Medieval manuscripts blog

428 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

21 June 2013

A Digital Reunion: The Sforza Hours

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The history of the Sforza Hours, our newest upload to Digitised Manuscripts, in many ways resembles a detective story.  The manuscript (now Add MSS 34294, 45722, 62997, and 80800) was commissioned about 1490 by the Duchess of Milan Bona Sforza (d. 1503), the second wife of Galeazzo Maria Sforza.  The Milanese court painter Giovan Pietro Birago (fl. 1471-1513) was contracted to embellish it with miniatures.

Bas-de-page scene of a hound chasing a rabbit, with Bona's name 'Diva Bona' in the full border, Add MS 34294, f. 122v

Detail of a full border with Bona's embelm of the phoenix and motto 'Sola fata, solum Deum sequor', Add MS 34294, f. 93r

By 1494 Birago’s work on the manuscript was almost finished and the artist delivered a substantial portion of the still-unbound manuscript to the Duchess.  Then, something unexpected happened.  Several leaves still remaining in the artist’s workshop vanished.  The missing portion must have included a calendar, an indispensable part of any Book of Hours, which the Sforza Hours lacks to this day.  At present, the manuscript begins imperfectly with the four lessons excerpted from the Gospels.


Miniature of St Mark and his lion at the beginning of the Gospel excerpts, Add MS 34294, f. 10v

Birago’s version of events surrounding the mysterious disappearance of the illuminated leaves survives in a letter he wrote to a person whose identity unfortunately has not yet been traced.  The painter claims that his work was stolen by a certain Fra Gian Jacopo, and subsequently sold by him to another friar, only referred to in the letter as Fra Biancho.  This Fra Biancho, Birago continues, took the leaves to Rome and presented them to Giovanni Maria Sforzino (d. 1520), illegitimate son of Francesco Sforza and half-brother of Bona’s husband Galeazzo.  The letter not only gives us some insight into the murky behaviour of some ordained members of the Milanese church, but also puts into perspective the tangible value of an illuminated manuscript as a desirable object of theft.  Regrettably, the letter does not give us any time frame for the events it describes.  We may only suspect that Giovanni Maria Sforzino had already received the stolen leaves by the time of his sister-in-law’s death in 1503, as they were never returned to her or reintegrated with her prayerbook.

It is only now that a small portion of the previously missing folios can be reunited with the rest of the manuscript, if only digitally.  Three detached leaves illuminated by Giovan Pietro Birago, all discovered in the 20th century and now in the collection of the British Library, were identified as those once removed from the unbound Sforza Hours.  Two of them are leaves from the calendar (Add MSS 62997 and 80800), and were both acquired by Martin Breslauer in 1984, in Switzerland.

Calendar page for May, Add MS 62997

Calendar page for October, Add MS 80800

The third leaf includes a miniature of the Adoration of the Magi that once preceded the hour of Sext in the Hours of the Virgin (Add MS 45722).  It belonged to the French collector Jean Charles Davillier (b. 1823, d. 1883) before an anonymous benefactor presented it to the British Museum in 1941.


Miniature of the Adoration of the Magi, Add MS 45722

The remaining miniatures by Giovan Pietro Birago have never been recovered.  Bona Sforza clearly did not commission another campaign of work to complete her book of hours.  At her death in 1503, the unfinished manuscript probably passed to her nephew Philibert II (b. 1480, d. 1504), Duke of Savoy.  Philibert must have either presented or bequeathed the hours to his wife Archduchess Margaret of Austria (b. 1480, d. 1530).  Margaret, a keen patron of the arts, decided to have the manuscript completed.  In 1517, she commissioned the scribe Etienne de Lale to replace some of the missing text, and between 1519 and 1521, the Flemish illuminator Gerard Horenbout (b. c.1465, d. c.1540) to paint the remaining miniatures (the accounts for both campaigns have survived).  Doubtless following the Archduchess’s wish, Horenbout painted her and her father’s portraits in a biblical disguise.  Margaret appears as St Elizabeth in the Visitation.

Miniature of the Visitation, from the prayers at Lauds, Add MS 34294, f. 61r

She is also recognizable as a woman attending the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, while her father, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, is shown as Simeon.


Miniature of the Presentation in the Temple, from the prayers at None, Add MS 34294, f. 104v

The manuscript must have been subsequently presented to Emperor Charles V (b. 1500, d. 1558), Margaret’s nephew.  The Emperor's portrait in a cameo bust can be found in the margin of f. 213r with the accompanying monogram KR (Karolus Rex).

Folio with a cameo bust of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, Add MS 34294, f. 213r

The Sforza Hours was eventually purchased by Sir John Charles Robinson (d. 1913), Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, in 1871, in Spain.  The book subsequently passed to another art collector, John Malcolm of Poltalloch (d. 1893), who presented it to the British Museum in 1893.

- Joanna Fronska

19 June 2013

New Acquisitions in Manuscript and Print

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On 5 June 2013, the British Library bought four lots in the Mendham Sale at Sotheby's, London. The Library's view was that the sale was regrettable, and Roly Keating (our Chief Executive) expressed his reservations as joint-signatory in a letter published in The Times on 11 May. However, once it became clear that the sale would go ahead, a decision was made to try to purchase certain lots, in order to preserve some of the Mendham books for the national collection and to maintain public access to them.

The new acquisitions comprise two Books of Hours, one in manuscript and the other printed, together with two incunabula. The dispersal of the collection involved the risk that books hitherto available for research in the United Kingdom would leave the country or disappear into private hands. The British Library already has outstanding collections of manuscripts and of early printed works, so adding these books to our collections guarantees their availability to a worldwide research community now and in the future. Moreover, Joseph Mendham’s collecting activities meant that he acquired many early printed books that were unlikely to attract the attention of the institutional libraries or bibliophilic collectors of his era.

Image reproduced by permission of Sotheby's.

Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, with additions including Middle English verse by John Lydgate

Southern Netherlands, middle of the 15th century

This Book of Hours was probably made in Bruges for the English market. Early in its history the manuscript was adapted for use by a female patron, and a number of Middle English devotional pieces were added to it, among them a version of John Lydgate's Shorte tretis of the 15 joyes of Oure Lady. Not only is the context is which this manuscript was produced of great interest, but its various additions have immense research value; we are delighted that it will soon to available to researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room.

Image reproduced by permission of Sotheby's.

Book of Hours, Use of Sarum

London: John King for John Walley, 1555. 8º.

This small Catholic liturgical book, produced during the reign of Queen Mary I (1553–1558), is beautifully printed in red and black, and is a unique survival in excellent condition. John King and John Walley were both early members of the Stationers' Company in London, and King's printing shop was next to that of the Royal Printer, John Cawood. Although the text was also produced on the Continent for the English market, fewer editions were produced in England. All editions now survive in small numbers, mainly because the books were heavily used and then discarded when new editions became available.

Image reproduced by permission of Sotheby's.

Martinus Magistri (or de Magistris), Tractatus consequentiarum

Paris: Felix Baligault, 20 August 1494. 4º.

Bound with Johannes de Sacro Bosco, Tractatus de sphera

[Paris]: Felix Baligault, [1494]. 4º.

Martinus Magistri’s treatise on the theory of consequence was composed by one of the leading nominalist scholastic philosophers in late-medieval Paris. Having reached its height in the 14th century, a revival in the study of consequence took place after nominalist teaching was reintroduced at the University of Paris in the 1480s. Medieval theories of this kind have become of increasing interest to modern logicians, but the texts survive in few copies. Of the 7 known editions of Magistri’s work, only 2 could be found in United Kingdom libraries, and none was previously in the British Library’s collections.

The Tractatus is bound with Johannes de Sacro Bosco’s astronomical treatise, De sphera, one of the most widely-read introductions to astronomy in the Middle Ages, surviving in numerous manuscript copies and over 80 early printed editions, 14 of them from the 15th century. None is common; these were very much books to be read and used.

Image reproduced by permission of Sotheby's.

Sixtus IV, Bulla extensionis indulgentiarum …

[Rome: Georg Lauer, after 1 September 1480].

Indulgences were widely sold as part of the fund-raising effort to support the Knights of Rhodes against the assaults of the Ottoman Empire. Only one other copy of this printing is known, held at Munich University.

These four new acquisitions will soon be available to researchers in the Manuscripts Reading Room and the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library.

17 June 2013

Lindisfarne Gospels Rewind

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Did you miss the Lindisfarne Gospels and St Cuthbert Gospel on BBC Radio 3? Then fear not, as the whole programme is available to listen again (United Kingdom only, alas) on the BBC iPlayer. Presented by author David Almond, the programme explores the place of these majestic manuscripts in art, religion and literature, and features interviews with staff from the British Library.


Meanwhile, both of these great books can be viewed on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site: click here to see the Lindisfarne Gospels and the St Cuthbert Gospel.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @blmedieval.

13 June 2013

Lindisfarne Gospels on BBC Radio 3

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On Sunday, 16 June, the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels is to feature in a special programme on BBC Radio 3. Presented by award-winning children's author David Almond, the programme will investigate the significance of the Gospels, exploring its creation, the journeys made by the book, and the cultural and religious landscape from which the manuscript emerged.


Portrait of St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 209v).

Part of the programme was recorded on location at the British Library, the interviewees including Scot McKendrick (Head of History and Classics), Claire Breay (Lead Curator, Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts), and Deborah Novotny (Head of Collection Care). The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the nation's greatest medieval treasures, and can be seen in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


Detail from the canon-tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 12r).

Scholars are divided as to the precise date when this Latin gospelbook was made. According to a colophon written in the manuscript by Aldfrith, provost of Chester-le-Street (fl. 970), the scribe and artist was none other than Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (698–721?). Aldfrith was also responsible for adding the interlinear gloss in Old English.

Also featured in the Radio 3 progamme is the St Cuthbert Gospel (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000). This is the oldest intact European book, and was purchased by the British Library in 2012, following a successful fundraising campaign (see our previous post, St Cuthbert Gospel Saved for the Nation).


The St Cuthbert Gospel, dating from the late-7th-century (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000, f. 28v).

The Lindisfarne Gospels is on semi-permanent display at the British Library, but both it and the St Cuthbert Gospel will soon be showcased in a major exhibition at Durham. David Almond's radio documentary is entitled "The Gospels Come Home", and explores the meaning of the Lindisfarne Gospels to himself and his fellow North-Easterners. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 19.45–20.30 on 16 June, and will subsequently be available to United Kingdom listeners via the BBC iPlayer.

10 June 2013

Princes, Be Good!

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Celebrating the 700th anniversary of Boccaccio's birth with John Lydgate's Fall of Princes.

John Lydgate's Fall of Princes is a version of Giovanni Boccaccio's Latin prose De casibus vivorum et feminarum illustrium, in English verse, via the intermediary French translation by Laurent de Premierfait, De cas des nobles hommes et femmes (c. 1409).  Lydgate was a poet and the prior of Hatfield Regis.  He wrote the Fall of Princes between 1431 and 1439 as a commission for Humphrey, duke of Gloucester.

Boccaccio's original poem, written between 1355 and 1360 with modifications up to 1375, is a treatise in nine books on the caprice of Fortuna (Fortune).  The author recounts tragic events in the lives of notable men and women from biblical, classical, and medieval history, from the Fall of Adam and Eve to the capture of King John of France by the English at Poitiers in 1356. Through the stories, De casibus provided moral lessons for readers, demonstrating both models of virtue and examples of vice to avoid.

Miniature of two Benedictine monks kneeling before St Edmund enthroned; John Lydgate is identified as the monk on the right who holds a scroll reading 'dann Iohn lydgate'.  From John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 5r

In his Fall of Princes, Lydgate did not simply translate Boccaccio's De casibus. Influenced by Premierfait's French translation of the text, as well as his own studies, Lydgate added stories from other authors including Ovid, Petrarch, Chaucer, and Gower.  Focusing on the results of evil-doing in particular, the Fall of Princes became a kind of manual of advice for rulers on how to regulate their own lives and moral behaviour.  Lydgate's poem proved to be tremendously popular; a remarkable number of copies of the text were made in the second half of the fifteenth century.  38 manuscript versions and nine fragments are currently known, as well as some extracts included in other manuscripts.

Here are some of our favourite miniatures from an illustrated copy of the Fall of Princes made c. 1450-1460, now Harley MS 1766.  This copy was made about ten years after the poem was written by Lydgate, and was produced by the Edmund-Fremund Scribe and a team of local artists, probably in the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.  The manuscript is beautifully decorated with 156 marginal miniatures accompanying various episodes in the text.  Many of these miniatures depict the tragic deaths of the characters described, which include suicides, hangings, stabbings, and various kinds of fatal falls.

Harley MS 1766 f. 13 K017974
Miniature of the Explusion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 13r

Harley MS 1766 f. 48 K060555
Miniature of Oedipus, dressed in royal garments, tearing out his own eyes, from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 48r

Harley MS 1766 f. 50 K060699
Miniature of Jocasta, Queen of Thebes, committing suicide after realising that Oedipus was 'her own husband and son both', from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 50r

Harley MS 1766 f. 117 K024321
Miniature of Sardanapalus, the last king of Assyria, reputed to be a decadent and lascivious ruler, represented throwing himself from the doorway of his palace into a fire, from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 117r

Miniature of Haman, minister of the Persian empire under King Ahasuerus, being hanged from the same pole that he had set up to kill Mordecai (from Esther 7:10), from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 141v

Harley MS 1766 f. 217 K045902
Miniature of King Arthur, the figure of an ideal king, enthroned in royal robes, receiving emissaries from Rome, from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 217r


You can read more about this manuscript in: Henry Bergen, Lydgate's Fall of Princes, 4 vol. (London, 1924-27); Giovanni Boccaccio: Catalogue of an Exhibition held in the Reference Division of the British Library 3 October to 31 December 1975 (London, 1975), no. 39; Kathleen L. Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts 1390-1490, A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, 6, 2 vols. (London, 1996), no. 110; Sarah L. Pittaway, 'The Political Appropriation of Lydgate's Fall of Princes: A Manuscript Study of British Library, MS Harley 1766' (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Birmingham, 2011) [passim].

- Maria Alicia Trivigno 

06 June 2013

What Did Medieval Kings Really Look Like?

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The first 10 folios of Royal MS 20 A II (the newest upload to our Digitised Manuscripts site) are a portable portrait gallery of the kings of England in chronological order.  Each king is depicted in a tinted drawing, surrounded by symbols or events from his reign. The images of later kings are followed by genealogical tables or Latin verses about the monarch in question.

Here are some examples of the ways that artists in the 14th century portrayed their rulers.  The question is - can the images tell us anything at all about how these kings really looked?

Edward the Confessor is shown in the manuscript as tall, upright, and elegantly dressed, posing with a sceptre and a book, looking pensively into the distance.

Detail of a miniature of Edward the Confessor, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 5r

In his portrait, Richard I (or Richard the Lion Heart), though seated on his throne, appears ready to leap into action and his garments seem rather ill-fitting. He is cross-eyed and looks somewhat belligerent. The heads of three Christians and three Saracens - a reference to his Crusading fame - glare at each other from either side of his throne.

Detail of a miniature of Richard the Lionheart, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8r

Compare the above to the fine figure on the 19th century statue in front of the House of Lords in London!

Statue of Richard the Lionheart, before the Palace of Westminster, via Wikipedia Commons

King John is shown in the manuscript smiling tenderly at his dogs, while stroking one of them playfully.  He has a simple, open face, and does not seem to be weighed down by the cares of state.

Detail of a miniature of King John, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8v

Henry III, on the other hand, looks rather disgruntled in his portrait as he shows off the bells of his new cathedral, Westminster Abbey.  He does not seem very pleased with the way his project has turned out, or perhaps he is frustrated by the building costs!


Miniature of Henry III enthroned, flanked by Westminster Abbey and church bells, with a genealogical table of his descendants below, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 9r

The portrait of  Edward the Confessor (top) is one of 10 produced by the same artist, which can be found on folios 2 to 5 of the manuscript, beginning with legendary kings like Vortigern and Arthur.  They are all framed in black.  The portraits on folios 5v to 10 are by a second artist, who drew the later kings from Edward the Confessor to Edward II.  In this final portrait (below), Edward II is referred to as prince (‘princeps’), in the caption, indicating that the image might date from before or around the time of his coronation in 1307. He has a rather pretty face, and the person presenting the crown is looking at him sideways, apparently unsure of him.  Beneath the image, a poem in praise of King Edward has been erased, and replaced by a lament, allegedly written by the king after his deposition in 1327, bemoaning his fate as ‘le roys abatu’ (the beaten-down king) who is mocked by everyone.

Miniature of Edward II enthroned, being offered the crown, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 10r

This series of portraits of English kings precedes a copy of Peter of Langtoft’s French verse chronicle, tracing the history of Britain from the early legends of Albion and Brutus up to the time of Edward II.  Langtoft was a canon at an Augustinian priory called Bridlington in Yorkshire, and this manuscript of his work was copied in the North of England.  It also contains fragments of the Lancelot-Grail romances and a letter attributed to Joanna, Queen of Sicily.

Section of Langtoft's Chronicle detailing battles of King Arthur, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 34r

Royal 20 A II was one of the manuscripts displayed in last year's Royal exhibition, and can be seen in its fully digitised version here.

- Chantry Westwell


01 June 2013

A Calendar Page for June 2013

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



Calendar page for June with a tournament scene, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 23v


A tournament scene is a fairly unsual 'labour' for the month of June, although in keeping with this manuscript's emphasis on aristocratic pursuits.  In the foreground two knights on horseback are engaged in a sword-fight, with their attendants beside them and broken lances on the ground.  Behind them two others are jousting in full armour; in the background throngs of spectators can be seen in the stands, including some multi-storied structures accessible by ladders.  The bravest (or most foolhardy) members of the audience have climbed to the roofs of nearby buildings to get the best view of the tournament. Four men in the bas-de-page are involved in another kind of tournament, riding on hobby-horses and literally tilting with windmills.  On the following folio is a more typical June scene of shepherds shearing their flock, below the saints' days for June and a lobster-like crab for Cancer.



Calendar page for June with a bas-de-page scene of sheep-shearing, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 24r

29 May 2013

Film Screening of the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander

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Last September, the Bulgarian Embassy and His Excellency Mr Konstantin Dimitrov, the Ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to the United Kingdom, hosted a private view of two Bulgarian manuscripts that are now on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. On that occasion, we were delighted to announce that the whole of the Gospels of Ivan Alexander can now be viewed on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

На тази електронна страница можете да разгледате Четириевангелието на цар Иван Александър, най-богато украсеният средновековен български ръкопис.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, British Library, MS Additional 39627, f. 3r).

Now, as part of the British Weeks in Bulgaria, the British Embassy in Sofia will host a screening of the film ‘Portrait of a Quest’ about the Gospels of Ivan Alexander. The event will be held on 5 June 2013 at the British Residence, 6pm to 8pm. Free entrance, RSVP:

The British Weeks in Bulgaria is a celebration of Bulgarian-British links that includes more than twenty events to take place in Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna. The events highlight the close links and prospects resulting from the close relationship between Bulgaria and Great Britain. For more information and a full programme, please follow this link.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, British Library, MS Additional 39627, f. 32v).

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (Additional MS 39627) is the most celebrated surviving example of Bulgarian medieval art. Written over 650 years ago, in the middle of the 14th century, the manuscript contains the Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Accompanying and fully integrated into the text, no fewer than 366 illustrations – one for each day of the year – illustrate an extensive range of events from the narrative of the four Evangelists. The scribe Simeon recounts that the book was created ‘not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration, of colours, gold, precious stones and diamonds, but primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision’. On display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery at St Pancras is a portrait of the Tsar in Paradise between Abraham and the Virgin Mary and within the overall context of a magnificent depiction of the Last Judgment. The starting point for this large illumination is Mark’s account of Jesus’s prophecy of the end of time.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, British Library, MS Additional 39627, f. 265v).

The manuscript is a remarkable survival.  Within forty years of the completion of the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, its patron was dead and his empire destroyed. Unlike many other artistic treasures of this remarkable period in Bulgarian history, the Gospels escaped destruction, finding its way north across the Danube. Here it came into the possession of the ruler of Moldavia, also called Ivan Alexander. For several centuries the history of the Gospels is unclear. By the 17th century, however, it appears to have reached the monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos. There it remained until its presentation in 1837 by the abbot of St Paul’s to the young English traveller the Hon. Robert Curzon. Brought by Curzon to England, it was later presented to the British Museum by his daughter.