Medieval manuscripts blog

447 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

21 August 2013

King Athelstan's Books

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Are you tired of the Anglo-Saxons yet? No, we're not either! Those of you who have been engrossed by Michael Wood's recent series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, may have seen the beautiful Athelstan Psalter in last night's programme. We featured this manuscript in a previous blogpost; but it's worth looking at again, and you may like to know that the entire Psalter is available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


The Athelstan Psalter (London, British Library, MS Cotton Galba A XVIII, f. 21r).

The Athelstan Psalter is a curious little book, just large enough to fit into an adult male's hand. The script of the original portion indicates that the manuscript was made in North-East France, in the 9th century; but by the middle of the 10th century the Psalter was in England, where it received a number of accretions, including a metrical calendar and some computistical texts.

The association of this manuscript with King Athelstan, the first king of England (reigned 924–939), is unproved. A note by a later owner, Thomas Dakcombe (d. c. 1572), describes the book as "Psaltirum Regis Ethelstani"; and this is echoed in the list of contents made for Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631). As Professor Simon Keynes has commented, "the claim of the so-called Athelstan Psalter once to have belonged to the king is based on the slenderest of evidence". Michael Wood himself spoke on the Athelstan Psalter at the British Library's Royal manuscripts conference in 2011, the proceedings of which are shortly to be published by the British Library.

It's amazing how such a little book has survived the ravages of time (it escaped destruction by fire in 1731) to become a modern star in the age of television! Episode 3 of Michael Wood's King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, entitled Aethelstan: The First King of England, can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer.

Further reading

Simon Keynes, ‘King Athelstan’s books’, in Michael Lapidge & Helmut Gneuss (eds.), Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England: Studies presented to Peter Clemoes on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 143–201, at pp. 193–96

Robert Deshman, ‘The Galba Psalter: pictures, texts and context in an early medieval prayerbook’, Anglo-Saxon England, 26 (1997), 109–38

20 August 2013

St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels

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St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 209v).

Now on show in Durham, until 30 September 2013, is this miniature of St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels. The page in question prefaces the Gospel of John in this famous, Anglo-Saxon gospelbook. John is depicted sitting on a blue cushion, with a scroll held in his left hand, and with his evangelist symbol (an eagle, imago aequilae) above his head. The pigments are as rich as the day they were painted, a combination of oranges, reds, blues and greens.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is the centrepiece of the Durham exhibition, staged in Palace Green Library, a stone's throw (literally) from the impressive Romanesque cathedral. Also are show are other British Library manuscripts, most notably the St Cuthbert Gospel (which we bought for the nation in 2012 for £9 million), plus treasures from the British Museum, Corpus Christi College Cambridge and other institutions, and items from the Staffordshire Hoard. Catch the exhibition while you can, it's a treat!

You can read more about the exhibition here. And you can see the Lindisfarne Gospels in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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

19 August 2013

Get Ready to 'Save-As': New Uploads to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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As many of you hopefully already know, the British Library offers two different ways to work with digital versions of our medieval manuscripts.  Our Digitised Manuscripts website contains complete coverage of many of the items in our collections, while the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is another very useful source of digital catalogue records and images.

Miniature of the Crucifixion, from a leaf from a missal, northern France or Netherlands, 2nd half of the 13th century, Additional MS 34652, f. 5

The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is based on a Microsoft Access database, so it has allowed us to develop some very detailed search tools.  CIM (as we call it) is particularly useful for iconographical searches, since each image is described individually.  You can search for various terms either in these specific image descriptions, or within the wider manuscript records.

We are pleased to announce that from 13 August you will be able to find even more images and manuscripts in the Catalogue, which now includes over 4,200 manuscripts (with separate parts for another 1,000) and 36,000 images.   

We update the online Catalogue twice a year, so please do send along any additional bibliography, your comments, and or suggested corrections to mss [at] bl [dot] uk, and we will include these in the next upload.

Miniature of a man cutting down a tree on which he sits (an illustration of the proverb: 'chopping down the branch that supports you'), from Pierre Sala’s Petit Livre d’Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), 1st quarter of the 16th century, Stowe MS 955, f. 15r (for example, we’ve already corrected the just-spotted typo in the description of this image!)

All of the images in CIM are provided under a Public Domain Mark, meaning that, within certain restrictions of reasonable use, images from this catalogue are freely available to the public.  We ask that you maintain the library's Public Domain tag, and provide a link or other credit back to the source on the British Library's site – but otherwise, we are happy for you to help us share these riches even more widely with the world!

Or, if you are just interested in exploring, why not take a tour of some collection highlights?  Our curatorial staff have teamed up with other experts to put together a series of virtual exhibitions, exploring topics that range from manuscripts of the Bible to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table to medieval bestiaries.

Drawing of Matthew the Evangelist and a musical sequence on 'Fulgens' in Anglo-Norman neums, with the opening showing metal clasps and part of a front flyleaf, from Orosius’ Historum adversum paganos, England (Winchester?), between c. 892 and c. 925, Add MS 47967, f. 1v

We will soon have a blog post for you on our recent uploads of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts to CIM, but in the meantime, happy searching!

 - Kathleen Doyle and Sarah J Biggs

15 August 2013

Credo: British Library Manuscripts in Paderborn

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The British Library has loaned three manuscripts to the exhibition 'Credo', which opened in Paderborn on 26 July 2013. The exhibition explores the Christianisation of medieval Europe, covering aspects such as the foundations of the missionary church and its spread through the Roman Empire, the Christianisation of Ireland, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, the missionary initiatives from the British Isles to the Continent, and the Christianisation of Scandinavia and of Lithuania under the rule of the Jagellonians.

Detail of Bede's Ecclesiastical History (London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius C II, f. 5v)
The section on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons opens with an early, Kentish copy of Bede's Historia ecclesiaistica gentis Anglorum (British Library MS Cotton Tiberius C II), displayed open at Bede's famous description of Britannia. Also on loan is the early-9th century Anglian Collection (British Library MS Cotton Vespasian B VI), showing the royal pedigrees of Deira and Bernicia, which traced the origin of the Northumbrian kings back to Woden. Paulinus, the Italian missionary who went to the north of England to convert King Edwin of Northumbria (d. 633), is there named as the first bishop of York.

Detail of Alcuin's letter (London, British Library, MS Harley 208, f. 73v)
The third British Library loan is exhibited in the section of the exhibition examining the process of conversion by conquest under Charlemagne. British Library MS Harley 208 is a collection of letters written by the theologian Alcuin of York (d. 804), who was an advisor to Charlemagne. The letter displayed is an important witness of early medieval missionary thinking, the theology of conversions and a crucial document for the history of Charlemagne's struggle with the Saxon people. The entire manuscript is available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Image courtesy of the 'Credo' website.
The British Library is very pleased to be able to support this exhibition. Credo: Christianisierung Europas im Mittelalter is open in Paderborn until 3 November 2013, and is definitely worth a visit. In-Credo-ble: sorry, couldn't resist!

13 August 2013

The Lady of the Mercians

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Some of you may already have watched the first episode of Michael Wood's new series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, which is still available on the BBC iPlayer. (We're very hopeful that the whole series will eventually be broadcast worldwide.)


Detail of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, from a 13th-century genealogical chronicle (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B V).


King Alfred and his daughter Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B V).

Episode two will be shown tonight on BBC Four (21.00–22.00), and is entitled "The Lady of the Mercians". Æthelflæd (d. 918) was the daughter of Alfred of Wessex, and the wife of Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. Having become sole ruler of the Mercians following her husband's death in 911, Æthelflæd is credited with helping to reconquer the Danelaw (the English lands under Viking rule) in tandem with her younger brother Edward the Elder, king of Wessex (reigned 899–924). As Michael Wood concludes, without her "England might never have happened".

Roundels depicting Alfred, Æthelflæd and Edward the Elder, from a 14th-century genealogical chronicle (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B VI).

Episode three of Michaels Wood's King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons will be shown next week. Many of the manuscripts featured in the series are held at the British Library, and some of them can be explored in more detail on our Digitised Manuscripts site or the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.


This manuscript of Aldhelm's De laudibus virginitatis was made around AD 900, possibly in Mercia, and later belonged to Worcester Cathedral Priory (London, British Library, MS Royal 5 F III, f. 35r).

12 August 2013

Twelfth-Century Girl Power

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One of our recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts is the indisputably fabulous Melisende Psalter (Egerton MS 1139); have a look at the fully digitised version here. This extraordinary manuscript is not only a superb example of 12th-century Crusader art, but also a fitting legacy for the remarkable woman for whom it was most likely created - Melisende, the Queen of Jerusalem.

Detail of a miniature of the Nativity of Christ, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 2r

Melisende was born in 1105, and spent her early years in Edessa, a territory that had been conquered by her father, Baldwin, a Frankish crusading knight who met with much success on the battlefield. His wife (the deliriously-named Morphia), to whom he was much devoted, was the daughter of an Armenian prince, and a formidable figure in her own right. As their eldest daughter, Melisende was heavily influenced by her strong and ambitious parents, and grew up surrounded by the traditions of both East and West – not to mention a near-constant state of warfare.

When Melisende was 13 her father was elected the King of Jerusalem. Lacking sons, the newly-crowned Baldwin II took the unusual step of naming his eldest daughter the heir to his kingdom, and Melisende soon became an active participant in the administration of the crusader state. Baldwin eventually arranged a match between Melisende and the Frankish military commander Fulk V, Count of Anjou and Maine, after taking steps to ensure that his daughter’s position would be assured after her marriage.

Melisende and Fulk ascended to the joint rule of Jerusalem after Baldwin II’s death in 1131, but Fulk did not wait long before he sought to strip Melisende of her power and seize the throne for himself alone. Melisende was more than a match for him, however. Possessing a canny knowledge of diplomacy, able military commanders, and the loyalty of her subjects, she quickly put an end to his attempted coup. The couple eventually reconciled, but Melisende’s position was sacrosanct ever after; the historian William of Tyre later wrote that Fulk never again tried to ‘take the initiative, even in trivial matters, without [her] knowledge’.

Ivory plaque from the lower binding, of the six vices and six works of charity, illustrating Matthew 25:35-36, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139

Some scholars have argued that the Melisende Psalter was a gift from Fulk to Melisende after their reconciliation – a glorious form for an apology to take, if true. There is certainly plenty of evidence for this suggestion. The death of Baldwin II is listed in the Psalter’s calendar, but Fulk’s death in 1143 is not noted, which implies that he was alive at time it was created. The Psalter was originally encased in two ivory plaques (now detached), one of which includes a carving of a bird labeled as ‘herodius’ (see above); in the French vernacular this bird was also called a ‘foulque’, a rather obvious allusion to Fulk.

Detail of a miniature of the Deesis, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 12v

Like Melisende herself, the Psalter is a unique synthesis of East and West. The text, liberally highlighted with gold lettering, conforms to the standards of the Holy Sepulchre, but its style and script is closest to contemporary French or English productions, and the calendar is a copy of one developed for use in the diocese of Winchester. At the beginning of the manuscript is a series of 24 full-page miniatures with scenes from the New Testament; the presence of such scenes is common in western European Psalters from this period, but the images in Melisende’s are of a distinctly eastern style, reflective of the Byzantine Orthodox liturgical tradition. These masterful illuminations were created by an artist named Basilius, who signed his name (‘Basilius me fecit’ or ‘Basilius made me’) on the last miniature in the series (this inscription is just barely visible in the stool beneath Christ’s feet; see above).

Some of our favourite highlights from the manuscript are below; have a look at the entire manuscript here.

Miniature of Christ and the raising of Lazarus, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 5r

Miniature of the Ascension of Christ, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 11r

Historiated initial ‘B’(eatus vir) of David harping, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v

Miniature of Mary Magdalene, at the beginning of a prayer to her, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 210r

Ivory plaque from the upper binding, with scenes from the life of David, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139

- Sarah J Biggs

09 August 2013

The Eyes Have It

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Here's a poser for you. Below are the evangelist portraits from the famous Lindisfarne Gospels, reputedly painted (according to a 10th-century colophon) by Bishop Eadfrith (698-c. 721).

The question is: can you spot the difference? The answer is found at the foot of this post.


St Matthew the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 25v)


St Mark the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 93v)


St Luke the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 137v)


 St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 209v)

To find out more about the making of the Lindisfarne Gospels, we highly recommend that you read Richard Gameson's new book, From Holy Island to Durham: The Contexts and Meanings of the Lindisfarne Gospels (Third Millennium, 2013). Or why not visit Durham itself, where the manuscript itself is on display until September 2013? Meanwhile, don't forget that you can view all the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

So, the answer to our poser is ... well, it's a bit of a trick question. All the eyes are blue, except ... you'll have to work that one out!

01 August 2013

A Calendar Page for August 2013

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

The aristocratic pursuits which have so characterised this manuscript (see here for April, May, June and July) take a back seat in these scenes from the calendar pages for August.  In the opening full-page miniature, a man and a woman are pausing from their labours in the fields to take some refreshment; the man is holding out a bowl towards another woman, who bears a basket of food and a jug (one hopes that it is full of wine).  A dog with a studded collar plays nearby, while behind the resting pair more peasants are at work harvesting grain.  In the bas-de-page, a group of men are engaged in the rather disquieting game of 'cock-throwing', hurling sticks at a bird that has been tied to a stake.  On the following page are the saints for August, and a small roundel miniature of a woman holding a flower, for the zodiac sign Virgo.  Below, another group of men are snaring birds, using an owl to attract them. 


Calendar page for August with a miniature of labourers harvesting grain and resting in the fields, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 25v


Calendar page for August with a bas-de-page scene of a men snaring birds, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 26r