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

06 October 2015

Collaborative Doctoral Studentships at the British Library

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Last year we advertised the opportunity for an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Partnership on the theme of ‘Understanding the Anglo-Saxons: the English and Continental Manuscript Evidence’. Joanna Story, Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Leicester and Principal Investigator on ‘The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain’ project, submitted the successful proposal. When the doctoral award was advertised, Becky Lawton, who has just finished an M.Litt. at the University of St Andrews, was chosen to be the award-holder.

Bede Harley image

The beginning of Bede's verse Life of St Cuthbert, England, late 10th or early 11th century (Harley MS 1117, f. 45r)

We are delighted to welcome Becky to the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section at the British Library this week. Her research on ‘Experiencing the city of Rome in Anglo-Saxon England’ will be jointly supervised by Joanna Story and Claire Breay, Head of the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section. The award runs for three years from this October to September 2018. During this time we will be digitising many more of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and preparing for an exhibition on the Anglo-Saxons which will open in the autumn of 2018, giving Becky the opportunity to contribute to the Library’s public programmes as well as working on her thesis.


A page from Priscian's Excerptiones, England, 11th century (Add MS 32246, f. 5r)

This AHRC collaborative doctoral award is one of five starting this autumn at the British Library. The four other students will be working on: maps and the Italian grand tour; the religious music of South Asia; Ruth Rawer Jhabvala and constructions of identity in the Anglo-Indian novel; and the music of Thea Musgrave. They will be jointly supervised by British Library curators and academics based at Royal Holloway, SOAS, Exeter and Glasgow Universities respectively.

The AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships scheme has been running for three years and the Library is now advertising opportunities for new partnerships for a fourth round of awards to begin in October 2016. The Library provides the students holding a collaborative doctoral award with staff-level access to the collections, expertise and facilities of the Library, as well as financial support for research-related costs of up to £1000 a year. The student also benefits from the dedicated programme of professional development events delivered by the Library in tandem with the other museums, galleries and heritage organisations affiliated to the CDP scheme. So if you are based in a UK Higher Education Institution and would like to co-supervise an AHRC-funded doctoral student in one of the three research themes selected for next year, apply by 27 November 2015.

Claire Breay
Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts

01 October 2015

A Calendar Page for October 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Calendar page for October, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 6r 

A slightly grisly bas-de-page scene greets us this month: an ox is about to meet its end, while two men barter over the sale of another on the other side of the wall. Other peasants are carrying baskets of grapes to a shed in the distance, where we can see them being pressed to make wine. The roundels contain depictions relating to the major religious festivals of October: the feast day of Saints Bavo and Remigius, St Dionysius/Denis (shown holding his own head), St Donatian, St Luke (with a bull, his Evangelist symbol, in the background) and Saints Simon and Jude. As we noted last month, the artist has mistakenly reversed the order of September and October’s Zodiac symbols: Libra (in the form of scales) being shown here at the top of the page instead of Scorpio. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of men bartering over the sale of an ox, an ox being slaughtered, and grapes being pressed from wine,
Add MS 35313, f. 6r 

Detail of a roundel depicting St Denis,
Add MS 35313, f. 6r 

- James Freeman

29 September 2015

Erasmus Manuscript Saved for the Nation

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We are delighted to announce that the British Library has acquired a unique manuscript containing the earliest known translation into English of any work by the great humanist scholar and reformer, Desiderius Erasmus (d. 1536). This volume, which had been the subject of a temporary export bar, is also the only known manuscript of a contemporary English translation of Erasmus’s most popular work, the Enchiridion militis Christiani, or ‘Handbook of the Christian soldier’.  


A contemporary English translation of Erasmus’s Enchiridion militis Christiani, newly-acquired by the British Library (Additional MS 89149, f. 1r)

Erasmus is perhaps best known today for his satire The Praise of Folly, which he wrote to amuse Thomas More (d. 1535), and for his translation of the New Testament from Greek; but the Enchiridion was Erasmus’s first summing up of the guiding principles of his religious life, setting out his vision of a purified, Christ-centred faith based on essential points of doctrine. As a compendium of humanistic piety, it endorsed the lay vocation to holiness in the Christian life. Erasmus’s revolutionary concept, given its first and definitive expression in the Enchiridion, was his elevation of the educated laity as the potential source of new life in a Church and society fallen into decay. The Enchiridion evoked widespread interest throughout Europe and became one of the most influential devotional texts of the early 16th century. Between 1501, when Erasmus wrote the Enchiridion, and 1536 when he died, the original Latin text appeared in more than 50 printed editions. Between 1533 and 1545 there were 13 editions in English, the first being published by Wynkyn de Worde for John Bydell in London. The large number of English printed editions of the Enchiridion demonstrates the importance of its influence in pre-Reformation England.    

Dated 1523, the manuscript was written ten years before the English translation of the Enchiridion first appeared in print in 1533. Two contemporary accounts testify that the religious reformer William Tyndale (d. 1536) translated the Enchiridion into English in 1522 or 1523. To date, there has been no secure evidence that Tyndale’s translation survived but its relationship to the text of the English translation, printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1533, has long been a matter of scholarly debate. The proximity of the date of the Northumberland manuscript to Tyndale’s putative Enchiridion now tantalisingly suggests a potential identification with his ‘lost’ translation. 


Colophon: 'translated oute of latten into englisshe in the yere of our lord god mlvcxxiii [i.e. 1523]' (Additional MS 89149, f. 144v)

The manuscript has been in the Duke of Northumberland’s collection at Alnwick Castle since at least 1872 and its significance was only realised when it was put up for sale last summer. Initially sold to an overseas buyer, a temporary export bar was placed on the manuscript by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, on the grounds that it is of outstanding significance for the study of cultural movements towards the Reformation in England, the earliest known translation of Erasmus into English, and of significance for the study of scholastic links between Erasmus and Tyndale. The acquisition of the Erasmus manuscript by the British Library has been made possible thanks to the generous grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Friends of the British Library, the Friends of the National Libraries, and an anonymous donor.

The news of the British Library’s acquisition of the manuscript has been welcomed by Alec Ryrie, Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Durham: ‘This manuscript, which seems very likely to be the work of William Tyndale, is one of the most significant new archival discoveries relating to the history of the English Bible and the English Reformation to have been made during my lifetime. Long given up for lost, this brings us closer to the work of a man who was not only one of the heroes of the Reformation but also the single most influential figure in the formation of the modern English language. It's a genuine national treasure, and the British Library is to be congratulated on a stellar new acquisition.’

Dr Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library said, ‘I am thrilled that the British Library has secured this very significant manuscript for the national collection. As well as being available to researchers in the Manuscripts Reading Room at the Library, the manuscript has been digitised and is now available to everyone in full online.’

Complete, free digital coverage of the manuscript (now Add MS 89149) is available on our Digitised Manuscripts site.