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498 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

09 February 2014

Happy St Apollonia's Day!

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For more on this ongoing series about medieval saints, see our post Saints' Lives...and Deaths.

Today is the feast day of St Apollonia, an early Christian martyr. While relatively unknown in the modern era, St Apollonia – and her gruesome torture – was frequently depicted in medieval art.   

Detail of a miniature of the martyrdom of St Apollonia, from the Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1440 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 284v

We know of Apollonia through a letter written by Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria from 247 to 265, which is preserved in extracts in Eusebius’s Church History. According to Dionysius, during the festival to commemorate the first millennium of the Roman Empire in about the year 249, a local poet prophesied a pending ‘calamity’. Spurred by fear, the pagan majority then carried out a series of attacks against the local Christians, many of whom were tortured and put to death. After describing these horrors, Dionysius continues: ‘At that time, Apollonia, the parthénos presbûtis [or virgo presbytera, which probably indicated that she was a deaconess in the Christian community] was held in high esteem. These men seized her also and by repeated blows broke all her teeth. They then erected outside the city gates a pile of faggots and threatened to burn her alive if she refused to repeat after them impious words (either a blasphemy against Christ or an invocation of the pagan gods). Given, at her own request, a little freedom, she sprang quickly into the fire and was burned to death’. 

Yates Thompson MS 4 f. 190v C1305-09a
Detail of a miniature of St Apollonia holding a tooth, at the beginning of her suffrage, from the Hours of Jacques de Brégilles, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1460, Yates Thompson MS 4, f. 190v

As is the case with many of the early martyr saints, the actual moment of Apollonia’s death is rarely shown. Instead, many of the images that survive represent the torture she suffered prior to her death, but rather than the troubling tooth-breaking scene described in the letter of Dionysius, most images represent her teeth being removed by pincers, or show her holding an ominous pair of tongs. Unsurprisingly, Apollonia is the patron saint of dentistry and those suffering from toothache, and in the medieval era she was frequently included in Books of Hours and other suffrages. A few of our favourite British Library images are below; we wish you a painless St Apollonia’s Day!

Egerton MS 2019 f. 217r K022760
Detail of a miniature of the martyrdom of St Apollonia, at the beginning of her suffrage, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1440 – c. 1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 217r

Harley MS 1211 f. 90v K022768
Detail of a miniature of SS Anthony and Apollonia, at the beginning of their suffrages, from a Book of Hours, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1465, Harley MS 1211, f. 90v

Harley MS 1251 f. 50r K063033
Miniature of the martyrdom of St Apollonia, from the Hours of Eleanor Worcester, France (Rouen), c. 1430 – c. 1440, Harley MS 1251, f. 50v

Harley MS 2989 f. 124r K022771
Miniature of the martyrdom of St Apollonia, from a Book of Hours, France (Rouen), c. 1460 – c. 1470, Harley MS 2989, f. 124r

-  Sarah J Biggs

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

07 February 2014

Saints' Lives... and Deaths

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With the twin goals of our readers’ edification and entertainment forever at the forefront of our minds, we at the BL Medieval Manuscripts Blog have hatched a plan for a series of posts on saints over the coming weeks and months, timed to coincide with their individual feast days.

In devotional compilations such as Books of Hours, miniatures of saints were a common presence alongside biographies of their lives or other texts to be read during private prayer or reflection.  The choice of which saints to include in one’s book could be a very personal one.  For example, the decoration in the magnificent Bedford Hours (Add MS 18850) was adapted following the marriage of John, duke of Bedford, to Anne of Burgundy. 

Prefacing the portion of the manuscript containing suffrages to the saints is a large miniature showing Anne of Burgundy kneeling in veneration before her namesake and patron, St Anne, who is accompanied by her daughter the Virgin Mary, and her grandson, Jesus Christ. 

Miniature of Anne of Burgundy, venerating St Anne, St Mary and the Infant Jesus, from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-c.1430, Add MS 18850, f. 257v

The association of saint and book-owner is continued in the border, for example with Joachim and Clopas, each of whom is identified by different interpretations of the Bible as the father of St Anne.

Miniatures of St Joachim and St Clopas, Add MS 18850, f. 257v

Saints could be depicted in a variety of contexts in manuscript miniatures.  On this page of the Bedford Hours, we see them thinking, reading, writing and discussing, enclosed in private alcoves or chambers that evoke the architecture of the medieval palace. 

Miniatures of St ‘Salome’, St Alpheus and St ‘Maria Yaque’, and St Zebedee and St Mary Salome, Add MS 18850, f. 257v

By reflecting the reader’s own behaviour and environment as she studied her Book of Hours, these miniatures complemented the text by cultivating her identification with a saint’s life.  Enhancing the exemplary of these lives in this way further encouraged the reader to emulate a saint’s virtues or good works, to shape her behaviour according to the saintly mould she held before her.

First, though, a little taster of what is to come of our series of saints.  Certain objects or animals became associated with a saint as a consequence of the events of his or her life or the manner of his or her death.  These attributes made depictions of saints in stained glass, stone statuary or manuscript books readily identifiable to anyone familiar with their stories.

In Harley MS 2332, we see saints’ attributes being used as a visual shorthand for the dates of their feast days during the calendar year.  This physicians’ almanac has appeared a couple of times on this blog before: when we solicited help assigning a date of production on the basis of a series of pictograms and dates attached to them; and when the volvelle on f. 23v appeared in Guess the Manuscript

The book is small; measuring only 140mm x 100mm, it was designed to be portable.  It was made using a less expensive grade of dark and thick parchment, and was quite possibly written and even illustrated by the person who owned it.  It was produced perhaps around 1412.  It is of English origin, but the selection of certain saints for the calendar at the beginning of the book strongly suggests a connection or at least familiarity with eastern England: East Anglia and Lincolnshire (Sts Guthlac and Edmund), Yorkshire (Sts John of Beverley and William of York) or Northumberland (Sts Cuthbert, Oswald and Wilfrid).

Calendar pages for February, with tinted pen-drawings of the Labour of the Month, zodiac symbol and religious feast days, from an illustrated physician’s almanac, E. England, c. 1411-12,
Harley MS 2332, ff. 2v-3r

Each month in this calendar occupies an opening, with the traditional activity of the month and the relevant zodiac symbol on the left.  Along the top, symbols provide a quick visual guide to significant dates within the month, with lines directing the reader to when these feasts should be celebrated. 

There are the well-known evangelist symbols:  Matthew (21st September, f. 10r), Mark (25th April, f. 5r, see below), Luke (18th October, f. 11r) and John (27th December, f. 13r). 

Evangelist symbol of Mark,
Harley MS 2332, f. 5r

There are also symbols relating to saintly miracles or acts. 

Three candles in a chalice, attributes of St Blaise,
Harley MS 2332, f. 2v.

St Blaise’s day (3rd February) is represented by candles used in the Blessing of the Throats ceremony, which commemorates his curing of a boy choking on a fishbone. 

Hammer and horseshoe, attributes of St Eligius,
Harley MS 2332, f. 7r.

The hammer and horseshoe recall the legend that St Eligius (25th June) shod a skittish horse through the novel practice of first cutting off its leg, attaching the shoe, then miraculously reattaching the leg.

St Edmund, king and martyr, holding a ring,
Harley MS 2332, f. 4r.

Here the creator of the tinted drawings has conflated two different St Edwards.  On the feast day of St. Edward, king and martyr (18th March), he has drawn Edward holding a ring.  This refers to a story from the life of St Edward the Confessor, whose feast day is 13th October.  A beggar requested alms from Edward the Confessor in the name of St John.  Having no money on his person, the king instead gave the beggar a ring from one of his fingers.  Certain legends have St John guiding some Englishmen to safety during their pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and handing them the ring to give to the king; others record the saint appearing before the king and returning the ring personally.

Shoe and crozier, attributes of St. Botulph,
Harley MS 2332, f. 7r.

Other symbols evoke the subsequent patronage of saints.  For instance, St Botulph (17th June), patron saint of travellers, to whom churches at town gates were often dedicated, is represented by a shoe (the crozier poking out of it refers to the fact that he was sometimes referred to as ‘bishop’). 

St Jacob/James, dressed as a pilgrim,
Harley MS 2332, f. 8r.

St Jacob/James, whose shrine at Compostela was and remains a major pilgrimage destination, is shown as a pilgrim with a walking staff and scallop badge (25th July). 

A ship, attribute of St Simon,
Harley MS 2332, f. 11r.

St Simon, patron of sailors, and St Jude, patron of last causes, share a feast day (28th October) and are represented by a ship. 

And finally (what you’ve obviously been patiently waiting for), some symbols represent the ways in which particular saints were martyred. 

Instruments of the martyrdom of St Vincent and St Paul,
Harley MS 2332, f. 2r.

St Vincent and St Paul (22nd and 25th January) each hold tools used to kill them: a saw, representing St Vincent’s torture; and a sword, representing the beheading of St Paul. 

St Agatha being mutilated,
Harley MS 2332, f. 2v.

On the 5th of February, the gruesome mutilation of St Agatha is illustrated. 

Instrument of the martyrdom of St Bartholomew,
Harley MS 2332, f. 9r.

St Bartholomew, who was flayed alive then crucified, is drawn holding a knife (24th August), alongside the decapitated head of John the Baptist (29th). 

Instrument of the martyrdom of St Leodegar,
Harley MS 2332, f. 10v.

Leodegar had the misfortune to have his eyes put out with a drill, which instrument is shown next to his feast day on 1st October.

These are just a few examples; we’ll let you figure the rest out!  The manuscript is available in its entirety on Digitised Manuscripts.  There are still some unresolved puzzles in the manuscript: for instance, does anyone have idea what event was commemorated here? 

Erasures and checkerboard pattern,
Harley MS 2332, f. 1v.

The title has been erased, and the connecting line to the calendar is heavily smudged – but what is the meaning of the checkerboard pattern, and what might its connection be to the 13th of January?

Keep your eyes out (sorry St Leodegar!) for future posts on saints…

- James Freeman

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

04 February 2014

'More Unique Than Most': the Benedictional of St Æthelwold

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We are absolutely thrilled to announce the recent upload of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold to our Digitised Manuscripts site.  This manuscript, Add MS 49598, is one of the British Library’s greatest treasures, and is a masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon art.  As a notable professor of our acquaintance once said, ‘All medieval manuscripts are unique, but the Benedictional of St Æthelwold is more unique than most.’

The uniqueness of this manuscript begins with its text.  A benedictional contains the various blessings pronounced by a bishop throughout the ecclesiastical calendar, and its specialised nature makes it comparatively rare among medieval manuscripts.  It is even more uncommon for such texts to include a cycle of illumination, and the Benedictional of St Æthelwold is the earliest such illustrated manuscript in existence. 

Historiated initial ‘O’(mnipotens) of Christ in Majesty, preceding the benediction for the Octave of the Pentecost (or Trinity Sunday), from The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, England (Old Minster, Winchester), 963-984, Add MS 49598, f. 70r

As might be obvious from its title, this benedictional was created for one of Anglo-Saxon England’s greatest clerics, St Æthelwold.  He was born in Winchester about the year 909, and entered the church as a young man.  He eventually became Abbot of Abingdon, and in 963 was appointed to the bishopric of Winchester, a vitally important religious institution in this period.   Ã†thelwold embarked on a programme of building and renovation at Winchester, which culminated in a splendid re-dedication ceremony of the cathedral in the year 980.  Ã†thelwold was renowned as a scholar, and was responsible for a number of glosses, commentaries, and translations of religious texts; he was so well-regarded that the future King Edgar was sent to study with him.    

Full-page miniature of the baptism of Christ, preceding the benediction for Epiphany, Add MS 49598, f. 25r

The Benedictional of St Æthelwold was created between 963 (the time of Æthelwold's appointment to the see of Winchester) and 984 (the year of his death).  It was written throughout by a single scribe named Godeman, who was responsible for a number of other related Winchester manuscripts from this period.  The text of this Benedictional appears to have been a deliberate attempt to synthesize the two main contemporary forms of this type of text, the Gallican and the Gregorian, and it is likely that the creation of this hybrid was initiated and closely supervised by the erudite Æthelwold.  Indeed, many of the blessings included are only found in the English tradition; that for the feast of St Ætheldreda, for example, appears to be a work of Æthelwold himself. 

Full-page miniature of St Ætheldreda [Æthelthryth], holding a book and a flower, at the beginning of her benediction, Add MS 49598, f. 90v

It is not clear who created the magnificent illuminations that are included within the folios of the manuscript, but some scholars maintain that this work should be attributed to Godeman as well. They are certainly perfect examples of the famous Winchester style, which features elaborate acanthus sprays in the borders, vibrant lines, and a lavish use of gold. 

Beginning of the poem describing the creation of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Add MS 49598, f. 4v

We know as much as we do about the creation of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold in large part because of an extraordinary poem, written in gold letters across two folios, which precedes the benedictional proper.  This poem tells us that ‘The great Æthelwold, whom the lord had made patron of Winchester, ordered a certain monk subject to him to write the present book … He commanded also to be made in this book many arches well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colours and with gold.’  It continues with a description of Æthelwold’s motivation in creating this book: ‘that he might be able to sanctify the people of the Saviour by means of it… and that he may lose no little lambkin of the fold’.  The poem concludes with a prayer for the soul of St Æthelwold, and, in the final lines, for that of the scribe responsible for it: ‘Let all who look upon this book pray always that after the term of the flesh I may abide in heaven. Godeman the writer, as a suppliant, earnestly asks this.’ 

A few more images from this magnificent manuscript are below; please spare a thought for Godeman and St Æthelwold as you scroll through its glories!

Full-page miniature of the Annunciation, preceding the benediction for the first Sunday in Advent, Add MS 49598, f. 5v

Full-page miniature of the Second Coming of Christ, preceding the benediction for the third Sunday in Advent, Add MS 49598, f. 9v

Full-page miniature of the Ascension of Christ, preceding the benediction for Ascension, Add MS 49598, f. 64v

Full-page miniature of St Benedict, preceding the benediction for his feast, Add MS 49598, f. 99v

Miniature of a bishop, probably St Æthelwold, pronouncing an episcopal blessing on a congregation of monks and clerics (possibly related to the dedication of Winchester Cathedral in 980).  This miniature appears unfinished but is probably deliberately so; perhaps to indicate the importance of the dedication blessing, Add MS 49598, f. 118v

- Sarah J Biggs

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

01 February 2014

A Calendar Page for February 2014

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For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

Our calendar pages for February contain two scenes of labourers trimming vines, one of the traditional labours for this unpleasant month. In the first scene, below the saints days for February, two men are at work in a wintry landscape, and appear to be appropriately bundled against the cold.  The following folio continues the listing of feasts for this month. In the lower roundel, beneath two fish for the zodiac sign Pisces, another chilly-looking labourer is carrying a basket of trimmings through fields in which the remains of a snowstorm can be seen.

Calendar page for February, with a roundel miniature of two men at work trimming vines, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 2v

Calendar page for February, with a roundel miniature of Piscese and a man carrying vine-trimmings in a wintry landscape, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 3r

- Sarah J Biggs

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

30 January 2014

A Medieval Comic Strip

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Egerton MS 1894, better known as the Egerton Genesis Picture Book, has been described as one of the most fascinating – and puzzling – of all the manuscripts in the British Library collections.  The Egerton Genesis Picture Book (one of our most recent uploads to our Digitised Manuscripts site) was produced in England in the 3rd quarter of the 14th century.  It contains a cycle of 149 illustrations of the Book of Genesis, running from the Creation through the story of Joseph.  The images are described in short captions in Anglo-Norman French, based upon text from Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica.  

The artist responsible for the paintings in this volume has been named the Master of the Egerton Genesis, in honour of his work in this manuscript.  His hand appears in a number of other contemporary manuscripts, and he was clearly highly skilled, but also displays a unique and sometimes rather irreverent perspective on familiar subjects.  For example, in the final image of the Creation the Master depicts the Lord God fast asleep among the flowers he has just made, his bare feet exposed.  If it weren’t for the halo and the elegant pose, he could be a shepherd who has dozed off after his lunch.

Detail of God the Father resting, from the Egerton Genesis Picture Book, England (Norwich or Durham?), 3rd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 1894, f. 1v

In many ways, the Egerton Genesis Picture Book can be seen as an early comic book, with four pictures on most pages, each illustrating an episode in a well-known tale.

Here, for example, is how the Tower of Babel story is treated:

Nimrod and the Tower of Babel

Nimrod, grandson of Ham and great grandson of Noah, the proud hunter and tyrant who defied God, is mentioned in the book of Genesis, and in Hebrew and Christian tradition he is usually seen as the leader responsible for the building of the Tower of Babel.  On ff. 4v-6r his story is told in pictures.

First Nimrod is shown holding a spiked club and towering over his ancestors, looking back at them in a rather haughty manner:

Detail of a miniature of the ancestry of Nimrod, Egerton MS 1894, f. 4v

The story continues on the facing page, with four scenes from the life of Nimrod.  He is shown using a rod to force his people to worship fire, and as a young man, being instructed by Jonitus, the fourth son of Noah, in astronomy.  These episodes are taken from the Historia Scholastica rather than the Bible. The descendants of Ham and Japheth are shown in the other two images on this page.

Detail of a miniature of Nimrod and the descendants of Ham and Japheth, Egerton MS 1894, f. 5r

In the full-page image of the building of the Tower of Babel on the following page, an older Nimrod, still standing head and shoulders above everyone else, consults with his  kinsmen, who may be telling him not to anger the Almighty.  The image is full of activity as workmen construct a rather Italian-style tower.  In the upper left part, a mason holds up his trowel, while another lays blocks above him.

Detail of a miniature of the building of the Tower of Babel, Egerton MS 1894, f. 5v

The final image, showing the destruction of the Tower of Babel, occupies the whole left hand side of the page. God is directing the four winds, which huff and puff and blow the tower down (eat your heart out, big bad wolf – this one is made of bricks!)

Detail of a miniature of the destruction of the Tower of Babel, Egerton MS 1894, f. 6r

Of course, violence is a key ingredient of most comic strips, and the Egerton Genesis Picture Book is no exception.  How is this for a healthy display of weapons and carnage?


- Chantry Westwell

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

28 January 2014

The Height of Fashion

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Along with the less-than-romantic scenes of butchery and betrayal, murder and mayhem (see our previous post Sex and Death in the Roman de la Rose), there are of course many miniatures in Harley MS 4425 which depict an idealised courtly world and its inhabitants.  As well as serving as a narrative accompaniment to the text, these illustrations reflect the fashions and culture of the late fifteenth-century Burgundian court, and the tastes of the nobleman who commissioned its production, Engelbert II, Count of Nassau and Vianden (d. 1506).

The book is decorated throughout with a series of narrative column miniatures as well as four large miniatures enclosed by naturalistic borders.  The characters are portrayed in pastoral landscapes and blossoming pleasure gardens, and the borders are filled with leaves, flowers, birds and butterflies – all intended to evoke ideas of fertility, new life and, erm, ‘romantic feelings’…

Detail of a miniature of the Garden of Pleasure, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 12v

As the narrator (The Lover) relates his tale, the reader is treated to scenes of courtly life, as seen in this miniature above of a walled garden: fountains, fruit trees and peacocks; a man playing the lyre and musicians playing the pipe and tabor, kortholt and harp; women singing (one can actually see the neumes – medieval musical notes – on the scrolls they are holding); women doing embroidery; hand-holding and friendly embracing, conversation and dancing.

The variety and detail of the characters’ clothing makes this manuscript a valuable source for understanding more about the fashions of a very particular period and location.  Yet close inspection and comparison with other contemporary portraits and depictions of dress reveals, however, interesting juxtapositions in the style and date of the fashions worn by the protagonist and other characters of the Roman de la Rose.

Detail of a miniature of the Lover asleep; dressed; and approaching the Garden of Love, Harley MS 4425, f. 7r

At the beginning of the tale, the narrator (L’Amans or The Lover) describes how all the events he is about to relate were experienced by him during a vivid dream.  In the large opening miniature above, we see him tucked up in bed, dreaming about arising and getting dressed.  The objects in his hands might be a case containing a dressing needle; the narrator tells of how he rose in his dream and stitched his sleeves together in a criss-cross pattern.  Over his shirt he is wearing a dark red velvet doublet with open lacing with matching hose.  Outside and fully clothed, he has on a grey gown lined in red over a black damask jacket.  The miniature shows him setting out, full of the joys of spring, and coming across a little stream where, the text states, he decides to take a wash.

Detail of a miniature of the Lover entering the Garden of Pleasure, Harley MS 4425, f. 12v

Elsewhere, though, we see the narrator dressed differently.  After the portraits of the Vices, the Lover appears dressed in a blue robe with ‘dagging’ (slashed edges on the skirt) and a gold belt with tassels.  His shoes also have ‘pikes’ (long points), which must have presented some obstacles to showing off one’s deft footwork when dancing!  To contemporary eyes, such an outfit would have contrasted with the much more modern and fashionable garments worn by the other gentlemen and ladies in the scene, perhaps evoking the status of the narrator as a foreigner to this dream-world and as someone from the distant past (Guillaume de Lorris having written the first part of the Roman back in the 1220s).

Detail of a miniature of a man leading the Carolle (round dance with music) in the garden of Sir Mirth, Harley MS 4425, f. 14v

In a miniature of a dancing troupe, the gentleman leading the dance wears a curious mixture of styles.  The old-fashioned dagging reflects the artist’s interpretation of the description of his clothing as ‘cut up in many places’, as do the slashes in the fabric of his shoes.  However, his long hair and cap are more typical of the 1490s.

On the subject of headgear, there are some quite magnificent hats and headdresses on display throughout the manuscript:

Detail of a miniature of the Lover wearing a ‘sugarloaf’ hat, Bel Acceuil (‘Fair Welcome’) wearing a chaplet, and Dangier wearing a turban, Harley MS 4425, f. 32r

Detail of a miniature of Jalousie (‘Jealousy’) wearing a black mantle, speaking to Bel Accueil, Harley MS 4425, f. 37v

Detail of a miniature of the Lover speaking to Amis (‘the Friend’), Harley MS 4425, f. 67v

Detail of a miniature of the Lover meeting Richesse (‘Wealth’), Harley MS 4425, f. 90v

Detail of a miniature of Convoitise (‘Covetousness’) and Largesse (‘Generosity’) entering the castle, Harley MS 4425, f. 111r

We also get to see the raiment of other stations in society, past and present, including:

Detail of a miniature of Virginius pleading before a judge (Appius), holding his staff of office, Harley MS 4425, f. 54r

Detail of a miniature of a king (Croesus), enthroned and holding his sceptre, speaking to his daughter, Phanie, Harley MS 4425, f. 62r

Detail of a miniature of a king and his court, Harley MS 4425, f. 87r

Detail of a miniature of a bishop with mitre and crozier, preaching to the armies of Venus, Harley MS 4425, f. 167v

Detail of a miniature of soldiers in armour and sailors (Jason and the Argonauts), Harley MS 4425, f. 86r

Detail of a miniature of Amour (‘Love’), holding a glaive, and his army, Harley MS 4425, f. 95r

Detail of a miniature of soldiers preparing a siege with cannons, Harley MS 4425, f. 139r

Detail of a miniature of prehistoric people living in the woods, wearing nothing much, Harley MS 4425, f. 76v

And, at the very bottom of the pile, the less fortunate in society: paupers and beggars in their rags and cast-offs.

Detail of a miniature of the figure of Pouvrete (‘Poverty’), Harley MS 4425, f. 11v

Detail of a miniature of a poor man being given money by his true friend (who is wearing another great hat, called a ‘chaperon’), Harley MS 4425, f. 47v

Detail of a miniature of Pauvrete (‘Poverty’) begging from Richesse (‘Wealth’), Harley MS 4425, f. 73r

Do let us know what your favourite images from this manuscript are, and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @BLMedieval!

- James Freeman

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

25 January 2014

'She cares not a turd': Notes on a 16th century Squabble

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While we were preparing the catalogue entry for Harley MS 7334, one of our most recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts, we came across a very curious marginal note, and would like to solicit your ideas about it.

Decorated initial ‘W’(han) at the beginning of the Canterbury Tales, England (London or East Anglia, c. 1410), Harley MS 7734, f. 1r

But first a bit of background.  This manuscript is a relatively early copy of Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales, and was created c. 1410 in England, probably in East Anglia.  The scribe who penned it was responsible for other manuscripts containing the Canterbury Tales (such as Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 198, for example), leading some scholars to propose that it was a production of a commercial scriptorium specialising in such texts.  Harley MS 7334 has a rather complicated ownership history, and passed through a number of different hands during the tumultuous 15th and 16th centuries.  The task of untangling its provenance is both aided - and complicated - by the profusion of notes, signatures, and inscriptions that can be found throughout the manuscript, many of which were added by later hands.

Detail of an inscription concerning Elizabeth Kympton [Kimpton] and Edward Waterhouse, Harley MS 7734, f. 81r

It is one of these inscriptions that caught our eye, for reasons that will shortly become clear.  In the right-hand margin of f. 81r (above) is a note in a mid-16th century hand.  It reads ‘Mrs Kympto[n] shall have an ill name by Mr Waterh[ows] but she cares not a turd and yet she is a gentlewo[man] clerly enoug[h] how say you she Kna[ves?]’ with the later part of the inscription much rubbed away.

Well. This is very strange indeed.  And it is not the only such note in the manuscript.

Detail of an inscription concerning Elizabeth Kympton [Kimpton] and Edward Waterhouse, Harley MS 7734, f. 187r

On f. 187r can be found a similar sentiment.  This note reads: ‘Mrs Kimpton is like to have an ill name by mr waterhous but she cares not a…’.  Again, the rest of this communication has been effaced, although one imagines that it expresses a similar idea to the previous.  So what are we to make of this?    

These odd addenda have received little attention in the literature about this manuscript.  One scholar describes the first inscription only fleetingly as a 'bit of gossip' and, perhaps overly-concerned with the delicate sensibilities of his readers, he declines to transcribe it.  Our own research has yet to turn up much of substance about the mysterious woman who 'cares not a turd', save a few brief details. An Elizabeth Kympton is listed in the will of Lady Anne Grey (d. 1557/8), who owned this manuscript in the mid-16th century.  Lady Anne also named an Edward Waterhouse as one of her legatees; the two were probably part of Lady Anne's household, although the precise nature of their relationship to her and to each other remain unknown.  Several more clues can be found in the manuscript itself.

Detail of an inscription reading ‘Elizabeth Kympton’, Harley MS 7734, f. 129r

The name 'Elizabeth Kympton' is written in the margin of f. 129r, and we find it again on f. 61r. Intriguingly, this time her name is coupled with that of Edward Waterhouse, and conveniently dated to 1557.  

Detail of an inscription reading ‘1557 / Elizabeth Kympton / Edward Waterhows’, Harley MS 7734, f. 61r

We know a bit more about Edward Waterhouse (later Sir Edward); he was born in 1533, and was the youngest son of the auditor to Henry VIII.  As a young adult he came under the patronage of Sir Henry Sidney, and became Sir Henry's personal secretary when the latter was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1565 (Sir Henry's name is also inscribed in this manuscript, apparently by Edward, see f. 170r).  But prior to embarking on his career Edward must have spent some time in the household of Lady Anne Grey.  He was clearly a prodigious annotator; he was responsible for a number of notes throughout the manuscript, including a line on the final folio: '1556.  Anne Grey Wife to the Lord John Grey and dowghtor to Wyllim Barlee Esquier owith this book. E. W.'

Detail of an inscription by Edward Waterhouse about Lady Anne Grey, Harley MS 7734, f. 286v

The handwriting here is comparable to that in the much-effaced note on f. 187r.  Could Edward have been the author of the two 'ill name' inscriptions?  And what could have been the motivation for such an odd fit of pique?  Did this arise from a lovers' quarrel, or from some other cause?  

One final point, which may or may not be relevant:  the bizarre inscription on f. 81r can be found in the midst of the Man of Law’s Tale, the fifth of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  This is a story about a Christian princess named Custance who was bethrothed to the Sultan of Syria.  According to the tale, the Sultan’s mother intervened to prevent the marriage, and set Custance (or Constance) adrift at sea.  She eventually came ashore on the Northumbrian coast, where she met the king, Alla, and they fell in love.  In a horrible stroke of luck, the now-pregnant Custance again found herself the victim of a meddling mother-in-law, who intercepted and altered a letter from her.  Custance was banished yet again to sea by an angry Alla, ending up in Italy, but the story had a happy ending when the repentant Alla went in search of her and they were eventually reunited.  The Edward/Elizabeth note on f. 81r can be found next to a description of Alla’s despairing and angry response to his mother’s forged letter from Custance.  He then wrote his own letter to give to the drunken messenger who delivered his mother’s epistle; the Man of Law's Tale then continues (we're providing the modern English translation):

'This letter he seals, secretly weeping / Which to the messenger was given soon / And forth he goes; there is nothing more to do. / O messenger, filled with drunkenness / Strong is thy breath, thy limbs ever tremble / And thou betray all secrets. / Thy mind is lost, thou chatter like a jay / Thy face is completely changed.  / Where drunkenness reigns in any group / There is no secret hidden, without doubt. / O Donegild [Alla's mother], I do not have any English suitable to describe / Unto thy malice and thy tyranny! / And therefore to the fiend I thee consign; / Let him write about thy treachery! / Fie, like a man, fie! O nay, by God, I lie / Fie, like a fiendish spirit, for I dare well tell / Though thou here walk, thy spirit is in hell!'

On that note, we'll turn this over to you; please do let us know your thoughts on this still mostly-hidden secret.  You can leave a comment below, or contact us on Twitter @BLMedieval.   

-          Sarah J Biggs

23 January 2014

Sex and Death in the Roman de la Rose

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Where can one go to witness the pursuit of the opposite sex, music and dancing, violence and beatings, and gratuitous nudity?  No, not a British town centre on a Friday night, but in the Roman de la Rose, obviously!

An exquisite copy of this important medieval verse romance – Harley MS 4425 – has now been digitised and is available for you to browse in its entirety on the BL’s Digitised Manuscripts website.  The Roman de la Rose was written in Old French by Guillaume de Lorris from the late 1220s up until his death in 1278, and completed some forty years later by Jean de Meun.  This manuscript was made for Count Engelbert of Nassau (1451-1504), a wealthy courtier and leader of the Duke of Burgundy’s Privy Council.  The artist to whom the decoration is attributed is known as the Master of the Prayer Books, and he and his studio were active around 1500.  He portrayed the author in one of the column miniatures: he is shown sat at a writing desk with his book before him, in the act of composition (see below for an image which will be familiar to those of you who follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval).  Note how the artist has set out the text in the author’s book in two columns, with spaces left for illustrations, exactly resembling this manuscript in a conceit that emphasises the figure’s status as author. 

Detail of a miniature of Jean de Meun writing his book, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 133r

The Roman de la Rose is an allegorical poem about courtship, love and a gentleman’s pursuit of ideal love (represented by the rose), experienced in a dream by the narrator.  However, just in case you thought it was all ‘paddling palms and pinching fingers’, the miniatures that accompany the text reveal some darker elements to the story.

Running alongside all the displays of sophisticated, wealthy, aristocratic life, are rather more violent images, relating to stories and events in the text.  For example, there is quite a lot of fighting in the Roman de la Rose – a virtual panoply of brawls and murders (and it isn’t just the men slugging it out!):

Detail of a miniature of Franchise fighting Danger, Harley MS 4425, f. 134v

Detail of a miniature of a jealous husband beating his wife, while neighbours look on, Harley MS 4425, f. 85r

Detail of a miniature of Beaute (‘Beauty’) and Laideur (‘Ugliness’) beating Chastete (‘Chastity’), now sadly damaged, Harley MS 4425, f. 81v

Detail of a miniature of the Lover being beaten by Honte (‘Shame’), Peur (‘Fear’) and Dangier (‘Danger’), Harley MS 4425, f. 131v

Below we can see two characters, Abstinence Contrainte (‘Forced Abstinence’) and Faux Semblant (‘False Seeming’) travelling in disguise: one as a Beguine nun (medieval cross-dressing!) and the other as a Franciscan friar.

Detail of a miniature of Abstinence Contrainte (‘Forced Abstinence’) and Faux Semblant (‘False Seeming’) travelling in disguise, Harley MS 4425, f. 108r

Detail of a miniature of Abstinence Contrainte (‘Forced Abstinence’) and Faux Semblant (‘False Seeming’) killing Malebouche (Evil Tongue), and cutting out his tongue, Harley MS 4425, f. 111r

These two are on a mission to kill off Malebouche (‘Evil Tongue’, literally ‘Bad Mouth’) and, appropriately, cutting out his tongue before slitting his throat (above).

Detail of a miniature of Virginius beheading his daughter Virginia, Harley MS 4425, f. 54v

In another scene (above), we see a story relating to Appius Claudius Crassus, a member of the decemviri (a council of ten men established to institute new laws) of the Roman Republic around 451 BC.  In a tale originally related by Livy, Appius lusted after Virginia.  However, since the girl was thoroughly repulsed by his lechery, Appius had one of his men claim that she was his slave, in the very court over which Appius himself presided.  Predictably, Appius upheld the claims (which would allow him to then buy the girl and have his wicked way with her) – but her father, to defend her liberty and protect her from this sorry fate, decided it would be better to kill her, and so chopped off her head without further ado…which all seems a bit rough for poor, young Virginia!

Detail of a miniature of Nero watching while his mother Agrippina is dissected, Harley MS 4425, f. 59r

Elsewhere, we see the grisly fate of Agrippina the Younger.  Having failed to murder his mother by means of a ship deliberately designed to sink, Nero pursued his matricidal ambitions by ordering Anicetus (Nero’s boyhood tutor and commander of the fleet at Misenum) and his men to murder her in person.  According to Tacitus, before she was stabbed to death, and realising her son was responsible, Agrippina cried, ‘Smite my womb!’.  The image here shows Anicetus or one of the others rummaging around in Agrippina’s viscera, while Nero looks on.  Tacitus noted that some accounts related that Nero wished to see the place where he had been conceived, and also looked upon his mother after her death and praised her beauty.  Those Roman emperors didn’t really go in for filial devotion.

Detail of a miniature of Seneca committing suicide as Nero watches, Harley MS 4425, f. 59v

The verso of this folio depicts Seneca’s suicide (above).  Having charged Seneca with involvement in the Pisonian plot to assassinate him, Nero ordered Seneca to kill himself, which he did by opening his veins whilst in a bath.  The inclusion of Nero in the image may be derived from the account of his presence at Seneca’s death in the Golden Legend.

Other suicides – people literally falling on their swords – are shown as well:

Detail of a miniature of Nero committing suicide, Harley MS 4425, f. 61r

Detail of a miniature of Lucretia committing suicide in front of her family (and an attentive dog), Harley MS 4425, f. 79r

Detail of a miniature of Dido committing suicide as Aeneas sails away, Harley MS 4425, f. 117v

There’s also some nudity thrown in for good measure:

Detail of a miniature the painter Zeuxis painting nude models, Harley MS 4425, f. 142r

Detail of a miniature of Pygmalion and the statue, Harley MS 4425, f. 177v

Perhaps after the reading the Roman de la Rose – what with all the courting and wooing, birds and bees, flowers and fruit trees, and the like – you find yourself with a few questions about the procreative act.  Well, the Medieval Manuscripts Blog brings you Sex Education, Medieval-Style. 

Q. How are babies made? 

A. By Nature, with a hammer, on an anvil. 

Detail of a miniature of Nature forging a baby, Harley MS 4425, f. 140r [see our post Royal Babies and Celebrated Infants for more on this miniature]

And there’s another depiction of people being created elsewhere in the manuscript…can you find it?

This manuscript also contains a number of extraordinary images of medieval dress and clothing styles, as well as a variety of depictions of the social classes.  Check out the blog next Tuesday for a post on these subjects, and still more from the magnificent Roman de la Rose.

- James Freeman