Medieval manuscripts blog

460 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

03 October 2013

It's a Busy Life in Camelot

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Those who are familiar with Royal MS 14 E iii, the gorgeous Arthurian manuscript which was in our Royal Exhibition last year and is now fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts site, will know that it contains The Estoire del Saint Graal, La Queste del Saint Graal, and Morte Artu, which tell the religious and mystical sections of the legends of King Arthur.

Add MS 10282 f. 91 K147734
Detail of a miniature of Arthur and Merlin at dinner at Pentecost, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 91r

In our collections we have another manuscript made at the same time by the same workshop in northern France, which contains the entire French prose ‘Vulgate Cycle’, as it is often called, and is now divided into 3 volumes: Additional MSS 10292, 10293 and 10294.  Our virtual exhibition on Arthurian manuscripts on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts puts these manuscripts into context.

In addition to the texts in the Royal manuscript, these three volumes also contain the Histoire de Merlin, about Merlin’s early involvement in the story, and the Lancelot du Lac, the original stories of Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table and their chivalric exploits, including the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere.

There are catalogue entries and a selection of images already online in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, but these manuscripts contain over 600 of these colourful, imaginative images, which are soon to be available online, as we are currently preparing them for digitisation. Here is a selection of the delights in store:

Add MS 10282 f. 42v K151434
Detail of a miniature of King Celidoine at sea in a small boat, with a lion, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 41v   Quiz question: who is King Celidoine and why is he having a 'Life of Pi' experience?  (A tip: see H. Oskar Sommer, The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances (Washington, 1909-1916), a 7 volume edition based on the Additional Manuscripts.  It is available online here; happy searching!

Add MS 10283 f. 292v K149438
Detail of a miniature of Lancelot, fully armed, joining knights and ladies in an enchanted dance in a forest, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 292v

Add MS 10283 f. 325v K147523
Detail of a miniature of Lancelot and Guinevere, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 325v

Detail of a miniature of Hector and Gawain meeting in a forest, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10294, f. 29v

Miniatures of a lady being wounded by a sword while she mourns for Gawain, and of King Arthur ont the Wheel of Fortune with a blindfolded Lady Fortuna, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10294, f. 89r

Watch this space and be the first to know when the full digitisation of these gorgeous manuscripts appear online!  Or follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval.

- Chantry Westwell

01 October 2013

A Calendar Page for October 2013

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

Wine-making - and the more agreeable labour of wine-tasting - is the focus of the main calendar page for the month of October.  In the full-page miniature, a group of men are at work with a wine-press, and pouring the finished product into nearby casks (one of which is being repaired even as it is filled).  On the left, the wine merchant is offering his wares to a well-dressed customer.  Behind them, beyond a stone wall upon which two peacocks are sitting, a vineyard can be seen, with men still gathering grapes.  In the bas-de-page, men are playing with knucklebones.  On the following page are the usual listing of saints' days and a small painting of two scales for the zodiac sign Libra.  Below, four men are restraining a massive ox in preparation for its slaughter.

Calendar page for October with a miniature of wine-making, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 27v

Calendar page for October with a bas-de-page scene of a men slaughtering an ox, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 28r

28 September 2013

Guess the Manuscript VII

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We'll be the first to admit that the next installment in our Guess the Manuscript series is a bit cruel.  In our defence, you loyal readers have proven so astute and resourceful in solving the previous puzzles that we've had to come up with a challenge for you (or rather, we hope it is a challenge for you).  As you can see below, we are offering you a bit of text from a medieval manuscript that is somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site; can you identify the text and the manuscript?


You can leave your guesses as comments on this post, or send them to us via Twitter @BLMedieval.  Good luck!

Update:  And the answer (of course) is Royal MS 15 D I, f. 61v, a bit of text from a copy of Guyart de Moulin's Bible historiale which was produced in Bruges between 1470 and 1479.  Massive congratulations are due to @AskthePast, who was the only one to get it right!  Thanks to everyone for playing along, and stay tuned for another Guess the Manuscript soon.

26 September 2013

Knight v Snail

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Recently a group of us went into our manuscripts store to have a look at some medieval genealogical rolls.  We were examining Royal MS 14 B V, an English roll from the last part of the 13th century that contains quite a lot of marginalia, when one of our post-medieval colleagues noticed a painting of a knight engaging in combat with a snail.

Knight v Snail  (from a genealogical roll of the kings of England, England, 4th quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 14 B V, membrane 3)

This struck him as odd, which struck the medievalists in the group as odd; surely everyone has seen this sort of thing before, right?  As anyone who is familiar with 13th and 14th century illuminated manuscripts can attest, images of armed knights fighting snails are common, especially in marginalia.  But the ubiquity of these depictions doesn’t make them any less strange, and we had a long discussion about what such pictures might mean.

Knight v Snail II:  Battle in the Margins (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 193v.  For more on the gorgeous Gorleston marginalia, please see our posts here and here)

There has been much scholarly debate about the significance of these depictions of snail combat.  As early as 1850, the magnificently-named bibliophile the Comte de Bastard theorised that a particular marginal image of a snail was intended to represent the Resurrection, since he discovered it in two manuscripts close to miniatures of the Raising of Lazarus.  In her famous survey of the subject, Lilian Randall proposed that the snail was a symbol of the Lombards, a group vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behaviour, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment in general.’  This interpretation accounts for why the snail is so frequently seen antagonising a knight in armour, but does not explain why the knight is often depicted on the losing end of this battle, or why this particular image became so popular in the margins of non-historical texts such as Psalters or Books of Hours.

Yates Thompson MS 19 f. 65r C1319-01b
Knight v Snail III: Extreme Jousting (from Brunetto Latini's Li Livres dou Tresor, France (Picardy), c. 1315-1325, Yates Thompson MS 19, f. 65r)

Other scholars have variously described the ‘knight v snail’ motif as a representation of the struggles of the poor against an oppressive aristocracy, a straightforward statement of the snail’s troublesome reputation as a garden pest, a commentary on social climbers, or even as a saucy symbol of female sexuality.  It is possible that these images could have meant all these things and more at one time or another; it is important to remember, as Michael Camille, who devoted a number of pages to this subject, once wrote: ‘marginal imagery lacks the iconographic stability of a religious narrative or icon’.   This motif was part of a rich visual tradition that we can understand only imperfectly today – not that this will stop us from trying!

Knight v Snail IV:  The Snails Attack (from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 148r)

Some more of our favourite British Library images are below, and please let us know what you think. You can leave a comment below, or we can always be reached on Twitter at @BLMedieval.

Knight v Snail V:  Revenge of the Snail (from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), with marginal scenes added in England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r)

Knight v Snail VI:  The Gastropod Conqueror (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 162v)

Harley MS 6563 ff. 62v-63r
Knight v Snail VII: A Pretty Comprehensive Defeat (from a fragmentary Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320-c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, ff. 62v-63r)

Knight v Snail VIII:  Switcheroo!  It's a Monkey This Time (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 210v)

Knight v Snail IX:  Just for Fun:  A Rabbit, Monkeys, and a Snail Jousting (from the Harley Froissart, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v)

Further Reading

Lilian Randall, ‘The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare’ Speculum 37, no. 6 (June 1962), pp. 358-367.

Michael Camille, Image on the Edge (Reaktion Books: London, 1992), pp. 31-36.

Carl Prydum, What’s So Funny about Knights and Snails?,

- Sarah J Biggs

23 September 2013

Internship in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section

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The British Library is pleased to be able to offer an internship in the Medieval and Earlier section of the History and Classics Department for a doctoral or post-doctoral student in the History of Art or another relevant subject.


The intern will be involved in all aspects of the work of the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section, including responding to enquiries, providing talks for students and patrons, selecting and presenting manuscripts for display in our exhibition gallery, and cataloguing, thereby gaining insight into various curatorial duties and aspects of collection care.  During the internship at the Library, the intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise. 

The primary focus of the internship will be to enhance our online Digitised Manuscripts and Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts websites by creating and supplementing catalogue entries for medieval manuscripts and accompanying images, working under the supervision of the Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts.  The internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the student to develop research skills and expertise in medieval and Renaissance art and history, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences. 


The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of pre-1600 illuminated manuscripts who have a right to work in the UK. 


The term of internship is either full time for six months, or part time for twelve months.  Applicants are asked to specify which term they would prefer in the application.  The salary is £8.55 per hour (Full time is 36 hours per week).  The internship will start in November 2013 after relevant security clearances are obtained.

How to apply

Please send an application letter detailing your area of research, the date you would like to start and whether you would like to work full or part time, a CV, and two letters of reference to Dr Kathleen Doyle, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, The British Library, by email to kathleen [dot] doyle [at] bl [dot] uk, or by post to 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, by 20 October 2013.  Interviews will be held in late October, and may include questions about the date, origin, and decoration of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.  The internship will start as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.

20 September 2013

The Luscious Luttrell Psalter

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At long last, every glorious page of the Luttrell Psalter, bursting with medieval vitality, is available on our Digitised Manuscripts site here: Add MS 42130.

Historiated initial 'B'(eatus vir) of King David playing the harp, at the beginning of Psalm 1, from the Luttrell Psalter, England (Lincolnshire), c. 1320-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 13r

The Luttrell Psalter is justifiably considered one of the British Library’s greatest treasures.  It was created c. 1320-1340 in Lincolnshire, England, and takes its name from its first owner and patron, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276-1345).  The Luttrell Psalter is perhaps best known for its wild profusion of marginal and hybrid creatures as well as its hundreds of bas-de-page illuminations (stay tuned for a blog post on these subjects!).  Many of these contain some remarkable and detailed scenes of daily life in the rural medieval England of the 14th century.  

Please have a look through the Luttrell Psalter online; we are always interested to hear about what you find compelling.  Feel free to tag us in some of your finds on Twitter @BLMedieval.  Here are a (very) few of our favourite images from this magnificent manuscript:

Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, mounted in full regalia, attended by his wife and daughter-in-law.  The elaborate display of family heraldry leaves the observer in no doubt as to the power and importance of this family.  However, the fish-like creature above is unimpressed; note the grimace on his orange face!  From the Luttrell Psalter, England (Lincolnshire), c. 1320-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 202v

There is always something new to discover in the marginalia.  This artist had real imagination – say no more!  From the Luttrell Psalter, England (Lincolnshire), c. 1320-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 27r

Scenes from daily life in the 14th  century: a young lady at the ‘hair salon’. The creature on the right doesn’t seem to think much of her new hairstyle!  From the Luttrell Psalter, England (Lincolnshire), c. 1320-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 63r

Every page is a feast for the eyes:  this one containing part of Psalm 6 does not have the largest or most impressive images. But the ensemble: the regular gothic script (most letters requiring at least 4 pen-strokes), the gorgeous pastel colours of the borders and decorations, with splashes of luminous gold, and the matching shapes of the three elongated creatures providing amusement and focus, all combine to create a satisfying and harmonious whole.  From the Luttrell Psalter, England (Lincolnshire), c. 1320-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 18v

And if you want to see the Luttrell Psalter ‘in the flesh’, please visit our Treasures Exhibition in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library, where it is on display with many other treasures from our collections.

- Chantry Westwell

18 September 2013

Marvellous Manuscripts from the Levant

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Identifying the date and origin of Greek manuscripts can be very tricky. Sometimes, a scribe with an eye to posterity will note the date he completed the manuscript and, if we’re very lucky, the place, too. We might also get a clue based on the location of the manuscript before it was acquired by the British Library, but manuscripts travel, and many Greek manuscripts may have circulated quite widely since the time they were first created. So, how do we figure out where and when a given manuscript was made, if we don’t have any obvious clues?

Two of the Greek manuscripts recently digitised by the British Library share common palaeographic and iconographic features. One, Add MS 37002, contains a colophon on f 253v which gives us a year, 1314-1315, in which the manuscript was likely written (though this is not certain). The other, Add MS 26103, is not quite as helpful - though there are a number of erased inscriptions on the final leaf of the volume, there’s no indication of a date or location.

Add_ms_37002_f253v detail

The colophon recording the writing of this manuscript in 1314-1315: Add MS 37002, f. 253v

However, we can with reasonable confidence assign a general location to both of these manuscripts, and suggest a date in the first half of the 13th century for Add MS 26103, based on some shared features between the two and a larger group of manuscripts now dispersed in libraries around the world.


A headpiece in Add MS 26103, f. 71r

A large group of illuminated manuscripts form what is now referred to as the “decorative style” group. These manuscripts are characterised by similarities of decoration and illustration, for example, the elaborate headpieces that resemble carpets, or the distinctive features of illuminated portraits of the Evangelists – note in particular the elongated face of John the Evangelist in these examples, combined with the distinctive backgrounds. Excitingly, a number of the manuscripts that form part of the decorative style group contain colophons indicating that they were created in Cyprus or Palestine. The scholar Annemarie Weyl Carr, who has studied this group extensively, has also divided the manuscripts into subgroups, such as the “Interregnum subgroup”, which includes Add MS 26103 and which is dates to the first half of the 13th century (to the Byzantine interregnum).


Portrait of St John the Evangelist: Add MS 26103, f. 188v


Portrait of St John the Evangelist: Add MS 37002, f. 193v

Similar conclusions can be reached on palaeographical grounds. Paul Canart identified two distinct, but closely related, styles of Greek minuscule that diverge from the mainstream of Greek bookhands. These styles, which Canart called “rectangular epsilon” (le style epsilon rectangulaire) and “rounded epsilon” (le style epsilon arrondi). Many of the examples of these two hands are to be found in manuscripts of the “decorative style” group, a further way of linking these manuscripts with the broader Palestino-Cypriot region. As you can see from these examples, Add MS 26103 can be assigned to the rectangular epsilon style, while Add MS 37002 is an example of the rounded epsilon style. The two letters are clearly very similar, but the one in Add MS 37002 is a little more rounded.

Add_ms_26103_f003r detail          Add_ms_37002_f009v detail1
The epsilons on (a) Add MS 26103, f. 3r and (b) Add MS 37002, f. 9v

Taken together, these palaeographic and iconographic markers greatly help us to identify the location and date of the creation of these manuscripts.

Other manuscripts in the British Library collection that have been associated with the “decorative style” group include Add MS 11836, Add MS 17982, Add MS 39595, Add MS 40753, and Harley MS 1810.

Cillian O'Hogan

Further reading

P. Canart, ‘Les écritures livresque chypriotes du milieu du IXe siècle au milieu du XIIIe et le style palestino-cypriote “epsilon”’, Scrittura e civiltà 5 (1981), pp. 17–76 [reprinted in idem, Études de paléographie et de codicologie, Vol. I, Vatican City 2008, pp. 677-736.]

A. W. Carr, ‘A group of provincial manuscripts from the twelfth century’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 36 (1982) 39–81.

A. W. Carr, Byzantine illumination, 1150-1250: the study of a provincial tradition. Chicago 1987.

16 September 2013

Dogs: Medieval Man's Best Friend

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Are you interested in dogs? Are you interested in medieval manuscripts? Are you interested in dogs in medieval manuscripts? Who's not?! And you can find out more by reading Kathleen Walker-Meikle's new book, Medieval Dogs, published by the British Library. Here the author kindly picks out for us some of her highlights.


Christine de Pizan and her dog: Harley MS 4431, f. 4r

Dogs abound in medieval sources, whether in the margins of manuscripts or entries for dog collars and ‘bread for the dogs’ in accounts, and they range from the hunting hound to the spoilt lapdog. (According to the 13th-century scholar Albertus Magnus, the latter often died of constipation due to their overly rich diet.) The 15th-century Boke of St Albans enumerates the following types of dog: a greyhound, a bastard, a mongrel, a mastiff, a lymer (a hound that finds the game), a spaniel, raches (a hound that runs the quarry down), kennets (small hunting hounds), terriers, butcher’s hounds, dung-heap dogs, trundle-tails, ‘prick-eared curs’ and small ladies’ puppies ‘that bear away the fleas’ and other small dogs. Assorted working dogs are described in John Caius’s On English Dogges (1570), such as the dog-messenger (who ‘carried letters from place to place wrapped up cunningly in his leather collar’), the water-drawer (who turned well-wheels), the tinker’s cur (which carried the tinker’s buckets), the turnspit (which turned kitchen-spits), and ‘defending dogs’.


A dog attacking its master's killer: Harley MS 3244, f. 45r

Loyalty was the most praised canine attribute in the Middle Ages. The late 14th-century author of Goodman of Paris remarked how ‘a greyhound, mastiff or little dog, whether on the road, or at table, or in bed, always stays close to the person who gives him food and ignores all others, being distant and shy with them. Even if far away, the dog always has his master in his heart. Even if his master whips or throws stones at the dog, the dog will still follow him, wagging his tail and lying down in front of his masters to placate him. The dog will follow the master through rivers, woods, thieves and battles.’


"Bad King John" and one of his hunting dogs Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8v

Dogs were popular pets for those in religious orders, despite numerous injunctions that attempted to limit the practice. William Greenfield, Archbishop of York, remonstrated in the early fourteenth century that bringing little dogs into the choir during divine services would ‘impede the service and hinder the devotion of the nuns’.


 A nun holding her lapdog: Stowe MS 17, f. 100r 

Medieval Dogs by Kathleen Walker-Meikle is available now from British Library Publishing (£10 hardback, ISBN 9780712358927). On a similar theme, Kathleen Walker-Meikle is also author of Medieval Cats (£10, ISBN 9780712358187).

You can read more about medieval dogs in our previous post, Nothin' But A Hound Dog. Meanwhile, many of the manuscripts featured here (and the dogs in them) can be viewed in their entirety on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.