Medieval manuscripts blog

186 posts categorized "Latin"

27 October 2016

An African Abbot in Anglo-Saxon England

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To commemorate Black History Month in the United Kingdom, today we tell the story of one of the first Africans to visit Anglo-Saxon England. The man in question was Hadrian (d. 709), the abbot of St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Canterbury, who played a pivotal role in the development of the early Anglo-Saxon Church.

Bede’s description of Hadrian, beginning column 2 line 18, from his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Canterbury?), c. 825: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 94r.

According to Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People was completed in 731, Hadrian was ‘vir natione Afir’ ('a man of African race'), who spoke both Greek and Latin. Some scholars have suggested that Hadrian was a Berber, and that he came from the area that is now Libya. The evidence for his origin is found in a series of Biblical commentaries (surviving in a manuscript in Milan), derived from notes on Hadrian’s teaching at his school at Canterbury. These commentaries use vocabulary specific to that region, including terms for furniture and a beautiful bird called a porphyrio, 'said to be found in Libya' ('in Libia sit'). 

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_v!1_f056v Africa
Detail of North Africa, from a world map in a scientific miscellany, England, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v.

Hadrian may have been forced to flee the Arab invasions of North Africa, and at any rate he arrived in Italy as young man. In Europe, he had a remarkable career as the emperor’s translator, diplomat and abbot of a monastery near Naples. He arrived in England in 668, sent by Pope Vitalian to accompany Theodore of Tarsus, the newly-appointed archbishop of Canterbury. The two men immediately set about touring the archdiocese, restructuring the English Church by dividing large dioceses into smaller ones, and legislating through regular synods. They also created an internationally renowned school at Canterbury where they may have introduced the study of Greek to the Anglo-Saxons.

Among the students of that school was Aldhelm, later bishop of Sherborne, who was considered a pre-eminent scholar by many of his contemporaries. Aldhelm praised the school in his letters, including one in which he described Hadrian as his 'revered father and respected teacher' and himself as a 'humble pupil of your holiness'. In another letter, Aldhelm scolded his young correspondent for going to study in Ireland when Hadrian and Theodore offered better educational opportunities in England. Certain manuscripts of Aldhelm’s letters have recently been digitised by the British Library and are now available online (Royal MS 6 A VI and Cotton MS Domitian A IX).

Passage from Aldhelm's letter to Heahfrith where he praises Hadrian as 'endowed with ineffably pure urbanity', the moon to Archbishop Theodore's sun, England (Canterbury?), 1st half of the 11th century: Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 8v.

Judging from commentaries from his school and his students' writings, Hadrian can be credited with introducing Anglo-Saxons to a whole range of ideas, from astronomical thought inherited from Plato and Aristotle to the commemoration of Neapolitan saints venerated at his old monastery in Italy. He may even have influenced Anglo-Saxon literature through certain types of riddles: Aldhelm also wrote a book of riddles explicitly inspired by the North African writer Symphosius, whose enigmas may have been brought by Hadrian to England.

Aldhelm's prologue invoking Symphosius, from Aldhelm's Riddles, England (Canterbury?), c. 1000: Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 79v.

One of the earliest books known to have been owned in post-Roman Britain also came from Africa, perhaps from Carthage. This book contains a 4th-century copy of letters by another North African, Cyprian. Although this manuscript is now fragmentary, when it first arrived in England it would have been an impressive codex, in fine uncial script and with the Biblical passages picked out in red. This book had come to England by the 8th century, because someone writing in early English script annotated, expanded and added to some of the words. These letters undoubtedly influenced 8th-century Anglo-Saxon writers, including Bede, who quoted from them. Some scholars have suggested that Hadrian himself may have brought this African manuscript to England.


Detail of one of the earliest books known to have been owned in Anglo-Saxon England, containing the letters of Cyprian, North Africa, 4th century: Add MS 40165 A, f. 2r.

Add 40165a f2v
Details of the letters â€˜vr’ added to the manuscript in England by the 8th century: Add MS 40165 A, f. 2v.

According to Bede, Hadrian had been reluctant to come to Kent, so much so that he turned down an offer to be made archbishop of Canterbury and instead nominated several others for that office, including his eventual companion, Theodore. Nevertheless, Hadrian stayed in England for 41 years, and his influence has lasted much longer. He was remembered in saints' Lives at Canterbury later in the Middle Ages, and he helped to shape religious structures which remain in England today.

Beginning of Goscelin's Life of Hadrian, England (Canterbury), 1st quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 233r.

Alison Hudson


18 October 2016

Remembering Assandun

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It has been a busy week of anniversaries of early medievalists with an interest in north-western Europe. Last week was the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. This week starts off with the anniversary of another conquest, as 18 October 2016 is exactly 1000 years after the Scandinavian leader Knútr (or Cnut or Canute) defeated Edmund Ironside at the battle of Assandun. While Edmund survived the battle, soon after he agreed to split his kingdom with Cnut, before dying on 30 November and allowing Cnut to take the rest of England into his Anglo-Scandinavian empire.

The only known manuscript portrait of Cnut and Emma made during Cnut’s lifetime, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, Winchester, c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

Assandun inspired fewer surviving sources than the Battle of Hastings and even less is known about it: in fact, there is some debate about exactly where Assandun was. The battle probably took place somewhere in Essex. Nevertheless, Cnut’s conquest and its aftermath did inspire a variety of interesting sources, from sagas to charters to an early account of a queen’s life. In fact, a whole case in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblatt Treasures Gallery is currently devoted to Cnut’s conquest and reign. So if you are in London any time soon, you can see one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account of the Battle of Assandun, with Edmund’s name in capitals, on display.  

Detail of the account of the Battle of Assandun (spelled Asse(a)ndun), from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 67v

The battle itself still inspired dramatic literary retellings. 11th-century accounts describe Edmund being betrayed by the treacherous Eadric Streona (whom Cnut would later execute before he could turn on him as well), a lengthy period of fighting, and eventual flight by the English as night fell. One of the longest and most spectacular accounts of the Battle of Assandun, complete with invented speeches for leaders on both sides, comes from another manuscript, the Encomium Emmae Reginae (Add MS 33241), which has just been digitised as part of our newly announced project in partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Opening miniature from the Encomium Emmae Reginae showing its writer presenting his work to Queen Emma with her sons looking on, England or France, c. 1040s, Add MS 33241, f. 1v

The Encomium Emmae Reginae is a rather extraordinary text among early medieval manuscripts from north-western Europe. It is a work of praise/propaganda about Emma and her husband Cnut, possibly aimed at disaffected nobles during the reign of her son Harthacnut. Emma (also known as Ymma and Ælfgifu) was a daughter of the count of Rouen: she became the second wife of Æthelred the Unready and in 1017 married the new ruler  of England, Cnut, also as his second wife. Emma may have helped Cnut navigate English politics, as Emily Butler and others have noted: her role was certainly remembered by whoever drafted a charter for Christ Church, Canterbury (also on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery), which credits Emma with persuading Cnut to make a donation to Christ Church. Likewise, Cnut and Emma are both commemorated in the opening image of the New Minster Liber Vitae, making that image possibly the earliest contemporary manuscript portrait of a queen of England. By contrast, one of the models for that image, from the New Minster Refoundation Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), only features the king, Edgar, even though his spouse is mentioned throughout the text. 

Opening page of the Encomium Emmae Reginae, England or France, c. 1040s, Add MS 33241, f. 2r

Emma’s strategical ability and priorities are hinted at in the text made for her. The Encomium Emmae Reginae commemorates Emma while also trying to exonerate her from any wrongdoing, especially concerning her children from her marriage to Æthelred. It was written by a monk of the monastery of St Bertin, in what is now Northern France, during the joint reign of her sons Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor.  

'[The Danes] seemed to rage rather than fight. Accordingly the English, turning their backs, fled without delay on all sides, ever falling before their foes, and added glory to the honour of Knutr...', from the Encomium Emmae Reginae, Add MS 33241, f. 41r  (trans. by A. Campbell, Encomium Emmae Reginae (Cambridge, 1998), p. 27)

The British Library’s manuscript of the Encomium Emmae Reginae can now be viewed online, thanks to the generosity of The Polonsky Foundation. The British Library’s copy was for a long time believed to be the only medieval copy in the world, but recently another, later medieval copy was discovered and is now held at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. This version has a different ending, perhaps changed when Edward the Confessor, Emma’s son from her first marriage, became sole king. Attempts to change texts remind us that while battles were important, they continued to be fought in texts and retellings long after. The Battle of Assandun was not an end, but the starting point for the writers of the texts currently preserved at the British Library. 

Detail of an initial, from the Encomium Emmae Reginae, Add MS 33241, f. 8r

Alison Hudson


12 October 2016

England and France, 700-1200: Manuscripts from the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library

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We are delighted to announce a new project to open up further the unparalleled collections of illuminated manuscripts held by the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. In a ground-breaking new collaborative project the national libraries of Britain and France will work together to create two innovative new websites that will make 800 manuscripts decorated before the year 1200 available freely. The Bibliothèque nationale de France will create a new bilingual website that will allow side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection, selected for their beauty and interest. The British Library will create a bilingual website intended for a general audience that will feature highlights from the most important of these manuscripts and articles commissioned by leading experts in the field. Both websites will be online by November 2018.

Illuminated initial 'B'(eatus) and full border at the beginning of Psalm 1, Canterbury, early 11th century (British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 12r).

Before the introduction of printing to Europe, all books were written by hand as manuscripts. The most luxurious of these were illuminated, literally ‘lit up’ by decorations and pictures in brightly coloured pigments and burnished gold leaf. All manuscripts — whether they are luxurious biblical or liturgical manuscripts, copies of classical literature or patristic, theological, historical or scientific texts — are valuable historical documents that can deepen and expand our understanding of the political, social and cultural life of the eras in which they were made. Their research value is inestimable.

The British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France have two of the largest collections of medieval manuscripts in the world. As a result of France and England being so closely entwined through periods of war, conquest and alliance and, in the medieval period, both nations claiming territory in France at times, both libraries have particularly strong holdings of French manuscripts produced in France or in Britain (but written in French or Latin).

This new project will add to the growing numbers of manuscript material available in full online as part of wider programmes to make these cultural treasures available to everyone around the world. At the British Library, over 8,000 items are currently available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Similarly, thousands of items are available from the Bibliothèque nationale de France collections on its website, Gallica.

Signing 2
Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library and Marc Polonsky of The Polonsky Foundation signing the agreement for the project.

This exciting project is made possible by a generous grant from The Polonsky Foundation. Dr Leonard Polonsky remarks that 'our Foundation is privileged to be supporting these two leading institutions in preserving the riches of the world's cultural heritage and making them available in innovative and creative ways, both to scholars and to a wider public'.

The Polonsky Foundation is a UK-registered charity which primarily supports cultural heritage, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and innovation in higher education and the arts. Its principal activities include the digitisation of significant collections at leading libraries (the British Library; the Bibliothèque nationale de France; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; Cambridge University Library; the New York Public Library; the Library of Congress; the Vatican Apostolic Library); support for Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, New York; and post-doctoral fellowships at The Polonsky Academy for the Advanced Study of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Its founder and chairman, Dr Leonard S. Polonsky, was named a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for charitable services in 2013.

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Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator, Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections and Curation of the British Library, Rachel Polonsky, and Marc Polonsky viewing a manuscript of the Gospel of Mark (British Library Royal MS 4 D II).

The focus on the digitisation project will be on manuscripts produced on either side of the English Channel between 700 and 1200. The manuscripts from this period open up a window on a time of close cultural and political exchange during which scribes moved and worked in what is now France, Normandy and England. Decorated manuscripts containing literary, historical, biblical and theological texts will be included, representing the mutual strengths of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Online access to these manuscripts will support new research into how manuscripts — and people — travelled around Europe in this period. New connections will be made possible by studying the two collections side by side.

For example, the manuscripts selected will include a number of illuminated Gospel-books, providing a witness to the changing tastes, influences and borrowings reflected in the books’ design and script. So a 9th-century, a 10th-century and a late 12th-century Gospel-book all have colourful illuminated initials with geometric patterns, floral decoration or animals heads, yet their execution is very different. The script, colours, style and subjects of the illumination all provide clues to the time and place of their composition. With the digitisation of manuscripts all these features may be studied and enjoyed in detail.

Egerton MS 609 f46 Blog1
Decorated initial ‘I’(nitium) from western France, perhaps Brittany or Tours, 9th century (British Library Egerton MS 609, f. 46r).

Add MS 40000 f34v Blog1
A book of Gospels from Thorney Abbey, originally produced in France, possibly Brittany, in the early 10th century, but which made its way to the abbey by the late 10th or early 11th century (British Library, Add MS 40000 f. 34v)

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Illuminated initial 'I'(nitium) with dragons and human masks in medallions, England or France, late 12th century (British Library, Royal MS 4 D II, f. 2v).

As well as making 800 manuscripts freely available online, the project will be part of a wider programme of activities aimed at researchers and the general public. A number of the manuscripts digitised will be displayed in a major international exhibition on Anglo-Saxon England to be held at the British Library from October 2018 to February 2019, which will highlight connections between Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent. Manuscripts included in the project may also feature in another major exhibition to be held at the Musée de Cluny in Paris focusing on Merovingian manuscripts, opening on 26 October 2016.

A conference at the British Library will coincide with the Anglo-Saxon exhibition (December 2018), and a project conference will be held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. We will also produce an illustrated book showcasing beautiful and significant manuscripts from the collections. Another output will be a film on the digitisation project that, together with the other aspects of the public programme, will open up new paths into our collections for a variety of audiences.

We look forward to working closely with our colleagues at the Bibliothèque nationale de France on this exciting project to enhance access to and understanding of the written cultural heritage of England and France.

Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator


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01 October 2016

A Calendar Page for October 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for October from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

More emphasis on mythology and the naming of months can be found in the calendar pages for October in the Bedford Hours. 

Detail of miniatures of a man sowing and the zodiac sign Scorpio, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

Preparing for winter was the focus of most agricultural labour in the medieval era, and on the lower right of the first calendar folio we can see a peasant at work sowing seed in a barren field (barren save for the seeds, at any rate). Next to this busy man is an oddly-shaped scorpion, minus the tell-tale stinger in its tail, for the zodiac sign Scorpio. 

Detail of a marginal roundel of Saturnus, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a crowned king standing before a group of seated men. This, the rubrics tell us, is Saturn, one of the oldest of the Roman gods. The verses at the bottom of the folio go on to explain that October, which is ‘named after the number eight which signifies justice’, is dedicated to Saturn, and that the time of his reign was a golden one because ‘everyone lived justly’. Saturn’s origins in the Roman pantheon are complex, but interestingly, there is a theory that his name is etymologically derived from the word satu, or ‘sowing’, fitting for a god of agriculture (and echoing the labour on the same folio). 

Calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10v

A particularly charming scene can be found on the following folio. To the left of the remainder of the saints’ days for October is a marginal miniature of a woman, clad in a long blue dress and standing among trees that are shedding their leaves for fall.  She holds in one hand a knife (or pair of scissors), while with the other she is gathering her blonde tresses. This is a lovely illustration of the accompanying rubrics, which tell us that in the month of October ‘the earth takes off its ornaments’. Below is a miniature of another seated man, surrounded by a group of adoring men. This, we are told, is another person to whom October is dedicated: Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War.

Detail of marginal roundels of the earth taking off her ornaments and Scipio Africanus, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10v


Sarah J Biggs


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30 September 2016

Valerius Maximus: A Handbook for the Roman Arriviste?

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In Rome in AD 31, Valerius Maximus finished his collection of almost a thousand stories from the Roman world. It was a time of great change and uncertainty, but also the beginning of a new era, as the great Roman Republic had been replaced by the rule of emperors, a model that would continue in Western Europe until the 20th century. Many people lamented the loss of the values of the past and the poet Lucan wrote, ‘From now on until the end of time we are slaves’. It seems that Valerius wanted to preserve the great stories to entertain, to connect his fellow citizens to their great past, and to provide a noble code of behaviour based on the examples of their illustrious forebears.

Valerius Maximus presents his book to Tiberius, seated in his court; ten sons of Rome are sent to Etruria for religious instruction; Metellus forbids the Consul, Postumius, to leave Rome; Rome is conquered by the Gauls; Numa Pompilius, King of Rome, threatens his people with death if they do not perform religious duties; Jehoiachin, King of Judah, in prison, hears Ezechial prophesying; Publicius Malleolus murders his mother and is placed in a sack to be thrown into the sea as punishment: Book 1, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, Paris, 1473–c. 1480, Harley MS 4374, f. 1r.

Valerius took his stories from the works of great Latin authors including Cicero, Livy and Varro, organised into 9 books with themes such as happiness and ancient customs. The books were divided into 8 or 10 chapters, each dealing with a specific topic and containing stories from Ancient Rome followed by foreign tales, mostly from Ancient Greece, to illustrate the topic.  In his preface, Valerius stated that he wanted to save others trouble, so he organised his stories for easy reference.


Miniature of Gyges, king of Lydia, kneeling before an altar, with a full border containing the royal arms of England and a foliate initial 'I'(cy commence), at the beginning of book 7, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, Bruges, Royal MS 18 E IV, f. 109r.

Valerius's work provides a unique insight into the lives of ancient Romans and their views on many subjects. The picture painted is not entirely rosy; the cruelty and brutality of the Romans towards their enemies and opponents is portrayed honestly, and there are numerous examples of bloody conflict in the civil wars at the end of the Republic. The political changes brought with them huge social changes; it was a time of social mobility, with the old political aristocracy swept away and a new elite from more modest backgrounds, some from the provinces, taking its place. The new administrators, men like Pontius Pilate in Judea, may have used the examples in Valerius’s work to help them acquire the knowledge and values that they needed to govern and to avoid the sneers of the old elite. It was described as ‘Practical ethics for Roman gentlemen’ in the title of a study by C. J. Skidmore. 

An example of nouveau riche conspicuous consumption is provided as a warning at the beginning of the last book, on vice.

Sergius Arata exhibits his hanging baths to his friends and inspects the artificial reserves he has constructed for fish; mid tier: the son of Aesopus feasts on the most costly singing birds; the Roman women plead for the repeal of the Oppian law forbidding female extravagance; lower tier: Sardanapalus, King of Assyria, clothed in women's attire, sits spinning among his wives, then burns himself and his possessions when he loses power, Book 9, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, Paris, 1473–c. 1480, Harley MS 4375, f. 179r.

Although we do not really know how popular Valerius’s work was in antiquity, it was still copied the Carolingian period. In the later Middle Ages it was amazingly successful, with more copies surviving than any other Latin prose text apart from the Bible. Some studies have compared the use of exempla from the Old Testament with Valerius’s moral examples. In the British Library we have copies from France, Germany and Italy.


Historiated initial 'U'(rbis Rome), of a building probably representing Rome, and a three-sided foliate border, at the beginning of Valerius Maximus's Factorum et dictorum memorabilium, Italy, N. (Lombardy?), 2nd half of the 14th century, Arundel MS 7, f. 1r.

Vernacular translations introduced the text to an even wider readership, perhaps the most well-known being the French translation begun for Charles V in 1375 by Simon de Hesdin, a knight hospitaller, and expanded and completed by Nicholas de Gonesse for the Duc de Berry.


Miniature of Simon de Hesdin presenting his book to King Charles V of France; in the foreground, a dog pursues a monkey. Full strew border with acanthus leaves, flowers, figures, and a monkey mounted on a sheep (damaged), Book 1 Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, Netherlands, S., last quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 4430, f. 33r.

Valerius's work was also popular with medieval aristocrats, as evidenced by the number of highly illuminated copies made, with several in the British Library, some now bound in two or more volumes as they are so large. The following manuscripts have just been published in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Harley MS 4372

Harley MS 4373

Harley MS 4374

Harley MS 4375

Other Valerius manuscripts have not been digitised in full but can be found online in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts with a selection of images:

Harley MS 4430

Royal MS 17 F IV

Royal MS 18 E III

Royal MS 18 E IV

Arundel MS 7



A family enjoying good fortune, Book 7, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, France, N. (Amiens or Hesdin), or Netherlands, S., 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 17 F IV, f. 232r.

Chantry Westwell



Further Reading

C. J. Skidmore, Practical ethics for Roman gentlemen: the work of Valerius Maximus (Exeter, 1996).

Valerius Maximus ‘Memorable Deeds and Sayings’: One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome, translated by Henry John Walker (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004).

26 September 2016

Every People Under Heaven

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A major new exhibition on the art of medieval Jerusalem opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, the exhibition brings together art from multiple religious and cultural traditions, providing new insight into the international nature of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, and highlighting the stunning artistic richness that survives from the period.

The British Library is proud to be a lender to this exhibition. In addition to a number of items loaned by our colleagues in Asian and African Collections,  three items from Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts will be on display. The exhibition offers a rare opportunity for these items to be viewed in the context of many other works of art created around the same time, and helps to reveal the many threads of cross-cultural influence to be found in works from the medieval Eastern Mediterranean and Levant.

The Harley Greek Gospels was produced some time around 1200 either in Cyprus or Palestine. Like many illuminated Byzantine Gospels, it contains portraits of the four Evangelists, one at the beginning of each Gospel book, as well as canon tables decorated with curtains, capitals and birds, and decorated headpieces at the beginning of three of the Gospels. But in addition, Harley 1810 contains 17 framed miniatures depicting narrative scenes from the life of Jesus and his followers throughout the manuscript. Most of these scenes appear in the course of the text of the Gospels, but one, depicting the Nativity, is given special prominence by being placed as the headpiece to the Gospel of Matthew.


Dormition of the Virgin Mary, Harley MS 1810, f. 174r. Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1200.

These narrative cycles appear in some Byzantine Gospel books from the second half of the 11th century, but they are relatively unusual. The cycle of images includes depiction of scenes that do not appear in the Bible, for instance on f. 174r, where the depiction of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary can be found, an account that is not found in the text of the Bible. The art is characteristic of Eastern Mediterranean/Levantine book production at this period. The Met has chosen to display the scene of the Annunciation, on f 142r, which comes near the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. In this miniature, the architecture depicted is distinctive and perhaps reminiscent of local style.


The Annunciation, Harley MS 1810, f. 142r. Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1200.

In addition to Harley 1810, visitors to the exhibition will be able to see the Melisende Psalter and its ivories on display. Readers of our blog will know our deep love for this manuscript, one of the most stunning works of 12th-century Crusader Art. Probably created for Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem between 1131 and 1153, the manuscript is written in Latin, but shows on every illuminated page the influence of Eastern Mediterranean art. The gold backdrop and architectural styles on display are particularly reminiscent of Byzantine illumination. On display at the Met are the folios depicting the Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazarus.


The Transfiguration, Egerton MS 1139, f. 4v. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem) 1131-1143.


The Raising of Lazarus, Egerton MS 1139, f. 5r. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143.

The Melisende Psalter was originally encased in an exquisite binding of two ivory plaques, which contain scenes from the life of David on the upper cover and the six vices and six works of charity on the lower cover. As if carved ivory plaques were not ornate enough, this binding was further adorned with small gemstones.


Ivory plaque from the upper binding of the Melisende Psalter, depicting scenes from the life of David. Egerton MS 1139/1, f. vr. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143.

We are delighted to be able to contribute to the exciting new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to enable our North American friends to see some of our favourite manuscripts in person! The exhibition opens on 26 September, and continues until 8 January 2017.

Cillian O'Hogan


16 September 2016

Snakes, Mandrakes and Centaurs: Medieval Herbal Now Online

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Cannabis can be used to treat swollen breasts. The urine of a child has wrinkle-busting properties. Fern, mixed with wine, is a good treatment for wounds. (Sounds promising, although I might go easy on the fern part.) And should you fear encountering snakes, it is best to carry Adderwort with you. These are some of the nuggets of medical wisdom to be found in our recently digitised Sloane MS 1975. The manuscript is an illustrated collection of medical texts, made in England or Northern France in the last quarter of the 12th century.


A man attempting to vanquish a serpent and an image of the Teazle plant, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 21r

Sloane 1975 contains a collection of different works, including a treatise on herbs by Pseudo-Apuleius (the name pseudo-Apuleius is used to refer to an anonymous 4th-century Roman author whose work was sometimes erroneously attributed to Apuleius), Pseudo-Dioscorides, 'De herbis femininis', and a text by Sextus Placitus of Papyra (active c. 370 CE), entitled 'De medicina ex animalibus'. It is extensively illustrated, and the images are a joy.

The image below depicts the Mandrake plant, which was used as an anaesthetic and treatment for melancholy, mania and rheumatic pain. (The plant can induce hallucinations  -- it produces tropane alkaloids: tropane alkaloids are also produced by Erythroxylum novogranatens, the plant which is used to create cocaine.) The roots of the mandrake have the habit of forking in two directions, and can appear to resemble a human figure. Depictions of it often show the plant with a human body or head. It was thought that the plant would scream when pulled from the earth and any who heard the screams would be condemned to death or damnation. Harvesting the plant would therefore pose some problems. The manuscript advises that strings should be attached to the plant and the other end of the strings attached to a dog, which would then pull the plant from the ground. Below, the dog can be seen harvesting the mandrake.


A Mandrake, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 49r

The manuscript’s illustrations serve a variety of purposes. This one, below, shows the appropriate way to deal with a rabid dog. (Can you tell it’s rabid? The clue is in its *rabid*, red face.)


Red faced dog

Man and dog, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 24r

Should you be bitten by a rabid dog, the herbal elsewhere advises, it is best to consult a hen. If the hen has a good appetite, it bodes well for a speedy recovery.

Hen appetite

A hen bodes well for speedy recovery, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 14v

Many of the images illustrate the properties of particular plants, like the one depicting the mandrake. Others, however, appear to have a more incidental purpose. The illustration for Carmel gestures to the alternative names for the plant. Curmel is called ‘Centauria Maior’ in Greek, hence the image below depicts a centaur holding the plant.  


To the left, the plant Carmel, to the right a centaur holds the plant, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 23r

Centaurs make an appearance elsewhere. This image shows the centaur Chiron giving herbs to the goddess Diana or Artemis (who was his foster mother according to some sources). He has apparently named three plants of the genus Artemisia after her. 


Chiron gives herbs to Artemis, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 17v

The manuscript also contains a text called 'De medicina ex animalibus', which has some wonderful images of animals, including something that bills itself as an elephant, but in person looks more like a disappointed tapir vomiting up a tusk.

Elephant crop

An Elephant (apparently), England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 81v

Yet, alongside endearing images of animals, this manuscript also contains grisly images of medical treatment. In this image, a patient’s hands are tied behind his back, while a doctor performs surgery on his head – a grim reminder of the realities of medical treatment before anaesthetics were discovered.


Grim images of medicine before anaesthesia, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 91v

A few folios on and the images get decidedly worse (yes, we also thought they couldn't get any worse). In the top left-hand corner of this image we can see a doctor removing haemorrhoids from a patient (the bowl on which the patient is standing may have been intended to catch the blood). Below this a doctor is excising a nasal growth, and to the right a doctor is removing cataracts. 


Variety of hideous medical procedures, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 93r

This manuscript is currently on show in Cambridge, at the Fitzwilliam Museum's Colour exhibition. Read more about this exhibition and the manuscripts we have loaned to it here

Mary Wellesley 


01 September 2016

A Calendar Page for September 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for September from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

Summer’s end is in the air in the calendar pages for September from the Bedford Hours.

Detail of miniatures of a man treading grapes and the zodiac sign Libra, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

The heavy agricultural work of the summer begins to give way to the preparations for autumn, and this calendar page for September shows one of the most common of these preparations.  On the lower left, a man is carefully treading grapes in a vat for making wine; he has removed his trousers for this messy job, but his jaunty cap remains intact.  To his right is a female figure carrying a set of scales, for the zodiac sign Libra.

Detail of a marginal roundel of Palas, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a king with a forked beard, seated in a garden.  Behind him stands an angel with an open book, which is visible behind the king’s crown.  This scene is only somewhat explained by the accompanying rubric, which describes how the month of September is named after the number seven, which is ‘dedicated to Palas which means wisdom’.  The honorific Pallas was given to the goddess Athena, who was indeed the goddess of wisdom.

Calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9v

More details about the month of September can be found on the following folio.  The first marginal roundel shows a bearded man, clad in green leaves, standing in a walled garden overflowing with plants.  Above him in gold lettering is the name ‘Verto[m]pn[us]’, who the rubric tells us produces fruit ‘in the month of September’.  This figure is almost certainly that of Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasonal change, fruit trees, growth and gardens.  At the bottom is a figure of a regal woman standing in a garden, with a bird flying directly before her.  She is labelled ‘Elul’ and the rubrics go on to explain that the month of September is ‘called in Hebrew elul which means the mother of God.’ (Elul is the sixth month of the Hebrew ecclesiastical calendar, corresponding to parts of August and September in the Gregorian system.)

Detail of marginal roundels of Vertumnus and Elul, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9v