Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

23 June 2016

From the Louvre's Library to the Treasures Gallery

In 1364 the French king, Charles V (b. 1338, d. 1380) set about constructing a new library in the Louvre, which had hitherto been a fortress and was now a royal palace. He chose an old falconry tower, removed the birds and created a splendid library. What was a loss for the birds and their keepers was a gain for the literary culture of France.

The opening page of the second volume of a Bible historiale, France (Paris), 1356-1357, Royal MS 17 E VII, vol. 2, f. 1r. A lion playing with some monkeys is depicted at the bottom of the page. Lions were the favourite animal of Charles V who owned more than ten of them in his menagerie. 

The construction of the library reveals the king’s strategy and shows how Charles differed from the monarchs that preceded him. He was a bibliophile king, as well as a highly political one. A well-furnished library containing splendid illuminated manuscripts could serve a wider political and cultural agenda and the construction of the library was part of a project to promote the French language and to make Paris both a seat of learning and an administrative hub. As in the case of other royal libraries, it is possible to see the luxurious manuscripts produced for him as an expression of the public persona of their owner.

Charles reigned during the period of the Hundred Years War, a time of external threat and instability. In locating his court in Paris, in the newly modernised Louvre, he intended to centralise the workings of the court to better respond to the military threat posed by the English forces. Part of that consolidation was the promotion of the French language.

To fill his library, Charles commissioned the copying of a large number of volumes as well as new translations of particular works. The library was organised on three floors. The most precious manuscripts, mainly in French, and the new translations were kept on the first floor. On the second floor, there were the prose romances, medical books, manuscripts of the Roman de la rose and other poems. Latin books, encyclopaedias, theological books and books of science and astronomy occupied the third floor. The library was open to his counsellors, prestigious visitors and members of the court. In 1380, the library contained over 900 manuscripts and 2500 texts in French.

An apostle preaching, from Royal MS 17 E VII, vol. 2, f. 217v

A beautiful bible, probably owned by Charles V, has recently gone on display in our Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The manuscript (Royal MS 17 E VII vol 1 and vol 2) is an illustrated, French version of the Bible, known as a Bible historiale. Now bound in two volumes, it was made in 1356-57, either for Charles V or for his father John the Good, king of France (1350-1364).  The Bible historiale was not the first translation of Scriptures in a vernacular language but it was one of the best-sellers of this genre. The Bible historiale was compiled by Guyart des Moulins, canon and dean of St Pierre, Aire-sur-la-Lys Artois, between 1291 and 1297 who blended his own translation of a 12th-century scholastic text, the Historia scholastica by Petrus Comestor, with a translation of the Vulgate.

The Bible historiale was popular in royal and noble collections from the second half of the fourteenth century onwards. Manuscripts of the Bible historiale, like this copy, were expensive to produce because of their size and magnificent decoration. John the Good owned a Bible historiale captured in Poitiers in 1356 (now held at the British Library as Royal MS 19 D II), while his son, Charles V, owned at least seven! 

Royal 19 D II f. 155
Detail of the death of David and the crowning of Solomon, from the Bible historiale of John the Good, France (Paris), c. 1350-1356, Royal MS 19 D II, f. 155r

Though the Bible historiale in the Treasures Gallery is not mentioned in the extant inventories of Charles V’s library, it appears highly likely that he once owned it. The quality of the decoration indicates that these volumes were intended for an aristocratic patron. The miniatures are attributed to the Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy, who worked for both John the Good and Charles V. Each biblical book opens with a large miniature, a decorative border. There are two large one-column miniatures respectively at the beginning of the first volume and second volume: the first volume begins with a preface illustrated by the Trinity and the second volume begins with the Proverbs illustrated by Solomon’s life.

The Trinity surrounded by the authors of the four Gospels: Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, from Royal 17 E VII, vol. 1
, f. 1r

After his death in 1380, Charles V’s library began to be dispersed. In 1424, John, duke of Bedford, regent of France (1389-1435) bought this library for a low price and moved it to Rouen. According to Jenny Stratford, the duke of Bedford acquired this highly symbolic library in order to create a magnificent court and especially to promote the English king’s claim on French crown. When he died in 1435, the library moved to London where it was dispersed another time. However our Bible historiale followed a different path: they were acquired by Thomas Langton, bishop of Winchester (1493-1501) who was sent to France for diplomatic missions in 1467 and 1485. The Bible historiale would become an English royal book under Charles II, three centuries later.

Royal 17 E vii vol1 f 247r David bells
David playing the bells, from Royal 17 E VII, vol. 1, f. 247r

Looking at the remaining books of Charles’ library today-- whether in person in the Treasures Gallery or online on Digitised Manuscripts-- we catch a glimpse of the king himself.  We get a sense of a political strategist and a bookish king who – according to Christine de Pizan â€“liked to read until dinner in a private study he had created, next to his library.

~Laure Miolo

 Further Reading:

On Charles V’s library, see: Léopold Delisle, Recherches sur la librairie de Charles V, 2 vols (Paris: H. Champion, 1907). François Avril, Jean Lafaurie, Marcel Thomas (eds.), La Librairie de Charles V (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 1968).

Jenny Stratford, The Bedford Inventories. The Worldly Goods of John, Duke of Bedford, Regent of France (London: Society of Antiquaries, 1993), pp. 55-97.


21 June 2016

Maps, Monsters and Marvels

In the second series of the American television programme The West Wing, the White House is lobbied by a fictitious group of cartographers to promote a new map of the world. They suggest a map which uses the Gall-Peters projection and puts South at the top of the map and North at the bottom. While the characters in the television series reject the ‘South-up’ map as too radical, it is actually quite an old idea: in fact, a map contained in a spectacular 11th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript (Cotton Tiberius B V/1), which has been uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts this week, shows that the idea of putting South-East at the top is at least a thousand years old.

Map of the world, from a scientific miscellany, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

This map—the earliest known attempt to depict the topography of the British Isles—features Britain in the bottom left corner of the world. (This can be viewed more easily using the zoom feature on Digitised Manuscripts.)

Detail of the British Isles, from Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v 

The map was copied in the mid-11th century, but some scholars suggest that it may have been based on a Roman world map.

Perseus and Medusa, from Cicero’s Aratea, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 34r

The map is contained in a scientific miscellany (Cotton Tiberius B V/1), which was probably made in the south of England in the mid-11th century. Both Canterbury and Winchester have been suggested as its place of origin.

Argo, from Cicero’s Aratea, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 40v

This volume is full of practical texts and fantastical images. Its contents include a calendar; a copy of an archbishop’s itinerary to Rome; lists of bishops, emperors, and kings; Ælfric’s De temporibus anni; a Macrobian zonal map; prayers; texts on the sun and the moon; Cicero’s Aratea; and Priscian’s Periegesis.

Lertices with asses' ears, sheep's wool and birds' feet and Blemmya, a headless man with face in his torso, from the Marvels of the East, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 82r

This volume also contains an illuminated copy of the Marvels of the East, a text which described the creatures who were said to live in the faraway lands depicted on the map.

Miniature of Mambres contemplating Hell, from Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 87v

In the 12th century, a Life of St Nicholas and some notes relating to Battle Abbey were added to the manuscript. The volume also contains a series of documents related to Ely, Cambridgeshire and Exeter that were probably added to the volume in the early modern period.  

Regulations of the thegns' guild at Cambridge, from an addition to an 8th-century Gospel-book, England (Ely), late 10th century,  Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 74r

This magnificent manuscript gives unparalleled insights into a variety of aspects of early English history, from the reception of classical texts to conceptions of topography to rare depictions of agricultural practices to imaginings of marvels and monsters.

Calendar page for June, from Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f.5v

Whether you are lobbying for a new map or are just curious about what Anglo-Saxons did in June, do have a look at Cotton Tiberius B V/1 on Digitised Manuscripts: there is a lot to discover.

~Alison Hudson

16 June 2016

Internship in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts

Thanks to external funding, the British Library is pleased to be able to offer an internship in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department for a post-graduate or post-doctoral student in History, Art History, Medieval Language or Literature or other relevant subject.

Harley 13   f. 3
Decorated initial, diagram, and bar border with a human hybrid grotesque at the beginning of an anonymous text on planetary theory, from a collection of scientific treatises, France (Paris), c. 1250-1325, Harley MS 13, f. 3r

The primary focus of the internship will be to enhance our Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue, by creating catalogue entries for medieval manuscripts from the Harley collection. In addition, the intern will be involved in all aspects of the work of the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section, including responding to enquiries, providing talks for students and patrons, selecting and presenting manuscripts for display in our exhibition gallery, and cataloguing, thereby gaining insight into various curatorial duties and aspects of collection care.  During the internship at the Library, the intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise. 

This internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the student to develop research skills and expertise in medieval history and manuscripts, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences.  Previous interns have given feedback that they felt a valued member of the team, gained professional confidence and developed their career by carrying out a ‘real’ job with specific duties.

The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts and who have a right to work in the UK full time. 

The term of internship is full time (36 hours per week over 5 days) for 9 months.  The salary is £9.40 per hour, which is the current London Living Wage. The internship will start in October 2016 or as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.

To apply, please visit

Applicants are asked to include answers to the following questions within their Supporting Statement:

  1. Please give examples of your experience in cataloguing medieval manuscripts. 
  2. Please provide examples of your experience in writing about your research for a general audience.

Closing Date: 15th July 2016

Interviews will be held on 16 August. The selection process may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.

Intern in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts

Salary is £9.40 per hour (London Living Wage)

Full Time (36 hours per week over 5 days)

Fixed Term for 9 months

St Pancras, London

Start date in October 2016

~Kathleen Doyle