THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

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

05 March 2015

Collaboration and Customisation: The Evolution of a Royal Book

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As we draw to the end of Paris fashion week, let us turn to a manuscript that exudes the best of Parisian style. The haute couture of book illumination, this glorious Book of Hours showcases the work of the French capital’s most in-demand fifteenth-century illuminators. 

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Miniature of the Visitation by the Egerton Master, from ‘The Hours of René of Anjou’, France (Paris), 15th century, Egerton MS 1070, f. 29v

It is the eponymous manuscript of the Egerton Master, whose mastery is elsewhere illustrated in the stunning two-volume Bible historiale that starred in our exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. The Egerton Master collaborated on several occasions with other fashion­able painters of the day. These included the Mazarine Master, who helped to complete the miniatures and decoration towards the end of this lavish manuscript, along with two lesser-known Parisian artists.

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Detail of a miniature of The Last Supper by the Mazarine Master, Egerton MS 1070, f. 113r

One of the more unusual characteristics of Egerton MS 1070 is the unique border decoration. Angels carry freshly unearthed branches of acanthus, roots intact, which extend up the vertical margins.

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Miniatures of Saint Denis and his companions, and Saint George, with border decoration of angels carrying branches of acanthus by the Egerton Master, Egerton MS 1070, f. 90v

A book fit for a king? Well, it was actually owned by several…

Following the original commission, this exceptional Book of Hours passed into the hands of a number of monarchs, including Henry VII, before entering the British Library’s collection (via a short residency at a Jesuit College in Krakow). Today the manuscript is identified by the name of one of its fifteenth-century owners, René of Anjou. ‘Le bon roi René’ (‘good king René’) was an influential European leader, patron of the arts and occasional author, whose many titles included duke of Anjou, duke of Lorraine and Bar, and count of Provence, as well as king of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem.

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Full-page miniature of René’s coat of arms, Egerton MS 1070, f. 4v

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Full-page miniature of Jerusalem with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, Egerton MS 1070, f. 5r

When the book came into René’s possession, it was carefully customised to suit its new owner and assert his status. This is evident from the beginning of the book: two full-page miniatures depict firstly René’s coat of arms and, on the facing page, Jerusalem, the capital of his kingdom in the Holy Land. Painted by Netherlandish artist Barthélemy d'Eyck, they reflect the early stages of the close relationship between this artist and his patron.

Texts were also added to personalise the manuscript for René’s own private devotion, such as the prayer below which incorporates his name.  

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Detail of added prayer including René’s name [Renatum], Egerton MS 1070, f. 43v

The additions also permeate into the borders: many of the angels find the burden of their flight eased by billowing sails, which carry René’s motto 'En Dieu en soit' (‘in accordance with God’s will’). As well as furthering his devotional appropriation of the book, they function as a graffiti artist’s tag, stamping René’s ownership in his own distinctive manner.

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Detail of border decoration including the addition of René’s motto
'En Dieu en soit', Egerton MS 1070, f. 16r

Why not delve deeper into this fascinating codex by exploring it in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

- Hannah Morcos

03 March 2015

Canterbury Cathedral and Magna Carta

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The countdown continues until the opening of our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Today we're delighted to announce that the show will feature a number of stunning loans from Canterbury Cathedral, which will illuminate the story of how and why Magna Carta was first granted in 1215. As ever, we're indebted to the generosity of our friends at Canterbury for so kindly agreeing to lend these items to our exhibition at the British Library.

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The mitre of Archbishop Walter (courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral)

The Canterbury objects on display in London comprise the vestments and crozier of Hubert Walter (Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England under King John), a 13th-century seal press (remember, Magna Carta was sealed, not signed) and a letter excommunicating the rebel barons. The vestments are outstanding examples of Opus Anglicanum (medieval English embroidery), and were found in Hubert Walter's tomb when it was opened at Canterbury Cathedral in 1890. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy will feature the archbishop's mitre, slippers, buskins (boots) and stole, as well as his crozier, made of beechwood and featuring settings for four jewels.

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The buskins of Archbishop Hubert Walter (courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral)

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The stole of Archbishop Hubert Walter (courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral)

The seal press was made for the monks of Canterbury Cathedral around the year 1232. A similar press would have been used to create the impression on both sides of the Great Seal of England and to attach it to Magna Carta. It would have applied pressure to two metal matrices engraved with the design on the seal, two discs of beeswax, and the plaited silk cords which joined the seal to the document.

The letter is dated 5 September 1215, and it commands Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, to excommunicate the rebel barons, on the grounds that they had violated the terms of Magna Carta. Nine barons are singled out for condemnation, together with six clerics, including Giles, Bishop of Hereford. This signalled the start of a new rebellion, which continued up to and beyond the death of King John in 1215.

We are very excited to have these magnificent objects in our exhibition, and are extremely grateful to Canterbury Cathedral for so kindly agreeing to lend them to us. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy opens to the public on Friday, 13 March, and closes on 1 September 2015. Book your ticket now, they're selling fast!

Julian Harrison (@julianpharrison)

01 March 2015

A Calendar Page for March 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

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Calendar page for March, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, architectural column and suspended roundel, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 2v 

In this month’s border decoration, a roundel for the Feast of the Annunciation is suspended from a perpendicular gothic column. This elaborate architectural design itself encloses a scene showing the Mass of St Gregory, who died on 12th March 604. According to Paul the Deacon’s 8th-century biography of Gregory, the Man of Sorrows appeared as Gregory celebrated mass as Pope, in response to his prayers to convince someone of the doctrine of transubstantiation – that is, Christ’s physical presence in the consecrated host. 

At the top of the page, there is the Zodiac sign for March: Aries the Ram. At the bottom, there is another scene of agricultural industriousness. Three peasants labour in a fenced-off garden: the men digging and planting fruit trees, the woman pulling up weeds. They are overseen by a gentlewoman, who is holding a small lapdog in her arms, and her female attendant. A large and imposing building, presumably the woman’s residence, stands in the background. 

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants labouring in a garden,
Add MS 35313, f. 2v 

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Detail of an architectural column enclosing the scene of the Mass of St Gregory,
Add MS 35313, f. 2v 

- James Freeman