Medieval manuscripts blog

371 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

17 December 2012

New Testament from Oldest Complete Bible Available Online

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Royal_ms_1_d_viii_f005vDetailDetail of the colophon at the end of Matthew: it reads 'Εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Ματθαῖον', literally 'Gospel according to Matthew'; from Codex Alexandrinus, vol. 4, 5th century, Eastern Mediterranean, Royal MS 1 D. viii, f. 5v.

The New Testament volume from one of the British Library’s most valuable treasures, Codex Alexandrinus, has been made available online for the first time on the Library’s website. Codex Alexandrinus, which translates simply as ‘the book from Alexandria’, dates from the 5th century and is the most complete Bible preserved from early Christian times. The New Testament volume of this unique book has been digitised in full as part of a larger British Library project to transform access to some of its oldest and most valuable handwritten books.

The Codex is one of the three earliest known surviving Greek Bibles: the others are Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. Between them, these three manuscripts are the most important witnesses for the full text of the Greek New Testament. Codex Alexandrinus is particularly important, since it is the oldest example of what is known as the Byzantine text of the New Testament, the wording of which became the dominant form in Greek Christianity from the 7th century down to today. As well as the 27 books of the New Testament, it also includes two other texts important to early Christians, a letter of Clement, Bishop of Rome, written at the end of the 1st century, and a second slightly later homily attributed to Clement. Its use of stylized decoration means it is also of great importance for the history of early Christian art.

Royal_ms_1_d_viii_f039vPage containing Luke 22:42-23:3, but without verses 22:43-44; from Codex Alexandrinus, vol. 4, 5th century, Eastern Mediterranean, Royal MS 1 D. viii, f. 39v.

The Codex is named after the capital of Greek Egypt, Alexandria, to which it was brought at the beginning of the 14th century. It was presented to King Charles I in 1627, and its arrival in Britain was a revelation to biblical scholars, not least for its important divergences from the text of the recently published King James Version of 1611. For example, Codex Alexandrinus omits the so-called ‘Holy Sweat’ passage (Luke 22:43-44): ‘And there appeared an angel unto him [Jesus] from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground’ (King James Version). The book passed into national ownership with the donation of the Old Royal Library by George II in 1757.

The digitisation of Codex Alexandrinus complements the full digital coverage of Codex Sinaiticus made available in 2009 by the British Library as a result of an international collaborative project. Codex Alexandrinus joins over 800 other medieval manuscripts now available in full online on the Library’s website where they can be studied in great detail by anyone, anywhere in the world.

Royal_ms_1_d_viii_f041vPage containing Luke 24:32-53 and the colophon at the end of Luke; from Codex Alexandrinus, vol. 4, 5th century, Eastern Mediterranean, Royal MS 1 D. viii, f. 41v.

14 December 2012

Camelot: The Prequel

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Add_ms_12228_f068rDetail of a miniature of the hero, Meliadus, bearing the arms of Naples, with the arms of Jerusalem close by, from Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, Italy (Naples?), 1352-1362, Additional MS 12228, f. 68r

The legends of King Arthur and his court at Camelot, the quest for the Holy Grail and the related tale of Tristan and Isolde were probably as popular as Star Wars in most of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, and maybe that is why they also needed a 'prequel'! In the mid-13th century the core Arthurian stories were written down as a vast prose epic in French, known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, which was widely circulated for the entertainment of royalty and aristocrats. At about the same time an author who called himself Hélie de Boron, produced a companion work or prequel to the tales of Arthur, Lancelot and the knights of the Round Table. It fills in some of the gaps in the story but is mainly concerned with the deeds of the fathers of the well-known heroes: Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur, Meliadus, father of Tristan, Lac, father of Erec and the Bon Chevalier sans Peur, father of Dinadan. The most important characters are Meliadus, father of Tristan and his companion Guiron, who are involved in a series of seemingly random adventures in which the other characters appear from time to time. In the earliest copies, the work is called Palamedes, after the Saracen knight who was Tristan's challenger, but later versions are named Guiron le Courtois (or Meliadus if they contain only the first part). 


Add_ms_12228_ff170v-171rMiniatures from Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, Italy (Naples?), 1352-1362, Additional MS 12228, ff. 170v-171r

The British Library has a beautifully illustrated Italian manuscript, Additional MS 12228, which contains the prologue and most of the first part, Meliadus, ending abruptly in the middle of a sentence. Many the pages are written only in the upper half, while the lower half is filled with colourful scenes of knights, castles and tournaments. It was probably made for Louis de Tarente, King of Naples (r. 1352, d. 1362), as his arms are in the background of several miniatures. The first large miniature has a king enthroned with a knot above him, representing the 'Nodo' - the Italian order of knighthood founded by Louis.


Add_ms_12228_f004rMiniature of a king enthroned below the 'Nodo', from Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, Italy (Naples?), 1352-1362, Additional MS 12228, f. 4r


On some pages there are only outline sketches (see below) and it appears that various artists at different times have worked on adding colours and completing them, while on some pages the space has not been filled at all. In parts the colours are worn and so is the text, though in modern times someone has written over parts which had been rubbed away.


Add_ms_12228_f151vFolio with unfinished miniature in outline, from Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, Italy (Naples?), 1352-1362, Additional MS 12228, f. 151v

In the prologue the author claims to be Hélie de Boron, companion at arms of Robert, who wrote the Grail legend, and says that his work is written for King Henry who he has already given him two castles. At the king's request he chooses the title Palamedes, after the most courteous knight at Arthur's court and concludes that courtesy is the main subject of his tale. The story itself begins with the Romans, at the time of Arthur's coronation, when Esclabor, father of Palamedes, is captive of the Emperor, and is sent to Britain. Many tales follow, including Meliodus' abduction of the Queen of Scotland and his subsequent captivity. The text is interrupted suddenly near the end of the first part, with the Chevalier sans Peur and Meliadus debating whether to support King Arthur in his battle against his enemy Claudas.


Detail of a miniature of two kings playing a board game, from Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, Italy (Naples?), 1352-1362, Additional MS 12228, f. 23r.


Among the treasures hidden in the pages of this beautiful book are two pictures of medieval games. Near the beginning, on f. 23 (above), two kings are depicted playing a board game and towards the end is one of the earliest pictures of a group of people playing cards – it shows King Meliadus and his followers amusing themselves while in captivity.


Add_ms_12228_f313v_detailDetail of a miniature of King Meliadus and his followers amusing themselves whilst in captivity, from Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, Italy (Naples?), 1352-1362, Additional MS 12228, f. 313v

As the images are damaged in places, particularly at the edges, and the gorgeous colours are wearing off, it is important that this manuscript is handled as little as possible, and so it has now been carefully photographed by specialists at the British Library and is fully available online on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts web pages as Additional MS 12228. So while the original is being carefully preserved, anyone is able to view the stunning images up close and read the words written in a distant time and place. Does that make Star Wars technology seem out of date? Let our readers decide!

12 December 2012

The Four Seasons

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London is getting progressively colder, and the Summer Olympics seems a lifetime away. It's instructive at this time of year to see how winter was portrayed in earlier days.

London, British Library, MS Royal 14 E VI, f. 305v.

Our first illustration is taken from a late-15th-century Flemish manuscript, Royal 14 E. VI, containing a French translation of the Ruralia commoda of Pietro di Crescenzi (Livre des proffits ruraux). On f. 305v is depicted a man sitting before a fire and warming his hands, with a table laid with a meal beside him. The decoration of this manuscript has been associated with the Master of the Getty Froissart, and the book itself was owned by King Edward IV of England (r. 1461-70, 1471-83). We can all empathise with this scene of someone trying to warm themselves up, wrapped in a long cloak.

Another winter scene is found in a second Bruges manuscript, Royal 17 F. II, illustrated by the Master of Edward IV. This manuscript contains La grant hystoire Cesar, and was made in 1479. F. 116v shows the winter march of Caesar's army, with foot-soldiers seen shovelling the snow from under the feet of Caesar's horse. The whole book can now be found on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


London, British Library, MS. Royal 17 F. II, f. 116v.

Our final illustration is less conventional. This decorated initial is found in a 13th-century French manuscript, Sloane 2435, and contains a figurative representation of the Four Seasons. Spring stands in the upper left, wearing a cote and a sleeveless surcote with his hands in the armholes; summer wears a cote on its own; autumn is wrapped in a cloak; while winter wears a hood and long sleeves.


London, British Library, MS Sloane 2435, f. 23r.

And here is the whole of the initial in question, which has at its foot a snail with a human head!



A quick reminder that images available on the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts are in the public domain and free of known copyright restrictions. For guidance on their use, please click here. Something to warm you on a cold winter's day ...

07 December 2012

The Distinguished Pedigree of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle

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Detail of a miniature of a hedgehog; from Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des croniques d'Engleterre, vol. 1, Netherlands (Bruges), 1471-1483, Royal MS 15 E. iv, f. 180r.

The hedgehog is one of the English language's more picturesquely named animals: the word comes from the hedge where it lives, and from the appearance of its supposedly hoglike snout.  But this term is a relatively recent coinage in the history of the language – the first recorded uses date only to the mid-15th century.  This is not to say that the common hedgehog was unknown in the Middle Ages, however.  For much of the medieval period it was called an 'urchin', a term still favoured in some dialects, but most commonly associated today with the spiky little sea urchin: literally a 'sea hedgehog'.  Even urchins came over with the Norman invaders, however, ultimately derived from the Latin 'ericius': before the Conquest, the Anglo-Saxons knew the animal as the Germanic 'igl'.


Detail of a miniature of hedgehogs sticking fallen fruit to their quills and carrying it back to their burrow; from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 45r.

Hedgehogs, however they were named, were familiar animals, finding their place in the standard medieval bestiary between the mole and the ant.  Such mundane company does not mean, however, that their story was not exotic and strange.  Hedgehogs were said to creep into vineyards when the grapes were ripe, to climb the vines and shake the fruit down to the ground.  Then, rather than eating this bounty on the spot, they would turn onto their backs and roll around, impaling the grapes with their sharp quills.  They could then trundle off back to their burrows, carrying the grapes on their spines, as a meal for their young.  The bestiary writers allegorized this as a warning of the clever stratagems of the devil in stealing man's spiritual fruits.


Detail of a miniature of the hedgehog reproaching the goat for his vanity; from Ulrich von Pottenstein, Spiegel der Weisheit, Austria (Salzburg), c. 1430, Egerton MS 1121, f. 44v.

Despite this unflattering association with the infernal, hedgehogs were more often depicted favourably than not.  The Speculum sapientiae, or Mirror of Wisdom, was a Latin text that included a large number of beast fables.  In one of the fables, a goat came upon its own reflection in a pond.  The goat, seeing the horns on his head and his long goat beard, thought himself very handsome indeed, and began to bleat, boasting of his horny 'crown' and hairy 'necklace'.  A passing hedgehog, however, was less than impressed.  If the goat had impressive horns and beard, he also had an unsightly tail and a foul temper.  A profound humility, the hedgehog reproached, not vain boasting, was what made an animal truly noble.  The hedgehog here is chosen as a symbol not of diabolical trickery, but of an appropriate Christian modesty.


Miniatures of (above) a dormouse and (below) hedgehogs, collecting fruit on their quills; from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 31v.

Nicole Eddy

05 December 2012

Lions, Monkeys and Bears - Oh, My! The Bohun Psalter and Hours

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Historated initial 'D'(omini) at the Penitential Psalms: the priests give Judas money (Luke 22:5), Christ sends Peter and John to prepare the passover (Luke 22:8), the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, and the Last Judgment in the border, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 133r.

The Bohun Psalter and Hours (Egerton MS 3277) is, as Lucy Freeman Sandler describes it, 'virtually a royal manuscript'. It was probably produced for Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford, Essex and Northampton (d. 1373), who was the great-grandson of King Edward I, and the father of Eleanor (who married Thomas of Woodstock, son of Edward III), and of Mary (the wife of Henry of Bolingbroke, who later became Henry IV).

This Psalter is part of a larger group of at least 10 manuscripts that were created for various generations of the Bohun family by a scriptorium and workshop in residence at the main Bohun home of Pleshey Castle, Essex. It is unclear whether this sort of arrangement existed with other noble families of this time, but this may have been a comparatively common practice for the English aristocracy.



Historiated initial 'S'(alvum) at the beginning of Psalm 68 ('Salvum me fac Deus'), with scenes of the Ark's arrival in Jerusalem, and to the left of the initial, King David standing holding his harp, with a small hybrid musician playing under his feet, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 46v.


The Bohun Psalter and Hours was probably written around 1361, and the first campaign of illumination – verse initials and line fillers – was likely completed at this time. Little appears to have been done on the manuscript until the 1380s, when work on the Bohun Psalter and Hours was resurrected and the major initials and other miniatures were completed. The original programme of illumination contained nearly 400 subjects, both large and small, although a number of decorated pages were later excised – get in touch if you see anything similar at a car boot sale! As Lucy Freeman Sandler has pointed out, the various 'minor' components of illumination, such as the marginalia, often complement or respond to the 'main' meaning of the historiated initials. For example, see the large historiated initial on f. 29v (which was the opening on display during the Royal exhibition).



Historiated initial 'D'(ixit) of four scenes in the life of David: Saul entering the cave in which David and his men are hiding to relieve himself; David cutting a corner of Saul's robe; David calling after Saul with the corner of his robe and Saul speaking to David, confessing that he believes David will soon be king, at the beginning of Psalm 38, The Canticle of David, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 29v.

The initial 'D'(ixit) at the beginning of Psalm 38 (above and below) was one of the major divisions of the Psalter, and was commonly marked out for special decoration at this period. The iconography in this scene is remarkable. On the outer edges of the initial are four human and hybrid musicians, playing the viol, horn, cymbals and harp – all instruments mentioned in the Psalter.



Detail of an historiated initial 'D'(ixit) of four scenes in the life of David, at the beginning of Psalm 38, The Canticle of David, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 29v.


In the centre of the initial are four scenes taken from I Kings: 24 (1 Samuel: 24 in the current division of the Bible). This book narrates the conflict between King Saul and David, and the first scene in the upper left shows Saul and his army searching for David and his men in the wilderness of Engedi. Saul enters a cave in which, unknown to him, David and his men are hiding. Saul is described in various translations of the Bible as needing to 'cover his feet', 'relieve nature', or even 'go to the bathroom', as can be seen in the upper right. David is shown standing behind the vulnerable Saul and, according to the text, his men urge him to kill the king, but instead David cuts off part of Saul’s cloak. After Saul leaves the cave, David approaches him, in the lower scene on the left. David holds out the cut cloth and tells Saul that although he had the opportunity to kill him, he did not, as Saul is his king and the Lord’s anointed. Saul sees this as evidence of David’s righteousness, and proclaims that David will be his successor for the kingdom of Israel; on the lower right David swears fealty – interestingly, with his hand on a book – and Saul anoints him as future king.

Besides depicting this unusual scene from the Bible, this miniature makes a number of ideological points. Bear in mind that this was painted during the Hundred Years' War. If you look on the right, you can see the arms of France in the initial frame, which aligns Saul with the French ruler. On the left part of the initial are the arms of England as well as those of the Bohun family, which are similarly aligned with the ultimately-prevailing King David.



Detail of an historiated initial 'D'(efecit) of the Ark of the Covenant being carried into the Temple, with an ape and a bear in the margins, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 84r.

On f. 84r (above) is an historiated initial 'D'(efecit in salutare meum anima mea), or 'My soul hath fainted after thy salvation'. This is at Psalm 118:81, a subdivision of what is a very long Psalm indeed. Inside this initial, King Solomon is shown accompanying the Ark of the Covenant, which looks like a chest of pirate booty, into the Temple of Jerusalem (from III Kings 8:6). Similarly, the upright ape standing on the initial is also carrying a bag of money, and seems to mimick the procession below. He is carrying an owl, which would have been understood by medieval readers as a reference to a fairly well-known saying: 'Pay me no less than an ape, an owl, and an ass', although of course the ass is absent.

This ape focuses attention on the piety displayed in the initial, but it may refer to those who laboured to create the manuscript itself, as artists at the time were often described as 'apes of nature'. Further evidence of this can be seen above – look at the bear who sits uncomfortably on the lower extender of the initial, and who appears to be licking a pen, in preparation for working on a scroll of music. This may be intended to represent the scribes who worked on this manuscript.



Detail of a marginal illumination of a bear-scribe writing on a scroll, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 13v.

Lest you think this bear-scribe is too fanciful, see one final detail from f. 13v, the last folio of the first quire. There are a number of bears to be found elsewhere in the Bohun Psalter and Hours, but this one does not seem to be directly related to the text nearby. This bear stands holding a quill and working on a scroll. Behind the bear is a goose, in the act of literally goosing the bear. The first word on this bear's scroll is 'screbere' which is conveniently split so that the second word is bere – of course a reference to the creature itself. But the rest of the text is not so immediately apparent: following 'screbere' is some indecipherable scribbling, and then the names 'mar / tinet' and 'robi / net', and on the back is 'pi / erz'. So these are the names Martin, Robert and Piers – presumably the names of three scribes who worked on this very manuscript.

But what might seem like a self-reference is more complicated, because this image was created not by the scribes but by an artist whose name does not survive. Perhaps he was poking fun at those with whom he worked closely to produce such a well-integrated manuscript? Perhaps this is a partial explanation for the disrespectful goose? A larger question is for whom this sort of humour was intended. Lucy Sandler has noted that the artist responsible for much of this Psalter continued working for the Bohun family for decades after the manuscript was finished, so it is hard to imagine that they objected to this in-joke. An inventory made of the library at Pleshey Castle at the end of the 14th century includes more than 120 books, including a number of Bibles and other religious texts. Indeed, it is likely, knowing what we do of the Bohuns, that they would have appreciated this clever interplay between human and animal, text and image.

03 December 2012

You Give Love a Bad Name

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Detail of a miniature of Pleasure ('Deduit') and his companions engaging in a courtly dance; from Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1320-c. 1340, Royal MS 19 B. xiii, f. 10v.

A recent post explored the literary construct of courtly, or 'refined' love, fin' amors.  It was not long, however, before poets began to play with these conventions.  Around 1230, Guillaume de Lorris wrote a medieval best-seller, the Roman de la Rose, a sort of allegorical romance in which a Lover falls asleep and dreams he is in a Garden of Pleasure ('Deduit').  The garden is peopled by beautiful and carefree allegorical characters, cavorting in a landscape of flowers and spring, reflecting the refined pleasures of aristocratic gardens peopled by courtiers.  All is not wholly idealized, however – the Lover is let into the garden by the personification of Idleness, a suggestion that such pleasures are superficial, embraced only by those without industry for a more worthwhile pursuit.


Detail of a miniature of Idleness showing the Lover into the Garden of Pleasure; from Guilluame de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, France (Artois or Picardy), c. 1340, Royal MS 20 A. xvii, f. 7v.

In the centre of the garden, the Lover finds a rose growing on a bush and falls passionately in love with the flower.  It is a reduction of the courtly love relationship to its essentials, as the Lover – in this story a fashionable courtier, not a knight – longs to pluck the rose, but is, at least initially, prevented from doing so by the allegorised forces of resistance to his impertinent desire: Danger, Shame and Fear.  Guillaume's narrator never achieved his rose, as the poem was left unfinished at the author's death.  It would be another few decades before the work was finished, c. 1280, by another poet, Jean de Meun.  Picking up where Guillaume had left off, he transformed the work into one even more overtly cynical of love, as well as far more encyclopaedic in its reach.


An example of the faithlessness of women: detail of a miniature of Delilah cutting Samson's hair; from Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, France, c. 1380, Egerton MS 881, f. 128v.

Perhaps the best-known episode in Jean's continuation is the speech to Fair Welcome, the personification of the beloved's desire to give herself over to the Lover, made by the Old Woman, one of the literary antecedents of Chaucer's Wife of Bath.  The Old Woman advises Fair Welcome on the best way for a young woman to conduct herself in love.  She ought, it is explained, to take as many lovers as she can, while she is still beautiful enough to attract them, and should manipulate them to remain fully in control.  The stories of Dido and Medea, betrayed by the men who claimed to love them, prove that it would be foolish to remain faithful or chaste.  Instead, a woman should take as her example the goddess Venus: she and Mars were caught in their adultery by her husband Vulcan, but it was just such danger of discovery that lent the affair its attraction.


Detail of a miniature of Venus and her lover Mars, caught in the act of adultery by her husband Vulcan, who holds them bound in a rope he has devised for the purpose; from Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, the Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490-c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 122v.

In the end, Jean provided the Lover with the satisfaction deferred by Guillaume's unfinished text.  Fair Welcome, together with the rose, is imprisoned in a castle.  In a passage rife with erotically-charged imagery, Venus sets fire to the castle, which the Lover and his allies storm, and where he is finally granted access to the rose.  The dream ends with this consummation, and the lover awakes, to reflect back on his experiences and compose his poem.


Detail of a miniature of Venus, setting fire to the castle where the rose is imprisoned, by firing a flaming arrow through a narrow opening in the castle, located between two pillars; from Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1400, Egerton MS 1069, f. 140v.

Nicole Eddy

01 December 2012

A Calendar Page for December 2012

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For more details on calendar pages or the Hours of Joanna of Castile, please see the entry for January 2012.

Add 18852 ff. 12v-13

Calendar pages for December, from the Hours of Joanna of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), between 1496 and 1506, Additional 18882, ff. 12v-13


These December calendar pages feature another relatively tame version of Capricorn - a lone, rather wistful-looking goat rather than the more common half-goat, half-fish (see last year's December page for another example).  Below Capricorn, on the first calendar page, livestock are being slaughtered.  Two men on the left are about to deliver the coup de grâce to a standing steer, while on the right two other men are cutting a pig's throat (and collecting its blood in a nearby pan).  Behind can be seen a stretched and butchered carcass.  On the right two butchers are at work in a shed; outside is a market square with a long row of tables for the meat to be sold to waiting customers (including another nun - perhaps the same one that can be seen in the November scene?).

29 November 2012

Shot through the Heart and You're to Blame

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Miniature, above, of Arthur and Guinevere presiding at a feast and, to the left, Arthur in conversation with his barons while, behind him, Guinevere and Lancelot share a private word; in the margin below, two knights are locked in a duel and a group of monkeys attends school; from the Prose Lancelot, France, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 20 D. iv, f. 1r; the large miniature was added in England (Pleshey castle), c. 1360-c. 1380.

'Chivalry', derived from the French cheval ('horse') and chevalier ('horseman' or 'knight'), means literally 'knightliness', a quality that, in the Middle Ages, could be variously defined in different regions and at different times: nobility of soul, adherence to a certain code of conduct, or even straightforward military strength.  Nowadays, 'chivalry' is usually used to describe a specific kind of interaction between the sexes, a transferral from a particular type of medieval knightliness, the stylized code we now refer to as 'courtly love'.  The medieval term was fin' amors, 'refined love', and it was primarily a literary construct, dictating the interactions between men and women in one of the Middle Ages' most enduring genres, the romance.


Detail of a miniature of King Uther Pendragon (left) conversing with Merlin, while, in the background, Igraine looks on from her castle; from Peter Langtoft, Chronicle of England, England, c. 1307-c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A. ii, f. 3v.

Medieval romance is most familiar from stories of King Arthur and the Round Table, where questing knights rescued damsels from towers, competing for their favour.  In the earliest Arthurian tales, however, the tone is more history than high romance, and the relationship between men and women far from 'refined'.  Arthur himself was conceived when King Uther Pendragon fell in love with the beautiful – and married – Duchess Igraine at a party.  Far from doing her courtly service and winning her love, however, Uther besieged her husband's castle and killed him in battle, then seduced the unwitting widow (as yet unaware of her husband's death) by having Merlin cast a spell disguising Uther as the late duke.  A rough and ready strategy – no word on whether, after they were married, Uther held open any doors for her.


Detail of a miniature of lovers, including a friar and a monk as well as laymen, pierced through the heart by the arrows of love; from Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1320-c. 1340, Royal MS 19. B. xiii, f. 4r.

Later, the tone of the Arthurian subject-matter was transformed by the introduction and development of a set of literary conventions, the classic fin' amors.  Troubadours did poetic service to their beloveds, dedicating love songs to aristocratic patronesses, just as a knight offered homage and military service to his feudal lord.  Beauty of face and form was, at the time, considered a reflection of inner beauty, and nobility of soul was thought the natural birthright of those of noble rank.  The beauty of a woman struck the lover like an arrow, sometimes described as piercing the heart by way of the eyes: love at first sight.  Once wounded, the heart of the lover would burn with desire, longing to be quenched by the mercy of the beloved's reciprocal regard.


Miniatures of (in the initial) a poet-lover presenting verses to his lady and (in the right margin) a lover's heart, burning on a fire and being quenched with rain; from a collection of 49 love sonnets, Italy (probably Milan), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, King's MS 322, f. 1r.

Love could also be elevating, inspiring a lover to the achievement of great feats of martial strength and skill.  When a knight excelled in a tournament, it was evident that the worth – and thus beauty – of his inspiration must be great indeed, and the beauty of a lady could be judged by her champion's success.  Guinevere must have been very beautiful indeed – in one gently parodic story, Lancelot fought an opponent while facing backward, the better to keep in view Guinevere, who watched the battle from a tower behind him.  In the end he won by manoeuvring his enemy between himself and the queen so he could see both of them at once – his own strength a testament to the strength of his love.


A tournament between knights (including Tristan, labelled with a 'Ti'), watched from a gallery by an audience of interested ladies; from the Prose Roman de Tristan, Italy (Genoa), last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4389, f. 29r.

Nicole Eddy