in the sixth age an imminent possibility.  The reader of this copy of the Polychronicon found themselves at the end of the world in more ways than one.

- James Freeman

16 January 2014

The Three Living and the Three Dead

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Inspired by the massive success of our recent Knight v Snail post, we thought it might be interesting to have a look at some other tropes of medieval art which feature in many of our manuscripts.  One such is that of the Three Living and the Three Dead. 

Miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, with the Anglo-Norman poem 'Le dit des trios morts et trios vifs' below, from the De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308 – c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v

The precise origins of the Three Living and the Three Dead are still somewhat mysterious, but there are many versions of the tale dating back to the 13th century, with the best-known coming from England and France.  The basic version of the story goes like this: three young noblemen are out hunting when they suddenly come across three corpses, which are in varying states of decay, but nonetheless still animated.  Unsurprisingly, the young men express shock and dismay at the sight, while the three corpses admonish them to consider the transience of life and to improve their behaviour before it is too late.

Detail of a miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308 – c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v

The dialogue between the two groups is sometimes explicit, as in the relatively early example above from the early 14th century De Lisle Psalter (Arundel MS 83).  Beneath a miniature of three kings encountering three corpses is an abridged version of the Anglo-Norman poem Le dit des trios morts et trios vifs which describes the ensuing conversation.  Interestingly, above this double-register miniature is a series of inscriptions in the English vernacular, giving additional voice to the characters.  The Three Living cry out: ‘I am afraid’ (Ich am afert), ‘Lo, what I see!’ (Lo whet ich se), and ‘Methinks these be devils three’ (Me þinkes hit bey develes þre).  And the Three Dead reply: ‘I was well fair’ (Ich wes wel fair), ‘Such shall you be’ (Such schel tou be), and ‘For God’s love, beware by me’ (For godes love bewer by me). 


Detail of bas-de-page miniatures of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the Taymouth Hours, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 179v-180r

Similar rubrics can be found in the illustrations of this scene in the mid-14th century Taymouth Hours (Yates Thompson MS 13; click here for a longer post about this magnificent manuscript). The Three Living can be found in the bas-de-page of f. 179v, confronting the Three Dead on the following folio (f. 180r).  One of the Living cries out that he is aghast at the spectacle (Ich am agast), while the others recoil in horror.  The Dead respond in almost identical fashion to those in the De Lisle Psalter, exhorting the Living to take their message to heart and change their ways. 

These bas-de-page scenes can be found in the Taymouth Hours towards the end of the Office of the Dead, a set of prayers for the dead and dying that were included in virtually every medieval Book of Hours.  In some later medieval Hours, the visual motif of the Three Living and the Three Dead was ‘promoted’ to the leading role, prefacing the text of the Office proper.  One interesting example comes from Add MS 35313, a manuscript variously called the ‘London Rothschild Hours’ or the ‘Hours of Joanna I of Castile’, which was produced, probably in Ghent, about the year 1500.  It was almost certainly created for a female patron, possibly Joanna I of Castile, who was often called Joanna the Mad (for more information about Joanna and her manuscripts, see also The Mystery of the Hours of Joanna the Mad, A Medieval Menagerie, and our calendar series for 2012).

Detail of a miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead at the beginning of the Office of the Dead, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 158v

The Office of the Dead in Add MS 35313 opens with a scene of the Three Living encountering the Three Dead while out hawking, and is unusual in including a woman among the hunting party.  This miniature may be a copy of a similar scene in a Book of Hours that belonged to Mary of Burgundy, who was the mother-in-law of Joanna I of Castile; these hours are now in Berlin (Staatliche Museen, Kupferstichkabinett MS 78 B 12, f. 220v).  There are no rubrics or explanatory text associated with this miniature, which implies that these sorts of images were widespread enough to be instantly recognisable to a reader.  The Three Dead, however, appear much more threatening here than in earlier versions, going so far as to chase after the escaping riders with arrows in hand.

Miniature of the Raising of Lazarus and a scene of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the Stuart de Rothesay Hours, Italy (Padua? And Perugia), c. 1508 – c. 1538, Add MS 20927, f. 119v

Another group of ominous Dead appear in the Stuart de Rothesay Hours, produced in Italy c. 1508 – c. 1538.  Beneath a miniature of the Raising of Lazarus is a small panel of the Three Dead, who appear to be attacking the Three Living; note the terrified horses and hunting dogs circling the scene (see detail below).  Rather than exhorting the living to change their ways, the dead are here presented as a danger in themselves.  

Detail of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the Stuart de Rothesay Hours, Italy (Padua? And Perugia), c. 1508 – c. 1538, Add MS 20927, f. 119v

Several more images from our collections are below.  As always, please let us know what you think; you can leave a comment below, or contact us on Twitter at @BLMedieval.


Bas-de-page scenes of the Three Living and the Three Dead on facing folios, from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), c. 1300, with illuminations added in England (London), c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, ff. 258v-259r [for more on this manuscript, see Finishing the Smithfield Decretals]

Harley MS 2917 f. 119r K018714_detail
Detail of a miniature of the Three Living (a pope, an emperor, and a king) and the Three Dead (wearing matching crowns), at the beginning of thee Office of the Dead, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1480 – c. 1490, Harley MS 2917, f. 119r

Harley MS 2953 f. 19v K145732_detail
Miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead on a tipped-in leaf, from a Psalter, Germany (Augsburg?), first half of the 16th century, Harley MS 2953, f. 19v

- Sarah J Biggs

14 January 2014

Yet Another Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks

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A new year, a newly-updated list of digitised manuscript hyperlinks!  This master list contains everything that has been digitised up to this point by the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts department, complete with hyperlinks to each record on our Digitised Manuscripts site.   We'll have another list for you in three months; you can download the current version here: Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 14.01.13.  Have fun!

Diagram of a cherubim, based on Alanus ab Insula (Alain of Lille)'s De sex alia cherubim, from the De Lisle Psalter, England, c. 1308 - c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 5v

- Sarah J Biggs

09 January 2014

An Even Older View of the New World

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Our recent blog post An Old World View of the New got us thinking about other sources of New World images from within our medieval collections.  One excellent example, currently on exhibition in Australia (more below), can be found in Harley MS 2772, which we’ve recently fully-digitised and uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site.  This manuscript is a collection of fragments of Latin texts, including Macrobius’ Commentary on Cicero's Somnium Scipionis (The Dream of Scipio).  Included in the commentary on the ocean is one of the earliest maps ever produced.  It is a round diagram of the earth showing the known and unknown lands and oceans, including Italy and the Caspian Sea.

Diagram of the earth and oceans, Harley MS 2772, Germany 11th century, f. 70v

Although this is an eleventh-century copy, the map was first created in the early 5th century, when Macrobius originally wrote his commentary.  Most of the maps made at this time focused on the known world of the Roman Empire, but Macrobius was interested in the idea that other parts of the earth might be inhabited.  Starting with a commentary on Cicero’s work, in which Scipio views the earth from the heavens in a dream, he writes at length on the nature of the planet and its peoples.  He argues against the biblical world-view that Noah’s three sons populated Asia, Europe and Africa, and that, as he had no other son, the remainder of the earth must be uninhabited. 

Detail of a diagram of the earth and oceans, Harley MS 2772, Germany 11th century, f. 70v

This diagram divides the earth into five zones, the extreme north and south which are labelled ‘INHABITABILIS’ (uninhabitable), the torrid zone at the Equator with its boiling hot sea, ‘RUBRUM MARE’ (red sea) and in between the two temperate zones.  The one in the north is ‘TEMPERATA NOSTRA’ (our temperate zone), with Italy at the centre and bordered by the Caspian Sea and the Orkney Islands (‘ORCADES’).  To the south is ‘TEMPERATA ANTETORUM’, which probably means something like ‘outside temperate zone’, i.e. outside the known world an area which is not designated as unpopulated.

So could this be the earliest map of the antipodes? The Australians certainly think so! A current exhibition in The National Library of Australia in Canberra entitled Mapping our World: Terra Incognita to Australia features this manuscript from the British Library. 

Other medieval maps on loan for the exhibition are:

The Anglo-Saxon World Map, one of the earliest surviving maps from Western Europe, which shows nothing further south than Ethiopia, and after that there are only monsters.

Anglo-Saxon world map, England (Canterbury) 2nd quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, f. 56v

The Psalter World Map, a very small but detailed depiction of the earth with Jerusalem at the centre in a book containing a collection of psalms and prayers, made in south-east England in the mid-13th century.  As this is a religious work, God and the angels preside over the earth.

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

And finally, the map from Higden’s Polychronicon (or universal history) from Ramsay Abbey focuses on England (in red), but contains details of provinces and towns in Europe, Asia and Africa.

Map of the World from the Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, ff. 1v-2

Of course, Australia does not appear on any of the above, and it is not until the 16th century that an unknown southern continent ‘Terra Australis’ or perhaps even the ‘Londe of Java’, as depicted in Henry VIII’s Boke of Idrography can be found.

Jean Rotz,
Map of the Two Hemispheres, France and England, 1542, Royal 20 E IX, ff. 29v-30

The exhibition catalogue contains these and many more gorgeous reproductions of maps of the world and Australia, including coastal maps and diagrams by the early settlers.  Please have a look at Mapping our World: Terra Incognita to Australia (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2013), and as always, you can follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval.

- Chantry Westwell

07 January 2014

Welcome to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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Did you know that thousands of images from the British Library's collections are available on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts?


Detail of a kneeling figure in a calendar for January (Germany, 13th century): London, British Library, MS Arundel 159, f. 1v

Our catalogue enables you to search by keyword or date, or by its reference (if known); and you can also perform an advanced search using such criteria as language and provenance. The site also contains a number of virtual exhibitions -- such as The Royal collection of manuscripts, Arthurian manuscripts in the British Library and French illuminated manuscripts -- and there's a helpful glossary to help you navigate your way round some of the terms used when describing medieval books. What's more, all images on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts are available for download and re-use under a Creative Commons licence, on the condition that you respect our terms and conditions. How fantastic is that?

And here, in true Blue Peter fashion, are the results of a search we did earlier for images of hedgehogs (don't ask). No fewer than 8 manuscripts featured in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts contain pictures of hedgehogs, 5 of which are illustrated here -- which are your favourites?


Hedgehog number 1, in an Italian gradual (15th century): London, British Library, MS Additional 39636, f. 13.



Hedgehog number 2, in a German manuscript (15th century): London, British Library, MS Egerton 1121, f. 44v.



Hedgehog number 3, in an English miscellany (13th century): London, British Library, MS Harley 3244, f. 49v.



Hedgehog number 4, in Jean de Wavrin's Chronicles (15th century): London, British Library, MS Royal 15 E IV, f. 180r.



Hedgehog number 5, in the Queen Mary Psalter(14th century): London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 97v.

A medieval hedgehog beauty contest, brought to you by courtesy of @BLMedieval -- what more could you want?!

Julian Harrison

04 January 2014

I Can't Stand the Rain

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If you've been in London recently, or anywhere in the United Kingdom for that matter, you may have noticed that it's been extremely wet. Many areas were flooded during heavy storms just before Christmas, and the rains haven't relented. During daylight hours the sky has been an almost permanent shade of grey, and often it's also been blowing a gale, just to rub salt into the wounds.

So, to cheer everyone up, we thought that we'd find you some images of rain from the British Library's medieval manuscript collections. We defy you not to smile at some of these ingenious pictures.


This collection of love sonnets was made in 15th-century Italy, probably Milan, and presented to a lady identified in the text as Mirabel Zucharia. Look at the right-hand margin of the opening page, where you can see a heart on a bonfire, being quenched by the rain. London, British Library, MS King's 322, f. 1r.



Now, you may well ask yourself what's happening here. This is an abridged translation into Middle English of Giovanni Boccaccio's The Fall of Princes. On the page above, Croesus kneels in a fire which is extinguished by the rain pouring from a cloud above. Lucky for him that it was raining! London, British Library, MS Harley 1766, f. 133r.



As if not to be outdone, here is another Italian miniature, this time from a Tuscan copy of Dante's Divina Commedia dating from the 1440s. This illustration is taken from Canto VI, the third circle (of rain, hail, wind and snow, brrrr), and depicts Virgil flinging earth into the jaws of Cerberus. London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 36, f. 11r.



Finally, what's this? Heavens above, it's the sun! We'd almost forgotten what that looked like. From the aptly-named Splendor solis. May the sun shine on you, wherever you are! London, British Library, MS Harley 3469, f. 2r.

You can search for all these manuscripts on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Have fun!

Julian Harrison

01 January 2014

A Calendar Page for January 2014

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Over the past few years, we have highlighted a series of calendars from medieval manuscripts, including the Isabella Breviary (see this post for more details on calendars in medieval manuscripts), the Hours of Joanna of Castile (Joanna the Mad) and the Golf Book.  This year we have chosen a spectacular Flemish Book of Hours, the Huth Hours (Add MS 38126). This manuscript, which takes its name from a later owner, Henry Huth, was produced in Ghent or Bruges c. 1480. 

Miniature of the Pentecost, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 45v

It is not known for whom the Huth Hours was created, although the initials ‘MY’ and ‘YM’ can be found on one of the calendar pages for November (f. 12r), a possible clue to the identity of the original patron.  Added to the end of the manuscript is a group of prayers in French in a late 15th century hand, which has led some scholars to suggest that the manuscript was created for a French patron, or one connected to the Flemish Hapsburg court at that time.  Other scholars have argued for a German origin, citing the inclusion of a number of German saints in the calendar.

Miniature of the Visitation, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 66v

Many of the miniatures in the manuscript were painted by the noted artist Simon Marmion and his workshop, who worked on the Hours in collaboration with the Master of the Houghton Miniatures, the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, and possibly the enigmatically-named Ghent Associates.  These miniatures are noteworthy for their beautifully-rendered landscapes, a feature of Flemish art in this period.  This interest is reflected in the calendar as well, which incorporates small roundels containing miniatures of the labours of the month and the signs of the zodiac.

Miniature of the St Jerome in the desert, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 227v

The manuscript opens with the calendar page for January (see below).  Set against a trompe l’oeil strew border is a miniature of a two noblemen warming themselves before a fire in what appears to be a well-appointed bedroom.  A table laden with food and a silver service sits nearby, as well as a small gray cat (it is unclear whether the cat is more interested in the fire or the potential for dinner scraps).  The following folio continues the listing of saints’ days and feasts for January; below is a roundel with a painting of a nude man pouring water from two jugs (for the zodiac sign Aquarius), above a wintry landscape.

Calendar page for January, with a roundel miniature of two men warming themselves before a fire, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 1v

Calendar page for January, with a roundel miniature of Aquarius and a man in a wintry landscape, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 2r

Happy New Year!

- Sarah J Biggs

31 December 2013

One Million Hits and Counting!

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It would be impossible for us to convey in words our excitement at reaching the milestone of one million hits to our blog, so we won't even try!  Below are a few images that come close to adequately representing our feelings.  Thank you all so much for your comment and your support, and we look forward to bringing you much more manuscript joy in future!

Detail of a friar playing music and a nun dancing, from the Maastricht Hours, Stowe MS 17, f. 38r

Detail of dancers during 'la karole damours', from the Roman de la Rose, Royal MS 20 A XVII, f. 9r

Add MS 27695 f. 14r K057778
Detail of people drinking, from a treatise on the Seven Vices, Add MS 27695, f. 14r

- Sarah J Biggs & Julian Harrison