Medieval manuscripts blog

487 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

09 January 2014

An Even Older View of the New World

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Our recent blog post An Old World View of the New got us thinking about other sources of New World images from within our medieval collections.  One excellent example, currently on exhibition in Australia (more below), can be found in Harley MS 2772, which we’ve recently fully-digitised and uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site.  This manuscript is a collection of fragments of Latin texts, including Macrobius’ Commentary on Cicero's Somnium Scipionis (The Dream of Scipio).  Included in the commentary on the ocean is one of the earliest maps ever produced.  It is a round diagram of the earth showing the known and unknown lands and oceans, including Italy and the Caspian Sea.

Diagram of the earth and oceans, Harley MS 2772, Germany 11th century, f. 70v

Although this is an eleventh-century copy, the map was first created in the early 5th century, when Macrobius originally wrote his commentary.  Most of the maps made at this time focused on the known world of the Roman Empire, but Macrobius was interested in the idea that other parts of the earth might be inhabited.  Starting with a commentary on Cicero’s work, in which Scipio views the earth from the heavens in a dream, he writes at length on the nature of the planet and its peoples.  He argues against the biblical world-view that Noah’s three sons populated Asia, Europe and Africa, and that, as he had no other son, the remainder of the earth must be uninhabited. 

Detail of a diagram of the earth and oceans, Harley MS 2772, Germany 11th century, f. 70v

This diagram divides the earth into five zones, the extreme north and south which are labelled ‘INHABITABILIS’ (uninhabitable), the torrid zone at the Equator with its boiling hot sea, ‘RUBRUM MARE’ (red sea) and in between the two temperate zones.  The one in the north is ‘TEMPERATA NOSTRA’ (our temperate zone), with Italy at the centre and bordered by the Caspian Sea and the Orkney Islands (‘ORCADES’).  To the south is ‘TEMPERATA ANTETORUM’, which probably means something like ‘outside temperate zone’, i.e. outside the known world an area which is not designated as unpopulated.

So could this be the earliest map of the antipodes? The Australians certainly think so! A current exhibition in The National Library of Australia in Canberra entitled Mapping our World: Terra Incognita to Australia features this manuscript from the British Library. 

Other medieval maps on loan for the exhibition are:

The Anglo-Saxon World Map, one of the earliest surviving maps from Western Europe, which shows nothing further south than Ethiopia, and after that there are only monsters.

Anglo-Saxon world map, England (Canterbury) 2nd quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, f. 56v

The Psalter World Map, a very small but detailed depiction of the earth with Jerusalem at the centre in a book containing a collection of psalms and prayers, made in south-east England in the mid-13th century.  As this is a religious work, God and the angels preside over the earth.

Psalter World Map, England,  c. 1265, Additional MS 28681, f. 9r

And finally, the map from Higden’s Polychronicon (or universal history) from Ramsay Abbey focuses on England (in red), but contains details of provinces and towns in Europe, Asia and Africa.

Map of the World from the Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, ff. 1v-2

Of course, Australia does not appear on any of the above, and it is not until the 16th century that an unknown southern continent ‘Terra Australis’ or perhaps even the ‘Londe of Java’, as depicted in Henry VIII’s Boke of Idrography can be found.

Jean Rotz,
Map of the Two Hemispheres, France and England, 1542, Royal 20 E IX, ff. 29v-30

The exhibition catalogue contains these and many more gorgeous reproductions of maps of the world and Australia, including coastal maps and diagrams by the early settlers.  Please have a look at Mapping our World: Terra Incognita to Australia (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2013), and as always, you can follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval.

- Chantry Westwell

07 January 2014

Welcome to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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Did you know that thousands of images from the British Library's collections are available on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts?


Detail of a kneeling figure in a calendar for January (Germany, 13th century): London, British Library, MS Arundel 159, f. 1v

Our catalogue enables you to search by keyword or date, or by its reference (if known); and you can also perform an advanced search using such criteria as language and provenance. The site also contains a number of virtual exhibitions -- such as The Royal collection of manuscripts, Arthurian manuscripts in the British Library and French illuminated manuscripts -- and there's a helpful glossary to help you navigate your way round some of the terms used when describing medieval books. What's more, all images on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts are available for download and re-use under a Creative Commons licence, on the condition that you respect our terms and conditions. How fantastic is that?

And here, in true Blue Peter fashion, are the results of a search we did earlier for images of hedgehogs (don't ask). No fewer than 8 manuscripts featured in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts contain pictures of hedgehogs, 5 of which are illustrated here -- which are your favourites?


Hedgehog number 1, in an Italian gradual (15th century): London, British Library, MS Additional 39636, f. 13.



Hedgehog number 2, in a German manuscript (15th century): London, British Library, MS Egerton 1121, f. 44v.



Hedgehog number 3, in an English miscellany (13th century): London, British Library, MS Harley 3244, f. 49v.



Hedgehog number 4, in Jean de Wavrin's Chronicles (15th century): London, British Library, MS Royal 15 E IV, f. 180r.



Hedgehog number 5, in the Queen Mary Psalter(14th century): London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 97v.

A medieval hedgehog beauty contest, brought to you by courtesy of @BLMedieval -- what more could you want?!

Julian Harrison

04 January 2014

I Can't Stand the Rain

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If you've been in London recently, or anywhere in the United Kingdom for that matter, you may have noticed that it's been extremely wet. Many areas were flooded during heavy storms just before Christmas, and the rains haven't relented. During daylight hours the sky has been an almost permanent shade of grey, and often it's also been blowing a gale, just to rub salt into the wounds.

So, to cheer everyone up, we thought that we'd find you some images of rain from the British Library's medieval manuscript collections. We defy you not to smile at some of these ingenious pictures.


This collection of love sonnets was made in 15th-century Italy, probably Milan, and presented to a lady identified in the text as Mirabel Zucharia. Look at the right-hand margin of the opening page, where you can see a heart on a bonfire, being quenched by the rain. London, British Library, MS King's 322, f. 1r.



Now, you may well ask yourself what's happening here. This is an abridged translation into Middle English of Giovanni Boccaccio's The Fall of Princes. On the page above, Croesus kneels in a fire which is extinguished by the rain pouring from a cloud above. Lucky for him that it was raining! London, British Library, MS Harley 1766, f. 133r.



As if not to be outdone, here is another Italian miniature, this time from a Tuscan copy of Dante's Divina Commedia dating from the 1440s. This illustration is taken from Canto VI, the third circle (of rain, hail, wind and snow, brrrr), and depicts Virgil flinging earth into the jaws of Cerberus. London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 36, f. 11r.



Finally, what's this? Heavens above, it's the sun! We'd almost forgotten what that looked like. From the aptly-named Splendor solis. May the sun shine on you, wherever you are! London, British Library, MS Harley 3469, f. 2r.

You can search for all these manuscripts on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Have fun!

Julian Harrison

01 January 2014

A Calendar Page for January 2014

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Over the past few years, we have highlighted a series of calendars from medieval manuscripts, including the Isabella Breviary (see this post for more details on calendars in medieval manuscripts), the Hours of Joanna of Castile (Joanna the Mad) and the Golf Book.  This year we have chosen a spectacular Flemish Book of Hours, the Huth Hours (Add MS 38126). This manuscript, which takes its name from a later owner, Henry Huth, was produced in Ghent or Bruges c. 1480. 

Miniature of the Pentecost, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 45v

It is not known for whom the Huth Hours was created, although the initials ‘MY’ and ‘YM’ can be found on one of the calendar pages for November (f. 12r), a possible clue to the identity of the original patron.  Added to the end of the manuscript is a group of prayers in French in a late 15th century hand, which has led some scholars to suggest that the manuscript was created for a French patron, or one connected to the Flemish Hapsburg court at that time.  Other scholars have argued for a German origin, citing the inclusion of a number of German saints in the calendar.

Miniature of the Visitation, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 66v

Many of the miniatures in the manuscript were painted by the noted artist Simon Marmion and his workshop, who worked on the Hours in collaboration with the Master of the Houghton Miniatures, the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, and possibly the enigmatically-named Ghent Associates.  These miniatures are noteworthy for their beautifully-rendered landscapes, a feature of Flemish art in this period.  This interest is reflected in the calendar as well, which incorporates small roundels containing miniatures of the labours of the month and the signs of the zodiac.

Miniature of the St Jerome in the desert, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 227v

The manuscript opens with the calendar page for January (see below).  Set against a trompe l’oeil strew border is a miniature of a two noblemen warming themselves before a fire in what appears to be a well-appointed bedroom.  A table laden with food and a silver service sits nearby, as well as a small gray cat (it is unclear whether the cat is more interested in the fire or the potential for dinner scraps).  The following folio continues the listing of saints’ days and feasts for January; below is a roundel with a painting of a nude man pouring water from two jugs (for the zodiac sign Aquarius), above a wintry landscape.

Calendar page for January, with a roundel miniature of two men warming themselves before a fire, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 1v

Calendar page for January, with a roundel miniature of Aquarius and a man in a wintry landscape, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 2r

Happy New Year!

- Sarah J Biggs

31 December 2013

One Million Hits and Counting!

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It would be impossible for us to convey in words our excitement at reaching the milestone of one million hits to our blog, so we won't even try!  Below are a few images that come close to adequately representing our feelings.  Thank you all so much for your comment and your support, and we look forward to bringing you much more manuscript joy in future!

Detail of a friar playing music and a nun dancing, from the Maastricht Hours, Stowe MS 17, f. 38r

Detail of dancers during 'la karole damours', from the Roman de la Rose, Royal MS 20 A XVII, f. 9r

Add MS 27695 f. 14r K057778
Detail of people drinking, from a treatise on the Seven Vices, Add MS 27695, f. 14r

- Sarah J Biggs & Julian Harrison

27 December 2013

Your Favourite Manuscript: The Results

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Recently we asked the loyal readers of our blog and our Twitter followers (@BLMedieval) to name their favourite manuscript. We were chuffed to receive so many responses, and here is a small selection of your favourites. Some people did nominate books and manuscripts in Cambridge, Oxford, Paris and elsewhere (shame!), but we're going to restrict this list to medieval manuscripts in the British Library's collections. Well, we would, wouldn't we? Nobody went for Beowulf, interestingly -- we're assuming that's a massive oversight on your part. But they're all great choices, we think you'll find, and impossible to pick a winner!

The Theodore Psalter (Add MS 19352), nominated by Gretchen McKay, and shown below


The Caligula Troper (Cotton MS Caligula A XIV), nominated by James Aitcheson

The De Brailes Hours (Add MS 49999), nominated by @mediumaevum and Jennifer Lyons, and shown below


Gregory the Great (Cotton MS Tiberius B XI), nominated by Kevin Jackson

The Bristol Psalter (Add MS 40731), nominated by Robert Miller


A Dutch chronicle (Cotton MS Vitellius E VI), nominated by Sjoerd Levelt

A burnt Royal manuscript (Royal MS 9 C X), nominated by Andrew Prescott, and shown below


Leonardo da Vinci (Arundel MS 263), nominated by @maxinthebox

The New Minster Liber Vitae (Stowe MS 944), nominated by @saxonbowman, and shown below


Thomas Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes (Arundel MS 38), nominated by @melibeus1

The Huth Hours (Add MS 38126), nominated by @bxknits, and shown below


An Icelandic manuscript (Add MS 4860), nominated by @SMcDWer

The Luttrell Psalter (Add MS 42130), nominated by Damien Kempf, and shown below


The Travels of John Mandeville (Add MS 24189), nominated by David Jupe, whose wife, Barbara, plumped for the Luttrell Psalter.


Julian Harrison

25 December 2013

Happy Christmas from the Medieval Manuscripts Team

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The British Library's Medieval Manuscripts team would like to wish all our readers a Merry Christmas, and a Happy and Prosperous New Year. We hope that you enjoy these Nativity scenes from the glorious Huth Hours, one of our 15th-century Flemish illuminated manuscripts (Add MS 38126, ff. 75v, 79v, 83v).







23 December 2013

Medieval Top Ten

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It’s that time of the year when we all look back at what we have accomplished (and also when we so frequently resort to clichés like ‘it’s that time of year’).  It has been a fantastic 12 months for our blog, due in large part to our fabulous readers.  We thought we’d take this chance to highlight our ten most popular posts, which were chosen by you (or at least chosen by your clicks!).  In true countdown fashion, we’ll start with:

10.  Anglo-Saxon Treasures Online the announcement about our department’s very first uploads to Digitised Manuscripts (it seems so long ago!); we were off to an excellent start with the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Old English Hexateuch.

Beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, from the Lindisfarne Gospels, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r

9.  Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts Online an exciting announcement about the inclusion of more than 100 Hebrew manuscripts to our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts site, with a full list of hyperlinks included!

Add MS 15282 f. 296v a80062-21a
Initial word panel Shir (‘song’ inhabited by a unicorn and a bear, from the Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, Add MS 15282, f. 296v

8.  Robert the Bruce Letter Found at British Library a post highlighting the exciting discovery by Professor Dauvit Broun, University of Glasgow, of a previously-unknown letter from Robert the Bruce to Edward II.

Robert the Bruce letter
Detail of the letter from Robert the Bruce to Edward II, Cotton MS Titus A XIX, f. 87r

7.  St Cuthbert Gospel Saved for the Nation a celebration of the British Library’s acquisition of the late 7th century St Cuthbert Gospel after the most successful fundraising campaign in the Library’s history.  Now in our collections as Add MS 89000, you can now view the fully-digitised manuscript online.

CF034939 jpgcropped
Front binding of the St Cuthbert Gospel, Add MS 89000

6.  White Gloves or Not White Gloves not to wreck the surprise or anything, but the answer (almost always) is not.


5.  Loch Ness Monster Found at British Library another amazing discovery by our unstoppable research team! We’ll just leave it at that.

Project Y final desaturated 27.03.13
Image of the Loch Ness Monster, as recovered using RZS©

4.  Hwæt! Beowulf Online we were thrilled to publicise the digitization of one of the Library’s great treasures, the Beowulf manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV; click the link for the fully-digitised version).  And many of you seemed equally thrilled!

Cotton MS Vitellius A XV f. 132r
Detail of the opening words of Beowulf: ‘Hwæt!’ (‘Listen!’), Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r

3.  Lolcats of the Middle Ages far and away the most popular post from our on-going series on medieval animals – for obvious reasons, we think.

Harley MS 6563 f. 72r K048420
Detail of a miniature of mice laying siege to a castle defended by a cat, from a Book of Hours, Harley MS 6563, f. 72r

2.  Knight v Snail this piece on the prevalence of images of knights fighting snails in the margins of 13th and 14th century manuscripts was great fun to write, and it was even more enjoyable to see the fantastic response it received.  It set a British Library record for the most hits in a single day, was picked up by the Guardian, and most gratifying, many of you wrote in with some excellent thoughts on this mysterious marginalia; thank you so much! 

Detail of a knight battling a snail in the margins of a 14th century Psalter, Add MS 49622, f. 193v

So now, with no further ado, we come to…

1.  Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library:  the discovery of this gem of a manuscript, shrouded in secrecy for months, met with an amazing reaction when it was finally revealed on 1 April 2012, and it continues to be a perennial favourite.

Unicorn Grill detail
Detail of a unicorn on the grill in Geoffrey Fule’s cookbook, Additional MS 142012, f. 137r

Thanks from all of us in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section!  Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @BLMedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs