Medieval manuscripts blog

609 posts categorized "Medieval"

25 October 2016

Wonders of Thread: The V&A’s Opus Anglicanum Exhibition

Add comment Comments (0)

Until 5 February 2017, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is providing a unique opportunity to view some of the most incredible survivals of pre-modern art in Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery. If you have even a remote interest in the medieval world, textiles, handicrafts or the rituals of society, you won't be disappointed.

The exhibition includes six manuscripts loaned by the British Library, and also available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The curators have brilliantly displayed these alongside works of embroidery to show how they influenced one another in terms of iconography, historical context, and production techniques.


An angel with John Grandisson’s arms: Add MS 21926, f. 2r

Among the manuscripts on display is the ‘Grandisson Psalter’, Add MS 21926, owned by John Grandisson. Next to the book, showing the image of an angel added to the front of the book displaying John's coat of arms, are other objects that he owned and commissioned. The exhibition shows how artwork did not simply sit to be admired, but was a part of a process that allowed members of society to communicate with one another and promote coherence as a community.

The interplay between the artistic styles of manuscripts and embroidery between the 12th and 15th centuries is among the most eye-opening aspects of the exhibition. This gives the opportunity to compare at first hand disparate treasures such as the Syon Cope, highlighted online, with the 'Holkham Bible Picture Book', Add MS 47682:

Christ creating Adam and Eve: Add MS 47682, f. 3r

Christ creating Adam and Eve: Add MS 47682, f. 3r

Other British Library manuscripts in the exhibition are 'Sir Thomas Holme's Book of Arms', Harley MS 4205; the 'De Lisle Psalter' in Arundel MS 83; the 13th-century Psalter of Harley MS 5102; and a sketch of John the Baptist in Royal MS 10 B XIV.

Manuscripts were not created in a vacuum, and this is a rare opportunity to compare them not only with needlework but also with panel paintings, metalwork and sculpture. There has not been a major exhibit on its subject since 1963. If you can't make it to London before February, Clare Browne, Glyn Davies and M. A. Michael have produced the book English Medieval Embroidery: Opus Anglicanum, beautifully illustrated and thoroughly researched.

Andrew Dunning


23 October 2016

Fire, Fire! The Tragic Burning of the Cotton Library

Add comment Comments (0)

2016 has been a year of anniversaries, some of them more notable than others. Already this year we have commemorated 350 years since the Great Fire of London (1666), the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings (1066), and 1,000 years since the Battle of Assandun (1016). The 285th year since the infamous Cotton Library fire (1731) falls on 23 October, and although this may not be a date that immediately leaps to mind, it is a cause of great sorrow for many medievalists.


A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was one of the greatest British collectors of manuscripts of all time. His library was vast and of huge national significance, especially when one recounts some of the books and documents it contained: two of the original manuscripts of Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Cotton Genesis, the state papers of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Vespasian Psalter ... one could easily go on. Cotton made his library available to other scholars during his own lifetime, and enabled certain books to be borrowed (which is why some items, such as the famous Utrecht Psalter, ultimately entered other collections). Finally, 70 years after Cotton died, his manuscripts were accepted on behalf of the nation, and in 1753 they formed the first foundation collection of the new British Museum.

  Cotton_charter_xiii Studio c06259-02
The fire-damaged manuscript of King John's Magna Carta, 1215, rendered almost illegible following the 1731 Cotton fire: Cotton Charter XIII 31A.

Acquiring the Cotton collection for the nation should be regarded as a moment of great rejoicing. This was the first occasion in the British Isles that any library had passed into national ownership, bringing with it such treasures as Magna Carta and the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts assembled by any antiquary. But, sadly, a less joyful event happened in 1731, that threatened to destroy this gift for all time.


The beautiful Vespasian Psalter, 8th century, one of the many treasures of the Cotton Library: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v.

By October 1731, the Cotton manuscripts had been placed for storage at Ashburnham House in London, adjacent to Westminster School. Their former home had been regarded, ironically, as a fire hazard; and so the books had been transferred to the ill-fated (and unfortunately named) Ashburnham House. There, on the night of 23 October 1731, a terrible fire broke out, perhaps starting in a fireplace below the floor where the manuscripts were kept. Despite the efforts of the Deputy Librarian and others, who reportedly were forced to fling scores of books out of the building, a great number of the Cotton manuscripts were badly damaged by the flames and the water used to extinguish them, and a few volumes were destroyed in their entirety. Many unique manuscripts were lost for good, such as Asser's biography of King Alfred of Wessex. The following day, the Westminster schoolboys were said to have gathered fragments of manuscripts floating like butterflies in the wind, some of which have survived until this day (some leaves of the Cotton Genesis, for instance, passed into a collection at Bristol, before being returned to the British Museum in the 1960s).

Cotton MS Fragments XXXII

Boxes containing portions of the manuscripts almost destroyed in the 1731 fire, now classified as Cotton Fragments XXXII.

During the 19th century, a restoration programme was carried out at the British Museum, during which many of the burnt volumes were separated, their pages flattened, inlaid in paper mounts and then rebound. There is a masterful study of this process by Andrew Prescott, in Sir Robert Cotton as Collector, edited by Christopher Wright (The British Library, 1997). Meantime, however, many of Cotton's precious manuscripts had suffered irreversible fortunes. One of the two surviving copies of King John's Magna Carta, 1215, and the only one with the Great Seal still affixed, was rendered illegible as a result of the fire and efforts to save the text, and the seal was reduced to a glob of molten wax. The illustrated Cotton Genesis, already mentioned, suffered severe damage to its illuminations. The pages of Beowulf were burned along their edges, with the result that small portions of the letters reputedly started to crumble, before the volume was inlaid and rebound.

Cotton MS Tiberius E VI

An example of an inlaid Cotton manuscript, following the restoration process: Cotton MS Tiberius E VI.

All of this is extremely tragic, and the story is too detailed and complicated to tell in a single blogpost. Fortunately, the vast majority of the Cotton manuscripts survived the fire, many of them intact: the fate of others is described in an earlier account entitled Crisp as a Poppadom. But today, on 23 October, we should spare a moment to remember the beautiful and historic manuscripts damaged in the Cotton fire, the people who fought valiantly to rescue them, and those who restored them in the 19th century.

Julian Harrison



20 October 2016

Note to Self: Readers Writing in Greek Manuscripts

Add comment Comments (0)

The stories we can tell about manuscripts are not only limited to the texts and images found within them. For as long as books have existed, readers and owners have written notes in them. Sometimes these are notes attempting to explain something difficult in the text, or offering alternative opinions, while at other times they are hastily-written memos of historical events, or simple signatures by later owners. A number of the articles on the new Greek Manuscripts Project Website give us insights into these marginal comments.

Perhaps the most famous example of an annotated Greek manuscript at the British Library is Codex Sinaiticus. Written in the 4th century, it was extensively corrected and annotated over the centuries. Many of the corrections were made by one of the original scribes, editing the work of the others, while other annotations date from later generations. These corrections are incredibly important for telling us about the early history of the Biblical text, which you can read more about in David Parker’s article on ancient Bibles. And for much more information about Codex Sinaiticus, you can consult the Codex Sinaiticus Website.


John 21:1-21:25. Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f 260r), Eastern Mediterranean (?Palestine), mid-4th century.

During the Byzantine era, many scholars and intellectuals engaged in studying and copying Greek texts from antiquity. On occasion, they would reveal their frustration with their ancient predecessors. A famous example can be found in Harley 5694, the earliest known manuscript of Lucian of Samosata (c. 120–180 CE). In this early 10th-century manuscript, the original owner Arethas of Caesarea attacked Lucian for having taken part in an idolatrous rite. You can read what Arethas said, and much more about the scholars of Byzantium, in Georgi Parpulov’s article on the Greek Manuscripts Project Website. And for more information on the transmission of classical texts, consult Mark Joyal’s article on that topic. 


Arethas’ attack on Lucian, in Harley 5694, f. 60v. Eastern Mediterranean (Caesarea?), c. 912–914.

Many of the 19th-century owners of Greek manuscripts were less reverential than one might expect. Robert Curzon, 14th Baron Zouche, whose manuscripts were bequeathed to the British Library, inserted notes at the beginning of the volumes he acquired recounting the circumstances in which he obtained them. These can on occasion be quite entertaining, as in Additional 39604, which, Curzon tells us, was used by him as a pillow when he slept by the river Jordan!


Curzon’s note, pasted into the cover of Additional 39604, a 12th-century Gospel Lectionary.

Perhaps the most radical of all the 19th-century annotators of Greek manuscripts was John Ruskin, who filled the pages of his own Gospel Lectionary with notes on the text of the Bible and on the script used in this particular volume, which he occasionally found frustrating. You can read more about the 19th-century collectors of Greek manuscripts in an article on British Collectors of Greek Manuscripts on the project website.


A characteristic comment by Ruskin on his Gospel Lectionary, Egerton 3046, f. 126r. Eastern Mediterranean, last quarter of the 11th century-1st quarter of the 12th century.

We conclude with a reminder that many of the annotations and comments in Greek manuscripts await further attention from readers and scholars. Please explore the riches available on the Greek Manuscripts Project Website and on Digitised Manuscripts, and let us know what you find!

Cillian O'Hogan



18 October 2016

Remembering Assandun

Add comment Comments (0)

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


13 October 2016

And Always After That It Grew Much Worse

Add comment Comments (1)

14 October 2016 marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. It is sometimes said that ‘winners write the history books’. However, some recently digitised accounts of the Battle of Hastings held at the British Library show that this was not always the case.

Count William came from Normandy to Pevensey on Michaelmas Eve, and as soon as they were able to move on they built a castle at Hastings… There King Harold was killed... and always after that it grew much worse. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, 1066).


Detail of the final lines of version D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ('... from England. And Bishop Odo and Earl William stayed behind and built castles far and wide throughout this country, and distressed the wretched folk, and always after that it grew much worse. May the end be good when God wills!'): Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80v

950 years ago, King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066) died, sparking a contest for the throne of England. Edward was succeeded by his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson, a member of an ambitious political family. King Harold’s rule was soon challenged by the Scandinavian leader Harold Hardrada, who was supported by Harold Godwinson’s own brother Tostig, and William, duke of Normandy. Harold Godwinson defeated Tostig and Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in September 1066, but he was defeated and killed in turn by William at the Battle of Hastings. William took the crown of England and became known as King William I, or William the Conqueror (1066–1087).

Edward and William seals
: seal of Edward the Confessor, from a partially rewritten writ pertaining to the jurisdiction and lordship of Archbishop Stigand and Christ Church Canterbury, allegedly 1052 x 1066 with later interventions, Lord Frederick Campbell Charter XXI 5; 
Right: seal of William the Conqueror, from a confirmation to St Mary's Coventry, allegedly 1070, Add Ch 11205

The Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest inspired a great deal of historical writing. Over a dozen writers recounted the battle and its aftermath within a century of those events taking place, and the British Library holds manuscripts of many of these texts. These manuscripts represent a variety of perspectives, from an account closely based on the work of William the Conqueror’s personal chaplain, William of Poitiers (Cotton MS Nero A XI); to chronicles from Battle Abbey (Cotton MS Domitian A II), built near the site of the battle; to much later, fanciful legends which claimed Harold survived the battle and went on to live as a hermit on the Welsh border. The British Library has recently digitised several manuscripts composed by writers who identified with the losing, Anglo-Saxon side. 

Opening of second part of the Vita Ã†dwardi Regis, England (Christ Church, Canterbury?), c. 1100, Harley MS 526, f. 52r

Early references to the Battle of Hastings can be found in an anonymous Life of Edward the Confessor known as the the Vita Ã†dwardi Regis. This Life was written for Edward's queen, Edith, in two parts: the second part, which laments the battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest, may have been finished by 1067 and certainly by Edith's death in 1075. This second part begins: 'Amid the many graves, hurt by the death of kings, what, Clio [muse], are you writing now?' (translated by F. Barlow, The Life of King Edward who Rests at Westminster  (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), p. 56.) Edith was Harold II's sister and, unsurprisingly, the account written for her praises Harold in exaggerated terms, as the best soldier ever and Edward's chosen heir. The sole copy of the Life is preserved at the British Library (Harley MS 526, ff. 38r-57v).

Other Anglo-Saxon perspectives on the battle can be found in the series of related Old English annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Of the six surviving versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, four cover the year 1066. Of these four, the two most extensive accounts for the year 1066 (in the C and D recensions of the Chronicle) are held by the British Library and are also now available online. The C version (Cotton MS Tiberius B I), probably compiled somewhere in southern England, offers a lot of detail about the earlier invasions, but frustratingly it cuts off just before the Battle of Hastings.

By contrast, the D version of the chronicle (Cotton MS Tiberius B IV) offers an early account of the Battle of Hastings. This chronicler claimed that William built a ‘castel’ at Hastings before Harold arrived. Harold then gathered a large army, but, according to the chronicler, William attacked before Harold could organise his troops:  

Description of the Battle of Hastings, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80r

King Harold… assembled a large army and came against him at the hoary apple tree. And William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array. But the king nevertheless fought hard against him, with the men who were willing to support him, and there were heavy casualties on both sides. There King Harold was killed and Earl Leofwine his brother, and Earl Gyth his brother, and many good men, and the French remained masters of the field, even as God granted it to them because of the sins of the people…  (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, 1066)

It is not clear how accurate this description of the battle is: there are a mass of contradictory accounts about Hastings, and there is no particular reason to believe this Anglo-Saxon chronicler was an eyewitness. The compilers of this version of the chronicle have been associated with a northern monastery, such as York, or a monastery with northern connections, such as Worcester, and this manuscript may have been written more than a decade after the battle. Nevertheless, this account is witness to the beliefs held by at least one Old English speaker within living memory of the battle.

The compiler(s) of Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D blamed the defeat of Harold’s forces on ‘the sins of the [Anglo-Saxon] people’. However, this Old English chronicler (or chroniclers) was also uncomplimentary about the next regime, concluding the entry for 1066 with the famously pessimistic assessment:

[O]n Christmas Day, Archbishop Aldred consecrated [William] king at Westminster. And…  he swore (before Aldred would place the crown on his head) that he would rule all this people as well as the best of the kings before him, if they were loyal to him. All the same he laid taxes on people very severely… And Bishop Odo and Earl William… built castles far and wide throughout this country, and distressed the wretched folk, and always after that it grew much worse. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, 1066).

End of the entry for 1066, from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, England (?Worcester or ?York), Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80v

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D is the longest Old English account of the battle. By contrast, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A (now Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 173), sums up the whole year in only two sentences:

In this year King Edward died and Earl Harold succeeded to the kingdom, and held it 40 weeks and one day; and in this year William came and conquered England. And in this year Christ Church was burnt and a comet appeared on 18 April. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A, 1066).

This chronicle was probably being compiled at Canterbury in the mid- and late 11th century, hence the reference to Christ Church.

The version of the battle found in Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 636) is also brief:

Count William landed at Hastings on Michaelmas Day, and Harold came from the north and fought with him before all the army had come, and there he fell and his two brothers Gyrth and Leofwine; and William conquered this country… (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E, 1066).

This manuscript was made at Peterborough in the 12th century. It was probably copied from a Canterbury manuscript to replace a manuscript lost in a fire in Peterborough’s library in 1116.

These two accounts were not, however, the shortest descriptions of the Norman Conquest in the Old English annals. One set of Easter table annals, also kept at Canterbury in the mid- and late 11th century, did not even mention the Norman Conquest. The lines adjacent to the entry for the date of Easter in 1066 and 1067 simply say, ‘Here King Edward died. Here, in this year, Christ Church burned.’ A later hand has added ‘At this time came William’ (‘her co[m] Willehm’) to the side. One wonders why the original annalist, who wrote the annals up to 1073, did not think the Battle of Hastings was worth mentioning. Equally, why did the later hand amend the entry for 1066?

Cotton Caligula A XV f135r
Detail from Easter Table Annals, England (Canterbury), late 11th
 century-12th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XV, f. 135r

Between the time the Christ Church Easter table annals were being compiled, the only surviving copy of Vita Ã†dwardi Regis was copied around 1100, possibly at Christ Church. Meanwhile, the monks at the nearby monastery of St Augustine, Canterbury, also remembered the Battle of Hastings in their martyrology. Under 14 October in this martyrology made at St Augustine’s in the late 11th century, someone noted the deaths of ‘Harold, king of the English, and many of our brothers.’ The entry for each day in the martyrology was supposed to be read out in the daily chapter meeting of the monastery, and so the Battle of Hastings may have been commemorated there every year.

Entry for 14 October with addition mentioning the death of ‘Harold king of the English and many of our brothers’, from Usuard’s Martyrology, Canterbury (St Augustine’s), c. 1075–1125 with later additions, Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1, f. 145v

All these accounts of 1066 imply that the fallout from the Norman Conquest was not a simple, clear-cut story of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The complexity of the situation is revealed by the abundance of differences in their accounts, even though they all identified with or primarily remembered the losing side. While one Old English speaker recorded details like the type of tree near where Harold assembled his troops, others were more concerned with the burning of Christ Church than with the Battle of Hastings, while others did not even mention the battle at all. Moreover, the extent to which any of these writers can be considered ‘losers’ is debatable. The scribes of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles portrayed themselves as ‘wretched’ following the conquest, but they belonged to institutions which still had substantial resources. The martyrology which records the deaths of ‘King Harold and our brothers’ from St Augustine’s Abbey contains finely decorated initials, belying the community’s wealth and cultural creativity in the decades immediately after the Conquest.

Detail of initial for the month of October, Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1, f. 143v

These manuscripts disprove the view that only winners write history. The views of people who identified with the losing side at the Battle of Hastings can still be read today, thanks to these British Library manuscripts. This abundance of perspectives on the battle and its aftermath may be one of the reasons the Norman Conquest still continues to fascinate us, 950 years after the sun set on the battlefield.

Sympathy for the losing side at Hastings continued long after the Conquest. In the early 13th century, an account of Harold’s life was produced for Waltham Abbey. If you are interested in learning more about this alternative perspective on the Norman Conquest, you can visit Epping Forest District Museum in Waltham Abbey, which has an exhibition on Harold II: The Life, Legend and Legacy of the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England until 24 December 2016. The British Library is delighted to have loaned the Vita Haroldi (Harley MS 3776) to this exhibition. 

Alison Hudson


All translations of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are taken from D. Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1961).

12 October 2016

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

Add comment Comments (0)

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.

Ms viewing 3
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)

Royal 4 D ii f2v Blog1
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


Supported by

PF Logo

11 October 2016

Changing the Script

Add comment Comments (0)

The scripts found in Greek manuscripts can be seriously daunting for a newcomer. Not only do they have the usual barriers found in manuscripts of all languages — their divergence from printed fonts, their variation over the centuries and across geographical areas, and scribal inconsistencies and peculiarities such as abbreviations — they also tend towards a far greater regularity than we find in, for example, Latin manuscripts over the same historical time period. Only close study and careful guidance from handbooks and experts enable students of Greek manuscripts to identify the subtle variations that distinguish Greek manuscripts of the high Byzantine era.

We can’t hope to provide anything approaching this sort of guidance in a short blogpost, but we hope here to give a very general overview of the history of Greek script and to point towards the many resources available on our Greek Manuscripts Project Website that can help put the changes in Greek bookhands into a wider context.

Ancient and late antique Greek texts written on papyrus tend to be divided into ‘bookhands’ and ‘documentary hands’. The latter vary far more noticeably over time and can be dated with much greater ease — not least because documentary texts are far more likely than ancient literary texts to have dates attached to them. We can see the contrast clearly in two papyri included on the Greek Manuscripts Project website: the Bankes Homer and the Constitution of the Athenians papyrus.


Example of a Greek bookhand in a papyrus containing Book 24 of Homer’s Iliad (Papyrus 114). Egypt, 2nd century CE.


Farm accounts from Hermopolis, on the recto of the papyrus containing the Constitution of the Athenians (Papyrus 131, f. 1ar). Egypt, 78 CE.

However, it is worth remembering that the lines between these two bookhands can be blurred. Scribes who usually wrote documentary texts could occasionally be called upon to copy out literary texts. The text of the Constitution of the Athenians itself appears to be the result of this sort of copying, as it is written in a fairly cursive-style bookhand. For much more about ancient books and their production contexts, several articles are available on the Greek Manuscripts Project website: Ancient Books, Ancient Libraries, and Greek Bibles in Antiquity.


The Constitution of the Athenians papyrus (Papyrus 131, f. 1av). Egypt, c. 100 CE.

In Late Antiquity and the early Byzantine period, manuscripts tended to be copied in majuscule or uncial script — in other words, letters corresponding to our upper-case Greek letters. This is a continuation of the ancient ‘bookhands’ and can be seen in many biblical manuscripts including Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus. On occasion, late versions of this hand can be seen to have developed particular characteristics, such as the Sinai-style majuscule to be seen in Additional MS 26113, an important volume containing fragments of hymns from the 8th and 9th centuries.


Fragments of hymns in the Sinai-style majuscule (Add MS 26113, f. 3r). Eastern Mediterranean (Mount Sinai), 8th-9th century.

While majuscule hands continued to be used for religious books and for decoration well into the 11th century, the minuscule bookhand came to prominence in the 9th century and became the standard hand used in Greek manuscripts. Because it was a cursive script, it could be written more quickly than majuscule, and since the letters tended to be smaller, more text could be accommodated on a single page. Variety in minuscule scripts can be found across the Byzantine Empire: for instance, certain forms, such as those found in the Harley Trilingual Psalter, are characteristic of southern Italy, while other forms indicate a manuscript was copied in Cyprus or the Levant. For more information about Byzantine scribes and books, please see the articles on Byzantine scribes and scholars and Byzantine libraries.


Example of a south Italian script in the Harley Trilingual Psalter. Harley MS 5786, f. 158r. Italy, S. (Palermo), c. 1130-1150.

The Renaissance copyists based in Italy and France developed their own characteristic style of writing Greek, which both influenced and was later influenced by early Greek typography. The story of these writers can be found in articles on Greek manuscripts at the dawn of print and Greek manuscripts in the 16th century.


Manuscript of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae written by Zacharias Kalliergis of the Kalliergis press. Royal MS 16 C XXIV, f. 31r. Italy, N. (Venice?), 1st half of the 16th century.

This is only a very brief and incomplete outline of the history of Greek handwriting. You can find many more examples in the hundreds of manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts and the many articles and collection items available on the Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

Cillian O'Hogan


09 October 2016

New Content on Our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

Add comment

The British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is a fantastic resource for anyone wishing to discover the richness and diversity of medieval manuscript illumination. We're delighted to report that this Catalogue has been recently updated, with new manuscripts online and new images added to some of the existing entries. Here are some of the new images now available for download and reuse (guidance on the conditions of use of these images can be found here).

The Bedford Hours (Add MS 18850), one of the most magnificent illuminated manuscripts in the British Library, has already been fully digitised. It has also now been added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, with a selection of its most magnificent illuminations. This image shows Anne of Burgundy, wife of John, duke of Bedford, for whom this deluxe Book of Hours was made, probably for their marriage in 1423, by one of the leading Parisian illuminators of the time.


Miniature of Anne of Burgundy, duchess of Bedford, kneeling before Anne, the Virgin, and Christ with a full border incorporating laurel and including miniatures of figures from the Old Testament: British Library Add MS 18850, f. 257v.

In the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, the images are available for download and the search facility allows users to search for details within the images. For instance, a search for Bathsheba in the Image Description field of the Advanced Search page will yield 11 results, including this gorgeous page from the Bedford Hours. 


Miniature from the beginning of the Penitential Psalms, of David depicted playing his harp, while watching Bathsheba, giving an order to kill her husband to a kneeling man, and praying to God, with a full border containing roundels of the virtues and vices and of Paul falling from his horse: British Library Add MS 18850, f. 96r.

The other Bathsheba images are found mostly in the Books of Hours in our collections, including this one from the gorgeous Dunois Hours (Yates Thompson MS 3), decorated for Jean, Comte de Dunois, Bastard of Orleans, by an associate of the artist who painted the miniatures in the Bedford Hours. 


A well-dressed woman riding a white goat, carrying arrows and a mirror, as a personification of Lust (Luxure); behind, David spies upon Bathsheba in her bath, from the Penitential Psalms, the Dunois Hours, Paris, c. 1440–c. 1450 (after 1436): British Library Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 172v. 

Here are some of these other Bathsheba images also available to view online:


Miniature of a man on a ladder climbing a tree and offering a branch to two robed men; marginal drawing shows David watching Bathsheba and her ladies bathing, from the Splendor Solis, Germany, 1582: British Library Harley MS 3469, f. 15r.


Miniatures of the crowning of Bathsheba, the Coronation of the Virgin, and the coronation of Esther from the Biblia Pauperum, Netherlands, N. (The Hague?), c. 1405: British Library Kings MS 5, f. 28r.


Miniature of David seducing Bathsheba, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320: British Library Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 56v.

And here are a few more of the images newly available in the Catalogue:


Historiated initial 'Q'(uant) of the death of King Meliadus, from the Roman de Tristan, Italy, N. (Padua or Bologna?), 1st quarter of the 15th century: British Library Add MS 23929, f. 42r.


Text page with large initials, Ælfric’s Grammar, England, 2nd half of the 11th century: British Library Royal MS 15 B XXII, f. 6r.


Jonah being thrown into the mouth of a whale by his companions. from the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Germany or Netherlands, S. (Bruges), 1st quarter of the 15th century: British Library Add MS 11575, f. 65v.

Finally, we have added images to several of the Apocalypse manuscripts already online on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Here, for example, is a page from a manuscript in Latin with a parallel verse version and prose commentary in French and a translation in English jotted in the margin in the late 15th century, 200 years after it was made.


The winged Abaddon faces his army of locusts, from the Apocalypse, England, 2nd half of the 13th century: British Library Add MS 18633, f. 16r.

We hope you continue to enjoy using the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, for fun, for recreation or for research.