Medieval manuscripts blog

406 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

05 April 2013

Calling All Manuscript Sleuths: The Macclesfield Alphabet Book

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Folio with a portion of a sample alphabet, England, 1475-1525, British Library Add MS 88887, f. 14r


The Macclesfield Alphabet Book is an exquisitely beautiful c. 15th-century 'pattern book'. It contains the most complete set of designs for manuscript decoration known to have survived from late-medieval Britain. It might have been used as a model book for scribes to copy from whilst creating luxury books, or perhaps as a display of an artist's or workshop's skills, to show to potential patrons.  Until a few years ago, its existence was unknown, with the British Library holding the only other known English late medieval pattern book (Sloane MS 1448a, see here for more). Our manuscript, now British Library Additional MS 88887, was in the collection of the Earls of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle and when it came onto the market in 2009, the Library was able to purchase it using funds raised from benefactors, including the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund, and many private individuals.



Folio with a sample alphabet, England, 1475-1525, British Library Add MS 88887, f. 26r


The manuscript contains a collection of 14 different sets of specimen initials or letters in alphabetical order in the Gothic script of the 15th century, with later additions in the Humanistic script of the early 16th century. The 'ABCs' are wonderfully illustrated, including letters formed using animals and people. Viewing the images online, one cannot help but be captivated by the inventiveness of the artists, and wonder at the work's real purpose, as some of the designs do not seem to have been created for use in real books.



Folio with samples of border decoration, England, 1475-1525, British Library Add MS 88887, f. 45r


Along with the alphabets there are also included colourful designs for the borders and margins of manuscripts.  Additionally, on f. 9v there is a mysterious drawing of an uprooted tree with a shield inscribed 'R.B.' (see below). An emblem, perhaps a rebus in colours with gold with three flowers and two gold gloves hanging down and the word 'cli[m]i[n]g' or 'ch[ar]i[n]g', is on f. 46r (see below). The full significance of these images is yet to be determined, so if there are any manuscript sleuths out there who have the answer, please send us your ideas!



'R.B' emblem, England, 1475-1525, British Library Add MS 88887, f. 9v



Detail of a rebus, England, 1475-1525, British Library Add MS 88887, f. 46r


- Chantry Westwell

02 April 2013

A Calendar Page for April 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 April with a courting scene, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 21v


The calendar for April opens with a typical scene for spring; an aristocratic couple are shown courting in a walled and flowering garden.  The richly-dressed lady's dog is nearby, lapping water from the garden's fountain.  Behind the couple, a nobleman is preparing to go hawking, another commonly-depicted pursuit for this time of year.  The theme of fertility and new life is echoed at the top of the miniature, where a pair of storks can be seen building their nest on the top of a chimney.  Below, six men are playing a game with a bat and ball.  On the following folio is a roundel with a painting of a bull, for the zodiac sign Taurus. At the bottom of this page a sherpherd and his bagpipe-playing companion are looking over their flock of sheep, complete with new lambs and a single goat.



Calendar page for April with a bas-de-page scene of shepherds, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 22r

01 April 2013

Loch Ness Monster Found at British Library

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Researchers at the British Library have found sensational evidence for the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. Hidden within the pages of a 12th-century manuscript is not only a description but also a drawing of the beast known to millions as Nessie.


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Loch Ness in Scotland, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; image of the British Library, London, from Wikipedia


Walter of Bingham (d. c. 1197) was a minor cleric from Nottinghamshire who, unable to fulfill his vow to go on the Third Crusade, made a pilgrimage to the holy sites of Scotland. William's own manuscript of Itinerarium Scotiae (The Journey Through Scotland) has been long neglected , but shows the author's fascination with Scottish history, customs and wildlife. One commentator has remarked that "Walter of Bingham is to Scotland what Marco Polo is to China". The tone of The Journey Through Scotland emulates the writings of Walter's famous mentor, Gerald of Wales, who wrote accounts of Ireland and Wales in the 1180s and 1190s.


Walter of Bingham


Walter’s encounter with Nessie came one summer evening, as he approached the banks of the River Ness. Students of the Loch Ness Monster will be aware that in the earliest account, found in Adomnán’s Life of St Columba (written around AD 700), Nessie was seen not in the loch but in the neighbouring river; and this is corroborated by Walter’s story. Seeking safe passage across the river, Walter of Bingham asked a group of fishermen mending their nets, but they rejected his request with terror in their eyes. Next, walking downstream, Walter encountered a young boy dragging his coracle along the shore. Hesitating at first, the boy agreed to row Walter of Bingham across in return for a silver coin. They crossed without mishap, much to Walter’s displeasure, for he was self-confessedly thrifty; but as he watched the coracle heading back to the other shore, a great beast with fire sparking from its eyes suddenly erupted from below the waters, uttered an almighty roar, and then dragged the coracle and its unhappy occupant beneath the waves.


BL Project multi #0001379The Loch Ness Monster, and the boy in the overturned coracle, as seen with the naked eye (London, British Library, MS Cotton Hilarius A. XV, f. 104r). The page is now exceedingly faded, but the image can be recovered using RZS©.


Walter of Bingham’s account provides firm proof of the existence of the Loch Ness Monster in the 12th century. But what is perhaps more remarkable is the drawing of Nessie which accompanies the text, now severely faded and barely visible with the naked eye. The drawing’s significance was first recognized by an international team of imaging scientists, cryptozoologists and manuscript experts, who for the past year have been analysing the British Library’s pictures of mythical beasts. Using a pioneering technique known as Re-Zoom Spectroscopy (RZS), the scientists took multiple photographs of the page in question, which were overlaid and processed using a “Guggenheim manipulator”. The resulting image demonstrates that Walter of Bingham made a careful depiction of Nessie, and can now be revealed as the earliest known picture of the Loch Ness Monster.


BL Project RZS spec #0004179The Loch Ness Monster, as recovered using RZS©. Walter of Bingham is depicted on the right (an early example of a self-portrait), with the wretched occupant of the coracle about to be tossed into the water.


The shape of Nessie as recorded by Walter is hugely significant. Traditionally, the Loch Ness Monster is depicted in serpentine form, often with long humps protruding above the waves. The beast seen by Walter of Bingham most closely resembles a gigantic bear, and experts suggest that it may have been an enormous cousin of the modern-day Grizzly Bear or Kodiak Bear, now restricted to North America, or perhaps a descendant of the extinct Cave Bear. To judge by the survival of animal bones, the presence of a massive bear in remote, 12th-century Scotland is not entirely unexpected, and its behaviour indicates that, when observed by Walter of Bingham, it may have been defending its territory or guarding its young. But this is the first occasion that Nessie has received plausible identification as a bear: perhaps a relict population of bears survived in the vicinity of Loch Ness for many years, giving rise to the legend which surrounds it.


Cotton Hilarius final desaturated detailCould this be the oldest picture of Nessie? (recovered using RZS©).


Angus McFadden, a veteran monster watcher, believes that Loch Ness still holds many secrets. As he recently declared, “If you don’t see what you don’t see, and you don’t know what you don’t know, how can you know what you don’t see?”

We are extremely grateful to Professor Otto Haas (Osnabrück), Dr Ida Winchester (Delaware) and their team for sharing their research with us. A full account of the discovery will be published in the Journal of Applied Cryptozoology, but for regular updates subscribe to our Twitter feed, @blmedieval.


Cotton Hilarius final full colour reconstructionAn artist's reconstruction of the Loch Ness Monster, restoring what are believed to be the original colours, based on detailed study of the pigments used in comparable western European drawings (Sarah J Biggs, 2013).

27 March 2013

What's in Our Treasures Gallery?

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Queen Emma and King Cnut at the altar of the New Minster, Winchester, England, 11th century: London, British Library, MS Stowe 944, f. 6r.

Visitors to the British Library at St Pancras can often see a wide range of books and manuscripts in our Treasures Gallery, ranging from Shakespeare to the Beatles. In the exhibition cases devoted to medieval manuscripts you can currently view several of our greatest Anglo-Saxon books, including the New Minster Liber Vitae (see here for a post about the equivalent book from Durham Cathedral) and the foundation charter of the same abbey. You can already see both items (the New Minster Liber Vitae, Stowe MS 944, and the New Minster foundation charter, Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII) on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

The frontispiece of the New Minster charter, England, c. 966: London, British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v.

Meanwhile, currently on display in the exhibition cases devoted to medieval literature is the unique manuscript of Beowulf. Made around the year AD 1000, this manuscript contains not only the sole surviving copy of Beowulf, the longest epic poem in the Old English language, but also the texts of Judith, the Marvels of the East, and the letter of Alexander to Aristotle.

A typical page from the Beowulf manuscript, England, c. 1000, which was damaged by fire in 1731: London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 176r.

The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, is open 7 days a week, and is free to visit. We regret that on occasion items have to be removed temporarily for use in our Reading Rooms; and we also operate a rotation policy, because many of the oldest and most fragile items in our collections cannot be kept on display for indefinite periods.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @blmedieval

25 March 2013

The Mystery of the Hours of Joanna the Mad

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Miniature of St Luke painting the Virgin and Child, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile (Joanna the Mad), southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 12v


Our recent on-line publication of the fabulous Hours illuminated by a pair of Ghent artists, the Master of James IV of Scotland and the Master of the First Prayerbook of Maximilian, prompted me to have a closer look at this manuscript associated with my famous namesake (Additional MS 35313; see here for the fully-digitised manuscript). With its double opening of full-page miniatures preceding prayers for each canonical hour and the profusion of gold and colours, the manuscript was fit for royal eyes, but was it really made for the mad Castilian Queen Joanna? The evidence is somewhat circumstantial. The presence of two Saint Johns, the Evangelist and the Baptist in the Calendar, Litany and Suffrages, Joanna’s natural patrons (the name Joanna is a female version of the name John) is prominent but hardly exceptional.



Detail of a miniature of St John the Evangelist, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile (Joanna the Mad), southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 211v



Detail of a miniature of St John the Baptist, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile (Joanna the Mad), southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 212v


It is the inclusion of a number of Spanish saints in the Litany that situates the Hours among books commissioned for or by members of the Spanish court. The saints' list includes the two early Christian martyrs Emeterius and Celedonius (see below), venerated at the royal foundation at Santander. Among the confessors, there are two Visigothic bishops, Ildephonsus of Toledo and Isidore of Seville, and a saint hardly venerated outside the Iberian Peninsula, St Adelelmus of Burgos, who replaced the Mozarabic rite in Léon and Castile with the Roman liturgy. Finally, among the virgins are included St Marina and St Quiteria who, according to a Portuguese legend, were sisters from Bayona (Pontevedra). But is it a proof of Joanna's ownership of the book?



Detail of a list of saints in the Litany, including Emeterius and Celedonius, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile (Joanna the Mad), southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 150r


The manuscript includes one more piece of evidence that makes this hypothesis possible, but this time the evidence is iconographic. The Hours of the Dead opens with an unusual image (see below). The illustration of the encounter between the Three Living and the Three Dead, a moralizing tale built around a popular late-medieval theme of the memento mori ('Be mindful of death', or more commonly, 'Remember you will die'), features a woman on horseback chased by skeletons armed with long arrows. The woman holds a hawk on her arm and two greyhounds run alongside her horse, suggesting that the attack takes place during a hunt.



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


The miniature has a likely model in the Book of Hours that once belonged to Mary of Burgundy and her husband Archduke Maximilian (now Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Kupferstichkabinett MS 78 B 12, f. 220v). Elfried Bok, a German scholar of the Netherlandish art, was the first to notice that the female rider in the Berlin Hours might be Mary herself (her initials 'MM' are on her horse's harness), and that the miniature, which was a later insertion, might refer to her sudden death after a riding accident whilst falconing with her husband in 1482.

Another possibility is however even more attractive. The Dowager Princess of Asturias might have commissioned the book after her return to the Netherlands in 1500 as a gift to her Spanish sister-in-law Joanna of Castile. Joanna, sister of Margaret's deceased husband John, married Margaret's brother Philip I, known as the Handsome, the ruler of the Burgundian Netherlands, in another political match. Joanna was Spanish and her devotion to native saints would explain their presence in the litany. On the other hand, the striking allusion to Mary of Burgundy’s tragic accident in the Hours of the Dead would have appeal to her husband's family memory.

 - Joanna Fronska

20 March 2013

British Library Manuscripts Featured in Toronto Exhibition

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Regular readers will recall that three British Library manuscripts went on loan to the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, for an exhibition entitled Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350. We are delighted to announce that the same works have been loaned to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (the AGO), as part of its exhibition Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art. This exhibition opened on 16 March, and runs until 16 June 2013. As Matthew Teitelbaum, director and CEO of the AGO, remarks, 'This exhibition and the programming around it allow us to look at one of the most crucial periods in Western art history with fresh eyes. We invite visitors to view these seminal works through a contemporary lens, relating the issues of Florentine society at the dawn of the Renaissance to those of our modern lives.'

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In Toronto, visitors will see The Cross on a Papal Throne and Christ Standing with a Banner (London, British LIbrary, MS Royal 6 E IX, ff. 8v-9r).

The fabulous Carmina regia, an address by the city of Prato to Robert of Anjou (Royal MS 6 E IX), is featured in the exhibition, but with a different image than that previously seen in Los Angeles and  London (as part of the highly successful Royal Manuscripts exhibition held last year: see Praying to the King, our original post on the Carmina). The text may perhaps be attributed to Convenevole da Prato (c. 1270/75-1338), a professor of grammar and rhetoric most famous as Petrarch's teacher. In the address, the city of Prato beseeches the king to unite the Italian peninsula under his rule and restore the papacy to Rome. This was likely the presentation copy of the text, given to Robert of Anjou on behalf of the city of Prato.

The Carmina regia is now also available to be viewed in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website (see here).

The two manuscript leaves that were in the Getty exhibition are also transferring to Toronto. These were both originally part of a single manuscript: Additional 18196, f. 1, with scenes from the life of St Agnes, and Additional 35254B, with part of a hymn to St Michael. These leaves have been reunited in the exhibition with others from the same book of songs (or laudario) made for the Compagnia di Sant'Agnese, which was based at the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. 

All three loaned works were painted by Pacino di Buonaguida, who was active in Florence in the first half of the 14th century. Only one signed work of his is known: an altarpiece in the Accademia Gallery in Florence. Other paintings and manuscripts are ascribed to him based on stylistic similarities to this work.

14 March 2013

A Pauper's Bible Fit for a Prince

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Miniature of Abner visiting King David; miniature of the Adoration of the Magi; the miniature of the Queen of Sheba presenting gifts to Solomon, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 3r


The Biblia pauperum, or 'Paupers' Bible' is a continuation of the tradition of picture Bibles, related to the earlier Bible moralisée (see Harley MS 1526 and Harley MS 1527 for examples)Images, rather than text, are the focus of the Biblia pauperum, and follow a fairly standard layout. At the centre is usually a scene from the New Testament, flanked on either side by an Old Testament scene related to it by typology.  Typology was a brand of Biblical exegesis which was extremely popular in the medieval era, and centered on the belief that people and events in the Old Testament could be viewed as prefiguring or anticipating aspects of the life of Christ.  A common 'type' depicted in this period, for example, was that of Jonah; the three days and nights that Jonah spent in the belly of the whale were believed to prefigure Christ’s burial in the tomb prior to his resurrection (see below).



Miniature of Joseph's brothers deceiving Jacob about what happened to Joseph; miniature of the Deposition of Christ in the tomb; miniature of Jonah being thrown into the sea, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 19r


In the 15th century affordable versions of this text were created, printed and decorated with woodcuts; these were likely used by clergymen to instruct their largely illiterate congregations.  Despite the name, though, most early medieval Biblia pauperum were lavish and expensive productions, well beyond the reach of all but the most wealthy. 



Miniature of David beheading Goliath with a sword; miniature of Christ's descend into Limbo (the Anastasis); miniature of Samson killing the lion, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 21r


Kings MS 5, a recent upload to the Digitised Manuscripts site, is one such manuscript.  Also known as the 'Golden Pauper's Bible', it was produced in the last years of the 14th century, probably in the court of Margaret of Cleves (c 1375-1411).  Margaret was the second wife of Albrecht I, Duke of Bavaria and Count of Holland, and their court in The Hague became a centre for art and scholarship. Kings MS 5 contains 31 scenes from the life of Christ, each accompanied by two Old Testament prefigurations and portraits of apostles and prophets.  Originally each long leaf was folded into three parts, separating the miniatures, so that the manuscript would have looked much like a normal codex, but it was later rebound into its present oblong arrangement.  Kings MS 5 is the only known surviving manuscript in this format, and is also unusual in having fully-painted miniatures rather than pen and wash illustrations.



Miniature of the Judgement of Solomon; miniature of the Last Judgement; miniature of David's order to kill the Amalekite, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 29r


The fully digitized manuscript is available here, and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval.

12 March 2013

Hooray for Public Domain Images!

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Recently we asked our readers how they have been using our public domain images. And we're extremely gratified by the many responses we have received, via Twitter (@blmedieval) and in the comments section at the end of the original blogpost. Here is a selection of your comments:

I do medieval recreation/reenactment, and I like to use the BL images as inspiration for my illuminated/calligraphed texts.

I recently published an article on medieval wood pasture management and was excited to be able to use manuscript images from the BL Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts as part of the analysis. An acknowledgement of the BL's service in providing the image was included in the endnote for each figure. Thanks so much for providing this service to scholars!

Detail of a miniature of men beating down acorns to feed their pigs, on a calendar page for November (London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 81v).

I'm teaching a course on Arthurian literature, art and film from the Middle Ages to the present in October, and am using the image of Arthur from Royal 20 A. II, f. 4 as the course image. It's wonderful to have this readily available representation of Arthur from a medieval manuscript, and hopefully will serve to inspire my students not only in terms of an interest in Arthurian studies, but also manuscript studies too!

I have used your images from the Queen Mary Psalter and your interface to make a point about mediated networks.

Yes (with attribution), on a poster for a Middle English poetry reading.

Thank you, yes! Lady Jane Grey 1  and Lady Jane Grey 2

Text page with coloured initials and line-fillers, and a portion of a message written in the margin by Lady Jane Grey to her father, the Duke of Suffolk: '… youre gracys humble daughter Jane Duddley.' (London, British Library, MS Harley 2342, f. 80r). 

Yep, in my tumblr (but I mentioned it!). By the way, you're doing a very very great job, thanks! 

Just in time for prepping my 13th/14th c Northern Painting class.

Repeatedly in my blogposts, but more importantly (to me, anyway) on the front page of my MA thesis on the Confessor.

I've used bits for my site banner images.

And from one of our regular contributors came this: Well done. This is precisely the sort of thing that the national collection should be doing; enriching the culture of the nation of today by means of images from the public treasury of manuscripts.

Historiated initial (London, British Library, MS Arundel 91, f. 26v).

We've been asked to clarify a couple of issues raised by some of our users. At present, the British Library's policy on the re-use of images in the public domain applies (in the case of our medieval manuscripts) to images downloaded from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and from this blog. Readers who commission or purchase publication-quality images from our Imaging Services should note that they still need permission to reproduce them. Likewise, users should note that the technology behind our Digitised Manuscripts site currently precludes the downloading of images from that resource. This applies to all the manuscripts published as part of our Greek manuscripts, Harley Science and Royal digitisation projects.

Meanwhile, we hope that you continue to find new ways to use our images, so that together we can promote new research and gain new insights into our medieval and early modern heritage.