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382 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

30 January 2013

A Menagerie of Miracles: The Illustrated Life of St Cuthbert

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Miniature of a monk (Bede?) kissing the feet of St Cuthbert, from the preface to Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 1v

Last year the British Library was pleased to announce the acquisition of the 7th century St Cuthbert Gospel (Additional MS 89000) following the largest public fundraising campaign in our history; see herehere and here for more.  Following the acquisition, the St Cuthbert Gospel was exhibited in our Treasures Gallery alongside another manuscript equally well known to lovers of all things Cuthbertian, Yates Thompson MS 26.

This 12th century manuscript is our latest addition to the Digitised Manuscripts website.  Yates Thompson MS 26 contains a number of texts about England's favourite hermit and bishop, most notably Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert (vita beati Cuthberti).  But it is probably most famous for its extensive programme of illumination, which documents almost every episode in St Cuthbert's holy life.  Key events depicted include the establishment of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert's ridding the wife of King Ecgfrith's prefect from the demons that beset her, the saint's much-mourned death and subsequent healings at his tomb.  These miniatures are beautifully interspersed with those of more 'mundane' miracles, like a crow bringing lard in atonement for stealing straw and Cuthbert curing a monk of diarrhoea.  Some of our other favourites are below:

 

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Miniature of St Cuthbert praying to God to change the winds beside the river Tyne; miniature of two monks at the monastery of Tynemouth praying for the safety of those blown away in a gale, from Chapter 3 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, ff. 10v-11r

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Miniature of the young St Cuthbert kneeling in prayer, interrupted by his horse finding bread and cheese wrapped in linen hidden within a roof, from Chapter 5 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 14r

 

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Miniature of (lower left) Cuthbert praying in the sea, and, after he has finished (lower right), otters coming to warm and dry his feet with their breath and fur, while (above), another monk secretly watches the miracle, from Chapter 10 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 24r

 

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Miniature of St Cuthbert in a boat at sea, with two other men, from Chapter 11 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 26r

 

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Miniature of an eagle bringing St Cuthbert and his companion a fish, which they then share with the eagle, from Chapter 12 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 28v

 

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Miniature of St Cuthbert building his hermitage on the island of Farne, with the help of an angel, from Chapter 17 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 39r

 

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Miniature of St Cuthbert miraculously discovering a roof beam for his church in the waves of the ocean, from Chapter 21 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 45v

 

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Detail of a miniature of St Cuthbert's vision of the soul of a man, who was killed by falling from a tree, being carried to heaven, from Chapter 34 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 63v

 

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Miniature of monks at St Cuthbert's hermitage signalling with torches to the monks of Lindisfarne that Cuthbert is dead, from Chapter 40 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 74v

 

The Life of Cuthbert is the first British Library manuscript from the Yates Thompson collection to be made available on Digitised Manuscripts, but we can promise you that it will not be the last.  Much more information about the extraordinary collector Henry Yates Thompson and his eponymous collection can be found in our virtual exhibition appropriately titled Henry Yates Thompson's Illuminated Manuscripts

Sarah J Biggs

Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval

28 January 2013

Celebrating an Anniversary in High Style: the Biblioteca Nacional de España and the British Library

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Miniature of 'The Spanish Dance'; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547, BNE MS Res 285, ff. 2v-3r.

2012 was a milestone year for the Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE), the National Library of Spain: throughout the year, the library celebrated the 300th anniversary of its foundation in 1712, by King Felipe V.  In this initial incarnation it was the Biblioteca Pública de Palacio, the Palace Public Library, and in 1836 was transferred from ownership by the crown to the Ministerio de la Gobernación (Ministry of Governance).  Today, it is Spain's largest library, with collections stretching to 15 million printed books and tens of thousands of manuscripts.

In honour of these 300 years of history and letters, today's featured manuscript is not from the collections of the British Library, but from those of the BNE, as we are excited to contribute here our own 'virtual exhibition' to a series of joint exhibition projects that have been taking place throughout Spain.  Works from the BNE's collections -- including manuscripts, drawings, prints, paintings, maps, photographs, and books -- are being displayed in important museums and cultural institutions across Spain. They will thus reach new publics, be seen in fresh contexts, and inspire different viewpoints, as well as establish a dialogue with works from the collections of more than thirty Spanish institutions. The intention of the BNE and of Acción Cultural Española (AC/E) is to ensure that even those who cannot visit the Library in Madrid can still participate in an event that marks 300 years of a shared cultural history, and the British Library is eager to take part, bringing this cultural exchange to cyberspace!

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Detail of a miniature of women 'in England'; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547, BNE MS Res 285, f. 34v.

The focus of today's 'exhibition' is a recently acquired mid-sixteenth-century manuscript, called a códice de trajes, or 'costume book', made in Germany by an anonymous artist.  This is an example of a type of book that – while it may seem strange to us today, in our culturally interconnected world – was quite popular in the sixteenth century.  It is a collection of pictures of clothing worn by people from different countries and different walks of life, celebrating the diversity of national costumes.  Books like these are extremely valuable to us today, allowing us to recreate the dress of people who are far removed from us, not by space, but by centuries of time.

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Miniature of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, surrounded by seven of his principal electors; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547, BNE MS Res 285, ff. 35v-36r.

In addition to pictures of people, grouped together on an empty ground as a kind of pictorial fashion-show, the manuscript also has an interest in ceremonial, depicting some of the important events of the period, along with the people who took part and, most importantly, the clothing they wore.  We can see here, therefore, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, enthroned between seven of his electors, identified by coats of arms and carrying imperial regalia.  Charles V is depicted as an older man – as he would have been at the time of the manuscript's production in 1547.  His portrait, like the depictions of costumes throughout the manuscript, is copied from other sources rather than taken from life, but the images still provide a beautiful and detailed glimpse into the colour and pomp of the sixteenth century.

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Miniature of Englishwomen, being (left to right) the wife of a citizen of London, the wife of a wealthy citizen of London, his young daughter, and 'a country-woman as they go nowadays'; from Lucas de Heere, A Description of England, Scotland, and Ireland, England, 1573-1575, Add. MS 28330, f. 33r.

One of the advantages of electronic media is the ability to bring together objects that, physically, may be very far apart.  It is wonderful, therefore, to be able to compare side-by-side the pictures from this BNE manuscript with illustrations from a book in the British Library's own collection.  A Description of England, Scotland, and Ireland, produced in Germany only a few decades later, contains beautiful coloured drawings by the painter Lucas de Heere, which clearly partake in the same tradition of descriptive portrayal of costume.  The group of Englishwomen shown above demonstrate the differences in city and country fashions, the three middle-class and wealthy Londoners on the left presenting a sharp contrast with the country-dweller on the right.  And perhaps the older among them might recognize in the Englishwomen of the BNE manuscript the fashions of their youth!

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A shared interest in the appearance and costume of the monarch: detail of a miniature of Queen Elizabeth I, from Lucas de Heere, A Description of England, Scotland, and Ireland, England, 1573-1575, Add. MS 28330, f. 4r.

We have been delighted to produce this 'virtual exhibition' with the assistance of the Biblioteca Nacional de España, who have generously contributed images from their collection to appear in this post.  Happy Birthday, BNE!


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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

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

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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