Medieval manuscripts blog

477 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

09 December 2013

What's Your Favourite Manuscript?

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Earlier this year, a selection of the British Library's medieval manuscripts featured in a special article in the FT Weekend Magazine. For those of you who missed this first time round, those manuscripts included (drumroll, please) Beowulf, Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, the Golf Book and the Harley Golden Gospels. Not your typical medieval books -- you can read the accompanying blogpost here, with links to digital images of the manuscripts in question.


This is one of our favourites, what about you? The miniature of St John in the 9th-century Harley Golden Gospels: London, British Library, MS Harley 2788, f. 161v.

Alice Fishburn, auuthor of the article, interviewed a number of the British Library's curators as part of the feature. And one question we were all asked was: "what's your favourite manuscript?". As I recall, a couple of curators plumped for the Harley Golden Gospels, on account of its sheer beauty and its shimmering golden letters; another colleague took the safer option, and preferred not to nominate a favourite manuscript, on the grounds that each and every one is a unique artefact, with its own intrinsic interest.


You may like to nominate a manuscript from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, like this 12th-century Canterbury passionale: London, British Library, MS Arundel 91, f. 36v.

That got us thinking -- what is your favourite manuscript? We'd love to hear from you, and in the coming weeks we'll add a selection to an updated version of this post. You might choose something from the Anglo-Saxon era, say, or a 15th-century Book of Hours, or maybe that dusty old tome which you studied for your dissertation, the one which had lain overlooked for years but which you fell in love with. No rules apply, save to say that we'd prefer it if your favourite came from the British Library's collections! You may like a little help, so have a look at our Digitised Manuscripts site or the Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.


Does Leonardo da Vinci rock your boat? Let us know! London, Britiash Library, MS Arundel 263, ff. 84v + 88r.

So there's your challenge for this week. Send your nominations by Twitter to @blmedieval, or as a comment at the end of this post. It would be lovely if you could tell us in a few words why a particular manuscript is so special to you. And we will try to acknowledge each and every response.

Julian Harrison

05 December 2013

Happy Hanukkah!

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Today is the last day of Hanukkah; the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section hopes you have had (and will continue to have) a very happy Festival of Lights - Hanukkah Sameach!

Add MS 15250 f. 3v c00370-09b
Full-page miniature of a menorah surrounded by Temple instruments, from a Hebrew Bible (the 'Duke of Sussex's Catalan Bible) with masorah magna and parva, Spain (Catalonia), 3rd quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 15250, f. 3v

  King's MS 1, f. 3r c13587-87
Full-page miniature of a menorah surrounded by Temple instruments, from a Hebrew Bible (the 'King's Bible), Spain (Catalonia), last quarter of the 14th century, Kings MS 1, f. 3r

Or 5024, f. 19r detail c13582-35
Detail of a man lighting the Hanukkah lamp, from Decisions of Isaiah of Trani the Younger (Pisqei Rabbi Yeshayah Aharon), Italy (Bologna), 1374, Or 5024, f. 19r

04 December 2013

The Romance of Mont Saint-Michel

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Part holy shrine, part legendary castle, the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most romantic spots in Europe; it has been a site of miracles and the destination of countless pilgrims for over a thousand years. The story goes that in 708 the archangel Michael told Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, to build a church on Mont Tombe for him. St Aubert ignored him at first, but the archangel returned and reputedly burned a hole in Aubert’s skull with his finger. The Bishop realized that he could ignore the archangel no longer and Mont Tombe was dedicated to Michael on October 16, 708. St Aubert built the first church on the island and it has been known as Mont Saint-Michel ever since.

Mont Saint-Michel as viewed along the Couesnon River, photo by David Iliff (via Wikipedia Commons, license: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The verse history of Mont Saint-Michel or Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel was composed by Guillaume de Saint-Paier, (now Saint-Pois in the diocese of Avranches), who was a young monk in the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel in the time of the abbot Robert of Torigni, between 1154 and 1186. His work, written in the Norman dialect of Old French c. 1160, is based on Latin texts and charters found in a 12th-century cartulary of the monastery (Avranches, BM 210) and in later copies. In the prologue Guillaume says that he wrote the Roman to instruct pilgrims who did not know the history of the monastery.  The British Library has the only two surviving medieval copies of the work and a new arrival on our Digitised Manuscripts website is the earliest copy, which dates from the last quarter of the 13th century (Add MS 10289). This manuscript has been in our online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts for some time, with a small selection of images, but now every page is available to view. The text is of great interest to historians of Western Normandy and scholars of the Norman dialect, for which it is an early example.

Detail of a painting of Mont Saint Michel burning, from 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel',
France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 45v

The monastery is shown engulfed in flames in this image in the lower margin.  The buildings fell into disrepair after a severe fire in 922 and in 966 Richard, Duke of Normandy, established an order of Benedictine monks there, who started to reconstruct the church. They brought in craftsmen from Italy and started work in 1017. The abbey was finished in 1080 and pilgrims flocked to the island to worship St Michael, even when the abbey was in English hands much later, during the Hundred Years War. The Monks of Mont Saint-Michel were revered for their copying skills and there has been a library there since the 10th century. Our manuscript has an inscription, Iste liber est de thesauraria montis running along the right-hand margin on f. 1, showing that it was in the library in the 15th century.

Historiated initial 'M'(olz) of two pilgrims at the beginning of 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel' and inscription in the margin,
France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 1r

When the Maurists took over control of the monastery from the Benedictines in the 17th century, they reorganised the books and manuscripts, and they wrote ex-libris inscriptions in many of the books, Ex monasterio sancti Michaelis in periculo maris (‘From the monastery of Mont Saint Michel, in danger from the sea’).  But it was the destructive force of humanity, rather than the sea that posed the greatest danger to the monks and their library.  During the French Revolution the libraries of nobles and monasteries were confiscated for the public and the 3550 books and 299 manuscripts from the abbey were piled into carts, guarded by the National Guard, and crossed the sands to the mainland. They were piled in a damp storeroom in the municipal offices of Avranches, together with other monastic archives and in 1835, when they were catalogued by la Société d’archéologie d’Avranches, only 199 remained. At this time they were moved to the new Hotel de Ville and remain in the collections of the city of Avranches.

Our manuscript was already in the hands of an English collector, Richard Heber, by this time, and was purchased from him by the British Museum in 1836.

The ‘Romance of Mont Saint-Michel’ is only a third of the volume.  The rest is a collection of moralistic and religious texts and medical recipes, including a recipe for a lotion to whiten the skin

Recipe for ‘Ognement espruve por blanchir’ on the lower half of the page,
France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 81v

On ff. 129v-132v can be found Andre de Coutances Le romanz des Franceis or Arflet, a violent anti-French satire composed in around 1200.  It was written in response to a French satire, in which King Arthur/Alfred is portrayed as Arflet, le roi des buveurs, a drunken Northumbrian king whose crown is usurped by the cat, Chapalu.  De Coutances defends the English by attacking meagre French cuisine and mocking their reputation as dice-players and cowards in the face of battle.  Their king, Frollo, is lazy and even lies in bed while his boots are being fastened.

The satire begins, ‘Reis Arflet de Nohundrelande...’ and is written in four-line verses or laisses, each beginning with a coloured initial.

Text page with the opening lines of the satire,
Arflet or Le romanz des franceis, France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 129v

- Chantry Westwell

01 December 2013

A Calendar Page for December 2013

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

The necessary work of preparing for winter continues on this full-page miniature for December.  In the foreground, a man and a woman are slaughtering one of the pigs that was fattened in November, and catching its blood in a pan.  Behind them, people are busy baking bread in a large oven, watched over by attentive birds.  In the background, we can see a stag, hunted by horses and hounds, leaping over a gate.  In the bas-de-page below, several men are playing at what appears to be a most entertaining (if dangerous) game: tug-of-war on sledges.  On the following page can be found a roundel containing a goat for the zodiac sign Capricorn, alongside the saints' days for December.  Interestingly, the feast day of Thomas Becket has remained unaltered, probably because this manuscript was not in England during the Reformation (for more on this question, see our post Erasing Becket).  At the bottom of the folio, two men are sledging on a frozen pond, while others, including a man carrying a white hare, are gathered around a warming fire.

Calendar page for December with a miniature of people slaughtering a pig and baking bread, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 29v

Calendar page for December with a bas-de-page scene of men sledging and warming themselves by a fire, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 30r

from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 26v - See more at:

30 November 2013

Happy St Andrew's Day

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Miniature of André Serre of Dijon praying to his patron, St Andrew, in a Book of Hours: Dijon, 16th century (London, British Library, MS Harley 3181, f. 22v).

It's 30 November, the feast-day of St Andrew the Apostle and the national day of Scotland. The brother of St Peter, Andrew is considered the founder and first bishop of the church of Byzantium. According to the Gospel of St John the Evangelist, Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist, before becoming a follower of Jesus, and being present at the Last Supper. St Andrew is said to have been martyred by crucifixion at the city of Patras, reportedly by being bound to the cross rather than nailed to it; but a tradition later emerged that Andrew had in fact been crucified on a saltire or x-shaped cross, as he felt himself unworthy to be crucified on the same type of cross as Jesus.


Miniature of St Andrew, in a Book of Hours: Bruges, c. 1500 (London, British Library, MS King's 9, ff. 36v-37r).

Andrew is believed to have become patron saint of Scotland in the 10th century. A legend states that relics of Andrew were brought at that time from Constantinople to Scotland, and carried to the place subsequently named St Andrews. Since 2006, St Andrew's Day has been celebrated in Scotland with a public holiday (or bank holiday), which this year is on 2 December as the feast-day falls on a weekend.

To celebrate St Andrew's Day, here is a selection of medieval images of St Andrew from the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. You can find more by searching that site, and typing "Andrew" in the keyword box. Which one will be your favourite?


The calling of St Peter and St Andrew, from a choirbook: Italy, 15th century (London, British Library, MS Additional 18196, f. 84r).



The crucifixion of St Andrew, in Wauchier de Denain, Lives of the Saints: France, 13th century (London, British Library, MS Royal 20 D VI, f. 185r).



The crucifixion of St Andrew in the Queen Mary Psalter: England, 14th century (London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 286r).



The martyrdom of St Andrew, in a Book of Hours: England, 14th century (London, British Library, MS Egerton 2781, f. 76v).



Miniature of St Andrew, in a Book of Hours: Paris, c. 1410 (London, British Library, MS Egerton 1070, f. 80v).

29 November 2013

Medieval Movember

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We in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section would like to congratulate everyone who has taken part in this year's Movember fund-raising drive (including some members of the British Library staff!).  To honour your achievements in some small way, we would like to offer this brief glance back at several choice examples of medieval manuscript moustaches.  In keeping with the spirit of Movember, we've largely tried to restrain ourselves to 'staches alone, although a few beards may have slipped while our backs were turned.

We'll lead off with this imperial example: the stylish and well-moustachioed Emperor Lothar I.

Miniature of an enthroned Lothar (or Lothaire) I, wearing a cloak covered in jewels, from the Lothar Psalter, Germany (Aachen), c. 840-855, Add MS 37768, f. 4r

Another fine specimen can be found on this personification of Justice from a 14th century copy of the Carmina regia, although his companion, Prudence, doesn't look too impressed (and her judgement ought to be trusted, after all).

Detail of a miniature of the personifications of Prudence and Justice, from the Carmina regia (Address of the City of Prato to Robert of Anjou), Italy (Tuscany), c. 1335, Royal MS 6 E IX, f. 21r

This noble member of Sulieman's army does not appear to have done very well during the 1519 Siege of Vienna, but even in defeat his facial hair has retained all its glory (and how could anyone ask for more, really?).

Add MS 33733 f. 9r detail
Detail of a miniature of Sulieman and his army being driven from the Siege of Vienna in 1519, from the Triumphs of Charles V, Italy or the Netherlands, c. 1556-1575, Add MS 33733, f. 9r

Next time you look up in the heavens, spare a thought for the moustaches preserved there for all of eternity.  Because there are some, you know, at least according to the French miscellany below:

Royal MS 13 A XI f. 105v detail c13313-85
Detail of a tinted ink drawing of the constallations Boötes and Corona, from a miscellany with works on the Computus and astrology, France, last quarter of the 11th century - first quarter of the 12th century, Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 105v

Although women's support for Movember is necessary and valued, it is the rare lady that can participate directly by growing some facial hair of her own, but we found one!  Witness the famous Bearded Woman of Limerick:

Royal MS 13 B VII f. 19r detail
Detail of a bas-de-page painting of the Bearded Woman of Limerick, from Gerald of Wales' Topographia Hibernica, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196-1223, Royal MS 13 B VII, f. 19r

But if your moustache efforts this year met with less-than-perfect results, you may need a little consolation from a good friend...

Harley MS 3045 f. 12r detail
Detail of an historiated initial 'Q'(uantos) of two men, from Hrabanus Maurus' De laudibus sanctae crucis, Germany (Arnstein), c. 1170-1180, Harley MS 3045, f. 12r

... or perhaps just the reminder that this is in your future come the first of December:

Royal MS 16 G VI f. 93v detail
Detail of a miniature of Dagobert cutting his tutor's beard, from the Grandes Chroniques de France, France (Paris), 1332-1350, Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 93v 

Congratulations to everyone who took part in Movember!

- Sarah J Biggs

27 November 2013

Marginali-yeah: Take 2! The Incomparable Luttrell Psalter

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It is almost impossible to discuss the fabulous and incomparable Luttrell Psalter (Add MS 42130) without resorting to hyperbole.  Produced in Lincolnshire, England c. 1320-1340, for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, its namesake and patron (please see our earlier blog post for more details), the manuscript is a glorious explosion of visual delights.  Besides the illuminated and historiated initials, the Psalter contains hundreds of marginal and bas-de-page images which display a staggering and creative diversity.  A very few (compared with the overwhelming numbers in the manuscript!) selected details are below; please have a look at the fully digitised manuscript here for much much more.

A lady with a pet squirrel, Add MS 42130, f. 33r

A monkey riding a goat whilst hawking (except with an owl, so not hawking), Add MS 42130, f. 38r

The martyrdom of Thomas Becket, with a grotesque nearby, and later 'x' marks effacing the painting, Add MS 42130, f. 51r

A dejected, nude, and tonsured man (a winning combination!) with an archer below, Add MS 42130, f. 54r

A man being bled into a bowl while an attentive bird looks on, Add MS 42130, f. 61r

A blue-skinned man (perhaps a Saracen or Ethiopian?) doing battle with a dragon (not a snail in sight), Add MS 42130, f. 83v

Medieval Angry Birds, Add MS 42130, f. 145r

Two grotesques fighting and fighting dirty, Add MS 42130, f. 153r

A monkey being extremely rude, as far as we can tell, Add MS 42130, f. 189v

A cat (of course!), Add MS 42130, f. 190r

Stealing fruit, Add MS 42130, f. 196v

A female grotesque riding, um, herself, Add MS 42130, f. 198v 

This grotesque is unimpressed, Add MS 42130, f. 202r

Eeyore-ish, Add MS 42130, f. 208v

Check me out, Add MS 42130, f. 210r

This won't end well, Add MS 42130, f. 211r

Please let us know if you have any other favourites; you can always leave us a note in the comments below, or get in touch with us on Twitter @BLMedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs

25 November 2013

Happy St Catherine's Day!

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St Catherine of Alexandria was one of the most venerated saints and martyrs in the medieval era, and indeed still is today.  Especially on this day, which is that of her feast; we hope you all have your fireworks ready for a St Catherine’s Wheel!

Miniature of St Catherine before the wheel, with the Emperor Maxentius in the background, from the Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours, England (London) and Netherlands (Bruges), 1401- c. 1500, Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 15v

According to her legend, Catherine was born to the pagan King Constus and Queen Sabinella of Alexandria in the very late 3rd century AD.  She was said to have been extremely well-educated, and converted to Christianity as a teenager.  Her devotion to Christ was such that she determined to visit the Roman Emperor Maxentius to argue against his persecution of Christians.  Needless to say, Maxentius was not receptive to her pleas, and had the young woman scourged and then thrown into prison.  While there she was visited by a number of notables, including Maxentius’ wife; Catherine’s passionate eloquence, we are told, succeeded in converting all of these visitors to Christianity, even though this meant that they were immediately put to death by the Roman authorities.

Detail of a miniature of St Catherine being scourged, from the Taymouth Hours, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 16v

After prison proved an ineffective constraint on Catherine, legend has it that the Emperor Maxentius tried a proposal of marriage, which Catherine rejected on the grounds that she had consecrated her virginity to Christ (although one imagines that the Christian-executing Emperor would not have been an attractive candidate to her regardless).  Maxentius did not take this well either, and sent Catherine to be executed on the back-breaking spiked wheel.  The wheel, however, miraculously broke apart the moment Catherine touched it, so Maxentius ordered that she be beheaded.

Harley MS 5370, f. 167r C11650-08
Miniature of St Catherine being beheaded, from a Book of Hours (Use of Angers), France (Angers), c. 1450, Harley MS 5370, f. 167r

St Catherine is one of the most recognizable saints in medieval art, as she is usually depicted with one or both of the instruments of her martyrdom, most often the spiked wheel. Devotion to her in the Middle Ages was intense, and miniatures of her appear in many manuscripts of the period.  A number of these can be found below, including a remarkable sequence in the Queen Mary Psalter that details her martyrdom.

Harley MS 928, f. 10r c13619-50
Detail of an historiated initial of St Catherine praying and the wheel breaking, from the Harley Hours (Use of Sarum), England, last quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 928, f. 10r

Kings MS 9, ff. 58v-59r K108764
Miniature of St Catherine before her suffrage, from a Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500, King’s MS 9, ff, 58v-59r

Harley MS 2966, f. 10r K062157
Miniature of St Catherine, much effaced (possibly because of devotional kissing of the miniature), from a Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2966, f. 10r

Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 280r G70032-91a
Detail of a bas-de-page image of St Catherine in prison, surrounded by musical angels, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320,  Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 280r

Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 283r G70032-92a
Detail of a bas-de-page image of St Catherine praying and angels breaking apart the spiked wheel, from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 283r

Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 284r G70032-93a
Detail of a bas-de-page image of St Catherine being buried by angels on Mount Sinai, from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 284r

St Catherine is considered the patron saint of unmarried girls, craftspeople who work with wheels, such as potters and spinners, philosophers, students, librarians and archivists (luckily for us).  Please do let us know if you have any other favourite images of this venerable saint, and we hope you have a happy St Catherine’s Day!