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
Before British Library manuscripts reach your computer screens through the Digitised Manuscripts site, they are subjected to conservation assessments. These cover such matters as the angle at which the manuscript may be opened safely, the condition of the binding and the leaves, and any repairs that are required. The assessment for Add MS 82957 – the Phillipps Lectionary – was particularly detailed. The content and decoration of this manuscript, and the damage it sustained during its nine-hundred-and-fifty-odd-year life, have been covered in earlier blog posts. This latest instalment concerns the most recent chapter in its history: the repairs that were conducted to make it fit to be handled and photographed, and the digitisation process itself.
Details of the joints between the front (L) and rear (R) binding and the spine, showing small splits, from the Phillipps Lectionary, Add MS 82957
The first conservation task was to do minor repairs to the binding, as the joints were starting to split. A delicate balance had to be struck between doing as little as possible to an unusual binding, and making it strong enough to cope with the repeated opening and closing that the rest of the conservation process would involve.
Detail of repairs to rodent damage along the fore-edge of the manuscript, Add MS 82957, f. 65r
The objective was then to make the leaves safe enough to be handled for digitisation. The edges of the leaves had been weakened by mould and shredded by rodents – a grim combination! To repair these, fine Japanese tissues were used. They were pre-coated with a 2% isinglass solution and then reactivated with the same solution, in order to minimise the addition of moisture to the parchment. A benefit of isinglass is that it has immediate tack. With heavily cockled parchment, as here, this is very useful, as it means that the parchment does not have to be flattened first before repairs are made. Fleeces, which can conform to such uneven surfaces better than blotting paper, were used to dry the repairs.
Detail of repairs made to rodent damage and a tear, Add MS 82957, f. 12v
In very weak areas, tissues were pre-coated with Klucel G: a consolidant that can be reactivated with ethanol. This avoids any moisture at all being added to the parchment – but it must be used with great care, because ethanol can also damage the structure of the parchment.
Some areas were dry cleaned before repairs were placed, so long as it could be done safely, but the manuscript was not especially dirty overall. Detached fragments were reattached where their original location could be determined; a small number of other loose fragments are now stored separately with the manuscript.
A detached portion of a partial leaf, now reattached in its original position, Add MS 82957, f. 229r
Two leaves that had been cut in half and left loose were rejoined in their original positions.
The silk bookmark attached to the binding was also in two pieces, and was joined together using silk crepeline.
Full shot of the manuscript in a V-shaped cradle, with two people using fingers to hold the leaf in place
Once the manuscript had been conserved, it was possible for it to undergo digitisation. To protect against any further damage, our conservator and a member of the manuscripts team accompanied the manuscript throughout. A condition of digitisation was that a V-shaped cradle be used, in order best to support the manuscript. The photographer used an angled camera to shoot the manuscript. Two assistants were ‘on hand’ (literally!) to keep the leaves in place (a future blog post will look at the plastic ‘fingers’ that are being used). The photography took a full day to complete, with further image processing and quality checking taking some additional hours on top of that.
The fragility of the Phillipps Lectionary means that, for the sake of its conservation, access to the manuscript must be restricted. Digitisation – undertaken with proper preparation and the assistance of skilled conservators and photographers – means that it is still possible for researchers to consult the object in the digital realm, and arguably enjoy a closer look through high resolution images than would ever be possible with the naked eye. In cases such as this, where the book’s covers must remain closed, digitisation is opening them up again to the world, for all to see.
A new recording of a magnificent choirbook produced for King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, one of the great treasures in the British Library’s music collections, reached number 2 in the Classical Charts in the first week of its release in October 2014.
Detail of a historiated initial with the Tudor rose and pomegranate, from the Choirbook of Petrus Alamire, Southern Netherlands, c. 1516, Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 3r
Containing mostly motets for four voices by Josquin des Prez, Pierre de la Rue and other leading Continental composers, this volume is representative of the finest French and Franco-Flemish repertory of the time. To celebrate the first complete recording of all 34 pieces, full coverage of this beautifully illuminated volume is now freely available on Digitised Manuscripts.
Cantus and tenor parts of the motet ‘Celeste beneficium’ by Jean Mouton, Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v
The rich sounds of early sixteenth-century polyphony, as notated in Royal MS 8 G VII, have been recreated by the choir Alamire and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, under the directorship of Dr David Skinner. Here is a sound-clip of the opening piece:
Released as ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’, the CD’s title refers to the colourful history of its famous scribe, Petrus Alamire (d. 1536), from whom Skinner’s ensemble borrows its name. In addition to making several similar choirbooks for other European courts, Petrus Alamire was a composer, mining engineer, and diplomat. He acted as a spy for Henry VIII, informing him of the movements of Richard de la Pole, the exiled pretender to the English crown. Surviving letters to the King and to Richard de la Pole suggest that Alamire was simultaneously engaged in counter-espionage. Perhaps gifting this manuscript to Henry was one way for Alamire to smooth over his double-dealing.
Alto and bass parts of the motet ‘Celeste beneficium’ by Jean Mouton, Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 3r
Naturalistic foliage, birds and insects, common to the south Netherlandish style of illumination, are combined with Tudor symbols such as the dragon and greyhound ‘supporters’ of the royal arms (f. 2v), and heraldic badges including the portcullis, the double rose, and the pomegranate (f. 3r). The exact circumstances of its presentation to Henry and Catherine are unknown, and it has been suggested that the manuscript may originally have been intended for Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany. ‘Celeste beneficium’, for example, was composed for the French couple, and its text calls upon St Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, to help bring forth children.
Detail of ‘HK’ in the place of stamens in the marginal flora and fauna, Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v
It is not difficult, however, to imagine the relevance of this text to Henry and Catherine’s pressing need for a male heir. The following two motets (‘Adiutorium nostrum’ and ‘Nesciens mater virgo virum’) continue this theme, and the fusion of Catherine’s emblem, the pomegranate, with the Tudor double rose, is another probable reference to the desire for progeny (see opening image above). Further evidence to support the idea that this manuscript was designed with Henry in mind appears in a tiny detail amidst the flora and fauna of the marginal decoration: the ‘HK’ which serves to substitute the stamens surely refers to ‘Henricus’ and ‘Katharina’. If the intended patrons did change, this must have occurred extremely early in the manuscript’s production.
Whatever the case, there is little doubt that this book would have greatly appealed to the King. Henry received a thorough musical education: he played several instruments, sang from sight and composed and arranged music. Indeed, it was Henry’s desire to bring the finest musicians in Europe to play and sing at his court which brought Petrus Alamire into close contact.
Now, perhaps for the first time since Henry’s post-dinner entertainment, we can appreciate the full aural and visual magnificence of this unique volume. See here for further details about the CD, and experience Royal MS 8 G VII in its entirety on Digitised Manuscripts.