Medieval manuscripts blog

418 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

22 May 2013

A Good Walk Spoiled

Add comment Comments (1)

One of the most charismatic manuscripts in the British Library's collections is the so-called "Golf Book". This Book of Hours was made at Bruges around the year 1540, and is so named because on one page (the calendar for September) it contains a depiction of a game resembling golf.

A miniature of four men playing a game resembling golf, at the bottom of the calendar page for September (London, British Library, MS Additional 24098, f. 27r).

Of course, golf is not to everyone's taste. Mark Twain is accredited with describing the game as "a good walk spoiled"; and, like many sports, it's arguably better fun to play than to watch, notwithstanding the fact that golf is to be introduced to the summer Olympics at Rio 2016. But just what is the game being played below?


At first sight, we can certainly deduce that this game does resemble golf, even down to the cloth caps that some of the competitors are wearing (see the image below). We can clearly see in our miniature three balls, with three of the competitors holding curled sticks, reminiscent of modern golf clubs. One man, wearing a green cloak, is gesticulating to his companion, and may be what we might call a "caddie"; and another is standing at the door of the adjacent building (the "nineteenth hole"). But surely the stance of the player on the right, in the orange-red jerkin, is all wrong. Modern golfers play the game on their feet, rather than on their knees, both to get a better purchase on the ball and for better balance. We think that the current-day authorities would view this player's technique very dimly. Maybe this stance would be outlawed in the same way that the anchoring of putters (don't ask) is to be banned from 2016. Less a good walk spoiled than a good crawl spoiled.

Image courtesy of

You can view the whole of the magnificent Golf Book on our Digitised Manuscripts site. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @blmedieval.

13 May 2013

Why Do We Blog?

Add comment Comments (3)

Good question. Why do we blog?

The simple answer is we blog in order to tell you, our readers, about our wonderful manuscripts. We are custodians of world-class collections of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts; but it may not be immediately obvious to you what we look after at the British Library, and we're trying to do our best to remedy that.

Detail of an historiated initial 'R'(ege) with a seated scribe labelled 'OSBEARNVS', a censing monk, animals, and animal heads: Life of St Dunstan, Canterbury, late 11th or early 12th century (London, British Library, MS Arundel 16, f. 2r).

We use this blog to promote our events and exhibitions, most recently our exhibition on Royal manuscripts. We also like to tell you about our various digitisation projects, and to draw your attention to some of our resources, most notably the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site and our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

This blog has recently undergone a facelift. Signficant changes are the new field labelled "Search this blog", in which you can discover our previous posts, and the ability to subscribe by email. And you can keep up-to-date via our Twitter feed, @blmedieval.

Donatus writing his grammar, his ink-pot held by a monk labelled 'Heinre'(?), at the end of Sedulius Scotus's Expositio super primam edicionem Donati grammatici: Germany, 2nd half of the 12th century (London, British Library, MS Arundel 43, f. 80v).

Are we doing a good job? We hope so -- after all, we have received well-nigh half a million page-views in the last year-and-a-bit -- but please feel free to comment at the end of each post, and using Twitter. Most importantly, we want to encourage your research in and enthusiam for our marvellous medieval manuscripts.

Julian Harrison & Sarah J Biggs

08 May 2013

The Elephant at the Tower

Add comment Comments (1)

The art of giving diplomatic gifts is an age-old tradition, practised by kings and queens, popes and emperors, presidents and prime ministers. But what to give?


The elephant at the Tower of London (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D I. f. 169v).

That very question must have dawned on King Louis IX of France (reigned 1226-1270), when he was seeking a gift for Henry III of England (reigned 1216-1272) in 1255. How to impress the English king, and in the process give him something that he did not already have? The exchange was recorded by Matthew Paris, the chronicler of St Albans: "About this time, an elephant was sent to England by the French king as a present to the king of the English. We believe that this was the only elephant ever seen in England, or even in the countries this side of the Alps; thus people flocked together to see the novel sight."

Paris wrote a short tract on the elephant, found in the Chronica maiora (Cambridge, Corpus Christi, MS 16). He had evidently seen the elephant for himself, and described its principal features, based on observation and deduction. The elephant was 10 years old (how to tell?), 10 feet high, grey-ish black with a tough hide, and used its trunk to obtain food and drink. It lived in a specially-constructed house at the Tower of London, 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, and its keeper was named Henry de Flor.

The image above is one of two of Henry III's elephant drawn by Matthew Paris, and is found in his Liber Additamentorum or Book of Additional Things (British Library MS Cotton Nero D I). Suzanne Lewis, author of The Art of Matthew Paris, suggests that this is Matthew's first attempt to draw the elephant, in part since it includes a second rendering of the trunk in a different position. As Lewis observes, the elephant is here "drawn horizonatally on the page in heavy brown line and tinted with similar dark grey and ochre washes ... the details of the skin folds on the trunk and rear flanks, as well as the flap covering the upper part of the tusk, are more freshly observed and convincing that those in MS 16." The assumption would seem to be that the elephant in the Liber Additamentorum was drawn from life, with the illustration in the Chronica maiora being based on the earlier drawing, perhaps with other sketches which have not survived.

Lewis also points out that both drawings of the elephant show that it had knee joints, contrary to the widespread medieval belief that the elephants' knees were joint-less! You can read more about this phenomenon in our post Elephants on Parade.

For more about Matthew Paris and Henry III's elephant, see Suzanne Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica Majora (Aldershot: Scolar, 1987), pp. 212-16. There is a great blogpost by our friends at Corpus Christi College, Matthew Paris and the Elephant at the Tower, and you can access images from the famous Parker library here (subscription only).

03 May 2013

Marginali-yeah! The Fantastical Creatures of the Rutland Psalter

Add comment Comments (4)

Add_ms_62925_f083vMiniature of Jacob's Ladder, before Psalm 80, with a bas-de-page scene of cannibal hybrids, from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 83v


'Such a book! my eyes! and I am beating my brains to see if I can find any thread of an intrigue to begin upon, so as to creep and crawl towards possession of it.'

           -  William Morris

Thus spoke William Morris, we are told, when he first laid eyes on the Rutland Psalter in 1896.  Morris was said to be so enamoured of the Psalter that when he was suffering his final illness a friend brought it to his bed-side in order to lift his spirits. We are very pleased that it is no longer necessary to go to such extremes to see this spectacular manuscript; a fully digitized version can be found online here.

The Rutland Psalter (Add MS 62925) is a relatively recent addition to our collections; the manuscript was purchased by the British Library in 1983 from the estate of the ninth Duke of Rutland, whose family had owned the manuscript since at least 1825.  The Psalter was produced c. 1260 in England, possibly in London, although it is unclear who the original patron was.  In the centuries after it was produced, the manuscript passed through quite a few hands before ending up with the Dukes of Rutland.  Many of these people seem to have shared Morris's desire to possess the Psalter, even if only virtually; a vast gallery of signatures and inscriptions can be found on the manuscript's calendar pages and flyleaves (see, for example, f. i, ii and v).


Add_ms_62925_f008vFull-page historiated initial 'B'(eatus) at the beginning of Psalm 1, of King David harping, and the Judgement of Solomon, amidst men in combat astride lions and dragons, with roundels containing scenes from Creation and men in combat, with a curtain above, from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 8v


It is not hard to see why the Rutland Psalter was an object of such fascination.  It contains a number of spectacular full- and partial-page miniatures (see above), as well as other historiated and illuminated initials.  But the Psalter's true claim to fame is its marginalia. A staggering variety of creatures populate the margins and borders of virtually every folio; amongst the men and women, animals, hybrids, dragons, and vignettes of daily life are scenes influenced by the traditions of the bestiary and the Marvels of the East, and some from sources that still have yet to be traced.  A few of our favourites are below; be sure to check out the entire manuscript here.


Add_ms_62925_f049v_detailBas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid and a goat musician, f. 49v

Add_ms_62925_f051r_detailBas-de-page scene of a man hitting a bear (?) that is eating a human head, f. 51r

Add_ms_62925_f054r_detailBas-de-page scene of a rabbit musician, f. 54r

Add_ms_62925_f056v_detailBas-de-page scene of a hybrid musician and a semi-nude man dancing, f. 56v

Add_ms_62925_f057r_detailBas-de-page scene of a blemmya with a crossbow, f. 57r

Add_ms_62925_f058v_detailBas-de-page scene of a female centaur suckling her child, f. 58v

Add_ms_62925_f061r_detailBas-de-page scene of mice hanging a cat, f. 61r

Add_ms_62925_f070v_detailBas-de-page scene of a men 'pick-a-back' wrestling, f. 70v

Add_ms_62925_f072r_detailBas-de-page scene of a conjoined man fighting a dragon, f. 72r

Add_ms_62925_f072v_detailBas-de-page scene of a man butting his foot against a ram, f. 72v

Add_ms_62925_f083r_detailBas-de-page scene of a nude man with a stick riding on a many-legged dragon, f. 83r

Add_ms_62925_f086r_detailBas-de-page scene of a man with an axe and a scold on a ducking stool, f. 86r

Add_ms_62925_f088v_detailBas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid with a panotii (a monstrous race of men with enormous ears), f. 88v

01 May 2013

A Calendar Page for May 2013

Add comment Comments (2)

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



Calendar page for May with a boating scene, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 22v


The full-page miniature for May continues the theme of aristocratic courting, which may well be among the most pleasant of the 'labours' depicted in medieval calendars.  In this scene, two boatmen are rowing a nobleman and two well-dressed ladies along a river; the three are playing musical instruments and are surrounded by flowering branches.  On the bridge above them another aristocratic couple are riding on horseback, carrying branches and followed by their retainers. In the bas-de-page scene a group of men are practicing archery by shooting at a raised target (a popinjay?).  On the following folio two couples are riding on horseback through a lush landscape, below the saints' days for May and a roundel with a nude man and woman for the zodiac sign Gemini.



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

30 April 2013

How the Camel Got the Hump

Add comment Comments (2)

Some of you may be familiar with the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling (1902), which include "How the Leopard Got His Spots", "How the Elephant Got His Trunk", and "How the Camel Got His Hump". We like to think that Kipling, a man of letters, might have been able to draw inspiration from the British Library's collections when concocting these tales, not least when it came to his famous story of the camel.

Two camels in the Marvels of the East (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 101v).

Have you ever asked yourself what a camel looked like in medieval times? Marvellously, we have some idea, thanks to drawings found in three of the greatest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, all at the British Library: the Beowulf-manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A XV); the Old English Hexateuch (Cotton Claudius B IV); and an illustrated miscellany from 11th-century Canterbury (Cotton Tiberius B V).

Ants and camels in the Marvels of the East (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 101v).

In the text known as the Marvels of the East is a passage describing ants the size of dogs, which live beyond the river Gorgoneus, and dig up gold from the earth. Men seeking gold are described crossing the river with their camels, leaving the young tied on their own side; the she-camels are laden with gold and return to their young, but the male camels are left behind, for the ants to devour, enabling the thieves to escape. In the Beowulf-manuscript, this scene is depicted by a large miniature (sadly damaged by fire), in which three dog-like ants attack a tethered camel on the right, while a man holds another camel bearing a saddle, and a young camel (or brontosaurus, take your pick) is tied to a tree at the bottom. In the copy of the same scene in the illustrated miscellany, a camel is attacked by ants while a man crosses the river to safety on the back of a she-camel.

The dog-sized ants and the camels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B V, part 1, f. 80v).

If this wasn't enough to give the male camel the hump, what else was? Well, in the Beowulf-manuscript, the next scene, describing a place where many elephants are born, is illustrated with two slightly grumpy-looking camels (shown at the beginning of this post). Presumably the camels are saying to each other, "Doesn't the artist know what an elephant looks like?" The illustrated miscellany represents the same passage (in Latin, "in his locis nascitur multitudo magna elephantorum") with a pig-like elephant standing on an island.

The elephant in an Anglo-Saxon illustrated miscellany (London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B V, part 1, f. 81r).

Of course, it's highly likely that few Anglo-Saxons had ever seen a camel in real life, and so we should not be surprised that their pictures of them are quirky, to say the least. But is this a world-first, a chorus line of dancing camels? Riverdance, anyone?

A line of camels in the Old English Hexateuch: part of Genesis, chapter 24 (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 39r).

You can read more about the manuscripts of the Marvels of the East in the facsimile of the same name by Montague Rhodes James (Oxford: The Roxburghe Club, 1929). For the Hexateuch, see Benjamin C. Withers, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: The Frontiers of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England (London: The British Library, 2007). And don't forget to look at our Digitised Manuscripts site, to see both the Beowulf-manuscript and the Hexateuch in their entirety.

25 April 2013

Popular History for an English Audience: The English Prose Brut Chronicle

Add comment Comments (1)

Harley MS 2256 f. 1 c13099-12

Decorated initial at the beginning of the English Prose Brut Chronicle: 'I n the nobul lande of Surre (Syria) ther was a worthi Kyng…', from The Prose Brut Chronicle of England (common version to 1430), England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2256, f. 1r


In our recent post on the French Prose Brut, we promised a follow-up on the manuscripts of the English version.  There are 38 in the British Library, out of a total of 181 surviving manuscripts listed by the Middle English scholar, Lister M. Matheson of the University of Michigan.  A digital version of Matheson’s comprehensive study, The Prose ‘Brut’, The Development of a Middle English Chronicle is available online on the OpenLibrary website here.

It is not surprising that so many manuscripts survive, as the Brut chronicle was one of the most popular accounts of English history among the lay audience in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period. From the fifteenth century, it has been used as the standard account of English history and was the first chronicle of England to be printed by William Caxton (the Chronicles of England, 1480). In addition to the manuscript copies, there were 13 early printed editions.


Harley MS 24 f. 1 c13158-11

Decorated initial and border at the beginning of the Brut, with the title 'Here begynnyth the kalendare of Brute in Englysshe tunge', and the introduction: 'Here begynnyth a Booke in Englyssh tung that is called Brute of England which Declarith and tretith of the furste beginning of the lande of Englande. How hit was furst wildernesse and noo thing ther in but wormes and wylde bestes and a cuntre desolate. And afterward how hit was inhabite and by whom and in what manere.' From The Prose Brut (Chronicle of England), England, 2nd or 2rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 24, f. 1r


The original Middle English version of the chronicle is based on the Anglo Norman French text, (see French Prose Brut Chronicles in the British Library and How to Find Them) and is believed to have been produced between 1380 and 1400.  Harley MS 3945 contains the earliest version to 1333, known as the common text.  It is a 15th century manuscript and is described in the British Library Search our Catalogue: Archives and Manuscripts.

The Common Text begins with the mythical origins of the English and ending with the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, where the Scots were defeated by the army of Edward III.


Harley MS 1568 f. 1 c12040-09

Historiated initial of Diocletian and his daughters, with the chronicle beginning: 'In the noble land of Syrie th[er] was a noble kyng and mighty and a man of grett reno[u]n that men called Dioclitian'.  The story continues with the 33 daughters of Diocletian, the eldest named Albyne (Albina), who murdered their husbands and were set adrift at sea before they landed on an island, which they named Albion. From the Prose Brut Chronicle of England, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 1568, f. 1


The chronicle was amended and updated during the 14th and 15th centuries, with the first continuation taking it up to the death of Edward III in 1377, an addition associated with the chroniclers of Westminster. One of the British Library manuscripts containing this text to 1377 is Stowe MS 68, which is described with images in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts here.


Stowe MS 68 f. 1 c11340-08

A champ initial and decorative border marking the familiar opening chapter of the chronicle, from The Brut Chronicle, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Stowe MS 68, f. 1


The chronicle to 1377 was then updated in some versions to 1419, taking events from the death of Edward III to the siege of Rouen, with the majority ending, 'and manfully countered with our English men'. One of the manuscripts of this version is Harley MS 1568, which contains the picture of Diocletian and his daughters above.  The catalogue entry can be viewed here

The continuation to 1419 is found in Harley MS 7333, which is believed to have been copied in the mid-15th century by the amateur scribe John Shirley of Leicester, and which also contains Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, part of Gower’s Confessio Amantis and Lydgate's Life of Saints Edmund and Fremund.


Harley MS 7333 f. 37 E120812

A passage from The Canterbury Tales, which follows the Brut Chronicle, England (Leicester), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 7333, f. 37r


The final extension is to 1461, the accession of Edward IV, found in British Library Additional MS 10099, a paper manuscript of the late 15th century, under the title 'A breve tretise compiled for to bringe the people oute of doute, that han not herd of the Cronycles and of the lineal descensse unto the crownes of Englande, of Fraunce, of Castel Legiouns, and unto the Duchie of Normandie, sith it was first conquest and made'. It also contains Higden's Polychronicon and a text entitled Doctrina Sana (Rules for healthy living). See the catalogue entry online here.

The relationships of the texts and continuations are extremely complicated, and Matheson classified them into  four groups, the Common text, the Extended Version, the Abbreviated version and a looser grouping which he called the Peculiar Version, which includes a translation from the French Brut by John Mandeville (British Library MS Harley 4690 contains this translation).  Records show that they were owned by religious houses, aristocratic families, and merchants, from London to Yorkshire to Wales. 

In the second half of the fifteenth century, the chronicles were spread to an even wider audience as they were used by Jean de Wavrin as the basis of his Recueil des Croniques d’Engleterre  which he composed for the Burgundian court, allies of the English.



Miniature of the Siege of Troyes, 1419, from Wavrin's Croniques, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470 - c. 1480, Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 57r


23 April 2013

Happy St George's Day

Add comment Comments (1)

Happy St George's Day, everyone! Here are some images from the British Library's collections, to celebrate the feast day of the patron saint of England, Portugal, Georgia, Russia and Palestine, among others. You can find many more images of St George on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Miniature of George fighting the dragon, with a full border with George passing the king's daughter, at the beginning of a prayer to George, in a Book of Hours: Bruges, c. 1500 (London, British Library, MS Egerton 1147, f. 259r).

Detail of a miniature of George fighting the dragon, in a Book of Hours: France, c. 1430-1440 (London, British Library, MS Harley 2900, f. 55r).

Miniature of George and full scatter border, in a Book of Hours: Bruges, c. 1500 (London, British Library, MS King's 9, f. 41r).

Detail of a miniature of George killing the dragon, with the princess kneeling, in the Legenda Aurea: Paris, 1382 (London, British Library, MS Royal 19 B XVII, f. 109r).