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22 October 2017

Prepare to be spellbound

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As a general rule, we don't like to start our blogposts with the words, 'We are delighted to announce'. But there's always an exception, and this is it! We are delighted to announce that the British Library's amazing new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic is now officially open to the public.

Our exhibition celebrates the 20th anniversary of the first publication in the United Kingdom of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, originally released in 1997. But, in a new departure, the exhibition also examines the history, mythology and folklore that lie at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. As well as original drafts and drawings loaned by J.K. Rowling herself, alongside artwork by Jim Kay (who is illustrating the Harry Potter books for Bloomsbury), you'll find on display a range of glorious items from the British Library's own collections, including Chinese oracle bones, papyri and a host of medieval manuscripts.


The Ripley Scroll, dating from around 1600, and explaining how to make your very own Philosopher's Stone. The entire manuscript, all 5.9 metres of it, is on display in the exhibition.

Tickets are selling fast â€” this Potter thing might just catch on one day â€” but we'd love you to visit London to see the show in person between now and its final day, 28 February. In the meantime, here is a sneak preview of some of the manuscripts you'll be able to see.


Harvesting a mandrake, medieval style (so that's how you do it!)


A phoenix plucking twigs to make its own funeral pyre, before rising from the flames (please don't try this at home)


How to protect yourself against malaria? Write out the word 'abracadabra' repeatedly on a piece of parchment (it's obvious when you think about it).

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the British Library from 20 October 2017 to 28 February 2018. Tickets can be purchased here. The exhibition has been staged by the British Library in partnership with The Blair Partnership (representing J.K. Rowling) and Bloomsbury Publishing, with the kind assistance of Pottermore and Google Arts and Culture, and the generosity of numerous lenders.

The exhibition books Harry Potter: A History of Magic and a version designed especially for younger people, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic, are available to buy through the British Library's online shop. (They're quite good, really: note to reader, I helped to write them.)


You may also like to join our online conversation about the exhibition, using the hashtag #BLHarryPotter, with tweets by @britishlibrary, @BLMedieval and the exhibition curators. Even J.K. Rowling has joined in! Hope to see you in London soon.


Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Medieval Historical Manuscripts and

Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

20 October 2017–28 February 2018



18 October 2017

Highway to Hell

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Today we're living easy, living free because we're on the highway to Hell! We have a season ticket on a one-way ride to explore the Hell-mouth, a popular depiction of Hell in illuminated manuscripts.


Raising a little Hell: full-page miniature depicting Archangel Michael locking the entrance to the Hell-mouth, from the Winchester Psalter, Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r

Imagery of the Hell-mouth has been used from the early medieval period, as the gaping mouth of a beast or serpent filled with the tortured souls of the damned. This image may have originated in Anglo-Saxon literature, with a number of surviving works describing Hell as the mouth of a beast or the Devil himself. One late 10th-century collection of religious texts now known as the Vercelli Book, currently housed at the Biblioteca e Archivio Capitolare di Vercelli, northern Italy, contains a quotation in Old English comparing the Devil to a dragon swallowing human souls:

necumaþ þa næfre ofþæra wyrma seaðe . ofþæs dracan ceolan þe issatan nemned.

'came they never out of the pit of snakes and of the throat of the dragon which is called Satan' (Homily 4:46-8: transcription from The Digital Vercelli Book; translation from D. G. Scragg, ed., The Vercelli Homilies and Related Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)).

This type of imagery inspired illustrations in contemporary manuscripts like the New Minster Liber Vitae (now Stowe MS 944). Produced in Winchester, this manuscript features 11th-century prefatory drawings including dramatic scenes of the Last Judgement that stretch across two folios. The top illustration shows angels leading souls to St Peter, who holds open a door to the Heavenly Jerusalem. In the middle scene, two saints watch on as St Peter and a demon fight over a human soul. In the final scene below, Archangel Michael locks the door to Hell as a demon drops struggling souls into the open mouth of a beast, the Hell-mouth.


An almighty scene: a depiction of the Last Judgement with the Hell-mouth in the bottom illustration, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, Stowe MS 944, ff. 6v–7r

Hell-mouths continued to appear in manuscript illuminations throughout the Middle Ages, becoming more imaginative and wonderfully gruesome in their decoration. The Winchester Psalter (now Cotton MS Nero C IV), produced in the 12th century, contains an elaborate miniature cycle of the Last Judgement, featuring the toothy Hell-mouth of a beast filled with grinning demons tormenting human bodies, including one demon spearing an upside-down king with a pitchfork. Ghastly images like this miniature reminded medieval Christians that judgement awaited them also after death: if they passed, they could join the angels in heavenly paradise; if they failed, they faced eternity in the jaws of Hell.


Give 'em Hell: miniature portraying a three-headed Hell-mouth devouring creatures, from an Apocalypse, Add MS 17333, f. 43r

Illustrated Hell-mouths were particularly popular in Apocalypse manuscripts, works that contain copies of the Book of Revelation. This text is the final book of the Bible, featuring lurid visions of the struggles between good and evil before the Last Judgement. In a 14th-century French Apocalypse composed in both Latin and French (now Add MS 17333), images are used to depict the text, like a three-headed Hell-mouth illustrating the following passage from Revelation 20:10 (f. 43r): 'And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.' Three creatures likely representing the devil, beast and false prophet of the text are consumed by fire and brimstone within the wide jaws of the Hell-mouth. A demon can even be seen prodding a six-headed beast with a poker.

A 15th-century Book of Hours known as the Bedford Hours (now Add MS 18850) similarly contains scenes from the Last Judgement at the opening of the Office of the Dead, a prayer cycle commonly read for deceased loved ones in order to help their souls reach Paradise. The accompanying miniature acts as a visual reminder to readers of what awaited them after death: elaborate detail and decoration to glorify Paradise and gore-ify Hell. Christ appears enthroned in judgement over human souls, flanked by saints and angels. Souls that have passed judgement are greeted by angels as they reach Heaven. The damned souls below are forced into a fiery Hell-mouth, and roundels feature demons grinning as they beat human figures with mallets and turn a torture wheel.


Glorification of Heaven, Gore-ification of Hell: Hell-mouth in a full-page miniature depicting the Last Judgement, from the Bedford Hours, Add MS 18850, f. 157r

However, according to AC/DC, there is a bright side to ending up as a snack to a Hell-mouth:

Going down, party time

My friends are gonna be there too!

Image 5_harley_ms_3999_f021r
Like a bat into Hell: Detail of a marginal drawing with a bat-like Hell-mouth devouring souls, from Harley MS 3999, f. 21r


Alison Ray

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15 October 2017

Another day, another caption competition

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Regular readers of this Blog may recall that we sometimes throw caution to the wind, and test their imagination with one of our fiendish caption competitions. Today is no exception. Here is an image from the famous Queen Mary Psalter (Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 81r): but what exactly is going on?

There are no prizes, but we'd like you to send us your wittiest captions, using the comment form at the bottom of this post or contacting us on Twitter via @BLMedieval. We'll publish and retweet the best responses: good luck!


13 October 2017

Job vacancy to work with digital images

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The British Library is recruiting for a Project Officer to work on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. This is a full-time, fixed term position, for nine months, in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department.


The opening page for the Gospel of St Matthew from 9th-century Northern France: Harley MS 2797, f. 15r.

The Project Officer will assist the curators with all aspects of preparation for and delivery of the digitisation project and other smaller digitisation projects, including the South-East Asian manuscripts project. This will include arranging for delivery to the studio, checking images and uploading manuscripts to the Library’s online catalogue, contributing to the development of learning materials, preparing blog posts, answering enquiries and a range of other curatorial duties. This is a 9-month post post beginning in January 2018, dependent on the necessary security clearances being obtained.

Full details of the post and how to apply are available on the Library’s website. The position is only open to applicants with the right to work in the UK.

To apply, please visit

Closing Date: 5 November 2017

Interviews will be held on 16 November 2017. The selection process may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.

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11 October 2017

A spiritual guide for a female recluse

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The British Library houses a rich collection of medieval texts relating to the lives of religious female recluses, known as female anchorites or anchoresses. Inspired by the desert fathers of the 4th century, many holy women including Julian of Norwich withdrew from the world to live a life of solitude and prayer. As part of the ongoing England and France 700-1200 joint project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Library has digitised one of the earliest known spiritual guides for anchoresses, entitled the Liber Confortatorius, which today survives in a single manuscript (now known as Sloane MS 3103).

Image 1_sloane_ms_3103_f003v
Letters and long laments: a text page from the Liber Confortatorius: Sloane MS 3103, f. 3v

An instructional guide to spiritual meditation and prayer, the Liber Confortatorius (‘Book of Encouragement and Consolation’) is a 12th-century copy of an earlier text. The original work was composed circa 1082 by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, a Flemish monk who lived in England and acted for a period of time as the chaplain of the convent of Wilton. While there, he tutored and mentored a young girl named Eve. Goscelin witnessed Eve taking her formal vows to become a nun, and saw himself as a mother-figure to her, ‘the mother soul who gave birth to you with heaving womb … who did so much and bore so much in the hope of our mutual presence’ (Book I).

Image 2_add_ms_10293_f261r

The lady enters a convent and has her hair cut short by the abbess, in Lancelot-Grail (The Prose Vulgate Cycle): Add MS 10293, f. 261r

Around 1080, Eve left Wilton without consulting anyone to become an anchoress in Angers, France, where she joined a small community of female recluses. Goscelin was devastated by Eve’s departure, and in response wrote the Liber Confortatorius addressed to her in the form of a letter. Divided into four books, the lengthy text compiles quotations from the Psalms and includes advisory tales inspired by the works of St Augustine and St Jerome.

Although intended to be a spiritual guide, Goscelin could not hide his personal grief: ‘hear me, speaking to you … from the sickbed of my sorrow’ (Book I). It may be read as Goscelin’s letter of spiritual and personal love for his former pupil: ‘since your soulmate cannot and does not deserve to visit you in the flesh, he now seeks you out with anxious letters and long laments … with the languishing desire of a wounded love infusing your breast with Christ’ (Book I).

Image 3_yates_thompson_ms_11_f029r

Goscelin valued his spiritual relationship with Eve: miniature detail of a nun confessing to a monk: Yates Thompson MS 11, f. 29r

There is no evidence to suggest that Eve ever received or read the work, leaving Goscelin’s lament one-sided. However, Eve’s decision to leave England appears to have been a happy one. A commemorative poem about her by Hilary of Orléans informs us that, after leaving Angers, she lived as a respected religious figure in Vendôme, in seclusion under the guidance of a male recluse named Hervé. One could say that the consolation of the book is entirely the writer’s own: ‘Take pity on your bereaved Goscelin … whom you have shaken to the foundations with your departure ... may I be so happy one day to see you in the blessed light, full of joy’ (Book IV).

Image 4_royal_ms_10_e_iv_f127r

Eve embraced the life of a female recluse: bas-de-page scene of woman embracing a hermit, from the Smithfield Decretals: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 127r

The English translations of Liber Confortatorius are taken from Monika Otter, Goscelin of St Bertin: The Book of Encouragement and Consolation (Cambridge: Boydell, 2004).

Alison Ray

                                                                                                                               Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval



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09 October 2017

Either a borrower or a lender be

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You may have noticed the recent trend to commemorate things with their own day or week. Perhaps you missed International Bagpipe Day (10 March — put a note in your diaries for 2018) but some people may have remembered to celebrate National Badger Day last Friday. Certain of these dates have less resonance with us at the British Library, but one that has caught our eye, and is definitely the occasion to blow our own trumpet, is Libraries Week, starting on 9 October. To celebrate, we are looking at evidence for lending and borrowing in medieval libraries.

‘Not to lend books is a type of homicide’, according to Stephen Langton's commentary on Deuteronomy. (One of Langton's principal claims to fame is that he was archbishop of Canterbury at the time that Magna Carta was issued in 1215.) There is a popular perception that medieval libraries comprised rows of chained books, which were never allowed out of sight. Such chained libraries did exist (an example is that at Hereford, and many British Library manuscripts were clearly once chained), but people have always exchanged, borrowed and shared their books. Here are some of our favourite examples drawn from the British Library’s collections.

Richard de Bury, bishop of Durham and noted book-borrower, with a stack of three books, St Albans, c. 1380, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 87r

Borrowing books was crucial for the formation of medieval libraries. Scribes often borrowed manuscripts to make copies. For example, the letters of Lupus, abbot of Ferrières (fl. c. 805–862), are full of requests to borrow books, which he copied to augment his own libraries.

Harley 2736   f. 4
Lupus of Ferrières’s manuscript of Cicero’s De oratore, copied from a book he borrowed from the library at Fulda in 836, Harley MS 2736, f. 1r

After the monastery of Peterborough burnt down in 1116, its library was restocked in part by borrowing and copying texts from other houses. Some of the diagrams in one computistical handbook may have been left unfinished when the scribes had to return their exemplar.

Possibly unfinished pages from Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s computus, England (Peterborough), 2nd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 3667, ff. 5v–6r

Outside of monasteries, professional scribes and illuminators also borrowed books. A note in a 14th-century copy of the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César records that one of its quires was lent to the Parisian illuminator, Perrin Remiet (fl. 1368, or c. 1396–1420), to copy.

Royal 20 D I f. 33v
Detail of a bas de page illustration of Jason's adventures, Naples, c. 1330–1340, Royal MS 20 D I, f. 33v

Medieval authors also needed to borrow books. The huge number of sources cited by Bede (d. 735) suggests that he may have borrowed books from other libraries. 

On occasion we have clear evidence that surviving books had been loaned. For example, one 13th-century theological compilation from Reading Abbey has an inscription indicating it was exchanged with Cirencester Abbey for another book.

Flyleaf with drawings, book curse and note of an exchange, Harley MS 979, f. 1v

Individual monks also borrowed books from their monastic library. The ‘Constitutions’ of Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, stated that Benedictine monks should borrow a book every year, starting on the first Monday of Lent. They also needed to beg forgiveness if they hadn’t managed to read last year’s book.

Passage on lending books, from Lanfranc's Constitutions, England (Christ Church, Canterbury), 2nd quarter of the 12th century, Cotton MS Claudius C VI, f.  178r

Borrowing and lending books was not limited to the clergy. In the mid-15th century, John Paston, a member of the gentry from Norfolk, wrote to his brother to ask that he contact a mutual friend in London who ‘has a book of my sister Ann, of the Siege of Thebes. When he is done with it, he promised to deliver it to you.’ One medieval bestiary may also have been lent to laypeople. The last page includes an oath that its borrowers would have to return the manuscript or die. The oath is signed by an 'abstetrix heifmoeder' (midwife) in a 14th- or 15th-century hand.

Add MS 11390  f. 94v
Detail of an oath, from Der Nature Bloeme, Western Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 11390, f. 94v

Not everyone was happy about lending books or trusted their borrowers. ‘Overdue’ or stolen books were a major concern. Some books include curses threatening supernatural punishments on anyone who stole them. Other lenders utilised contracts or letters to ensure that their books were returned. An indenture dated 1 June 1390 (Cotton MS Faustina C V, f. 50r) records that William Bottlesham, bishop of Rochester, agreed to lend John Mory/Amory, rector of Southfleet, 13 books and some vestments for one month. If they were not returned, the borrower would have to pay 100 marks sterling.

Royal 4 E V   f. 4
One of the books borrowed by John Mory/Amory, Antony of Padua's Concordantia maior and Concordantiae morales bibliorum, England, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 4 E V, f. 4r

Letters written in an effort to recover books provide further evidence of borrowing. In the 970s or 980s, a monk from Fleury wrote to Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (d. 988) and mentioned that Abbot Osgar of Abingdon (d. 984)  and the monks of Winchester had still not returned his books.

Copy of a letter from ‘L’ (Lantfred) of Fleury to Archbishop Dunstan, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A XV, f. 168v

This is only a very partial survey of the medieval evidence for lending and borrowing books. We hope it shows at the very least that medieval libraries should not be stereotyped as containing rows of chained tomes, jealously guarded by ferocious librarians. Next time you borrow a book from your local library, remember you are participating in an ancient tradition.

Alison Hudson

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05 October 2017

Illumination study day at the British Library

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There are still a few places remaining for a study day (23 October 2017) at the Knowledge Centre for members of the University of the Third Age, on illuminated manuscripts in the British Library. The Library holds one of the most extensive collections of illuminated manuscripts in the world. This programme will focus on manuscripts made in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, with in-depth talks given by curators and art historians.


King David at the beginning of Psalm 1, in the Luttrell Psalter, Lincolnshire, 1325-40: Add MS 42130, f. 13r

The programme will include talks on The World in Illuminated Manuscripts by Dr Alixe Bovey of the Courtauld Institute; English Biblical Illuminated Manuscripts by Dr Kathleen Doyle of the British Library; French Illuminated Manuscripts by Dr Mara Hofmann of Sotheby’s; Flemish Illuminated Manuscripts by Dr Scot McKendrick of the British Library; and Materiality of Illuminated Manuscripts by the scribe and illuminator Patricia Lovett MBE. The full programme can be found here:  Download U3A study day programme.

For information on how to book, see


1,000 Years of Illumination (Illumination Study Day)

The British Library

23 October



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03 October 2017

Reuniting a Middle Dutch prayerbook

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We are pleased to be able to update this blogpost with the kind assistance of Professor Kathryn M. Rudy (St Andrews), whose work on this prayerbook will be published next year.

In the decades after Gutenberg built the first printing press, bookmakers experimented with pasting printed images into hand-written books. That is, they combined the old technology of manuscript with the new medium of print. In the 19th century, collectors removed many of these prints from the manuscripts that had preserved them. Hundreds of woodcuts and engravings that once embellished manuscripts have ended up in the British Museum, while the manuscripts from which they were removed are in the British Library. Professor Rudy, a book historian at the University of St Andrews, has built a database to match the prints with the manuscripts in which they were formerly pasted. Digitally reconstructing them shows how innovative bookmakers were in absorbing the new technology.

Image 1 - Binding
binding of the Middle Dutch prayerbook, probably from Maastricht, c. 1500: Add MS 24332

This Middle Dutch prayerbook (British Library Add MS 24332) once contained a series of engravings, which had been chosen by the original makers as companions for its handwritten prayers. However, the engravings became separated from the manuscript in the 19th century. Only in recent years has the manuscript been matched with more than 50 illustrations held in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. Photo-editing allows us to reveal a series of beautifully coloured engravings — several of which have been associated with Israhel van Meckenem (d. 1503), a German printmaker and goldsmith — alongside the texts for which they had originally been selected.

  St Lucy

A modern leaf replaces the gap left by a missing illustration of St Lucy (Add Ms 24332, ff. 422v–423r): see the reconstruction below

Until recently, the only images still found in this manuscript were a snippet from an engraving of the Annunciation and a marginal image of St John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, which probably remains only because it could not be removed without destroying it.

Image 2 - The AnnunciationImage 3 - The Virgin Mary
A snippet of the Annunciation, Add MS 24332, f. 283v; engraving of St John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary,  f. 307v

We know where the British Museum prints go, because they follow the original medieval page numbering system.

    St Lucy
A prayer to and engraving of St Lucy digitally reunited using British Museum image (copyright Trustees of the British Museum) and Add Ms 24332, ff. 422v–423r

St Cecilia

A prayer to and engraving of St Cecilia digitally reunited using British Museum image (copyright Trustees of the British Museum) and Add MS 24332, ff. 416v–417r

St Anne

A prayer to and engraving of St Anne (with the Virgin Mary and Christ Child) digitally reunited using British Museum image (copyright Trustees of the British Museum) and Add MS 24332, ff. 354v–355r

St Michael match

A prayer to and engraving of St Michael the Archangel digitally reunited using British Museum image (copyright Trustees of the British Museum) and Add MS 24332, ff. 383v–384r 

But what does this teach us? These leaves give an insight into how the engravings were adapted for the needs of the book. For example, the manuscript’s miniature of St Lucy is a reworked version of St Catherine of Alexandria. St Lucy is usually depicted holding a pair of eyes in one hand, to indicate that, before she was killed by her Roman persecutors, her eyes had been gouged out. However, this engraving lacks St Lucy’s usual attribute: while the artist who reworked the print was able to cover St Catherine’s torture wheel, it was impossible to add a pair of eyes to her hands, as one already held a sword and the other a book. The artist therefore appears to have given St Lucy a black eye.

AN00059989_001_l Eyes

St Catherine of Alexandria, disguised as St Lucy with an artful(ish) make-over (copyright Trustees of the British Museum, object reg: 1861,1109.639)

The engravings hold further evidence for the manuscript’s origin at the community of Franciscan tertiaries in Maastricht. The manuscript contains prayers to St Francis and St Clare of Assisi, the founders of the male and female branches of the Franciscan Order; one of these refers to St Francis as ‘our dear father and worthy patron’ (f. 379r: ‘soete vader ende werde patroen’), and so the manuscript has been attributed to a Franciscan community. One of the illustrated leaves supports this attribution, since it contains an unusual prayer to and engraving of Saint Elzéar of Sabran, a Franciscan tertiary. Another engraving is dedicated to Holy Name, a devotion closely associated with the Franciscan friar St Bernardino of Siena, who is also mentioned in the manuscript.

  Image 8 - Holy Name
The Holy Name of Jesus (copyright Trustees of the British Museum, 1861,1109.645)

We still know little about this Middle Dutch prayerbook, but a full reconstruction could provide further insights into the textual and visual culture of the religious community that produced the manuscript. 

Professor Rudy’s book, The Image, the Knife, and the Gluepot: Early Experiments in Combining Manuscript and Print, will appear in early 2018, with support from the British Academy.

 Clarck Drieshen and Amy Jeffs

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