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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

16 September 2014

Visualising Stonehenge

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There has been some exciting news recently about Stonehenge.  The discovery of many new archaeological features around the site itself, including chapels, burial mounds, pits and shrines (which featured in a BBC documentary last Thursday), has emphasised that the famous stone circle should not be seen as an isolated monument but as part of a wider complex in the surrounding landscape. 

Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r
Miniature of Merlin building Stonehenge, from Wace, ‘Roman de Brut’, England, second quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r
 

The British Library has a particular interest in Stonehenge, because it possesses the earliest known depiction of the monument, from a manuscript of Wace’s Roman de Brut, made in the second quarter of the fourteenth century.  The mythical figure of Merlin is shown assembling one of the famous sarsen trilithons by placing a lintel on top of two standing stones.  His actions are observed with wonderment by two mortals, emphasising Stonehenge’s legendary status as well as the mysteriousness of its purpose. 

Lansdowne MS 732, f. 1r
The beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth, ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, England, last quarter of the 12th century or first quarter of the 13th century, Lansdowne MS 732, f. 1r 
 

Earlier accounts, but not illustrations, of Stonehenge also survive in British Library manuscripts.  Wace wrote the Roman de Brut in French verse, using octo-syllabic couplets, and presented his work as a translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (though he included additional information). 

Geoffrey claimed that Stonehenge was built on the orders of Aurelius Ambrosius, a mythical Briton king, with Merlin fulfilling the role of supernatural architect and building contractor.  Merlin had advised Aurelius that this would be a fitting memorial to 480 of his nobles who had been treacherously slaughtered by Hengist the Saxon around the year 470. 

Although Geoffrey’s account is largely fanciful, there are implicit elements of it that have been borne out by modern archaeological study: for example, some of the stones were brought from far away (the bluestones used within the outer circle came from the Preseli mountains in Pembrokeshire), that it is related to stone circles in Ireland, and that there were burial sites in close proximity (as the recent discoveries have shown). 

Egerton MS 3668, ff. 2v-3r
The end of the prologue and beginning of the text, from a copy of Henry of Huntingdon, ‘Historia Anglorum’, England, Egerton MS 3668, ff. 2v-3r
 

Geoffrey’s account of Stonehenge is roughly contemporary with another mid-twelfth century history, the Historia Anglorum by Henry of Huntingdon.  Henry offered no explanation of why or how Stonehenge was built, but merely related (perhaps from second-hand accounts) that the stones were ‘erected after the manner of doorways, so that doorway appears to have been raised upon doorway’.  The description is puzzling at first, since Stonehenge never had a second storey, but it probably refers to a trick of perspective gained when one trilithon is observed through another. 

Add MS 28330, f. 36r
Watercolour sketch of Stonehenge, from Lucas de Heere, ‘Corte Beschryvinghe van England, Scotland, ende Irland, England (London), Add MS 28330, f. 36r
 

The British Library also possesses one of the earliest near-accurate depictions of Stonehenge, in the form of a watercolour sketch done ‘on the spot’ by Lucas de Heere (b. 1534, d. 1584), a Flemish Protestant exile who resided in England between 1567 and 1576.  He evidently took to his adoptive country, compiling a guidebook to Britain, its history and the dress and manners of its inhabitants, entitled Corte Beschryvinghe van England, Scotland, ende Irland.  De Heere’s description and drawing of Stonehenge is important for its observations on the techniques of construction.  Tenons – raised points on the tops of the stone pillars, visible on one of the trilithons in the foreground – locked into mortises – matching indentations in the lintels – which held them in place and prevented them from slipping off.  

Stonehenge has been a source of fascination and speculation for historians, writers and archaeologists as well as casual observers, visitors and tourists.  The questions that they have all asked – how and why? – haven’t changed much over the centuries, like the stones themselves.  The answers have, though, and the recent discoveries are only the latest, exciting chapter in a very long tale of imaginings and interpretations. 

- James Freeman

13 September 2014

Apes Pulling Shapes

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Readers of our blog will be familiar, by now, with the fact that some medieval illuminators had a special enthusiasm for marginal mockery.  No matter how overtly devotional the text, its margins were not protected from a carnival parade of visual humour.  In fact, it would be easy to get the impression that the more solemn the central scene, the better the scope for marginal antics.

Add MS 36684, f125r - full page
Aping the Office of the Dead, from a Book of Hours, France, c. 1320s, Add MS 36684, f. 125r

The Office of the Dead, included in many Books of Hours, is a series of prayers to be said in anticipation of death, at a funeral, or in remembrance of the deceased.  This solemn miniature depicts monks standing at the foot of a coffin and singing the Office from a book.  A good incentive for our book’s owner to pray, one might think, even if he or she was a bit distracted by the hybrid form of the grave-digger with his shovel at the bottom of the page.

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Detail of the text of the Office held by the hands and hindquarters of apes, Add MS 36684, f. 125r

More difficult to ignore, however, is the episode just beneath the central scene: one ape holds the same book, another uses his hindquarters as a lectern, and the antics of both are overseen by a laughing skeleton!

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The Hours of Terce, with an historiated initial showing the Adoration of the Magi, Add MS 36684, f. 46v

Apes are frequently the cause of marginal inversion in this particular Book of Hours, such as at Terce (the third canonical Hour of the day) where the gestures of the Magi in the miniature of the Adoration are parodied by three apes in the bas-de-page (the space at the bottom of the page).  

Add MS 36684, f46v - detail
Detail of the ‘three wise apes’ in the bas-de-page at Terce, Add MS 36684, f. 46v

One grasps a leafy extension of the bar-frame, a vine with a bemused head, apparently the subject of their own ‘adoration’.

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Detail of an ape on stilts riding a hobby-horse and balancing a stork on its shoulders, from Jean Froissart, ‘Chroniques’, Vol. IV, part 1, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470-1472,
Harley MS 4379, f. 113r

A quick glance, in fact, at the index in Lilian Randall’s Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts reveals an astonishing 18 pages worth of ‘ape and…’ or ‘ape with…’ etc., many of which describe quite peculiar scenarios like the one above (some further examples from British Library manuscripts can be found in our post ‘Monkeys in the Margins’).

Harley MS 1251, f91r
An illuminated border containing an ape holding a piece of fruit, from a Book of Hours, France (Rouen), c. 1430-c. 1440,
Harley MS 1251, f. 91r

The Physiologus, a second-century Greek compilation of knowledge about animals and nature, attempted to redefine the natural world in Christian terms.  Apes, it was thought, were the creation of the devil, the Ape of God who mimicked His actions just as the ape mimicked human behaviour.

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Detail of an ape riding a goat (both animals noted for being lascivious) and looking at part of the Athanasian Creed (‘Perfectus deo perfectus homo’ – ‘Perfect God, perfect man’), from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), c. 1300-c. 1325,
Stowe MS 17, f. 81v (for more on this manuscript, check out our similar simian blog-post ‘Monkeying Around with the Maastricht Hours’)

From being a representation of the devil, the ape also morphed into an image of the devil’s victim, the sinner.  Imprisonments of the material world, such as lust and sin, were best conveyed with an ape.  Nothing said ‘sensuality’ and ‘unreliability’ better than a foolish ape holding an apple or riding a goat.

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Detail of a mother ape being hunted, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, c. 1310 – c. 1320,
Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 107v

The Bestiary developed these themes (see the copy in Royal MS 12 F XIII here) by giving an account of a mother ape fleeing hunters and carrying twins, her favourite in her arms and her least favourite on her back.

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Detail of a mother ape losing her favourite child,
Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 108r

As she tires, she drops the child she likes while the one she dislikes will cling to her.  For the theologian John Scotus, this was an allegory of the human condition, with the favoured child representing worldly pleasures while the neglected one stood in for spiritual values.

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An ape engaged in the female pursuit of winding wool (with a goat, of course),
Stowe MS 17, f. 91v

Classical writers such as Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and Gaius Julius Solinus, all emphasised the ape’s propensity for imitation.

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Detail of an ape wearing a bishop’s mitre and playing a trumpet, from the Bohun Psalter, England (?London), after 1356 and probably before 1373,
Egerton MS 3277, f. 22v (for more on apes and other animals in this manuscript, see our earlier post ‘Lions, Monkeys and Bears – Oh My!’)

Indeed, Isidore of Seville, the expert on etymology in the Middle Ages, explained the derivation of simius (ape) from similitudo, remarking that ‘the monkey wants to imitate everything he sees done’.

Stowe_ms_17_f109r detail
Detail of apes at school,
Stowe MS 17, f. 109r

This group of apes is at school: one is being beaten by a master, three are being lectured, and another appears to be smelling the contents of a vase (probably a urinal), alluding to the common trope of the ‘ape as physician’ in the margins of medieval manuscripts.

Harley2887_f29r
Detail of an ape sat in green wicker basket playing the bagpipes, from the Hours of the Earls of Ormond’, England (London), c. 1460-1467,
Harley MS 2887, f. 29r

Finally, apes sometimes get up to such usual activities that they become one means (in combination with a range of distinctive motifs) of identifying individual artistic personalities.  These examples come from the oeuvres of two illuminators active in England in the third quarter of the fifteenth century.  The ape sat in a green wicker basket and playing the bagpipes is a trademark of sorts for a border artist known as ‘the Owl-illuminator’ (who is also known for using owls in marginal decoration).

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Detail of a miniature illustrating a marriage ceremony, with an ape picking fleas from a human head in the border, from a Book of Hours, England (London or Oxford), c. 1450-c. 1460, Add MS 62523, f. 7r

And then there is this very helpful ape, picking (and eating) fleas from a human head – a very unusual motif and one good indication that you are looking at work by ‘the Caesar Master’.

The contemporary ‘catch all’ term for animal antics in the margins of medieval manuscripts is thought to have been babuini (Latin) or babewyn (Middle English), meaning ‘baboon-like’ or ‘monkey-business’.  It is perhaps fitting, then, that Lilian Randall’s index of ape-activities runs to 18 pages.  Reading through the list, one can’t help but think of Bernard of Clairvaux’s words in 1125: ‘To what purpose are those unclean apes…?’

- Holly James-Maddocks

11 September 2014

Royal Manuscripts Conference Papers Now Online

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We are pleased to announce that selected papers from the two-day international conference associated with the ‘Royal Manuscripts’ exhibition (11 November 2011 – 13 March 2012) are now available on the Electronic British Library Journal 2014 (articles 4–10). 

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God creating the Heavens and the Earth, from Guyart de Moulins, ‘Bible historiale completée’, Genesis to Psalms, France (Clairfontaine and Paris), 1411,
Royal MS 19 D III, vol. 1, f. 3r

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination showcased over 150 richly decorated manuscripts associated with and collected by English monarchs between the ninth and sixteenth centuries.  Drawn mainly from the Old Royal library given to the nation by George II in 1757, the exhibited manuscripts revealed a magnificent artistic inheritance and provided a vivid insight into the lives and aspirations of those for whom they were made.

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The genealogical descent of Henry VI from St Louis in a book presented by John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, to Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, France (Rouen), 1444-45,
Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 3r

On the 12-13 December 2011, seventeen speakers gathered in the British Library to discuss different aspects of the Royal collection, from the makers and users of these books to content as diverse as genealogy and law, legend and history, and liturgy.  An account of the conference, its speakers and their subjects, can be read here.  Many of the manuscripts displayed in the exhibition can still be seen in seven themed facebook albums (The Christian Monarch 700-1400; The Christian Monarch 1400-1600; Edward IV: Founder of the Royal Library; Instruction: How to be a King; The World’s Knowledge; Royal Identities; and The European Monarch), each featuring between 15 and 25 items.  Previous ‘Royal Manuscripts’ blog posts are listed here and here, and are often richly illustrated with items featured in the exhibition.

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Henry VIII at Psalm 1 (where we would expect an image of David), from the Psalter of Henry VIII, England (London), c. 1540,
Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 3r

The research for this exhibition was funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.  Student bursaries for the conference were generously supported by AMARC.

- Holly James-Maddocks