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

21 October 2014

Illuminated Manuscripts Conference - More Places Available

Add comment Comments (0)

We are delighted to announce that – due to exceptional demand for places – the forthcoming AMARC conference has been moved to a larger venue in the Conference Centre at the British Library. 

There are now more places available to attend this exciting conference on fourteenth-century illuminated manuscripts in the British Library collections – so don’t delay in reserving your spot! There are further details below of the speakers’ papers, with some images of the manuscripts they will be discussing. 

However, the post-conference reception remains fully booked. 

The conference is being held in honour of Lucy Freeman Sandler, whose book Illuminators and Patrons in Fourteenth-Century England: The Psalter Hours of Humphrey de Bohun and the Manuscripts of the Bohun Family will be published shortly. 

The Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research Collections (AMARC) is sponsoring the conference, which will be held on Monday, 1st December, 2014. 

The conference will begin at 10:45. Papers will be 30 minutes with 15 minutes for questions after each. The sessions will conclude at 5:15. Lunch will be provided. 

The registration fees are £20; £15 for AMARC members and £10 for students. To register, send a cheque made out to AMARC to James Freeman, Research & Imaging Assistant, Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB. Foreign delegates may pay on the day, but should send a notice of their intention to attend to james.freeman@bl.uk

The speakers and their topics are as follows: 

Yates_thompson_ms_14_f070v_detail
Detail of a miniature in two registers, showing Jonah being thrown into the sea (above) and Jonah being saved from the whale's mouth (below), from the St Omer Psalter, England (Norfolk), c. 1330-c. 1440, Yates Thompson MS 14, f. 70v
 

- Paul Binski, Lombardy and Norfolk: This paper re-examines the question, first seriously raised by Otto Pächt, of Italian influence in English art before 1350 and what is known about Italian art actually in England at that date. 

Arundel_ms_83_f014r_detail
Detail of a marginal hunting scene, with the arms of Ely and Bury St Edmunds, from the Howard Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308-c. 1340, Arundel MS 83 I, f. 14r
 

- Alixe Bovey, Bound to be Together: Revisiting the Howard and De Lisle Psalters (Arundel MS 83 I & II): This paper explores the connections between the celebrated De Lisle Psalter, a fragmentary masterpiece of English illumination, and the somewhat lesser known Howard Psalter. Bound together by William Howard at the turn of the 17th century, both manuscripts were made in England in the 1310s, and in some respects have strikingly similar contents. This paper reflects not only on what the relationship between these books reveals about their medieval creation and early modern reception, but also on Lucy Freeman Sandler’s singular contribution to our understanding of them.

Add MS 39758, f.20r_detail
Detail of an historiated initial with two compartments, showing God the Creator (above) and the Virgin and Child with a Benedictine monk (below), from the chronicle and cartulary of Peterborough Abbey, England (Peterborough), c. 1321-1329, Add MS 39758, f. 20r
 

- Julian Luxford, Walter of Whittlesey, Monk and Artist of Peterborough: Julian will examine British Library Additional MSS 39758 and 47170, which were made in the first half of the fourteenth century by Walter of Whittlesey, a monk of Peterborough Abbey, focusing on what these manuscripts reveal of Whittlesey’s historical interests and his status as a copyist and illuminator of manuscripts. 

Add MS 38842, f. 2r
Detail of a three-part miniature showing an angel giving St John the reed (left), worshippers at the altar (centre), and  two men demolishing the temple (right), from a fragmentary Apocalypse, England (?London), 1325-1330, Add MS 38842, f. 2r

- Nigel Morgan, A fragmentary Apocalypse by one of the Milemete artists - Additional 38842: This fragmentary Anglo-Norman prose Apocalypse has been little discussed in the literature on English illustrated fourteenth-century Apocalypses. This paper will consider both its figure style and iconography.

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f052r_detail
Detail of a miniature showing Michal saving David from Saul, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London/Westminster or ?East Anglia), c. 1310-c. 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 52r

- Kathryn Smith, Crafting the Old Testament in the Queen Mary Psalter: This paper considers aspects of the crafting of the Old Testament prefatory cycle in the Queen Mary Psalter (Royal MS 2 B VII), examining analogues of and possible sources for some of the Queen Mary Master's compositions, evidence for the artist's working methods, and the history and image of the Jews as constructed in pictures and text. 

Egerton_ms_3277_f110v_detail
Detail of an historiated initial showing Jezebel talking to Ahab in bed, with a lewd woman in the margin, from the Bohun Psalter, England (?London), 2nd half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 110v

 - Lucy Freeman Sandler: Embedded Marginalia in Egerton 3277: Lucy will focus on the meanings that emerge when the marginalia of Egerton 3277 are considered as integral components of page design. Specifically, she will discuss the marginalia of Egerton 3277 that are physically ‘embedded’ in the area immediately adjacent to the frames of initial letters, figural subjects linked tangibly with the figural subjects within the initials, which themselves are physical manifestations of textual meaning. The wealth of subtle and multilayered meanings made available to the reader/viewer by the medieval illuminator/designer is suggested by the illustration (above) in the initial of one of the prayers of the Litany showing Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, telling him to arise to take Naboth’s possessions (III Kings 21:15 in the Vulgate) and Jezebel’s marginal counterpart, the marginal woman raising her skirt in a lewd gesture.

 

- James Freeman

18 October 2014

The Death of King John

Add comment Comments (1)

King John of England (1199–1216), of Magna Carta fame, was by all accounts a particularly unpleasant ruler. The charges levelled against him, many of them during his own lifetime, included the murder of his nephew, the sexual predation of the wives and daughters of his nobles, and the starving to death of the wife and children of one of his former companions. So unpopular was John that his barons finally rose up in rebellion against his arbitrary rule, and against the severe punishments often inflicted upon them, until they eventually forced the king to grant them the Charter of Liberties, also known as Magna Carta, at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Few can have lamented King John's eventual demise at Newark Castle — most probably following an attack of dysentery —in October 1216. Writing some forty years later, Matthew Paris (d. 1259), monk and historian of St Albans Abbey, delivered the ultimate condemnation: 'Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John'.

Cotton_Claudius_D_ii_f116
King John in happier times, hunting on horseback according to this illustration in a 14th-century manuscript (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 116r).

Today may, or may not, be the anniversary of King John's death. The medieval chroniclers could not reach consensus on the exact date that John died. Matthew Paris and his St Albans' predecessor, Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), plumped for 17 October. Ralph (d. 1226), abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Coggeshall (Essex), stated instead that King John had succumbed to his illness on 18 October. A number of monastic chroniclers, writing at Tewkesbury, Winchester, Worcester and elsewhere, favoured 19 October as the day in question. Of these various witnesses, we should perhaps give greatest credence to the anonymous chroniclers writing at Waverley Abbey (Surrey) and Southwark Priory (Surrey), both of whom asserted that the death of King John took place on 19 October. The manuscripts of these two chronicles (Waverley, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A XVI; Southwark, British Library Cotton MS Faustina A VIII) were both being written in the year 1216, as evidenced by their numerous changes of scribe at this period. The same is also true, however, of Ralph of Coggeshall's Chronicon Anglicanum (the autograph manuscript of which is British Library Cotton MS Vespasian D X). Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, in contrast, were writing many years after the events being described, and so their testimony — albeit possibly derived from an authentic St Albans tradition — is more open to question.

014621
Is this how King John met his fate? As early as the 13th century, it was alleged that he had been poisoned by a monk of Swineshead Abbey (Lincolnshire), seen here offering him a poisoned chalice (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v).

Earlier in his reign, King John had determined that he should be buried at the Cistercian abbey he had founded at Beaulieu (Hampshire). In October 1216, Beaulieu lay in that part of England which was held by the rebel barons; and so John asked instead that he be buried at Worcester Cathedral, where his tomb can still be seen. In fact, the tomb was opened in 1797, in order to confirm whether it did contain John's body, and certain of the remains removed, which are also on view in Worcester. Mr Sandford, a local surgeon, inspected the skeleton, and reported that King John stood 5 ft 6½ in. (approximately 1.69 m) tall. Unlike one of his successors, Richard III, John was clearly not buried under a carpark.

Next February, the four surviving manuscripts of King John's Magna Carta will be brought together at the British Library for the first time in 800 years. A ballot is currently being held to give 1,215 lucky winners the chance to see all four manuscripts side-by-side. The ballot closes on 31 October: don't forget to enter for your chance to take part in this moment of history! If you do miss out, you'll still be able to see the British Library's two 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts at our own major exhibition later in 2015: tickets are already on sale. And if you'd like to know more about the history of Magna Carta, take the chance to visit our new Learning webpages, which will be updated with more information next year.

Strangely enough, we doubt that King John would have been particularly amused by the modern-day celebrations planned for Magna Carta in 2015. Less than ten weeks after that document had been granted in June 1215, Magna Carta was annulled by Pope Innocent III, at John's request, declaring it to be 'shameful and demeaning, illegal and unjust, and null and void of all validity for ever'. Just over a year later, a revised version of Magna Carta was issued in the name of John's son, King Henry III (1216–1272), and the rest is history. King John never did get the last laugh.

16 October 2014

Dedicated to You

Add comment Comments (1)

What do you get the person who has everything?  A manuscript book of poetry written in his or her honour, naturally!  

Royal_ms_12_a_xxx_fblefr
Original binding of gold-tooled parchment with the royal coat of arms and initials ‘E R’ (‘Elizabeth Regina’), from a manuscript of complimentary verses to Elizabeth I, England (Eton), 1563,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, front cover 

A lesser known part of the Royal collection is a set of manuscripts of complimentary verses that were presented to royalty and aristocracy during the 16th and 17th centuries.  They are mostly catalogued under the ‘Royal MS 12 A’ range.  Eleven of these, containing verses or epigrams in Greek, have been digitised as part of our ongoing Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project (a list of these is provided below).  They are now available online, allowing us to take a closer look at these intriguing gifts. 

Royal_ms_12_a_xxx_f001r
Title page with coloured border featuring Tudor roses and coats of arms,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 1r 

The focus of today’s blogpost is upon the earliest dated manuscript of this group: Royal MS 12 A XXX, presented to Elizabeth I when she travelled to Windsor in 1563.  The volume opens with a hand-drawn and coloured title page, the border of which contains Tudor roses and the coats of arms both of Elizabeth and Eton College. 

Royal_ms_12_a_xxx_f028v
Poems in Latin by Giles Fletcher, with an acrostic,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 28v 

The Latin verses were composed by pupils of Eton College.  The most frequent contributor to the volume, with eleven poems, was ‘Fletcher’.  Giles Fletcher (bap. 1546, d. 1611) later served as one of Elizabeth’s diplomats, undertaking a perilous embassy to the court of Tsar Feodor I at Moscow between June 1588 and July/August 1589.  Like several of his fellow-pupils, Fletcher employed elaborate acrostics to encode Elizabeth’s name or encomia into his poems: the first and last letters of each line in the above poem read ‘Vivente te vivimus, te remota moriemur’ (‘We live while you live, we will die when you leave’). 

Royal_ms_12_a_xxx_f056v
Poems in Latin by ‘Frankline’ and ‘Flemmynge’, with acrostics,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 56v 

‘Frankline’ and ‘Flemmynge’ (Samuel Flemming, later prebendary of Southwell) used the same device to bid their monarch ‘Farewell [and] prosper’ (‘Valeto, vivito’ and ‘Vive, Vale’).  ‘Hunt’ went one step further, using his acrostic to declare ‘Vestra secundet Christus Iesus’ (‘May Jesus Christ favour your endeavours’) (ff. 33r-33v). 

Royal_ms_12_a_xxx_f072r
Coat of arms of Eton College, with Latin verse,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 72r

What spurred the composition of such a book?  William Malim (b. 1533, d. 1594), Headmaster of Eton College, prefaced the poems with a dedicatory Greek quatrain.  Perhaps he hoped his and his pupils’ praise would secure the patronage and favour of the new monarch (he may have been involved in producing a similar book – now Royal MS 12 A LXVII – when he became High Master of St Paul’s school ten years later).  The coat of arms of both of Elizabeth and the College were painted in at the end of the volume, and lavishly embellished with silver leaf (now oxidised into a dull grey), with verses on both, providing a reminder of the source of the gift. 

Royal_ms_12_a_xxx_f062r
Opening of a prayer in Latin prose against the plague,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 62r 

Yet there was a serious side to all this flattery.  Elizabeth’s departure from London had been prompted by an outbreak of the plague in the city.  Only five years on the throne, and without either husband or heir, the Queen’s position and the stability of the nation as a whole seemed precarious.  After the political and religious upheavals of previous reigns, such anxieties were sharply felt by Elizabeth’s subjects.  After all the plaudits and praise, the elaborate exercises in Latin composition and inventive word-play, a prayer in Latin prose follows: ‘In order that the contagion of the ravaging plague may be diverted as long as possible from our most fair and noble Queen...’ 

- James Freeman