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02 December 2016

Fantastic Beasts at the British Library

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You may have noticed that a certain film is currently wowing audiences worldwide. Fantastic Beasts And Where to Find Them is the first instalment in a new movie franchise written by J. K. Rowling, and takes its inspiration from her book of the same name. But did you know that many of the beasts featured in the film and the book have their origins in Antiquity and the Middle Ages?

In 2014, our Medieval Manuscripts Blog examined some of the creatures found in medieval bestiaries. A typical medieval bestiary contains descriptions of a variety of animals, often accompanied by elaborate illustrations. Many of these animals are familiar to modern readers, including dogs, catselephants and Bad News Birds (better known as owls). Bestiaries also contain a host of more exotic beasts such as the amphivena, manticore and the basilisk, which were an important part of the medieval imagination. Here are some of these fantastic beasts, illustrated with images from manuscripts at the British Library.

Basilisk

Detail of a basilisk wearing a crown, Harley MS 4751 f. 59r.

What makes a beast a 'beast'?

The word ‘bestiary’ derives from the Latin bestia which translates as 'beast' or 'animal'. In the 7th century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, a reference work which functioned much like a modern encyclopaedia. In a chapter entitled De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’), Isidore defined a ‘beast’ as an animal which ferociously attacked either with its mouth or claws. Beasts were characteristically wild, enjoyed natural freedom and were driven by their own desires.

Harley_ms_3941!2_f153r

The opening words of De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’) in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae: Harley MS 3941, f. 153r.

Centaur

Centaurs, half-human and half-horse figures, were frequently depicted in medieval bestiaries. This image of a centaur occurs alongside lions, tigers and hedgehogs in an early 13th-century bestiary. Centaurs held a prominent place in popular folklore, from classical Greek texts, medieval bestiaries and into the modern imagination.

Centaur

Miniature of a centaur holding a snake: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 8v.

Phoenix

Another fantastic beast found in medieval bestiaries is the phoenix. Classical authors described how, when the phoenix reached a certain age, it would build a pyre for itself and be consumed by the flames, in order to rise again from the ashes. These stories were retold by medieval authors who used the phoenix as an allegory for the death and resurrection of Christ, and the promise of eternal life. The image below depicts one phoenix gathering leaves and another phoenix in flame upon a pyre.

Phoenix

Miniature of two phoenixes: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 49v. 

Harley MS 4751

A phoenix rising from the ashes: Harley MS 4751, f. 45r.

Unicorn

Unicorns were another popular animal in the medieval imagination and are often described in bestiaries and other narrative texts. They are frequently said to be too strong and swift for a hunter to catch, unless a maiden was placed in its path. Upon seeing the maiden, the unicorn would place its head in her lap and fall asleep, giving the hunter the chance he needed. This tale is depicted in the image below, found in a 13th-century bestiary.

Unicorn

Miniature of a knight spearing a unicorn, which has placed its head in a virgin's lap: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 10v.

Dragon

Surely one of the most fantastic beasts is the dragon. In the medieval imagination, dragons are characterised by their lizard-like body shape covered in scales, decorated with horns, spikes and wings, and possessing the ability to breathe fire.

Dragon

A green snake and a red dragon: Harley MS 3244, f. 59r.

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A dragon, a snake and a plant identified as 'dragontea' or 'serpentaria', in a 15th-century Italian herbal: Sloane MS 4016, f. 38r.

Basilisk

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry famously encounters a basilisk. The basilisk was renowned for killing people with a single stare. If Harry had done his homework properly (who ever does?), he would have known that one approved way of overcoming a basilisk — according to Pliny the Elder (d. AD 79) — was to throw a weasel down its hole or burrow. Weasel odour was reputedly fatal to the basilisk, although the poor weasel would also die in the struggle.

Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

A basilisk in a 13th-century manuscript, with one of its human victims, while being confronted by a weasel: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

Merpeople

Another frequently occurring beast is the mermaid or merman. Merpeople were characterised by their human torso and tail of a fish, and were associated with perilous events such as floods, storms and shipwrecks. Merpeople were also often depicted with a mirror and a comb, accessories which demonstrated their beauty and vanity.

Mermaid
Detail of a mermaid with a mirror and comb and a traveller being bitten by a dog: Additional MS 42130, f. 70v.

Wodewose

Another anthropomorphised beast often found in medieval manuscripts is the mighty wodewose, a mythical forest-dwelling wildman. Those wishing for a more detailed account of the common characteristics of this wild beast should consult our own field guide to wodewoses.

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A wodewose from the Luttrell Psalter: Additional MS 42130, f. 70r.

We are delighted to announce that, next autumn, the British Library will be staging a major exhibition devoted to the Harry Potter novels of J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter: A History of Magic will run from 20 October 2017 until 28 February 2018, and is curated by a team led by medieval manuscripts curator Julian Harrison: here is his article The Magic of the British Library. We love the fact that many of the fantastic beasts found in the Harry Potter books were inspired by their classical and medieval ancestors; and we hope that they also fascinate the readers of our blog!

Becky Lawton and Julian Harrison

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01 December 2016

A Calendar Page for December 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.

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Calendar page for December from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

The calendar pages for the month of December in the Bedford Hours are filled with golden-lettered saints’ and feast days, fitting for this month of celebration. 

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Detail of miniatures of a man killing a pig and the zodiac sign Capricorn, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

In November we saw pigs gorging themselves on acorns, but the day of reckoning is at hand in December.  On the lower left of the first folio for this month is a miniature of a peasant about to slaughter a fattened hog, raising an enormous cudgel above his head.  The hog on the ground looks slightly concerned about the situation it finds itself in (but probably not nearly enough).  On the right is a lovely goat-snail hybrid sitting at east in a landscape, for the zodiac sign Capricorn. 

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Detail of a marginal roundel of the ‘monarche du monde’, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a crowned and bearded man, holding an orb and a sword.  He is described in the banner above him as the ‘monarche du monde’ (emperor of the world).  The rubrics describe how December is ‘named from the number decem (ten)’ and is dedicated to the ’10 principal kings who the Romans had dominion over’.   These ten dominions, which included Greece, Persia, Chaldea, Egypt, Syria and Italy, are illustrated by the ten segments of the landscape in which the Emperor is standing (or hovering, really).

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Calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12v

More on this glorious month follows.  Among the remainder of the saints’ days for December (including an un-erased feast of St Thomas Becket, interestingly) are two final marginal roundel paintings.  On the middle left is a scene of pleasure: in the foreground some lords and ladies are feasting while behind them two gloriously-attired knights are tilting at each other.  The rubrics at the bottom of the folio tell us how during the month of December ‘knights performed jousts and lived deliciously because the country was at peace’.  A lovely image.   The rubrics go on to describe how ‘Seneca teaches that in the month of December one should live soberly’, and the final miniature appears to depict Seneca instructing a group of men (including a king) thusly.  It has to be said, however, that while Seneca’s audience appears less than overwhelmed with enthusiasm for his advice. 

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Detail of marginal roundels of aristocratic pleasures and Seneca speaking to people, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12v

May you have a very happy December and all the best in the new year!

-   Sarah J Biggs (with many thanks again to Chantry Westwell for her French translations!)

27 November 2016

The Caption Competition Returns

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We'd love to say that our caption competition returns by popular demand, but that isn't strictly true. The only people who have probably missed it are our lawyers.

Nevertheless, we've decided to don our hard hats and to return to the fray. So what's going on here? You can send your suggestions via the comments button below or tweet us @BLMedieval. The usual terms and conditions apply (in other words, there are none). Oh yes, and if you want to see more of the original manuscript, and it is truly special, you can view it online here: Arundel MS 66.

Remember: no manuscripts were harmed during the making of this competition.

Caption competition

@BLMedieval (your friendly medieval manuscript Twitter account)

25 November 2016

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Supermonk

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While working on the early medieval manuscripts at the British Library, I can’t help notice the sophistication and vision of the people who lived over 1000 years ago. They certainly had different worldviews and priorities from people living today; but I’m constantly surprised by the ambition of some of their inventions and ideas. For example, did you know that the first recorded pioneer of man-powered flight in the British Isles was an Anglo-Saxon monk from Malmesbury Abbey called Eilmer (or in Old English, Ã†thelmaer) who lived between about 980 and 1070?    

Arundel 35   f. 1
Opening page of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum: Arundel 35, f. 1r. Southern England (Winchester?) 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century.

Eilmer’s life is recounted in the Deeds of the Kings of England by William of Malmesbury; indeed, William may have met him when Eilmer was an old man. According to William, many years earlier Eilmer had attached wings to his hands and his feet and jumped from a tower, travelling at least a ‘stadium’ (possibly 200 metres or 600 feet), before being caught by turbulence and breaking both his legs. Eilmer later claimed his error was not fitting a tail to himself, as well as wings. For comparison, the Wright Brothers’ first flight covered about 120 feet.

Harley MS 603, f. 9r
We have no evidence of what Eilmer’s wings looked like, but some contemporary artists depicted humanoid angels with wings, sometimes flying or floating: the Harley Psalter, Harley MS 603, f. 9r. Christ Church, Canterbury, 11th century.

Eilmer was probably born in the 980s and died after 1066, so his flight probably took place in the 1000s or 1010s. We can guess Eilmer’s lifespan because William of Malmesbury claimed Eilmer had seen Halley’s Comet twice, in 1066 and presumably in 989. Comets were associated with political upheaval, and William dramatically described how, upon seeing the comet in 1066, Eilmer became very upset and prophesied the Norman Conquest:

‘Crouching in terror at the sight of the gleaming star, "You've come, have you?" he said. "You've come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country."’ (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, chapter 225, translated by R.A.B. Mynors and others (London: The Folio Society, 2014), p. 248.)

Although 1000 or 1010 is an early date for man-powered flight, Eilmer was not the first human to attempt to fly. The 14th-century writer al-Makkari claimed that the 9th-century Andalusian scholar Abbas ibn Firnas also tried to fly, and also attributed his failure to forgetting to build a tail. Eilmer and Firnas were in good company in this respect: modern reconstructions of Leonardo da Vinci's design for a gilder also failed until a tail was added. Other medieval aviators included the scholar and dictionary-writer al-Jawhari, who reportedly died while trying to fly from the roof of a mosque in Nishapur in what is modern-day Iran in 1003 or 1008. There are even earlier stories about people flying or gliding in China, Ancient Greece and Rome.

Like many of these other early pioneers of flight, Eilmer was also a scholar. Sadly, none of his own writings survive to the present day. However, on Digitised Manuscripts you can see one manuscript which Eilmer himself may have read: an Old English copy of the Gospels (Cotton MS Otho C I/1). This manuscript seems to have been owned at Malmesbury Abbey by the mid-11th century, when an Old English translation of a papal decree relating to Malmesbury was added between the gospels of Luke and John.

Cotton Otho C I!1 ff. 69v-70r
Inserted translation of a papal decree facing the opening page of the Gospel of St John in Old English: Cotton MS Otho C I/1, ff. 69v-70r. England, c. 1000-1050.

Other monks at Malmesbury do not seem to have been amused by Eilmer’s experiments and inventions. Although William of Malmesbury generally respected Eilmer, he chided him for thinking that the ‘fable’ of the Greek inventor Daedalus flying was actually real. Even today, the ‘Birdman of Bognor’ competition for individual flying contraptions features contestants who, for the most part, lampoon the idea of individual flight. Eilmer was not the last human to try to fly, however. His story inspired thinkers from Roger Bacon to John Milton to the 19th-century ornithologist John Wise to 20th-century French scholars. Today, you can see airplanes in the sky above Malmesbury Abbey, some perhaps passing over the exact same stretch where Eilmer first glided.

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

23 November 2016

Alison Balsom Meets the Middle Ages

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The final episode of Treasures of the British Library is now available to watch on Sky Arts. It features musician Alison Balsom, whose interests range far beyond the splendours of the trumpet. From our medieval collections, you'll have the chance to see Leonardo da Vinci's notebook; gorgeous maps; and historic cookbooks.

Alison-balsom

Alison Balsom at the British Library.

The star of the show is a set of notes made by Leonardo da Vinci, which Alison discusses with our own Curator of Medieval and Tudor Manuscripts, Andrea Clarke. The writing is backwards (like on the front of an ambulance), and the pages feature several of Leonardo's sketches for musical instruments. For a few more weeks, you also have the chance to see the notebook in person in our Treasures Gallery, and you can view the whole book, Arundel MS 263, online.

Drawings and 'mirror writing' by Leonardo da Vinci: Arundel MS 263, f. 137v

Drawings and 'mirror writing' by Leonardo da Vinci: Arundel MS 263, f. 137v

Also from Italy are the maps in Add MS 27376*, an appendix to Marino Sanudo's Liber secretorum fidelium crucis (The Book of the Secrets of the Faithful of the Cross). They are attributed to the 14th-century Genose cartographer Pietro Vesconte, who brought new levels of beauty and accuracy to the art.

A map by Pietro Vesconte: Add MS 27376*, f. 183r

A map by Pietro Vesconte: Add MS 27376*, f. 183r

Alison also examined two historic cookbooks written in Middle English. One is Potage Dyvers, surviving in a 15th-century copy, Harley MS 279. Don't watch the programme on an empty stomach — the book features such delicacies as a 'bruet of almayne' (sauce of almonds). Even more fascinating is The Forme of Cury ('curry' being an old word for 'cookery'), Add MS 5016, written by the chefs of King Richard II (1377–1399), featuring everything from 'salat' and 'cryspes' to 'cawdel of samoun', 'oysters in grauey', and 'ryse of flessh'. It is copied not as a typical codex, but in the form of a roll. We're soon adding this cookbook to our Digitised Manuscripts site to celebrate. Pastry castles, anyone?

The Forme of Cury: Add MS 5016

The Forme of Cury: Add MS 5016

Andrew Dunning
@BLMedieval/@anjdunning

22 November 2016

Magna Carta Room Reopens

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This November it is 800 years since the first revised version of Magna Carta was issued in the name of the boy king, Henry III, in 1216, following the death of his father, King John, in October 1216. This November also marks the opening of a new display of the British Library’s original Magna Carta documents from 1215 in a newly redesigned room within the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery.

Magna Carta Room 1

The newly redesigned Magna Carta room at the British Library.

On display in the new room are the Articles of the Barons, the document recording the draft settlement which formed the basis of the agreement reached between King John and the barons at Runnymede in June 1215. This original document was taken away from Runnymede, probably by Archbishop Stephen Langton (1150–1228), and gives us a direct connection with the momentous events of June 1215.

Articles of the Barons

The Articles of the Barons, June 1215: British Library Add MS 4838.

Also currently on display are one of the Library’s two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta together with the document from Pope Innocent III declaring Magna Carta to be ‘illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people’ and ‘null and void of all validity for ever’ only ten weeks after it had been granted that June.

Magna Carta 1215

Magna Carta, issued by King John in June 1215: British Library Cotton MS Augustus II 106.

Papal bull

The papal bull declaring Magna Carta 'null and void', 24 August 1215: British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra E I, ff. 155–156.

The new display gives visitors to the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery another chance to see the film made for the 2015 exhibition summarising the content of Magna Carta’s 4000 words in two minutes, as well as videos of historians and public figures discussing the history, influence and contemporary relevance of Magna Carta in the anniversary year.

Magna Carta Room 2

Magna Carta 1215 alongside the Articles of the Barons and the papal bull annulling Magna Carta.

The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is open seven days a week and entry is free. You can also read more about the history of Magna Carta on the British Library's dedicated webpages.

Claire Breay

@BLMedieval/@ClaireBreay

10 November 2016

A Feast for the Senses

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The British Library is pleased to announce the loan of three manuscripts to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, as part of their exhibition A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe. This ground-breaking exhibition aims to recreate sensory experiences of the medieval world through sight, hearing, touch and smell. In addition to manuscripts, the exhibition incorporates a wide range of artworks in diverse media, including stained glass, metals and gems, ivories, tapestries and paintings.

We are delighted to be one of many institutions from around the world to have loaned objects for this remarkable exhibition, which incorporates over 100 items. The three manuscripts from our collection represent the various functions of medieval manuscripts in later medieval society.

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Harley Roll T11 — the wounds of Christ

The first is Harley Roll T11, which contains drawings of the five wounds of Christ and was believed to function as an amulet to guard against evil and sickness. This unique manuscript, made in England in the 15th century, is a roll rather than the more common codex or book form, made by sewing together sheets of parchment (called membranes) to create one long scroll. There is evidence that this roll was draped over the stomachs of pregnant women to protect them during childbirth, emphasising the importance of touch and the apotropaic properties of manuscripts in later medieval Christian devotion.

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Egerton MS 1069, f. 1r, the walled garden

The second manuscript is Egerton MS 1069, dating from c. 1400, an illustrated copy of the Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), a popular allegorical French poem written in the 13th century by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The Roman de la Rose follows the attempts of a courtier to woo a lady, and is set within a symbolic walled garden, the traditional setting for many medieval courtly romances. You can see more of the lovely illuminations in Egerton MS 1069 in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

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Add MS 18196, f. 1r, Agnes Enthroned and Scenes from Her Legend

The final manuscript on loan to the exhibition is folio 1 from Additional MS 18196, which is not a single manuscript but rather a compilation of leaves from various hymnals. The folio shows, at the top, a vibrant depiction of St Agnes, the patron saint of young girls and chastity, surrounded by two angels. Below, the scene on the left shows a priest called Paulinus giving an emerald ring to the statue of St Agnes to receive her permission to marry; and on the right, St Agnes appearing to relatives who are holding a vigil around her tomb. Below these scenes is a section of music meant to accompany songs of praise to St Agnes. You can read more about this folio in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

A Feast for the Senses is on view from now until 8 January 2017 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The exhibition is free to enter and open to all members of the public. We hope as many of our North American readers as possible get the opportunity to visit!

Taylor McCall

@BLMedieval/@taylorjmccall

07 November 2016

Picturing the Sacred: Byzantine Manuscript Illumination

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Some of the British Library’s most precious manuscripts are those containing beautiful miniatures from the Byzantine world. The majority of these manuscripts are religious in focus, usually Gospels or Psalters, reflecting the central role played by Christianity in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine court functioned as a theocracy, in which the Emperor was seen as God’s representative on earth, acting with divine authority. Religion infused every aspect of Byzantine life, including book production.

Although it is difficult (and somewhat artificial) to distinguish between late antique and early Byzantine art, a useful starting-point is the splendid Golden Canon Tables. Created in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, the manuscript is covered in gold paint, over which the Canon Tables (used to identify parallel passages between the four Gospels in biblical manuscripts) were written, and adorned with floral decoration and small medallions containing portraits of four men. Although they survive only as fragments, they would originally have formed part of an incredibly lavish copy of the Gospels, a testament to the importance of the Bible for the inhabitants of Constantinople at this time.

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The Golden Canon Tables. Additional MS 5111, f. 11r. Constantinople, 6th or 7th century.

The Iconoclastic period (726–842 CE) saw the destruction of many existing works of religious art, and a ban on the production of any new works of art. The prohibition on graven images in the Bible was a source of concern for Christian thinkers in late antiquity and early Byzantium, who worried about the propriety of producing depictions of Jesus and other holy figures. This concern was particularly felt in Byzantium owing to the particular emphasis placed on icons in religious worship there (an emphasis that is still found in the Greek Orthodox tradition today). The impact of iconoclasm has meant that relatively few examples of early Byzantine illumination survive, and those that do, like the Golden Canon Tables, are thus even more precious to us today.

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Depiction of Iconoclasts in the Theodore Psalter. Additional MS 19352, f. 27v. Constantinople, 1066.

After the prohibition on the production of religious art was lifted for the final time in 842, we see the reappearance of illuminated Biblical manuscripts. A number of illuminated Psalters (discussed in more detail in an article by Kalliroe Linardou) actually include images of iconoclasts erasing icons of Jesus. Such images can be found in the Theodore Psalter. On occasion, later owners of the manuscripts have erased the faces of the iconoclasts themselves!

A great emphasis was placed on tradition in Byzantine art. This is why, for instance, there is such great similarity between portraits of the Evangelists in Gospel manuscripts. Yet this stress on tradition also provided an opportunity for artists to distinguish themselves in more subtle ways, and there is clear variation in Byzantine illumination across the Greek-speaking world, as Elisabeth Yota shows in her article on provincial manuscript illumination. Some Greek manuscripts were illuminated by artists from different traditions, as is the case with Harley 5647, in which the portraits were made by a Syriac artist. Comparison of this with, for instance, the portraits in the Guest-Coutts New Testament, show both the strong tradition in terms of how figures are depicted and the room for innovation that was possible. Further examples can be found in Kathleen Maxwell’s article on illuminated Gospel manuscripts.

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 The Evangelist Luke, by a Syriac artist. Harley MS 5647, f. 137v. Eastern Mediterranean, 11th century.

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The Evangelist Luke, in the Guest-Coutts New Testament. Additional MS 28815, f. 76v. Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), mid-10th century.

There are more fantastic illuminated Greek manuscripts than we can possibly hope to talk about in a single blog post, so we invite you to explore the collections and articles available on our Greek Manuscripts Project Website, and the many manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts!

 Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval/@CillianOHogan