Medieval manuscripts blog

380 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

24 January 2013

The Worth of a Butterfly

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Machaon and Podalirius butterflies, from Butterfly and Moth Paintings by Elizabeth Dennis Denyer ('Drawings of Lepidopterous Insects'), England, 1800, Additional MS 6895, f. 8r

As the forthcoming panels at Leeds sponsored by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section will demonstrate, the reading room at the British Library is often the place where exciting discoveries are made (see here and here for our sessions at the 2013 Leeds International Medieval Congress).  These discoveries encompass a broad range of topics, from new scribal attributions and previously unknown historical events, to hidden words in illuminations.

It is a pleasure to announce that lepidopterology (the study of butterflies and moths) can now be added to this list.



Iris butterflies, from Butterfly and Moth Paintings by Elizabeth Dennis Denyer ('Drawings of Lepidopterous Insects'), England, 1800, Additional MS 6895, f. 34r

While conducting research last year on Elizabeth Denyer, an eighteenth-century restorer of medieval manuscripts and early printed books, I came across a book of butterfly paintings which she based on specimens in the collection of her Chelsea neighbour, the renowned entomologist William Jones. After contacting Dick Vane-Wright, I realised that this book has remained unknown since it was bequeathed to the British Museum by Elizabeth, and that further it has much to tell us about the early history of entomology.



Detail of a vignette of John Denyer and Martha Denyer (parents of the artist Elizabeth Denyer) in profile and in silhouette, made on a separate piece of paper and mounted on the page, from Butterfly and Moth Paintings by Elizabeth Dennis Denyer ('Drawings of Lepidopterous Insects'), England, 1800, Additional MS 6895, f. 54r


Our initial findings were recently published in Antenna: the Bulletin of the Royal Entomological Society, and we are delighted to be able to share them with the public. Click Download Antenna 36(4) 239-246 for a PDF of the article.

We are very grateful to the British Library, and our thanks to the Royal Entomological Society for permission to make our article freely available on the internet. (The text is copyright of the RES, Sonja Drimmer and R.I. Vane-Wright. Copyright of the images is noted against each image in the article.)

While lepidopterology only originated as a field of scientific enquiry in the 17th century, the beauty of butterflies was not lost on our medieval forebears. Previous posts on this blog have featured manuscript illuminations showing a monstrously large butterfly supervising (?) the plowing of a field, as well as an ape hunting a butterfly in the margins of a manuscript of the Estoire del Saint Graal.

Chaucer, however, seems to have held the multicolored insects in somewhat lower esteem. Disappointed with the depressing tales told by the Monk, the Canterbury Host exclaims, 'Youre tale anoyeth al this compaigne / Swich talkyng is nat worth a boterflye.'

We hope you find them worth a whole lot more!


Sonja Drimmer

Lecturer, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University


Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval

21 January 2013

Lolcats of the Middle Ages

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Detail of miniatures of cats catching mice, mice stealing eucharistic wafers, and (below), an ancestor of Keyboard Cat: a later marginal doodle of a cat playing a stringed instrument; from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 30v.

The internet is considered by many to be a delivery-system for pictures of cats, and it should be no surprise, therefore, to learn the identity of today's bestiary animal.  As it is today, the enmity between the cat and the mouse was well-established in the medieval imagination.  Isidore of Seville even proposed an (incorrect) etymology for 'cat' (Latin catus) in the word captura, a form of a word meaning 'catch,' suggesting that this referred to the cat's catching of mice.  Or, he continues, 'capture' may refer to cats 'catching' large amounts of light with their eyes, to see in the dark.  Either way, cats were often shown in manuscript illumination with mice they have caught, and below, we can even see a Tom-and-Jerry style depiction of a mouse caught by a cat, caught in turn by a dog.  No word on the current disposition of the house that Jack built.


Detail of an historiated initial 'O' (vi) of a dog catching a cat catching mice; from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, Germany (Arnstein), 2nd half of the 12th century, Harley MS 3053, f. 56v.

The mouse was not always the loser in these exchanges, however, especially in the imaginative realm of the marginal grotesque.  Sometimes you eat the mouse, the cat may have philosophized, and sometimes the mouse eats you.  The relationship between mice and cats, and the prospect of an organized mouse insurrection against the oppressor, was actively explored as a metaphor for human society.


Detail of a miniature of mice laying siege to a castle defended by a cat; from a Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320-c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, f. 72r.

The 14th-century poet William Langland adapted the familiar tale of mice belling the cat as a comment on relations between the powerful regent John of Gaunt and the Commons, with a council of mice deciding that, in addition to the obvious difficulty of finding a volunteer for the delicate task, there was some question as to whether the outcome would even be desirable.  While the mice remain inconspicuous, one council member advises, the cat 'coveiteth noght oure caroyne' ('does not desire our flesh'), but should they draw the cat's attention, then he would pursue them even more cruelly – a pointed satire indeed, in the political environment just before the 1381 uprising.


Detail of a miniature of a nun spinning thread, as her pet cat plays with the spindle; from the Maastricht Hours, the Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 34r; for more on the Maastricht Hours, see our recent post on the manuscript.

Cats could be companion animals as well.  One guidebook on appropriate behaviour and conduct for anchoresses (female hermits), famously advises that, while the anchoress was forbidden most luxuries, she was allowed a pet cat.  And Alexander the Great, whose fictional explorations of the natural world were retold throughout the Middle Ages, included a cat, along with the cock and the dog, as his companions in a proto-submarine.  Here, the animal was not merely a pet, but a natural rebreather, purifying the air so Alexander would not stifle in the enclosed space.  The dog was more unfortunate, chosen as an emergency escape mechanism: water, medieval readers were assured, would expell the impurity of a dog's dead carcasse.  If Alexander encountered danger, he had only to kill the dog, which would be expelled to the surface, bringing Alexander with it.  As for the cock – everyone knows how valuable they are for telling time with their crows, a useful function underwater, out of sight of the sky.


Detail of a miniature of Alexander exploring the ocean in a glass barrel, accompanied by a cat and a cock; in this version of the story, his unfaithful wife tries to murder him by cutting the cord connecting him with the ship, and it is by killing the cat (not a dog) that he is able to rise to the surface; from Le livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, France (Paris), c. 1420, Royal MS 20 B. xx, f. 77v.

On the subject of cats, you may also like to see Kathleen Walker-Meikle's book, Medieval Cats, published by British Library Publications (£10, ISBN 9780712358187).

Nicole Eddy

16 January 2013

Monkeying Around with the Maastricht Hours

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Detail of marginal grotesques of (below) monkeys blowing horns and (above) a winged man with animal legs playing a harp; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 61v.

It is a truism, although one that never ceases to surprise, that medieval art – especially manuscript illumination – celebrates the juxtaposition between the sacred and the profane.  The Maastricht Hours is an early 14th-century book of hours made in Liège, and is remarkable for the large number of vibrant illuminations that cover its pages – full-page miniatures, lavishly decorated initials, and countless marginal scenes and grotesques.  A full digital version of the Maastricht Hours has just been made available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, and every page has something new to discover.


Miniature of Sts Catherine (left) and Agnes (right); from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 13v.

A book of hours is a devotional text, containing copies of the various scriptural readings, psalms and prayers that were to be said at set times during the day (the 'monastic hours').  It was intended to be used during prayer and pious contemplation, and it is no surprise, therefore, that the most important images in the manuscript are all on religious themes: two series of full-page miniatures depict the Nativity story and Christ's Passion.  Other important miniatures depict female saints – it is probable that the manuscript's original owner was a wealthy woman, and she may have appreciated these tributes to exemplars of female piety.  And the pictures are extraordinarily lively.  Catherine with her sword and wheel and Agnes with her lamb (above) may stand in stylized architectural sconces, the traditional placement for the stone statues in a church, but their posture is far from sculptural.  And the male figures in the roundels seem to interact both with the female figures and with each other.


Disco fever!: detail of marginal figures dancing to bagpipe music; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 234r.

These religious miniatures are only part of the story, however.  While the major divisions in the manuscript are all introduced by full-page pictures, every page is bursting with small figures in the margins.  Strange hybrid creatures war with bows and arrows, dancers groove to the sound of bagpipe music, and monkeys abound.  We even encounter a pair of lovers, reclining in a garden, their minds surely on anything but the pious contemplation expected of the reader.  The falcon on the man's wrist advertises his aristocratic rank, and the songbird in its green tree evokes the refined garden setting traditional to courtly lyric and romance.


Detail of a miniature of lovers, conversing in a garden; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 59r.


Detail of a miniature of a woman in conversation with a monkey in the guise of a courtly nobleman; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 62r.

Only a few pages later, however, another image of lovers appears that seems to set the first one on its head.  This time the woman's suitor is no nobleman, but one of the manuscript's many mischievous monkeys, and the bird of prey on his wrist is no aristocratic hawk, but an owl.  Considering the frequently scatological behaviour of the manuscript's other monkeys (including, to name only one example, the pair appearing on the facing page, shown at the top of this post), the image may become a critique of its earlier companion, a moral satire on courtly love.  Or, perhaps, it merely celebrates a delight in the beautiful and the bizarre.


Detail of a marginal grotesque firing an arrow at, on the facing page (not shown), a monkey playing a rebec or similar stringed instrument; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 33r.


Detail of a miniature of a monkey riding an elephant and castle; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 36r.


Detail of a miniature of a friar playing an instrument while a nun dances; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 38r.

10 January 2013

Discover Digitised Manuscripts

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While some of our high-grade manuscripts are temporarily unavailable, please take the opportunity to use our Digitised Manuscripts site. We have already uploaded hundreds of manuscripts, digitised in their entirety, including many of our medieval Greek books; some of our scientific manuscripts; and dozens of volumes featured in the British Library's Royal exhibition. Check out some of our greatest medieval books, including one of our most recent acquisitions, the St Cuthbert Gospel. And don't forget to use the deep-zoom facility, which enables users to view the manuscripts as never before!

Cuthbert binding

The late-7th-century St Cuthbert Gospel (Additional MS 89000): note the lack of white gloves!

We are very happy to be able to share our wonderful manuscripts with you -- please pass on the good news, and share them with others.

01 January 2013

A Calendar Page for January 2013

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In an ongoing series on this blog, we have taken a closer look at images from medieval calendars, including the Isabella Breviary (please see this post for more details on calendars in medieval manuscripts) and the Hours of Joanna of Castile (Joanna the Mad).  This year, the featured calendar comes from the 'Golf Book', a mid-sixteenth-century Book of Hours (Additional MS 24098; soon to be featured on Digitised Manuscripts).  In addition to the usual 'labours of the month', the calendar also includes many images of games and sports, and the name 'Golf Book' in fact comes from an early depiction of a game of golf in one of the many bas-de-page miniatures.  Something to look forward to in the months ahead!



Miniature of Boniface of Lausanne, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 1r

The Golf Book is not, in its present state, a complete manuscript.  While it was originally produced as a full Book of Hours – a devotional book containing prayers to be recited at set times – most of the text is now missing.  Only thirty leaves remain from what once would have been hundreds, taken from the most elaborately illuminated parts of the manuscript: the first pages of each of one of the cycles of hours (the Hours of the Virgin), and the calendar.  The full-page miniatures were produced by an important miniature-painter working in sixteenth-century Bruges, Simon Bening (d. 1561), with the assistance of his workshop, and the Golf Book is considered one of his masterpieces.  Nothing is known about the patron of this enigmatic manuscript; illuminators in Bruges worked for buyers all over Europe.  But it is possible that the original owner was Swiss.  One of the surviving pages is a miniature of Boniface of Lausanne, a 13th-century bishop (see above).  He was not canonized until after the medieval period, and his cult in the sixteenth century was primarily a regional one.



Calendar page for January, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 18v

The calendar pages in the Golf Book are spread across two pages, with the first page for each month somewhat unusually reserved for a full-page miniature.  In the foreground of the opening January scene (above) is a man splitting wood for a fire, assisted by a woman close by.  Behind them a man and his wife, who is nursing an infant, can be seen in their home, warming themselves by the fire.  In the snowy background is a church, with bundled-up parishioners exiting.  The bas-de-page scene shows a group of men pulling (with great effort it seems) another man on a sledge.



Calendar page for January, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 19r

This same scene is mirrored on the following folio, which also contains a short listing of saints days for January and a small roundel of a man pouring water from two jugs, for the zodiac sign for Aquarius.


25 December 2012

Happy Christmas!

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The British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section would like to wish you a very happy Christmas, and all the best in the new year!


Detail of a miniature of the Nativity, from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410, Additional MS 18850, f. 65r

K062884 Royal 19 C. vi f. 131r

Detail of a miniature of Greeks making merry (perhaps at a New Year's celebration?), from Xenophon, France, c. 1506, Royal MS 19 C. vi, f. 131r

24 December 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus

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St Nicholas: not always jolly; detail of a miniature of St Nicholas, identifiable by his three bags of gold and bishop's regalia; from Regola della Compagnia di S. Maria della pietà di Firenze, Italy (Florence), 2nd half of the 15th century, Harley MS 3547, f. 1r.

Jolly old St Nick, in his guise as a red-suited traveller through chimneys, is a figure of modern myth and pop culture, and medieval imagery of St Nicholas has very little in common with our modern Santa Claus. The historical Nicholas, about whom very little is known with certainty, was a 4th-century bishop of Myra, a town in Lycia, in modern-day Turkey. He is the patron saint of both Russia and Greece, and was a widely popular saint throughout medieval Europe. His feast day on 6 December has no doubt encouraged the association with Christmas.


Detail of a miniature of St Nicholas; from the Melisende Psalter, Jerusalem, 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 209r.

Setting aside the scanty historical record, it is in the colourful legends surrounding the saint's miracles that manuscript illuminators found their greatest inspiration. The final pages of the stunning Queen Mary Psalter are devoted to images from the life of St Nicholas, including a story of his precocious piety. Asceticism was highly valued in medieval spirituality, and Nicholas adopted such practices from birth. As an infant, he was said to have astonished his parents by fasting and refusing his mother's breast, limiting himself to only two abstemious meals per week. Proof positive he was destined for great things!


Miniature of an infant St Nicholas, refusing his mother's breast; from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 315r.

Perhaps the best-known story has also given rise to his principal identifying attribute, three small bags of gold. Nicholas himself was well-off, coming from a wealthy family. But one of his neighbours, a nobleman fallen on hard times, had three unmarried daughters he could no longer afford to support. The daughters were considering turning to prostitution in order to put food on the table. Nicholas wanted to help the family, and so for each of the three daughters, he crept by the house at night while the family slept and tossed a parcel of gold in the window – the foundational Secret Santa! The poor man was able to use the money as a dowry for the girls, so that they were married and provided for.


Detail of an historiated initial 'M' of St Nicholas passing gold through the window to the poor man and his three daughters; from Wauchier de Denain, Lives of the Saints, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 20 D. vi, f. 144r.

In addition to his generosity, Nicholas was also revered as a patron of children, providing some of the strongest connections between the medieval saint and the modern St Nick. In another famous story, Nicholas performed a miracle to save the life of three boys. The children had been murdered by a wicked butcher, who concealed their bodies by cutting them up and throwing the remains into a tub he used for curing meat. Nicholas not only found them there, he was able to restore the dismembered boys to life, and the image of the bishop standing over the three now-healed children standing up from the tub is a popular subject for illustration.


Detail of a miniature of St Nicholas with the three boys in the tub; from Iacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, translated into French by Jean de Vignay, France (Paris), 1382, Royal MS 19 B. xvii, f. 14r.

Nicole Eddy

21 December 2012

A Royal Gift for Christmas

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Cold, breezy weather, rain and snow, and the onset of darkness at 3pm, all herald that winter has arrived. To brighten up your days, we have recently put online one of the most lavishly illuminated prayerbooks to survive from the Middle Ages, the Book of Hours of John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford.

18850, f 65
The Nativity in the Bedford Hours: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 65r.

Our treat for you to enjoy during these long, dark days was indeed a royal gift for Christmas. On 24 December 1430, Anne of Burgundy, duchess of Bedford, presented what is now known as the Bedford Hours (British Library Additional MS 18850) with her husband’s consent to her nephew, the 8-year-old Henry VI. The newly-crowned king of England was enjoying his Christmas with the ducal couple in their residence at Rouen, awaiting his French coronation in Paris. A page-long memorandum note inserted in the book (below) by the royal physician John Somerset commemorates this event.

Bedford note
Memorandum added to the Bedford Hours: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 256r.

For our medieval ancestors, Christmas was not as obvious an occasion for gift-giving as it is now. By far more popular was the Roman-rooted, festive exchange of presents on New Year’s Day, known in France as etrennes (perhaps from the Roman goddess Strena, whose feast was celebrated on 1 January). At the turn of the 15th century large sums of money were spent on the etrennes, which became, especially in France and Burgundy, a lavish courtly ritual, with princes like Anne’s grandfather, Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, spending on average over 6% of his yearly budget on New Year’s presents. The duchess’s gift may well have emulated this relatively well-established tradition.

The manuscript she offered to Henry was a truly royal gift. Its 38 large miniatures and over 1,200 marginal roundels illustrating its prayers were painted by the best Parisian workshops of the time. The prayerbook was not made with Henry in mind, however. Its royal splendour was a recycled one. The work on the manuscript’s fabulous decoration may have started as early as the 1410s and another royal prince may have been its intended recipient, perhaps the early-deceased dauphin, Louis, duke of Guyenne.

Bedford hours
Portrait of John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford, before St George: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 256v.

John, duke of Bedford, acquired the unfinished manuscript sometime after 1422. Following the deaths of his brother Henry V and the English king’s adoptive father, Charles VI of France, John became Regent of France on behalf of the baby King Henry VI. Soon after, in 1423, the duke married Anne of Burgundy in a powerful political match designed to ensure the stability of English rule in France. Two monumental portraits of the ducal couple in prayer before their patron saints were inserted together with their omnipresent heraldic devices and mottos (above and below), and several other scenes.

18850 f 257v
Portrait of Anne of Burgundy, duchess of Bedford, before St Anne: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 257v.

Among images added to the volume at that time was yet another remainder of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance. The last two leaves of the manuscript tell the story of the heavenly origin of the French royal coat of arms in picture and verse (below). The miniature depicts God sending his angel with a fleur-de-lis banner to the hermit of Joyenval, who then hands it over to Queen Clothilda. The next scene takes place in the royal palace. The queen presents the fleur-de-lis, on a shield, to Clovis, her husband and the first Christian king of France.

18850 f 288v
The legend of the Fleur-de-lis: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 288v.

Clothilda like Anne was a Burgundian princess and it is not accidental that she is assisted here by a herald wearing a hat of green, white and black, the livery colours of the dukes of Burgundy, and that the gate to her palace bears the escutcheon of the lion rampant of Flanders. Clothilda’s role in the legend underlines the traditional Burgundian support to the French crown. A similar role was also expected from Anne, the Regent’s consort.

Detail 1Clothilda presenting the Fleur-de-lis arms to Clovis: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 288v.

Detail 2
The arms of Flanders over the palace gate: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 288v.

The legend of the fleurs-de-lis was popular in early-15th-century France. In December 1430, it received a new meaning, directly addressing Henry VI who was about to receive the French crown. A few months later, the legend of Clovis’s miraculous gift was performed as one of the tableaux vivants during Henry VI’s ceremonial entry to Paris. Although it is not certain whether Bedford had his prayerbook enhanced with new images as a wedding gift for his bride, or as a pre-coronation present to his nephew, in December 1430 the ducal Christmas gift was particularly well-suited for the future king of France.