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389 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

13 February 2013

Naked Came the Werewolf

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Detail of a miniature of Dante conversing with Virgil (right) and Dante being attacked by a wolf representing Greed (left); from Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia, Italy (Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 2r

We have already taken a brief look at wolves as gluttonous threats to flocks and the enemies of sheepdogs.  But if wolves represent greed and savagery, they can also be savagery tamed.  When the retainers of the slain King Edmund searched the forest for his severed head, the king's sanctity (and natural dominion over man and beast) was demonstrated when a wild wolf did not desecrate the head, but protected it.


Detail of a miniature of the discovery of the head of St Edmund, guarded by a wolf; the head has called out to the searchers, crying 'Heer, heer, heer!'; from John Lydgate, Life of St Edmund and St Fremund, England (Bury St Edmunds?), 1461-c. 1475, Yates Thompson MS 47, f. 54r

This is not to discount the threat of the wolf, however.  In one of the more bizarre bestiary stories, the reader is warned of the dangers of encountering wolves in the wild.  If you see the wolf before he sees you, you are safe.  But if the wolf catches sight of you unawares, you will be, not attacked, but instead rendered mute.  There is only one cure for this condition.  You must quickly take off all your clothes, throw them on the ground and trample them.  Then you must pick up two stones and bang them together to make a loud noise – only then will your power of speech be restored!  A valuable tip for public speakers struck dumb by stage fright.


Detail of a miniature of wolves and (below) the man they have struck dumb, effecting his cure by stripping out of his clothes and striking rocks together; from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 29r

Stripping off clothes seems to be a recurring theme in stories about wolves, and even more in tales about werewolves. There, clothes symbolize civilization, cast aside to take on the appearance as well as the habits of the wolf.  Pliny's Natural History tells of a people who leave their clothes hanging in a tree and transform into wolves.  If, after nine years, they have abstained from eating human flesh, they can return, retrieve their clothes, and become human again.


Miniature of Pliny writing in his study, overlooking a vista that comprises the whole of creation, including land, sea and heavens, as well as animals and human habitation; from Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis, Italy (Rome), c. 1457-1458, Harley MS 2677, f. 1r

Marie de France tells a similar tale about Bisclavret, a knight with the power to change into a wolf by taking off his clothes.  But his unfaithful wife learned the secret and stole his clothes, trapping him in werewolf form.  While hunting, the king encountered his transformed retainer, who lay down before him and made a show of submission, convincing the king to adopt the loyal animal as a pet.  But when the knight's treacherous lady came to court one day, the usually placid wolf attacked her, biting off her nose.  Only then did the king realized the wolf's identity and give him back his clothes, changing him once more into a human being.


The first page of Bisclavret, beginning 'Quant de lais faire mentremet...', and headed by the added title 'bisclaueret'; from Marie de France, Lais, England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 978, f. 131v

Nor is Bisclavret the only werewolf to show signs of humanity.  An Irish story tells about a priest who became lost on the road and encountered a werewolf.  The wolf spoke to him, asking him to perform last rites for his dying wife (also a werewolf).  The priest complied, and the grateful werewolf then directed him on his way.  Was the priest right, the story wonders, to assume that the soul of a good Christian might reside in the cursed and savage form of a wolf?


The next time you see a wolf, therefore, remember the lessons of the werewolf.  There is only a thin separation between man and beast.  And always remember where you left your trousers!


Detail of a miniature of two werewolves: the cursed husband on the left, and the priest administering last rites to the dying wife on the right; from Gerald of Wales, Topographica Hibernica, England (perhaps Lincoln), c. 1196-1223, Royal MS 13 B. viii, f. 18r

11 February 2013

Hwæt! Beowulf Online

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The manuscript of Beowulf, the greatest poem in the Old English language, can now be viewed online for the first time. Made around the year 1000, most likely during the reign of King Æthelred the Unready (978-1016), this manuscript committed to parchment a tale that (in some modern scholars' opinions) had been passed down for centuries, between generations of storytellers.


The opening words of Beowulf, beginning "Hwæt" ("Listen!"): London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 132r.

In its present state, the poem, named after its hero Beowulf, contains more than 3,000 lines, and divides conventionally into three comparatively equal sections: Beowulf's struggle with the monster, Grendel; the revenge of Grendel's mother; and Beowulf's final contest with a dragon, which was guarding a hoard of treasure. What marks out Beowulf is the gripping and highly developed story, and the richness of its language.

The Beowulf-manuscript was damaged by fire in 1731, but much of its text remains readable. Here the poem recounts Beowulf's preparations for battle with Grendel: London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 147r.

Known sometimes as the "Nowell Codex", after its erstwhile owner Laurence Nowell (d. c. 1570), the Beowulf-manuscript entered the library of Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), and still retains his pressmark of Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (the 15th item on the 1st shelf of a bookpress named after the Roman emperor Vitellius). Cotton's collection was bequeathed to the nation in 1702, and formed one of the foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753. Beowulf is now in the safe-keeping of the British Library; and we are hugely proud to be able to bring it to new audiences through our Digitised Manuscripts site.

More posts about the contents and history of the Beowulf-manuscript will be featured on this blog in the coming weeks.

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09 February 2013

Treasures Wonderful To Behold

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Over the past few years, we've had great pleasure in making many of our books available to view in their entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Periodic announcements have been made on this blog, relating notably to the digitisation of our Greek and Royal manuscripts and to our Harley Science Project. But nothing quite compares to the new treasures now added to Digitised Manuscripts, encompassing the fields of art, literature and science.

And when we say "treasures", we really mean it! The six books in question are none other than (drumroll, please) the Harley Golden Gospels, the Silos Apocalypse, the Golf Book, the Petit Livre d'Amour ... and, um, two others. What were they again? Oh yes, remember now. Only Beowulf and Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook. How could we forget?

The Harley Golden Gospels (London, British Library, MS Harley 2788, f. 71v).

Each of these six manuscripts is a true splendour, and has immense significance in its respective field, whether that be Anglo-Saxon literature, Carolingian or Flemish art, or Renaissance science and learning. On Digitised Manuscripts you'll be able to view every page in full and in colour, and to see the finer details using the deep zoom facility. You can read more about the chosen six in a special feature in the Financial Times Weekend magazine, published on 9 February 2013.

Harley Golden Gospels (Harley MS 2788): this beautiful gospelbook was made in early-9th-century Germany, perhaps at Aachen. The text is written entirely in gold ink, which even today glistens in the light; the sheer wealth of its decoration lends this manuscript its association with the Carolingian royal court.

Beowulf (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV): contains the longest epic poem in Old English, and arguably one of the greatest works of world literature. The manuscript was made around the year AD 1000, and escaped destruction by fire in 1731: the scorch marks are still visible on its pages.

Beowulf (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV. f. 132r).

Silos Apocalypse (Additional MS 11695): this commentary on the Apocalypse was made by monks at the Spanish abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos, being started in AD 1091 and completed in 1109. The decoration leaps out from every page, remaining as vivid as the day it was painted.

The Silos Apocalypse (London, British Library, MS Additional 11695, f. 5v).

Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook (Arundel MS 263): compiled between the years c. 1478 and 1518, this notebook deals with many of the subjects close to Leonardo's heart: mechanics, geometry, hydraulics, optics, astronomy and architecture. Written in his characteristic mirror script, one scholar has described Leonardo's book as an "explosion of ideas".

Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook ("Codex Arundel") (London, British Library, MS Arundel 263, ff. 84v + 88r).

Petit Livre d'Amour (Stowe MS 955): Pierre Sala (d. 1529), a valet de chambre of Louis XII of France, made his "Little Book of Love" for his mistress (and subsequently wife) Marguerite Builloud. Who could not have been bowled over by such a gift? The manuscript is still preserved in its original carrying case, inscribed with the letters P and M.

Petit Livre d'Amour (London, British Library, MS Stowe 955, f. 17r).

Golf Book (Additional MS 24098): famous for its depiction of a game resembling golf, this Book of Hours contains a series of miniatures attributable to Simon Bening (d. 1561), one of the greatest Flemish artists.

The Golf Book (London, British Library, MS Additional 24098, f. 20v).

We are delighted to be able to share these six glorious manuscripts with our readers around the world; and we hope in turn that you share them with your friends too. You can also currently see Beowulf, the Harley Golden Gospels and select pages from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Gallery.

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07 February 2013

Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander on YouTube

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We recently announced that the magnificent gospelbook commissioned by Tsar Ivan Alexander, British Library Additional MS 36927, is available in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Readers of this blog may also be interested to learn that a video describing this manuscript's history is also now available on YouTube. "Portrait of a Masterpiece" is narrated by manuscript expert Ekaterina Dimitrova, and includes footage shot at the British Library, including an interview with Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of History and Classics.

Royal portraits: f. 2v: Constantine, the son-in-law of Ivan Alexander, flanked by three daughters of the tsar: Kerathamar (Constantine's wife), Keratsa and Desislava; f. 3r: Ivan Alexander in imperial garb, accompanied by his wife Theodora, his son Ivan Shishnan in imperial garb, and another son Ivan Asen. Above, two hands emerge from a cloud, making gestures of blessing over the Tsar and his wife, from the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, Bulgaria, 1355-1356, Add MS 39627, ff. 2v-3r

The manuscript can also currently be viewed by visitors to the British Library, in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library. Meanwhile, we are grateful to Ekaterina Dimitrova for sharing this video with us. We hope that you too can join us in our mutual affection for this wonderful book.

05 February 2013

Extra! Extra!: Richard III Lyth Buryd at Lecitor

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Detail of a miniature of Richard III (b. 1452, d. 1485); from the Biblical and genealogical chronicle from Adam and Eve to Edward VI, England (London or Westminster), c. 1511, with additions before 1557, King's MS 395, f. 33r

By this point, you have probably heard the big news out of Leicester: the skeleton found in the Greyfriars car park is indeed that of Richard III.  It is not very often that the world of medieval studies enjoys the thrill of 'breaking news'.  Of course, as has been well reported, it is not precisely news that Richard was buried in Leicester.  Those of us who were standing by to hear from the University of Leicester team can remember that it was not journalists but chroniclers who got the scoop. To name one example, a genealogical chronicle of the Tudor period includes Richard in the illustrated tree of succession, with the explanatory note: 'Richard that was sonne to Richard Dewke of Yorke & brother unto Kyng Edward the iiiith, was kyng after hys brother & raynyd ii yeres & lyth buryd at Lecitor [lies buried at Leicester]'.  A statement we now know is true!


A tangled line of succession, culminating in (on the lower page, in roundels marked with coats of arms)  Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII; from the Biblical and genealogical chronicle from Adam and Eve to Edward VI, England (London or Westminster), c. 1511, with additions before 1557, King's MS 395, ff. 32v-33r

This genealogy handles Richard's demise and the subsequent succession in a way usual for medieval family trees: it visually erases the discontinuity.  Richard was killed in battle against the forces of his rival, Henry Tudor (Henry VII).  But here we see no great divide between the Plantagenet and Tudor dynasties.  Rather, Henry VII sits directly under Richard on the family tree, his lines of descent snaking up to join the main tree some generations in the past.


Detail of the genealogy of Edward IV, on (below) trees sprouting from Edward I (right) and Peter of Castile (left), and including the severing of Richard II from the tree by a sword-wielding Henry IV (center); from the typological life and genealogy of Edward IV, England, 1460-c. 1470, Harley MS 7353

This is perhaps not surprising in a document originating during the reign of Henry's own grandson, Edward VI.  But at least one genealogy takes a different approach to the death and deposition of another Richard, King Richard II.  Richard II was overthrown by Henry IV, the first of England's Lancastrian kings, whose grandson Henry VI was, in turn, overthrown by Edward IV to restore Yorkist rule.  For this manuscript made during Edward's reign, therefore, Richard II would have been the rightful king unjustly deposed by a usurper.  And in this image, we can see the cutting of the line of succession made literal by a sword-wielding Henry IV, the violence of the dynastic discontinuity perhaps also suggesting violence against Richard II's own person – he died while in Edward's custody.


The autograph of Richard III (as Duke of Gloucester, before 1483); from Chroniques de France ou St Denis, France (Paris), last quarter of the 14th century, after 1380, Royal MS 20 C. vii, f. 134r

While Richard III's untimely end is one of the most colourful aspects of his story, it is also possible to reach out to the living king.  Richard owned a number of books during his life, a few of which still survive today, some in the British Library.  We know from signatures contained in its pages that Richard owned a copy of the French romance Tristan – a delightful tale of love and adventure.  And another book, on the 'Dedes of Knyghthode', holds the coats of arms both of Richard (as king of England) and of his wife, Anne Neville.  This volume was perhaps made for their young son Edward, who predeceased his father in 1484.  When we look at these books, they help bring back to life the hands that held them, a controversial monarch at a turbulent period in England's past.


Initial 'H'(ere) of the arms of Richard III; from Vegetius, De re militari (The Book of Vegecy of Dedes of Knyghthode), England (London?), c. 1483-1485, Royal MS 18 A. ii, f. 1r

Nicole Eddy

04 February 2013

Nothin' but a Hound Dog

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Detail of a miniature of King Garamantes, being rescued by his dogs; from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 30v

Recently we examined cats in medieval manuscripts.  But what about man's best friend, the dog?  Dogs were, then as now, renowned for their loyalty.  Medieval tomb effigies sometimes included a dog resting at the feat of the deceased, indicating the loyalty of the dead man himself, a faithful retainer to his lord.


Miniatures of a sheepdog, a hunting dog in pursuit of a stag, a hunting dog in pursuit of a hare, and (bottom) the story of the dog mourning by the body of his murdered master and identifying the killer; from a bestiary, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century (after 1236), Harley MS 3244, f. 45r

This quality of loyalty works its way into many of the stories told about dogs in bestiaries.  A king named Garamantes was once captured by his enemies.  He was freed, however, when his hundreds of dogs spontaneously charged, attacking the men who held him prisoner, and leading him back to safety.  In another story, a man was murdered by his enemy.  His faithful dog was inconsolable, and stood beside the corpse, howling and drawing a crowd of onlookers.  When the murderer saw this crowd gathering, he thought to allay suspicion by mingling with the throng.  But the dog was not fooled.  He attacked the murderer, biting him and continuing to howl in mourning.  Faced with such a clear accusation, the murderer confessed.


Detail of a miniature of Sir Lancelot, in conversation with a lady holding a small dog on her lap; from Morte Artu, France (St Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315-1325, Royal MS 14 E. iii, f. 146r

Dogs in medieval manuscripts are most often hunting hounds, chasing down hares, or dogs fierce in defence of their masters.  But lap dogs also appear in medieval texts: small, aristocratic animals who were the companions of fashionable ladies.  Sir Tristan, so the story goes, sailed to France, where the king's daughter fell in love with him.  But Tristan was already in love with Isolde, the wife of his uncle King Mark, and refused the princess's advances.  She sent to him love letters, though, as well as a small dog, named Husdent.  While the affair with the French princess was one-sided and short-lived, Husdent himself would go on to become an important part of Tristan's story.  Devastated that he could not be with the married Isolde, Tristan lost his senses and ran into the forest to live as a wild man.  On returning to civilization some time later, he was so altered from his ordeal that Isolde did not recognize him.  But the faithful Husdent immediately knew his master, and Tristan's true identity was revealed.


Miniature of the personification of Gluttony, riding on the back of a wolf; from the Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1440-c. 1450 (after 1436), Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 168v

Man's faithful companion also had a more wild and threatening counterpart. If dogs were symbols of loyalty, wolves were personifications of greed.  Isidore of Seville observed, correctly, that the Latin word for wolf (lupus) gave rise to a slang term for prostitute (lupa).  These women were said to be greedy for financial gain, and so were termed 'she-wolves'.


A she-wolf from mythology: detail of a miniature of (foreground) two men digging a grave for the Rhea Silvia, the princess and Vestal Virgin sentenced to death for bearing Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the god Mars, who are shown behind with the she-wolf (lupa) that raised them after their usurping great-uncle cast them out to die; from a French translation of Giovanni Boccacio, De claribus mulieribus, France (Rouen), c. 1440, Royal MS 16 G. v, f. 55r

Just as dogs were shown as helpful working animals, the protectors of the flock, wolves were the greedy thieves who ran off with the sheep.  But a wolf needed to be careful lest he be caught in the act, since he shared one of his cousin's major weaknesses: dog breath.  The smelly breath of a wolf could, the bestiaries claimed, give him away as he crept up on his prey, alerting the watching sheepdogs.  A canny wolf would plan for this, however, and always approach a flock from downwind. 


Detail of a miniature of a wolf, sneaking up on sheep from downwind; from a bestiary, England, c. 1200-c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C. xix, f. 19r

Nicole Eddy

01 February 2013

A Calendar Page for February 2013

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For more details on calendar pages or the Golf Book, please see the post for January 2013.



Calendar page for February with a feasting scene, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 19v

The opening full-page miniature for February (above) shows a continuation of the winter 'labour' of feasting, albeit in a much more lavish setting than is typical of such calendar scenes.  In this miniature, a lord and lady are being served at table in a richly-appointed room; they are surrounded by attendants and are being entertained by a troop of musicians who are accompanied by a rather mischievous-looking jester. In the bas-de-page, a group of men in grisaille are playing at hoop rolling.  On the following folio (below) can be found the saints' days for February and the zodiac sign of Pisces, while the hoop games continue.  The games on this folio seem slightly more complicated and acrobatic than the previous (although we are not certain that 'acrobatic' is the best adjective for what the two gentlemen on the right appear to be doing; as always, any suggestions or comments are most welcome!).



Calendar page for February with a bas-de-page scene of men playing at hoop-rolling, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 20r

30 January 2013

A Menagerie of Miracles: The Illustrated Life of St Cuthbert

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YT 26 f. 1v a80033-02

Miniature of a monk (Bede?) kissing the feet of St Cuthbert, from the preface to Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 1v

Last year the British Library was pleased to announce the acquisition of the 7th century St Cuthbert Gospel (Additional MS 89000) following the largest public fundraising campaign in our history; see herehere and here for more.  Following the acquisition, the St Cuthbert Gospel was exhibited in our Treasures Gallery alongside another manuscript equally well known to lovers of all things Cuthbertian, Yates Thompson MS 26.

This 12th century manuscript is our latest addition to the Digitised Manuscripts website.  Yates Thompson MS 26 contains a number of texts about England's favourite hermit and bishop, most notably Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert (vita beati Cuthberti).  But it is probably most famous for its extensive programme of illumination, which documents almost every episode in St Cuthbert's holy life.  Key events depicted include the establishment of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert's ridding the wife of King Ecgfrith's prefect from the demons that beset her, the saint's much-mourned death and subsequent healings at his tomb.  These miniatures are beautifully interspersed with those of more 'mundane' miracles, like a crow bringing lard in atonement for stealing straw and Cuthbert curing a monk of diarrhoea.  Some of our other favourites are below:


YT 26 ff. 10v-11r a80033-04

Miniature of St Cuthbert praying to God to change the winds beside the river Tyne; miniature of two monks at the monastery of Tynemouth praying for the safety of those blown away in a gale, from Chapter 3 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, ff. 10v-11r


Miniature of the young St Cuthbert kneeling in prayer, interrupted by his horse finding bread and cheese wrapped in linen hidden within a roof, from Chapter 5 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 14r



Miniature of (lower left) Cuthbert praying in the sea, and, after he has finished (lower right), otters coming to warm and dry his feet with their breath and fur, while (above), another monk secretly watches the miracle, from Chapter 10 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 24r



Miniature of St Cuthbert in a boat at sea, with two other men, from Chapter 11 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 26r



Miniature of an eagle bringing St Cuthbert and his companion a fish, which they then share with the eagle, from Chapter 12 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 28v



Miniature of St Cuthbert building his hermitage on the island of Farne, with the help of an angel, from Chapter 17 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 39r



Miniature of St Cuthbert miraculously discovering a roof beam for his church in the waves of the ocean, from Chapter 21 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 45v


YT 26 f. 63v E123036

Detail of a miniature of St Cuthbert's vision of the soul of a man, who was killed by falling from a tree, being carried to heaven, from Chapter 34 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 63v


YT 26 f. 74v a80031-95

Miniature of monks at St Cuthbert's hermitage signalling with torches to the monks of Lindisfarne that Cuthbert is dead, from Chapter 40 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 74v


The Life of Cuthbert is the first British Library manuscript from the Yates Thompson collection to be made available on Digitised Manuscripts, but we can promise you that it will not be the last.  Much more information about the extraordinary collector Henry Yates Thompson and his eponymous collection can be found in our virtual exhibition appropriately titled Henry Yates Thompson's Illuminated Manuscripts

Sarah J Biggs

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