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151 posts categorized "Latin"

01 February 2016

Exploding Eyes, Beer from Bath-Water and Butter from Nettles: the Extraordinary Life of Brigid of Kildare

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Today, February 1st, is the feast day of saint Brigid of Kildare (d. c. 524).  Brigid or ‘Brigit’ or ‘Bride’ was a virgin and abbess, and is the patron saint of dairymaids, poets, blacksmiths and healers. She is one of the most popular medieval Irish saints, with numerous churches and shrines dedicated to her both in Ireland and elsewhere. Her iconographical emblem is the cow.

There are multiple versions of the life of Brigid in both Old Irish and Latin. The earliest, written in Latin, dates from around a century after her death. All the versions are hazy in their biographical detail, but what they lack in biography, they more than make up for with colourful miracle stories.

A lot of the stories about Brigid, in each of the versions of her life, or ‘hagiography’, revolve around food – we find miracles associated with milk, butter, bacon and also beer. The library holds a very early manuscript of one of the Latin versions of Brigid’s life, Additional MS 34124. It dates from 850 and comes from Benediktbeuren in Germany. There is a story in this manuscript about how one night Brigid was expecting guests and realised she was short of food. Fearing that the evening’s feast would be ruined, she was able to change nettles into butter and tree bark into ‘the richest and most delicious bacon’. (Chapter 119)

Many of these miracle stories mirror stories from the Gospels. In John 2:2-12, we find the story of how Christ turns water into wine at the Supper at Cana. In the earliest Latin life of Brigid, by Cogitosus, we find a similar story in which Brigid realises she has no beer to give to her guests, whereupon ‘with the power of her faith’ was able to turn bath-water into beer. (Chapter 8)

Alongside the miracles associated with food and beer, there are also miracles involving amorous misadventures. A story from the earliest Irish life, from a manuscript in the Bodleian library in Oxford (MS Rawlinson B. 512) describes how a man came to Brigid’s house and asked for her hand in marriage. Having sworn a vow of virginity, Brigid was not taken with the idea. She declined the offer, but - ever magnanimous – offered her suitor an alternative. The text relates how she instructed him to go to a wood to the west of his house. In the wood, she tells him, he will find a house in which there is a beautiful maiden – he will know her because she will be washing her father’s head. Perhaps fearing that the suitor’s charms might be lost on this maiden, Brigid tells him ‘I shall bless your face and your speech so that they shall take pleasure in whatever you will say’. (Chapter 15) Brigid might make a suitable patron saint for first dates as well.

One of the Latin lives has a different version of this story. In this version Brigid is encouraged to take the hand of her suitor by her father and brothers. Reluctant to do this, she prays to God to be afflicted with a bodily deformity, whereupon, the life describes how ‘one of her eyes burst and liquefied in her head’. (Chapter 19)

A much later writer, Gerald of Wales (d. c. 1220) in his topographical guide to Ireland, dedicated to Henry II, has extensive descriptions of Brigid’s abbey and shrine. He describes a fire kept burning at the shrine, which is tended by a small group of nuns. The fire never goes out, and despite burning for centuries, it never produces any ash. It is surrounded by a hedge, which no man is allowed to enter. Only women are allowed to tend to the fire and to blow on it. Gerald relates a story about how an archer lept over the hedge and blew on the fire. On jumping back over the hedge, the archer began to lose his senses and blow into the faces of everyone he met. Then, consumed by thirst, he begged his friends to take him to some nearby water, where he drank so much that he burst. (Chapter 77)

You can see an image of Brigid’s fire, from a manuscript of Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hiberniae (Royal MS 13 B VIII, f.23v) held at the library here. In the right of the image we can see the archer ill-advisedly blowing on the fire and then subsequently attempting to sate his thirst at a river.

Brigid's fire

Here you can see two of calendar pages from Books of Hours (prayer-books) for the month of February. In them, you can see saint Brigid’s name at the start, next to February 1st. This one (Additional MS 21114, f. 1v), produced in Northern France in the thirteenth century, shows a man cutting branches. The word ‘brigide’ is visible in the third line.  

Brigid calendar

In this one (Egerton MS 2076, f. 2r) produced in Germany in the early sixteenth century, the words ‘Brigide virginis’ are visible in the second line.   

Calendar page brigid

 

Mary Wellesley, Feast of Saint Brigid, 2016.

Further Reading:

For a translation of the earliest life of Brigid in Latin, by Cogitosus, see S. Connolly and J.M. Picard, ‘Cogitosus: Life of Saint Brigit’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 117 (1987), 5-27.

A translation of the earliest Old Irish life of Brigid can be found in M. A. O’Brien, ‘The Old Irish Life of Saint Brigit’, Irish Historical Studies, I (1938-9), 121-34.

A translation of another version of the Latin life, from a manuscript found in the library’s collection can be read in S. Connolly, ‘Vita Sanctae Brigitae: Background and Historical Value’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 118 (1988), 5-49.

A translation of Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica can be read in Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, ed. and trans. by John J. O’Meara (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982).

A Calendar Post for February 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.

Add_ms_18850_f002r
Calendar page for February from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 2r

The calendar pages for February are just as lavishly decorated as those for January, filled with coloured initials and gold foliage.  At the bottom of the first folio is a miniature of another pleasant winter labour, that of warming oneself before a fire.  The gentleman in this scene has just removed one of his boots and is extending his foot towards a roaring fire, presumably after coming in from the cold.

Add_ms_18850_f002r_detail2
Detail of the miniatures for warming oneself and the zodiac sign Pisces, from the calendar page for February, Add MS 18850, f. 2r

Alongside is a miniature of two fish connected by a single line, hovering above an ocean and below a star-studded sky – this for the zodiac sign, Pisces.

Add_ms_18850_f002r_detail1
Detail of a marginal roundel with Februa and flowers, from the calendar page for February, Add MS 18850, f. 2r

Above in a roundel is an elegantly-dressed lady in a red dress trimmed with ermine; she is holding a bunch of flowers close to her face.  This unusual scene is explained by the rubrics at the bottom of the folio, which describe how this month is named after a woman called ‘Februa’, who ‘according to the poets’ was the mother of Mars, the god of war.  Rather unusually, she is said to have conceived her son by ‘kissing and adoring a flower’.

Add_ms_18850_f002v
Calendar page for February, Add MS 18850, f. 2v

The remaining saints’ days are laid out in the following folio, with a bit of space left blank because of the shortness of the month.  The roundels once again illustrate the bottom verses, which describe a procession around the city and the annual February Festival of Fools.

Add_ms_18850_f002v_detail1
Add_ms_18850_f002v_detail2
Detail of a marginal roundels of a city procession and the Festival of Fools, from the calendar page for February, Add MS 18850, f. 2v

-  Sarah J Biggs

20 January 2016

New Arrivals for the New Year on Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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A new year brings a new update to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts – a host of new images and new manuscripts are now available online.  As many users of this catalogue will know, it complements our Digitised Manuscripts website, where complete manuscripts are digitised. CIM (our pet name for it) focuses on the illuminations, providing a selection of images with each catalogue entry, and the in-depth image descriptions are designed to allow searches for details within the images. For instance, the Advanced Search allows users to search for an image of a horse in a French manuscript of the 14th century. 13 horses of all shapes and sizes appear, from manuscripts as diverse as the Roman de Brut and the Queen Mary Psalter, including this one from the Chroniques de France:

K137598
Detail of a miniature of Brunhilda being dragged by hands and hair behind a horse, France, Central (Paris), 1332-1350,  Royal 16 G VI, f. 87

All images in the catalogue are in the public domain, so they are free to download and use.  See http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/reuse.asp for guidelines. For this reason we continue to add manuscripts that are already fully digitised, in some cases.

Once again, we have mostly worked on French manuscripts in the Additionals collection. Here is a selection of new additions.

Illuminated Apocalypses: a gift from the team in Medieval manuscripts to cheer up a bleak January day (or not !): 9 new manuscripts have been added, including the usual weird/horrific images:

Add MS 19896

K138430
A two-part miniature of the Devil, the Beast the False Prophet and all the Wicked in the lake of fire and brimstone (above); God in a mandorla judging the Dead, with books opened (below), Germany, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 19896, f. 22

Add MS 17333

K151518
Half-page framed miniature of the angel showing John the heavenly city with a decorated initial and foliate partial border, France, N. W. (Normandy), c.1320-1330, Add MS 17333, f. 45v

Add MS 22493

059384
Framed miniature of the Rider on the Pale Horse, depicted as a skeleton with the two mouths of hell behind him, France, N.E. (Lorraine: Metz or Verdun), 4th quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 22493, f. 3v

Images from these three Apocalypses, together with Add MSS 17399, Add MS 19896, Add MS 38118 and Add MS 38121 appear online for the first time. Add MS 11695 (the amazing Silos Apocalypse), Add MS 35166 and Add MS 15243 are already in Digitised Manuscripts, but have been added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts with a selection of images and detailed descriptions.

Further horrors are on view in this manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy, added to the 7 already in the catalogue:

B20133-15
Bas-de page scene of the sowers of discord displaying their wounds (left); Bertrand de Born depicted twice, showing Dante and Virgil his severed head, from Canto 28 of the Inferno, Italy, S. (Naples), c. 1370, Add MS 19587, f. 47v

3 manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose have been added to the 11 already in the catalogue. Here are images from two of them:

Add MS 31840

B20153-25
Framed miniature of the Lover asleep at the beginning of the Roman de la Rose, with full foliate border and hounds chasing rabbits in the lower section, France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 31840, f. 3

Add 42133

C02249-01
Framed miniature of the God of Love locking the Lover's heart with a large gold key, from the Roman de la Rose, France (Paris),  4th quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 42133, f. 15

 

A magnificent Bible Historiale in 2 volumes. Here is an image from volume 2:

A80139-84
The beginning of the Book of Matthew with a half-page framed miniature of the Trinity and the four Evangelists with the coat of arms of England and France, illuminated initial and a full foliate border, France, C. (Paris), c. 1420, Add MS 18857, f. 148

Add MS 10628

­The Kalendarium of John Somer.  The contents are related to the series of physicians’ folding almanacs we recently published in Digitised Manuscripts, as described in a recent blogpost, Almanacs Online

 011ADD000010628U00025000

Diagram of Zodiac Man with symbols and labels of the signs of the zodiac, England, S.W., c.1383-1384, Add MS 10628, f. 25

Montecassino Exultet Roll

Lastly a manuscript that is also available on Digitised Manuscripts but worth including in CIM for its unusual format and beautiful early images from Montecassino. It includes the Exultet, a hymn sung by a deacon during the consecration of the Paschal candle, during the Easter Vigil. See our blog post from 2013, which explains why the images are upside down!

 C0889-07

A miniature of the Crossing of the Red Sea and a miniature of the Harrowing of Hell, Italy, S. (Monte Cassino), c. 1075, Add MS 30337, membrane 7

Other new additions are

Add MS 16441, Roman d’Athis et Porfilias

Add MS 18856, Bible Historiale, vol 1

Add MS 36673, Guiron le Courtois

Add MS 72707: A leaf from the Hungerford Hours. Other leaves from this manuscript in the British Library are:

Add MS 61887 

And Add 62106 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

18 January 2016

Elves and Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

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Recently, three beautiful Mercian prayerbooks from the late 8th and early 9th century have been uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts as part of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts digitisation project. These manuscripts, which  were probably made somewhere in what is now western England, are notable for a variety of reasons: the distinctive initials, the earliest known copy of a Lorican prayer (a prayer of protection developed in Ireland), and the use of female pronouns in some prayers, suggesting they may have been made or owned by women.

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Initial with a biting beast from the Royal Prayerbook, England (Kingdom of Mercia), late 8th- early 9th century, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 17r

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Initial from the Book of Nunnaminster, England (Kingdom of Mercia), late 8th- early 9th century, Harley MS 2965, f. 4v

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Detail of a Latin prayer with female forms (‘ut pro me d[e]i famula oretis’), from the Harley Prayerbook, England (Kingdom of Mercia), late 8th- early 9th century, Harley MS 7653, f. 1r

One of these prayerbooks-- the Royal Prayerbook, Royal MS 2 A XX-- is also notable for containing one of the earliest known written reference to an elf (ælf or ylfe in Old English).  Unlike the heroic and otherworldly beings of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga or Santa’s jolly assistants in American literature, the elf in this text seems to be rather sinister. The prayer in which the elf is mentioned seems to be an exorcism: ‘I conjure you, devil of Satan, of (an/the) elf, through the living and true God...that he is put to flight from that person’ (translated from the original Latin by Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007), p. 72).

Royal_ms_2_a_xx_f045v
Detail of a prayer mentioning an ‘ælf’, from the Royal Prayerbook, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 45v

The association of Satan with an elf or someone called ‘Elf’ may reflect pre-Christian beliefs in Anglo-Saxon society. We have no direct written evidence for pre-Christian society or even later popular beliefs amongst the Anglo-Saxons; however, belief in elves features in later medieval accounts of Norse paganism, which may have shared some elements of its mythology with Anglo-Saxon paganism. The author of this prayer may have compared Satan to an elf to help his or her Anglo-Saxon audience understand who Satan was and what his powers were.

Elves also have negative connotations in Bald’s Leechbook, a collection of Anglo-Saxon medical remedies and diagnostic guides which has also now been digitised and put online (for more information about this manuscript, see our post Bald’s Leechbook Now Online). On the page shown below, there are charms which suggest elves could cause pain in domestic animals. Elves are also associated with diseases of the head and with mental illness in the leechbooks.

Royal_ms_12_d_xvii_f106r
Charms mentioning elves, Bald’s Leechbook, England (Winchester?), 1st half of 10th century, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 106r

Likewise, in Beowulf, elves (spelt ylfe) were included amongst the races of monsters. They are mentioned in a passage which, translated from the Old English by Seamus Heaney, claims:

‘...out of his (Cain’s) exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God’

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f134r
A passage mentioning elves, from Beowulf, England, 1st quarter of 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 134r

However, elves may not always have entirely negative connotations in Anglo-Saxon lore. In the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, many members of the West Saxon nobility gave their children names that included the element ‘ælf’: perhaps the most notable example is Alfred, or Ælfræd, the Great. Charters list many Ælfstans, Ælfgifus, and Ælfrics, although it is unclear if Anglo-Saxons chose names because they sounded like the supernatural beings called 'elves' or just as part of longstanding naming traditions. (See, for example, Fran Colman’s The Grammar of Names in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)).  

Very beautiful women were sometimes also compared to elves, although these texts suggest that such elfin beauty could lead to trouble. In the Anglo-Saxon poem about Judith, the Biblical heroine is described as ælfscinu, or beautiful like an elf.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f202r
Judith described as an elfin beauty, from Judith,
Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 202r

Thus, Anglo-Saxons imaginings of elves may also have been more complicated than our limited sources can reveal. Indeed, an early 10th-century glossary distinguished between different types of elves, such as mountain elves (dunelfen) and wood elves (wuduelfe), and used them to translate different types of nymphs from classical mythology.

Add_ms_32246_f021r
Detail of a glossary comparing nymphs to different types of elves, from a fragment of a schoolbook, England (Abingdon?), 1st quarter of 11th century, Additional MS 32246, f. 21r.

These are just a few of the references to elves in Old English literature. These references have sometimes been used to portray the Anglo-Saxons as superstitious and even credulous, but they appear in texts that exhibit complicated theological ideas, advanced linguistics, and even powerful medical remedies that have been verified using modern scientific techniques. And the idea of elves continues to fascinate many people to this day. So please click over to Digitised Manuscripts to explore these manuscripts and their elves.

-   Alison Hudson, Project Curator: Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

14 January 2016

A Belated Holiday Gift from Us: a Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks!

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It's that time of year again, friends, and we're pleased to (belatedly) celebrate the holidays by giving you a magnificent gift.  This gift is certainly worth the wait, though - a massive list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks!  We're mixing it up a little bit this time, though, as the list is now a PDF, but fully searchable and with working hyperlinks.  You can download it here:  Download BL AMEM Digitised Manuscripts Master List.  There are 1429 manuscripts on this list now, we are staggered to report.

Add_ms_88991_f002v
Illuminated frontispiece of the marital arms of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford (created 1st Duke of Somerset, and Lord Protector in 1547) and his second wife, Lady Anne Stanhope, with the Seymour family motto ‘Foy pour Devoir’, from the Taverner Prayer Book, England (London), c. 1540, Add MS 88991, f. 2v

In honour of our biggest ever list of hyperlinks, we're pleased to share one of our smallest manuscripts, the Taverner Prayer Book (see above), which recently went online.  We've also added quite a few manuscripts from our Anglo-Saxon project, along with many from the illuminated collections in general.  We have some big plans for the coming year and many more manuscripts to share with you, so watch this space!

-   Sarah J Biggs

09 January 2016

Until We Meet Again

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As my time here in the British Library ticks away, I have very much to be grateful for.  It has been a massive privilege and pleasure to work with my marvellous colleagues in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts department, and to be able to have daily contact with such a spectacular collection of manuscripts.  One of my greatest joys has been this blog, which I will continue to contribute to, albeit from across the pond.  But as a way to mark the end of this particular era, I thought I would share some of my favourite posts from the past 5 years.  Without further ado, the Sarah J Biggs Top Ten (chosen via the totally unscientific process of me picking what I liked):

 

10.  Erasing Becket:  a post spurred by a number of reader enquiries about the practice of removing references to St Thomas Becket from medieval manuscripts

Erasing Becket
Miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, and excision of the suffrage of Thomas Becket, Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), South Netherlands, 3rd  quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2985, ff. 29v-30r

 

9.  An Old World View of the New: a rare opportunity for me to work on material concerning the Americas, based on a miniature fraught with a legacy of slavery and genocide.

Old World
Miniature of cannibals attacking the members of a Spanish expedition to America in 1530, from the Triumphs of Charles V, Italy or the Netherlands, c. 1556-c. 1575, Add MS 33733, f. 10r

 

8.  The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts: what it says on the tin.  Although now that I think about it I never did write the promised follow-up about medieval artists.

Burden
Detail of a miniature of a hermit at work on a manuscript, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315 – 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 6v

 

7.  ‘Virile, if Somewhat Irresponsible’ Design: The Marginalia of the Gorleston Psalter and More Gorleston Psalter ‘Virility’: Profane Images in a Sacred Space:  this glorious two-part post was great fun for me to research and even more fun to write, and firmly established my interest in rude medieval monkeys.

Gorleston
Detail of a marginal creature pulling a face, from the Gorleston Psalter, England, 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 123r

 

6.  Marginali-yeah! The Fantastical Creatures of the Rutland Psalter:  Marginalia, monsters, and monkeys!  How could anything be better?

Rutland
Bas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid with a panotii (a monstrous race of men with enormous ears), from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 88v

 

5.  The Anatomy of a Dragon: another examination of fantastical medieval creatures (a bit of a theme here); this post was apparently very popular amongst video game aficionados and developers, for some reason.

Dragon
Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against two-headed, eight-legged, crowned dragons with multiple eyes along their torsos, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 78v

 

4.  Dress Up for Halloween, Medieval Style: I actually attempted a memento mori costume the year I wrote this post.  It was not entirely successful.

Memento
Detail of an historiated initial 'D'(ilexi) with a woman (Duchess Dionora?) with a skull for a face admiring herself in a hand mirror, from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino, Italy (Florence or Mantua), c. 1480, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 174r

 

3.  Bugs in Books: I’ll just quote Pliny here on the subject of 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.’ 

Bugs
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

 

2.  Knight v Snail: a casual conversation in our manuscripts store led to one of the most popular blog posts across the British Library, and a lot of interest in this enduring mystery. 

Snail
Knight and snail from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), with marginal scenes added in England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r

 

1.  Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library:  there's nothing else that deserves the number one spot!

Unicorn
Detail of a unicorn on the grill in Geoffrey Fule's cookbook, England, mid-14th century (London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, f. 137r)

Thank you all for everything, and here’s to many more happy years exploring medieval manuscripts!

-  Sarah J Biggs

07 January 2016

The Case of the Disappearing Ships

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In 2013 we were pleased to tell you about a ‘new life’ for one of our Royal manuscripts:  a banner-sized detail of a 15th century mappa mundi, which originally greeted visitors to our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, was repurposed to brilliant effect by Turner prize-winning artist Mark Leckey.

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Installation View:  detail of a Mappa mundi from Bartholomaeus Angelicus' De proprietatibus rerum, Royal MS 15 E III, f. 67v, behind Double Dome, 1967 by Derek Boshier, courtesy the Arts Council Collection from The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things curated by Mark Leckey, a Hayward Touring exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary 27 April – 30 June 2013. Photo: Andy Keate

But the story doesn’t end there.  Following its sojourn in the heady realm of contemporary art, the banner came home with me.  It made its way onto the wall of my infant daughter’s nursery, so that from a very early age she would be able to contemplate the important things in life (mappae mundi and medieval manuscript illumination, basically). 

BA Map in Eleanor's room
Over the course of the many many hours I spent in the nursery, I spent a lot of time staring at this vastly magnified painting.  And I soon noticed something interesting. 

But first a bit of background.  This miniature can be found at the beginning of Book 15 of a French translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ encyclopaedia, De proprietatibus rerum.  Angelicus’s text, a compliation of theology, natural history, and science, was a bestseller, by medieval standards.  A century after it was written, De proprietatibus rerum  was translated into French, and illuminated copies began to be produced.  Royal MS 15 E III is a lavish copy, produced in Bruges in 1485, which may have once belonged to Edward IV.

G70018-05a
Detail of a tripartite mappa mundi, from a French translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ De proprietatibus rerum, Bruges, 1482, Royal MS 15 E III, f. 67v

Book 15 of Angelicus’s text is called ‘On the provinces and countries’ and discusses Isidore of Seville’s division of the world into three parts: Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Most maps depicting this division show east at the top of the map (the origins of our term ‘to orient’), but the miniature above is interesting in that Asia shares the top space with Africa.  It is also unusual amongst maps of its type by depicting the three lands as mountainous landscapes, full of castles and rivers. 

It is in these rivers, though, that we can begin to see something odd – at least, the rivers in the Africa section.  At first glance it appears that there are no ships to be found in Africa, unlike Asia and Europe.  But a closer inspection reveals that there are ships, or rather, there were ships at one time.

G70018-05a_detail with circles
Detail of the Africa section of the tripartite mappa mundi, with ‘disappearing’ ships circled in red.

Three of these ships are visible (circled in red above), ghostly and barely present.  Examining the manuscript itself indicates that what we are seeing are most likely the original underdrawings, which were strangely emphasised in pigment but never fully painted.  The outlines of these ‘disappearing’ ships were painted over with the river landscapes, but are now visible. 

G70018-05a_detail2
Detail of the Africa section of the tripartite mappa mundi, with two black figures.

Also of interest in the Africa section are the only two inhabitants of the map: the outsized figures of two black men standing against a rocky outcrop.  Both figures appear to have been repainted (at least in part) to alter their positions; this is particularly visible in the way their arms are depicted.  It is possible, though far from certain, that these two men were not part of the original design but were added when the miniature was painted.

It is always a challenge to interpret such manuscript mysteries.  Were the Africa ships included in the original design in error and then corrected by the painter?  Was this only a simple design change?  Or were the ships removed at some point during the design process as part of an effort to make Africa appear more foreign, less civilised?  And how do the figures of the two black men – the only humans in evidence on the map – relate?

As always, we’re grateful for any ideas or suggestions you may have.  You can comment below, or reach us at Twitter @BLMedieval

-   Sarah J Biggs

01 January 2016

A Calendar Page for January 2016

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Many thanks to all of you who voted to help us choose our 2016 calendar; we are pleased to present you with the winner – the Bedford Hours.   The Bedford Hours is a particularly apt choice for the beginning of the year, as it was originally intended as a Christmas gift; on 24 December 1430, the manuscript now known as Add MS 18850 was presented to the newly-crowned king of England, the 8-year-old Henry VI, by his aunt, Anne of Burgundy, the duchess of Bedford. 

Add_ms_18850_f256v
John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford, before St George, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 256v

It was indeed a magnificent gift for the young king, containing 38 large miniatures and more than 1,200 smaller paintings, produced by the best Parisian workshops of the day.   We have highlighted this glorious manuscript before on our blog; more information on the Bedford Hours can be found in our posts A Royal Gift for Christmas and What a King Should Know.

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Calendar page for January, from the Bedford Hours, Add MS 18850, f. 1r

The calendar in the Bedford Hours is suitably sumptuous.  The saints’ days for each month stretch across two pages, which are surrounded by lush foliage and ornately decorated letters.  At the beginning of each month are two miniatures that indicate the labour of that month, as well as the relevant sign of the zodiac.  But the Bedford calendar doesn’t stop there; also included on each folio are one or two medallions, which contain very unusual paintings for a calendar.  At the bottom of each folio are verses, written in blue and gold, which explain the scenes above.

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Detail of the miniatures for feasting and the zodiac sign Aquarius, from the calendar page for January, Add MS 18850, f. 1r

On the bottom of f. 1r we can see two adjacent miniatures.  On the left is the standard ‘labour’ for January, that of feasting – although in this case the gentleman is able to utilise his triple face for maximum eating and drinking.  Next to this is a nude figure of a man pouring out water, corresponding to the zodiac sign for Aquarius.

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Detail of a marginal roundel  with January opening the door to the year, from the calendar page for January, Add MS 18850, f. 1r

To understand the roundel on the middle right we must turn to the rubrics (and here I am indebted to our resident expert in medieval French, Chantry Westwell).  The two lines at the bottom of the folio explain how January ‘holds the key to daylight’, opening the door to the four seasons.  This is, of course, exactly what we can see happening above. 

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Calendar page for January, Add MS 18850, f. 1v

The following folio continues the saints’ days for the month, and include two additional roundels.  These illustrate how we are to greet the first day of the year, giving our hands to one another ‘as a sign of love’. 

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Detail of a roundel with figures greeting the new year, Add MS 18850, f. 1v

Happy New Year!

-  Sarah J Biggs