Medieval manuscripts blog

439 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

25 July 2013

Guess the Manuscript V

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The beautiful weather lately has put us all in a gentle summery mood, so we've decided not to inflict another flyleaf mystery on you.  Today's installment of Guess the Manuscript is from the actual body of the actual manuscript; how quickly can you figure it out?


As always, this is from a manuscript in one of our collections and can be found somewhere on the Digitised Manuscript website.  Send your guesses in, and we'll update with the answer shortly!  You can check out our previous Guess the Manuscript posts here, here, here, and here.

22 July 2013

A Carolingian Masterpiece: the Moutier-Grandval Bible

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On Christmas Day of the year 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Europe’s first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III.  Many people, including Charlemagne himself, saw the empire he had established (called Carolingian in his honour) as a continuation of that of the Romans, and the Christmas ceremony in Rome confirmed this in the eyes of the world.

Charlemagne was committed to resurrecting the classical scholarship of Greece and Rome that many felt was lost during the so-called Dark Ages, and he gathered intellectuals from around Europe to his court in Aachen.  One notable recruit was the English cleric Alcuin of York (c. 735 - 804), who joined Charlemagne's ambitious project around 781.  Alcuin became the leading figure in the group of scholars and artists assembled to stimulate the cultural revival that became known as the 'Carolingian Renaissance'. This Renaissance was focused on Charlemagne’s Court at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) and monasteries such as Tours, where Alcuin was abbot.

The frontispiece to Genesis, depicting the Creation of Adam and Eve, their Temptation and Expulsion from the idealised landscape of Eden to labour on thorny soil, from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, France (Tours), c. 830 – c. 840, Add MS 10546, f. 5v

One of Alcuin's contributions was to produce an emended version of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Subsequently a number of single volume Bibles were produced by teams of scribes and artists at his abbey of Tours, for distribution around Charlemagne’s empire.  We are delighted to announce that the one of the great products of that scriptorium, the Moutier-Grandval Bible, made under Abbot Adalhard (834-843), is now available online on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website here.

Miniature of Christ in Majesty, surrounded by the Evangelists and their symbols, , from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, France (Tours), c. 830 – c. 840, Add MS 10546, f. 352v

This immense pandect—it is an enormous 495 x 380 mm, and has 449 folios—is one of three surviving illustrated copies produced in Tours in the 9th century.  The four full-page miniatures reveal this manuscript’s debt to classical art.  The decorated initials are followed by square capitals and uncials which lead into the text script, which is a form of caroline minuscule, upgraded here by the introduction of some variant letter-forms such as 'a'.  Some twenty different scribes worked on the manuscript, a signal of the scale of book production at Tours during this period.


Decorated initial ‘F’(rater Ambrosius) from the beginning of Jerome’s prologue to the Bible in the form of a letter to Paulinus, from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, France (Tours), c. 830 – c. 840, Add MS 10546, f. 2r

The manuscript takes its name from the monastery of Moutier-Grandval, in the canton of Berne, Switzerland, where it was housed from at least the 16th century until the 18th when it made its way into private hands.  Little evidence exists concerning the Bible’s early history, but it is possible that it belonged to Moutier-Grandval from the very beginning, as the Tours scriptorium routinely produced manuscripts for use in other foundations.


Miniature of the book ‘sealed with seven seals’ on an altar, being opened by the Lamb and the Lion of Juda, with the symbols of the Evangelists; below, an enthroned figure holding a canopied cloth (the vault of the heaven?) and an angel blowing a trumpet, at the end of Revelation, from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, France (Tours), c. 830 – c. 840, Add MS 10546, f. 449r

The enormous size and weight of the Moutier-Grandval Bible, as well as the fragile state of its binding, made it a particular challenge for us to digitise. A special cradle was employed to safely house the manuscript during photography, and a team of experts from a number of departments in the British Library worked together to transport, tend, and watch over it during the days of filming – have a look at some of our behind-the-scenes photos below!  And if there are any queries about our use (or rather, lack of use) of white gloves, please see our previous post on the subject here.

Moutier Grandval photography 1

Moutier Grandval photography 2

Special thanks are due to Andrea Clarke, Kathleen Doyle, and Julian Harrison of the Medieval and Earlier Manuscript department, Ann Tomalak and Gavin Moorhead of the British Library Centre for Conservation, and Antony Grant, Senior Imaging Technician.

19 July 2013

Royal Babies and Celebrated Infants

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With all of the excitement surrounding the impending arrival of Britain's newest Royal baby, it seems like a good opportunity to have a look at the medieval representations of birth - that blessed, everyday event.

Egerton MS 1070 f. 24v c13818-46
Miniature of the Nativity of Christ, from the The Hours of René d'Anjou, France (Paris), c. 1410, Egerton MS 1070, f. 24v

The most frequently depicted newborn in medieval art is, of course, the infant Christ, who is usually shown in the manger, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Joseph, a curious ox and ass, and occasionally choirs of angels (see above and below).  One imagines that the future king or queen of England will be born in a cozier setting, although perhaps with slightly less celestial fanfare.

Harley MS 1892 f. 8v c13685-05
Miniature of the Nativity of Christ, from a book of prayers and Gospel lessons, Netherlands or England, c. 1490 - c. 1510, Harley MS 1892, f. 8v

The births of saints and kings were also a popular subject for medieval illuminators.  The miniature of the birth of Alexander the Great below is a typical example, albeit one in a particularly luxurious setting. 

Royal MS 20 C III f. 15r E023482

Detail of a miniature of the birth of Alexander the Great, from Historia Alexandri Magni, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1485 - 1490, Royal MS 20 C III, f. 15r

An image of another well-appointed birthing suite can be found in Harley MS 2278, a manuscript containing Lydgate's lives of SS Edmund and Fremund.  In the miniature on f. 13v (below), the new mother is being attended by a group of ladies, while another looks after the newborn, complete with tiny halo, before a roaring fire.  


Detail of a miniature of the birth of St Edmund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434 - 1439, Harley MS 2278, f. 13v

The 14th century Queen Mary Psalter was most likely produced for a royal woman, and includes quite a few bas-de-page paintings of nativities (with a small ‘n’).  A particularly charming example is that of St Nicholas, who can be seen lying swaddled in his cot, watched over by his tired mother and a busy servant.

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 314v G70033-40a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of the birth of St Nicholas, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 - 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 314v

These scenes are overwhelmingly female ones, populated almost entirely by women (and of course their babies).  Men, when they are present, are most often onlookers, claiming an active role only when medical intervention seems to have been necessary.  The most common depiction of this type of exigency is with the birth of Julius Caesar, who according to legend, had to be cut from his mother’s womb (hence our current term ‘caesarian’).  This operation has been captured in medias res in Royal MS 16 G VIII, where the future emperor can be seen emerging from his otherwise fully-dressed mother, surrounded by medical men.  Caesar’s mother seems relatively calm in this miniature, but is slightly less so in another Royal manuscript, which shows us the immediate aftermath (both below).

Detail of a miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, from Bellum Gallicum, illuminated in the Netherlands (Bruges), 1473 - 1476, Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r

Royal MS 17 F II f. 9r Caesar K90057-89a
Detail of a miniature of the birth of Caesar, from La Grande histoire César, Netherlands (Bruges), 1479, Royal MS 17 F II, f. 9r

Not all the medieval depictions of childbirth and infancy fit into these familiar patterns, however.  A copy of the Roman de la Rose dating from c. 1490 – c. 1500 includes a miniature of the personification of Nature literally forging a baby, hammering his shape on an anvil while discarded attempts lie on the floor nearby. 

Harley MS 4425 f. 140r c13324-85
Detail of a miniature of Nature forging a baby, from Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 - c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 140r

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lion suckling an infant, from the Smithfield Decretals, France (probably Toulouse), with marginal illustrations added in England (London), c. 1300 - c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 121r

A bas-de-page scene in the Smithfield Decretals (above) shows a rather unusual caretaker for a newborn; illustrating a popular legend, a series of marginal miniatures show a lion suckling and tending to a baby.  And Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus includes a well-known episode in the (almost certainly apocryphal) life of Pope Joan, who was said to have masqueraded so successfully as a male pontiff that her true gender was only revealed when she gave birth in the middle of a religious procession (below).

Royal MS 16 G V f. 120r K040945
Detail of a miniature of Pope Joan giving birth, from Giovanni Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus, France (Rouen), c. 1440, Royal MS 16 G V, f. 120r

By and large, however, most medieval births were seen as occasions of great joy, as they still are today.  It seems fitting to conclude with this miniature of the birth of St Fremund from Harley MS 2278, which shows the celebration of both men and nature at the blessed event.


Detail of a miniature of a rainbow after the birth of St Fremund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434 - 1439, Harley MS 2278, f. 72v

12 July 2013

Wandering in the Desert of Religion

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Cataloguing manuscripts at the British Library can be very exciting: you never quite know what's going to turn up – could I have predicted worms debating with a skeleton? On my recent list of items to tackle was a 15th-century collection of Middle English religious verse, Additional MS 37049. This manuscript has been a priority for digitisation because it is of great interest to scholars of Middle English verse, because of its multiple and vivid images, and because it is written on paper, and is therefore rather fragile. It had already been photographed, and so all that was holding it back from appearing on our Digitised Manuscripts site was a completed catalogue entry.


A man on his deathbed attended by a monk and a figure of death, who is saying ‘I have sought the (=thee) many a day, for to have the (=thee) to my pray(=prey)’. Christ on high offers absolution (London, British Library, MS Additional 37049, f. 38v).

My first port of call for information on this manuscript was the printed British Library Catalogue of Additions, and I found it under the title ‘THE DESERT OF Religion and other poems and religious pieces’. Then I knew I was in trouble! This was not going to be a short, simple task. There were 71 items in the contents list of the British Library catalogue (you can see the length of the printed catalogue entry under Related Resources in the online catalogue). Julia Boffey’s Digital Index of Middle English Verse (available online here) listed 69 records for this manuscript, each needing to be identified and checked. Almost every page contains at least one image to be described, and these are not images for the faint-hearted: they vary from the sickly-sentimental to the macabre to the ridiculous and are crammed with medieval religious symbolism.

After many fascinating hours, I am glad to say that I have emerged unscathed from my journey through the ‘Desert of Religion’, thanks to some excellent reference works on this manuscript, which continues to provide scope for further study. So, venture forth, those who dare! You will discover delights, like this image of a man up a tree:


Emblematic drawing of a man in a tree (man's life) pursued by a unicorn (death), taking honey (worldly vanities), while a white mouse (day) and a black mouse (night) gnaw at the trunk. Four serpents beneath represent the four elements, and a dragon’s open mouth awaits victims (London, British Library, MS Additional 37049, f. 19v).

The contents include a verse on the founding of the Carthusian Order and, of course, ‘The Desert of Religion’, an allegorical poem using the symbol of a ‘tree of twelve virtues’ growing in the desert to illustrate the spiritual battle between virtue and vice. Diagrams of trees on alternate pages bear the names of virtues and vices on their trunks and leaves, giving visual form to the allegory.


The tree of virtues, bearing leaves such as ‘Diligence’, ‘Mercy’ and ‘Reson’ (London, British Library, MS Additional 37049, f. 47r).

Other verses and texts, varying in length from several pages to a mere two-line caption on a scroll in an image, bear titles like ‘The Dawnce of Makabre’, ‘The Abuses of the Age’, ‘Come follow me my friends into hell’, and a personal favourite, ‘The disputacion betwyx the body and worms’ – you have to love these cheeky-faced worms!


A skeleton and worms debating, accompanied by the dialogue (London, British Library, MS Additional 37049, f. 34v).

The wounds of Christ, and even the number of drops of blood he shed, are the subject of a number of poems, all with graphic illustrations. Deathbed scenes are another favourite.


A macabre illustration of Christ nailed to a tree, with wounds dripping blood. The monk kneeling in front of him wears the white robes of the Carthusian order, one of the indications that this work was produced in an English Charterhouse. The dialect is Northern, so the monasteries of Mount Grace or Kingston-upon-Hull in Yorkshire have been proposed as possible places of origin (London, British Library, MS Additional 37049, f. 67v).

Described as a ‘spiritual encyclopedia of the Middle Ages’, for me this work provides an example of the delightful otherness of the medieval mind-set. And yet, do people really change? Macabre scenes of death and mutilation continue to fascinate and entertain modern audiences – the recent film series, Saw, is a particularly bloodthirsty example!

Chantry Westwell


Select bibliography

‘An Illustrated Yorkshire Carthusian Religious Miscellany’, ed. by James Hogg, 3 vols Analecta Cartusiana, 95 (Salzburg: Institut fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 1981-) III (1981), The Illustrations.

Douglas Gray, ‘London, British Library, Additional MS 37049 – A Spiritual Encyclopedia’, in Text and Controversy from Wyclif to Bale, ed. by Helen Barr and Ann M. Hutchinson (Turnhout: Brepols, 2005), pp. 99-116.

Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards, A New Index of Middle English Verse (London: British Library, 2005).

Jessica Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

10 July 2013

Medieval Maps of the Holy Land

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P. D. A. Harvey's most recent book, Medieval Maps of the Holy Land, is a richly-illustrated study of eight regional maps of Palestine, drawn between the 12th and the 14th centuries. Some of those maps survive as the work of the original mapmaker, most notably those of Matthew Paris; others are copies or derivatives of original maps that are now lost. Together, as Harvey argues, they are "of considerable interest for the light they throw on the way maps were thought of and constructed in medieval Europe. They contribute too to our understanding of the way Palestine [used purely as a geographical term] was viewed at a period when the crusades gave it particular interest."

The Acre map of Matthew Paris (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII, f. 4v).

The maps featured are now dispersed worldwide, being held in Florence, London, Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Brussels, Bruges, the Vatican and New York. For instance, the Ashburnham Libri Map is kept at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. Harvey describes how it was examined in Paris by Sir Frederic Madden in 1846, with a view to purchasing it for the British Museum. But the sale fell through when Madden was informed that Guglielmo Libri was not just a collector but also a dealer, and "was suspected to have stolen a portion of the MSS. he possessed."

Two of these medieval maps of Palestine are now cared for by the British Library. The two Tournai maps (Additional MS 10049, f. 64r and f. 64v) were made in the late-12th century, and belonged to the abbey of St Martin at Tournai. The recto supplies a map of Palestine, overlaid and replaced by a map of Asia; the verso has a second map of Palestine, again partly overlaid and replaced by yet another map of Palestine. One notable feature is a parchment patch, covering an original hole, used on one side to depict Crete and the other the Caucasus mountains.

The Acre map of Matthew Paris (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII, f. 5r).

The second British Library map described by Harvey is the Acre map of Matthew Paris (Royal MS 14 C VII, ff. 4v-5r), with other versions surviving at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The British Library example can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site. That in Royal 14 C VII is said to be the most carefully executed of the three copies, and probably the first to be drawn, since its inscriptions are shorter and mostly in Latin rather than in French. Also found in the same book is an illustrated itinerary from London to south Italy, depicting the towns en route, mostly one day's journey apart, and with no contemporary or earlier medieval parallel.

The itinerary from London to Italy (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII, f. 2r).

Medieval Maps of the Holy Land is published by the British Library (ISBN 9780712358248), and is available from the online shop.

04 July 2013

Fancy a Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks?

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One of the most common types of enquiry we in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts department receive is whether or not a particular manuscript has been uploaded to the Digitised Manuscripts site (second only in frequency to the question of how we have gotten to be so fabulous).  This latter mystery has no simple explanation, but hopefully in future it will be easier to answer the 'Is it digitised yet?' question.  We have put together a master list of all of the manuscripts that have been uploaded by our department, including hyperlinks to the digitised versions; you can download an Excel version of the file here:  Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 04.07.13

Miniature of Jacob’s dream of the ladder, before Psalm 80, with a curtain above, and a bas-de-page image of cannibalistic grotesques pointing to our spreadsheet, from the Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925, f. 83v

A few notes - this list covers only material from the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts collections, mostly items digitised as part of the Greek, Harley Science, Royal, and Medieval Manuscripts projects.  The spreadsheet is currently sorted by shelfmark, although of course you can do what you like with it.  We will be updating this list every three months, and the newest versions will be posted on this blog.


02 July 2013

A Calendar Page for July 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 July with a miniature of a nobleman going hawking, with haymakers behind him, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 24v

Our glimpse into the summer pursuits of aristocrats continues in this miniature from the month of July.  In the foreground, a nobleman is setting out on horseback to hunt with falcons; he is accompanied by two retainers carrying more birds of prey, along with two dogs who seem eager for the hunt.  Behind him, a group of haymakers are at work mowing a field.  In the bas-de-page, a group of men are trying, unsuccessfully it appears, to capture some outsized butterflies.  On the following folio can be found the saints' days for July and a rather fierce-looking lion for Leo.  Below we can see the conclusion of the haymakers' labours, as they head off into the distance with a horsecart laden with their harvest.

Calendar page for July with a bas-de-page scene of a haycart, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 25r

01 July 2013

The Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham

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The British Library is delighted to be a major lender to the exhibition The Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham, which runs from 1 July to 30 September 2013. No fewer than six of the Library's greatest Anglo-Saxon and medieval treasures are on display at Palace Green Library in Durham, among them the St Cuthbert Gospel, the Ceolfrith Bible and, of course, the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 11v).

The loan of these treasures marks the culmination of many years' planning and collaboration between the British Library, Durham University, Durham Cathedral and Durham County Council. It provides an outstanding opportunity for visitors to examine these books at close-hand, and in the context of other artefacts including objects from the Staffordshire Hoard and from the tomb of St Cuthbert.

The star object in this exhibition is undoubtedly the Lindisfarne Gospels, which (according to a colophon added on its final page) was made by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (698-c. 721). The monastic community of Lindisfarne fled its home in response to Viking raids, carrying their books with them, settling temporarily at Chester-le-Street and finally at Durham. Every page of the Lindisfarne Gospels is witness to Anglo-Saxon artistic craftsmanship. Particularly noteworthy for art historians are its carpet pages, evangelist portraits and decorated initials; but the meticulous, half-uncial script is also of the highest calibre. The pages currently on display are from the canon tables which precede the four gospels (one of which is shown above). The Lindisfarne Gospels can be viewed in its entirety on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, and can also normally be seen on display in our Treasures Gallery.

The St Cuthbert Gospel (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000, f. 28v).

Another manuscript to be seen in the Durham exhibition is the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book, still to be found it its original leather binding. This book was purchased for the nation in 2012 following the largest such fundraising campaign ever conducted by the British Library. Most scholars agree that it was made in around AD 698, at the time when Cuthbert's body was translated to a new tomb at Lindisfarne. The coffin was re-opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104, and the book (a copy of the Gospel of St John) found inside. Two of its text-pages can be seen at the Palace Green Library, one of which has a contemporary annotation, as also seen above. Once again, the entire manuscript can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

The Ceolfrith Bible (London, British Library, MS Additional 45025, f. 15r).

An early Bible associated with Anglo-Saxon Northumbria has also been loaned by the British Library to Durham. The fragmentary Ceolfrith Bible (Additional MS 45025) was one of three great pandects (single-volume Bibles) commissioned by Abbot Ceolfrith of Wearmouth-Jarrow (690-716). This Bible seemingly left its home at a very early stage, perhaps as a gift to King Offa of Mercia (757-796), before arriving at Worcester Cathedral Library. After the Middle Ages it was broken up to be used as binding papers in a set of Nottinghamshire estate accounts, before a handful of leaves were subsequently rescued and purchased on behalf of the British Library. This manuscript was the subject of a recent blog-post, describing its fortuitous survival.

The Royal Athelstan Gospels (London, British Library, MS Royal 1 B VII, f. 15r).

As well as the Lindisfarne Gospels, a second Anglo-Saxon gospel-book has been loaned by the British Library to the Durham exhibition. This is the so-called "Royal Athelstan Gospels" (Royal MS 1 B VII), which was also shown at our own recent Royal Manuscripts exhibition, and is described in more detail in its accompanying catalogue. Made in Northumbria in the first half of the 8th century, this book contains an added manumission in Old English, stating that King Athelstan of Wessex (924-939) had freed a certain Eadhelm from slavery.

The Durham Liber Vitae (London, British Library, MS Cotton Domitian A VII, f. 7v).

The fifth British Library manuscript in the new exhibition is the Durham Liber Vitae or Book of Life (Cotton MS Domitian A VII). This book was made in the 9th century, written in gold and silver ink, and was continued by generations of monks until the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. It contains the names of members of the monastic community, together with those of other religious and benefactors, including various Anglo-Saxon kings: you can read more about it in our post The Durham Book of Life Online.

Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert (London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 26, f. 11r).

Last, but definitely not least, the British Library's famous illustrated Life of St Cuthbert (Yates Thompson MS 26) forms part of the Durham exhibition. This book contains the text of Bede's prose Life of Cuthbert, accompanied by a series of exquisite full-page miniatures. It has been featured regularly on our blog, most notably in the post entitled A Menagerie of Miracles (who can forget the image of the otters washing Cuthbert's feet?).

Lending these manuscripts to Durham underlines the British Library's commitment to increase access to its world-famous collections, and to promote new research into medieval manuscript culture. To find out more about them, have a look at Digitised Manuscripts, where all six books can be examined in great detail. Lindisfarne Gospels Durham: One Amazing Book, One Incredible Journey is on show at Palace Green Library until 30 September 2013.