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
As I am preparing to head off for a year’s maternity leave, I thought I would take the opportunity to thank you all for the wonderful opportunity it has been to work on this blog. It has been a great pleasure to be able to share so many of the glories of the British Library over the past 3 or so years, and very gratifying to have such fabulous responses to our work.
Detail of Nature at a furnace, forging a baby, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 140r
Detail of a marginal painting of a monkey with a swaddled infant, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 189v
Of course my leave-taking isn’t a permanent one; I’ll be returning to the British Library – and to the Medieval Manuscripts blog – in September of 2015. There will still be a number of posts coming up that I’ve written, and I’m leaving you in the very capable hands of Julian Harrison, Cillian O’Hogan, James Freeman, and the rest of the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts team. Until we meet again!
Even the most cursory glance over the pages of medieval manuscripts will reveal a plethora of insects. Bugs are everywhere – although we hasten to add that we are extremely vigilant about avoiding the presence of any actual living insects within the pages of our books. But there has been little comprehensive scholarship about the appearance of such creatures in medieval manuscripts. Insects usually live literally in the margins, often not even appearing in catalogue entries despite their profusion.
Detail of a border including flowers, moths, and flies, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 64v
Whilst undertaking this very short exploration of the subject, therefore, we would do well to remember the words of one of the earliest writers about these minute creatures. As Pliny the Elder reminds us in the introduction to his book about insects: ‘Nature is nowhere to be seen in greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works. For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.’
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with marginal spiders and a praying mantis, Italy (Genoa), c. 1330 – c. 1340, Additional MS 28841, f. 6r
We’ll begin, as we almost always do, with the bestiary, that essential book of medieval beasts. The early medieval bestiary includes amongst its pages only two species of what we would consider insects today – ants and bees.
Detail of a miniature of ants in their anthill, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 32r
The humble ant is given quite extensive treatment in the bestiary. Echoing Isidore of Seville’s somewhat fanciful etymology, the text tells us that the ant is called ‘formica’ because it carries pieces of grain (‘ferat micas’). It goes on to describe much recognisable ant behaviour, detailing how ants walk in lines to gather food, store it for the winter, carry loads far in excess of their own size, and work together for the good of the group.
Detail of a miniature of ants on their anthill, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 50r
A parallel tradition to that of the bestiary is the Physiologus, one of the precursors to the Marvels of the East. In the Physiologus, a subspecies of ant, as large as dogs, is said to live in Ethiopia and to be adept at digging up gold. Such skill can be exploited by human beings, but only very carefully, as these ants will try to chase down and kill anyone who attempts to steal from them.
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a camel, while a man loads another camel with gold and escapes, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101r
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a group of men who have come to steal their gold, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 96r
The concept of insects as a distinct class of animals was one that didn’t exist in this period. Bees, for example, are characterised as the ‘smallest of birds’, and accordingly, often come at the end of the bestiary's section on winged animals. They are described as industrious creatures, living in community under a chosen king. Born in the decaying bodies of oxen or slaughtered calves, it is said, bees build their homes with ‘indescribable skill’, make honey, and then guard it fiercely against all potential invaders. Much like ants, bees were praised over the centuries by various authors who considered them humble and loyal animals, ‘wonderfully noble', and worthy of emulation by human beings.
Detail of a miniature of bees guarding their hives against a marauding bear, from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), Italy (Padua?), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3448, f. 10v
Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar and returning to their hive, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 45v
That said, bees could sometimes be used as weapons. A mid-13th century copy of William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer contains a miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch who was bound to a tower and smeared with honey in a gruesome attempt to end his life.
Miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch being attacked by bees, from William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer, France (Picardy?), 1232-1261, Yates Thompson MS 12, f. 120r
It is not clear why the early bestiaries omitted so many of the species of insects that people must surely have been familiar with – in many cases, perhaps, far too familiar. Flies, spiders, moths, and butterflies do not put in appearances in texts until later. The British Library is lucky enough, however, to possess a mid-16th century Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate which includes a cicada (f. 13r), a locust-like insect (f. 19r), and three species of spider – two of which are poisonous (and one of which is apparently six-legged).
Detail of a painting of three spiders, including a malmignatte, from a Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate, 2nd – 3rd quarter of the 16th century, Burney MS 97, f. 29r
Six-legged spiders are not unusual to find in medieval art, and neither are their ten-legged cousins, as the examples below will show:
Detail of a six-legged spider in its web, from an herbal, Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 6r
Detail of a marginal ten-legged spider, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographic Hiberniae, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 – 1223, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 11r
Most insects in medieval art, however, were not designed to illustrate any accompanying text, or at least, not literally. This is particularly the case for manuscripts from the later medieval era. The vast majority of insect examples we have found are decorative ones, taking their place amongst the flowers, fruit, and jewels that adorn these pages. Some are occasionally used for humorous purposes, or may have been intended to underscore the message of the text. An extremely small selection of these sorts of images is below; if we have omitted any gems, please do let us know in the comments or on Twitter: @BLMedieval. Happy bug hunting!
Detail of a marginal painting of flies surrounding a dog, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 48r
Detail of a marginal dragonfly and dragon, from the Lovell Lectionary, England (probably Glastonbury), c. 1400 – c. 1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 13r
Selection of cuttings of border illuminations, featuring flowers, birds, moths, butterflies, and other insects, Italy (Rome), c. 1572 – c. 1585, Additional MS 35254, f. N
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with a caterpillar and a spider catching a fly, Additional MS 28841, f. 7v
Detail of a grasshopper, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Additional MS 18851, f. 30r
The latest in our running series of saint-day blog posts concerns St Bartholomew (see here for our posts on St Lawrence, St Benedict, St Margaret, St Patrick, St Apollonia – and the almanac that set the ball rolling in February). The means of St Bartholomew’s martyrdom, you’ll be pleased to know, is up to our usual visceral and horrific standard – but first let’s take a quick look at the life of this apostle and saint.
Detail of an historiated initial depicting St Bartholomew holding a knife, with grotesques in the initial body and margin, from the Bohun Psalter, ?London, 2nd half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 162v
Bartholomew is mentioned as of Jesus’s twelve apostles in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (but not John). Little is known about his early life. According to Eusebius of Caesarea’s Historia ecclesiastica, written in the early 4th century, Bartholomew undertook missionary work in ‘India’ (a term that in the medieval period referred to a large and variously defined territory in the east), where he reputedly left behind a copy of St Matthew’s Gospel.
Detail of a column miniature of St Bartholomew holding a book, from the Hours of René d’Anjou, Paris, c. 1410, Egerton MS 1070, f. 99v
Other traditions have him travelling to various countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Ethiopia, Mesopotamia and Parthia. He is of particular importance in the Armenian Church, which holds him and St Jude Thaddeus as patron saints for having brought Christianity to the region in the 1st century. Depictions of him holding a book most probably refer to his work in spreading the Gospel.
Detail of an historiated initial of St Bartholomew holding a knife and a book, from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino, Italy (Ferrara or Rome), 1509x1538, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 68r
Most images of St Bartholomew, however, concentrate on how he died rather than how he lived. He was martyred in the city of Albanopolis, which archaeologists have located at Zgërdhesh in modern-day Albania. By most accounts, St Bartholomew was flayed alive – his skin torn from his body – and so he is commonly depicted with one or other of the instruments of his torture, most commonly a long, curved knife, but sometimes a whip (he is also supposed to have been crucified upside-down, a method more usually associated with St Peter).
Detail of an historiated initial of St Bartholomew being flayed alive, from Wauchier de Denain, ‘Lives of the Saints’, Paris, 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 20 D VI, f. 42r
Other manuscripts illustrate the gruesome act taking place, with St Bartholomew usually shown being restrained on a bench while his torturers slice away at his skin.
Cutting of a miniature of St Bartholomew being flayed alive, from a collectar, Rome, 3rd quarter of the 16th century, Add MS 46365B
Medieval illuminators did not shy away from the blood and gore. This miniature was taken from a 15th-century Italian collectar, a book containing prayers for the canonical hours of the divine office, the cycle of services conducted by monks and priests throughout the day. The way it dwells upon the visceral and drawn-out process by which St Bartholomew was put to death is most discomfiting.
St Bartholomew handing St Guthlac a whip, from the Guthlac Roll, England (probably Crowland), 1175-1215, Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 8
Bartholomew played a bit-part role in the life of one of our home-grown saints, Guthlac of Crowland. Tormented by demons on his isolated island in the fens, Guthlac is depicted on the Guthlac Roll (Harley Roll Y 6) as being carried through the air towards an open hell-mouth. Just in time, St Bartholomew comes to his rescue, handing him his whip, which Guthlac can use to beat back the unholy hordes. The Guthlac Roll thus attaches an interesting twist to the story of St Bartholomew, where the instrument that was used by his persecutors is turned around and used against the forces of evil. (For more on the Guthlac Roll, see out blog post ‘On a roll’).
Full-page miniature of St Bartholomew holding a knife and his flayed skin, from the Oscott Psalter, England (?Oxford), c. 1265-c.1270, Add MS 50000, f. 9r
In some instances, St Bartholomew is also shown holding his own flayed skin. The means of his martyrdom has led him to being adopted as a patron saint by various trades involved with the skinning of animals: butchers, tanners, trappers, leather workers and – most significantly for us – bookbinders.
Plain red moulded goatskin binding, from the St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Lindisfarne), c. 698, Add MS 89000, front cover
While it is an unfortunate fact that the medieval bindings of many, if not most, medieval books have been irretrievably lost, the British Library nonetheless possesses an enviable collection of bindings from across the medieval period. We have the earliest intact medieval binding in existence, that attached to St Cuthbert Gospel, as well as many other examples right up to the 15th century.
Detail of a column miniature of St Bartholomew holding a knife and a book in a girdle binding, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), Add MS 18851, f. 442v
It seems appropriate, then, to draw attention to a fantastic new resource for studying these rare and important survivals: the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings. This contains descriptions and images of bindings both medieval and modern, identifications of the binders responsible, and bibliographies. It is possible to search by various criteria, including binders’ names, marks of ownership, country of origin, decorative style and colour and technique. Further entries and descriptions are planned in the future.