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452 posts categorized "Medieval"

27 November 2014

Worn Around the Edges: More on the Phillipps Lectionary

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The Phillipps Lectionary must once have been – and to some extent still is – a very beautiful manuscript. As Tuesday’s post detailed, it is full of richly decorated headpieces, glimmering gold headings, and ornate zoomorphic initials. The manuscript’s condition reveals, however, a story of centuries of use, misuse and neglect that seem at odds with the precious contents. 

Add_ms_82957_f137r
Leaf containing a decorated headpiece and titles written in gold, which displays severe cockling, multiple tears and losses at the leaf edge and upper corner, and the smudging and loss of text, from the Phillipps Lectionary,
Add MS 82957, f. 137r 

Christopher de Hamel’s recent Panizzi lectures showed inordinately expensive and elaborately ornamented giant bibles being used amid the smoke, grease and grime of the monastic refectory. We should therefore avoid the assumption that medieval people treated their books – even luxury ones – with the same care as modern-day curators. In the Phillipps Lectionary, there is damage literally at every turn; no corner of the manuscript has been unaffected by the way the manuscript has been handled and mishandled, stored and ignored, and – most recently – salvaged and painstakingly repaired. 

Add_ms_82957_f119r
A mutilated leaf; the black backdrop highlights how the moisture damage has made the edges fragile and liable to tear and flake away,
Add MS 82957, f. 119r 

The physical condition of this manuscript presents many problems to the curator: how best to balance the need to conserve and protect it with the needs of readers to view and study it; and how to manage the digitisation process. Every manuscript that we plan to digitise is first examined, assessed, and, if necessary, treated by one of our in-house conservators (an earlier post by Ann Tomalak describes this process in more detail). The manuscript you see today on Digitised Manuscripts has been the subject of hours of work and many careful interventions in order to make it fit for digitisation. These repairs will be the subject of a future blog post. Here, our focus will be upon the damage the manuscript has sustained. 

Add_ms_82957_fse005r
The fore-edge of the manuscript, illustrating the areas damaged by rodents,
Add MS 82957 

Most obviously, the manuscript has suffered from rodent damage. The edges of the manuscript, in particular the upper left-hand corner, have been nibbled. Prior to conservation, these thin, shredded strips of parchment would fall off every time the manuscript was opened. Worse still, the discolouration of the parchment in these locations may have been caused in part by the rodents’ urine. Rest assured we washed our hands very thoroughly after handling the manuscript! 

Add_ms_82957_f252r
Detail of a leaf showing moisture staining and severe cockling, with part of the text now concealed under a stiff fold in the parchment,
Add MS 82957, f. 252r 

Damp and mould have also taken their toll on the parchment leaves. The moisture has caused the leaves to swell and cockle. This must have taken place while the manuscript was closed. Adjoining leaves have crinkled together and, though they can be separated, continue to ‘lock’ together when the pages are turned. The mould has eaten away at the parchment, weakening it and making it more likely to split and tear. Rodents also seem to prefer damp and mouldy parchment, because it is softer (and perhaps partially pre-digested!). 

Add_ms_82957_ff126v-127r details
Detail of text that has lifted off and transferred onto the facing leaf,
Add MS 82957, ff. 126v and 127r 

It is fortunate that, in most instances, the margins are so wide that the damp has not reached the text block and caused the ink to bleed. Here, however, the ink has lifted off and transferred onto the facing leaf, damage most likely caused by a combination of moisture damage and friction between the two leaves. 

Add_ms_82957_fse006r
The upper edge of the manuscript, illustrating the swelling caused by moisture damage,
Add MS 82957 

The water/urine damage has affected the shape of the book by making one corner into an uneven wedge shape. 

Add_ms_82957_f152v
Detail of wax droplets,
Add MS 82957, f. 152v 

Humans too have left their mark. In several locations, small red dots are found on the parchment: this is candle wax, which you can feel as a slightly raised spot on the surface. You can see that as the wax has cooled and contracted, it has pulled on the parchment, causing small radiating wrinkles to appear. 

Add_ms_82957_f197v
Detail of a small hole burned into the parchment,
Add MS 82957, f. 197v 

Elsewhere, the damage is more serious, with falling cinders from a candle having burnt small holes into the parchment. In this instance, the cinder burnt a hole through one of the adjoining leaves. 

Add_ms_82957_ff002v-3r details
Detail of an initial ‘Θ (theta) that has been torn out and the corresponding off-print, Add MS 82957, ff. 2v and 3r
 

The manuscript has also been mutilated, with several initials roughly torn out. All that remains of these are ghostly off-prints on facing pages. 

Add_ms_82957_fblefr
Neo-Gothic-influenced blind-tooled binding, probably 19th century,
Add MS 82957, front binding 

The manuscript was rebound, probably in the nineteenth century. The binding features recessed boards, most likely to help to protect the edges from further damage. The blind tooling is unusual – showing neo-Gothic influences that perhaps echoes William Morris bindings from Kelmscott – as is the covering. 

Add_ms_82957_raking detail
Detail of the binding, shot under raking light, revealing the wild boar follicle pattern,
Add MS 82957, front binding 

Close inspection has revealed that the manuscript is bound in wild boar skin. The above image was taken under raking light, a technique where light is shone at an angle from the side, making surface texture more clearly visible. One can see the triangular follicle pattern typical of common pig skin, which was widely used for this purpose. However, the presence of additional bristles – amounting in the live animal to an extra layer of hair – confirms the source as a wild rather than domesticated swine. The circumstances in which the skin was acquired – perhaps a genteel hunting-party? – remains a mystery. 

Stay tuned for the next instalment on the Phillipps Lectionary, when we will describe the conservation and digitisation process in more detail. 

- James Freeman

21 November 2014

Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships at the British Library

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Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f132r
Opening leaf of the Old English epic poem ‘Beowulf’, 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century,
Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r

This is a reminder that the deadline for applications for a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership at the British Library is 4.00pm on Friday 28th November. There is just one week left to apply – don’t miss out on this fantastic opportunity! 

Six doctoral studentships are up for grabs, fully-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and with additional financial support of up to £1,000 per year from the British Library to cover travel and related research costs. 

Each studentship will be jointly supervised by a member of the British Library curatorial team and an academic from a UK Higher Education Institution. There are nine potential research areas that range across the British Library collections, with one for the medieval period: ‘Understanding the Anglo-Saxons: The English and Continental Manuscript Evidence’. 

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Miniature of King Cnut and Queen Aelfgifu/Emma placing a golden cross on an altar, witnessed by Christ in Majesty and Benedictine monks, from the Liber Vitae of New Minster and Hyde, England, S.W. (Winchester) c. 1031,
Stowe MS 944, f. 6r 

The British Library has the largest holdings of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world. We particularly welcome applications relating to network and knowledge exchange across early medieval Europe, the methods of making manuscripts and the development of script, perceptions of the past in Anglo-Saxon England, and comparable topics (see the advertisement for full details). A CDA in this field would fit exactly with the three-year period of research and preparation for the major British Library exhibition on the Anglo-Saxons, which is scheduled to open in October 2018. 

We invite applications from Higher Education Institutions to work with us on this topic. We will select the six proposals with the strongest HEI applications to start in the next academic year, commencing October 2015. HEI applications will be assessed according to the following criteria: 

- development of the research theme;

- the proposed academic supervisor’s research interests and expertise;

- the ability of the proposed Department to support the student;

- and evidence of previous successful collaboration with non-HEI partners. 

The studentships will then be further developed in collaboration with the successful academic partner in each case before being advertised to prospective students. The successful student will contribute to the final agreed research topic. 

For further details and an application form, please visit the British Library’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships page.

20 November 2014

Magna Carta Ballot: A Huge Thank You

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We'd like to thank everyone who entered our recent ballot to see the four original 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, when they are brought together next February for the first time in 800 years. We were overwhelmed by the response: just under 45,000 people entered online, and we received in addition more than 100 postal entries. Everybody at the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral really appreciates the efforts made by members of the public to view our precious Magna Cartas.

The ballot is now closed, and the winning entrants are in the process of being selected. You may recall that we were offering 1,215 people the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the four documents side-by-side. Winners will be contacted between now and 12 December, so please hold tight if you haven't heard from us yet: there's a chance that you may actually be one of the chosen ones!

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Salisbury_Cathedral

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Lincoln Cathedral (left), Salisbury Cathedral (middle) and the British Library (right), home to the four surviving manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta

A reminder that the winners will view the four 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts at the British Library in London on Tuesday, 3 February 2015. The winners will be given a special introduction to the history and legacy of Magna Carta from historian and TV presenter Dan Jones. They will also each receive a special edition Magna Carta gift bag containing free passes to each of the upcoming exhibitions at the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, plus a Certificate of Attendance, inscribed with the winner’s name and sealed in wax with a special stamp created to mark the day. The event is being sponsored by Linklaters, the global law firm, and we are very grateful for their support.

For anyone who does miss out on this one-off event, remember that all four Magna Carta manuscripts will be on display individually as part of major exhibitions in 2015 at their respective institutions -  the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral. See this webpage for more information.

The 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta by King John will be marked worldwide by numerous events and exhibitions, which will be publicised on this blog and via our Twitter account, @BLMedieval. In the meantime, if you'd like to know more about the history of Magna Carta, please see the British Library's dedicated webpages. It's going to be a very exciting year for all of us!

18 November 2014

A Royal Beast and the Menagerie in the Tower

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Yates_thompson_ms_13_f018r - detail
Detail of a miniature of a crowned lion as ‘King of Beasts’ in a Book of Hours (‘The Taymouth Hours’), ?England (?London), c. 1325–c. 1350,
Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 18r

In light of the recent news that London may be without lions for the first time in 800 years, and with further inspiration from the Royal Beasts exhibition at the Tower of London, we take a turn towards the role of the lion in the medieval imagination.

Barbary lion skull
A skull of a ‘Barbary’ lion, excavated from the moat of the Tower of London in 1937, image courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London

Visitors to Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination may remember the lion skull kindly lent to the British Library by the Natural History Museum. This was one of two skulls unearthed at the Tower of London, where King John (d. 1216) had established a Royal Menagerie which was to become home to an assortment of exotic beasts including lions, bears and one short-lived elephant.

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Detail of an historiated initial showing the King of England mounted on a lion, from the Bohun Psalter, England (S.E., ?London), 2nd half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 68v

The skulls were radiocarbon dated to 1280–1385 and to 1420–1480, suggesting that these particular lions were the private exhibits of either Edward I, II or III, in the first instance, or of the Lancastrian Henry VI or Yorkist Edward IV, in the second. These ‘Barbary’ lions, hailing from northwest Africa, were doubtless an exciting embodiment of the Royal Arms of England for any English monarch.

Harley4751 f2v
Detail of a miniature of crafty method for catching lions (potentially) by placing a goat in one hole and waiting for a lion to fall down the second hole, from a Bestiary, England (?Salisbury), c. 1225–c. 1250,
Harley MS 4751, f. 2v

Whether royal mascots or diplomatic gifts, numerous archival records indicate a long history of lions at the tower. Exactly how they came to be at the tower, how they were crated and transported, is unknown, but trapping a lion using the method depicted in the Bestiary above (involving two holes and a tethered goat) would be quite a feat. The earliest noted payments to their keepers came from King John in 1210-1212, with records becoming more detailed under Henry III (d. 1272).

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Detail of an historiated initial showing a man being devoured by lions (I Kings 20:36), Egerton MS 3277, f. 104r

In 1240, the sheriffs of London were instructed to make provisions for a lion and a keeper, William de Botton, including 14 shillings for ‘buying chains and other things for the use of the lion’. By 1314, the sheriffs were providing a quarter of mutton every day for the maintenance of numerous lions. The polar bear seems to have had it better in this respect. As part of a cost-saving measure for the City, this (chained) Norwegian captive could at least fish for its own supper on the bank of the Thames.

The keeper’s own wages could be slow to materialise, as experienced by William Bounde who was owed £55 by 1408: he would be imprisoned by his creditors, he claimed, and the lions would go unfed. The office was granted to Robert Manfeld in 1436, who would double up as marshal of the hall within the royal household. Perhaps delegating duties became a challenge since it was in the same year that all of the lions in the tower apparently died. Had he simply fed the sick lions a monkey, as recommended by the Bestiary, they may well have been cured.

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f005v - detail
Detail of a miniature of lion and his irrational fear of the white rooster, in a Bestiary, England (?Rochester), c. 1230–c. 1300,
Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 5v

The Bestiary describes the power, courage and intelligence of the lion – a fitting emblem of monarchy – who fears nothing save the white rooster, scorpion and snake.

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Detail of a miniature of cubs born dead and reanimated by their fathers who breathe life into them, in the Bestiary, England (?North or Central), c. 1200–c. 1210,
Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 6r

When hunted, the Bestiary relates, the lion sweeps his tail over the ground to conceal his tracks; he also sleeps with his eyes open to avoid capture, and he has the ability to resurrect his stillborn cubs. He never attacks women and children, nor the man who prostrates himself before him.

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f008v - detail
Detail of a miniature of Josiane (luckily a virgin of royal blood) with two lions,
Yates Thompson 13, f. 8v (this miniature featured earlier this year in our Valentine's Day blog post, An Illustrated Guide to Medieval Love)

Lions were able to ascertain, by mysterious means, both virginity and royal blood, which is why Josiane was immune to being trapped in a cave with two lions.

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f012r - detail
Detail of a miniature of Beves of Hampton slaying the two lions pestering Josiane,
Yates Thompson 13, f. 12r

Beves of Hampton, by contrast, was forced to employ all his knightly prowess to avoid being devoured alive.

Royal_ms_13_b_viii_f019v - detail
Detail of a miniature of Joanna of Paris embracing a lion, from the ‘Topographia Hiberniae’ of Gerald of Wales, England (?Lincoln), c.1196–1223,
Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 19v

Occasionally, a ‘woman’s tricks’ might be held responsible for encouraging the amorous affections of the lion, as Gerald of Wales reports was the case at the French court of King Philip.

Roy17EVII f107v
Detail of a column miniature showing Habakkuk (suspended by the hand of God) delivering a jug of stew to Daniel in the lions’ den, from Guyart de Moulins, Bible historiale, France (?Paris), 1357,
Royal MS 17 E VII, f. 107v

Roy1Di f377
Detail of an historiated initial 'A' showing Daniel and two lions in the den, from a Bible, England, c. 1250–c. 1275,
Royal MS 1 D I, f. 377r

The popular stories associated with biblical heroes Daniel, Samson and David gave frequent cause for lions in manuscript miniatures. Daniel’s benign and friendly companions emphasise his miraculous delivery from the lions’ den.

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Marginal drawings of David keeping his sheep safe by grappling with a lion and a dog (above) and fighting Goliath (below), from the Worms Bible, Germany (Frankenthal), c. 1148,
Harley MS 2803, f. 126v

Other popular subjects include David – shepherd boy and future king – protecting his sheep from a lion, a prolepsis of his battle with Goliath.

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f044r - detail
Detail of a miniature of Samson taking a honeycomb from the lion’s body, from the ‘Queen Mary Psalter’, England (?London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320,
Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 44r

Samson was renowned for possessing the strength to tear apart a lion with his bare hands. The illuminator who executed the Samson miniature chose to depict the moment when Samson revisited the dead lion to find bees nesting in its carcass, allowing him to take honey from the lion’s body.

Add 69865 f2v
Detail of an historiated initial containing an Evangelist portrait that represents Mark as a lion, from a Book of Hours, Italy (?Bologna), c. 1390 – c.1400,
Add MS 69865, f. 2v

The lion can be seen, more frequently, distinguishing the Gospel of Mark from the other Evangelists (this particular Mark has morphed into a lion-human hybrid).

Egerton 3266 f8
Detail of an historiated initial showing Jerome and lion, from Jerome, Pseudo-Jerome and others, Epistles and treatises, Italy (?Venice), c. 1390,
Egerton MS 3266, f. 8r

Similarly, Saint Jerome can be identified by his red Cardinal’s hat and his attribute, a lion.

Egerton 1070 f9
Detail of the border of a Calendar page for July, showing Leo and a man harvesting and gathering sheaves of wheat,  from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410,
Egerton MS 1070, f. 9r

In the bestselling devotional books of the Middle Ages, the calendar pages often display a zodiac sign paired with a typical activity for the month. Leo, the sign for July, heralded the harvest and he is frequently juxtaposed with scenes of peasants sharpening sickles or threshing grain.

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Detail of Leo as a lion apparently forced into the July calendar by chain,
Royal 2 B VII, f. 78r

The lion is often very well portrayed in manuscripts and this may be linked to their popularity as an exhibit in the Tower. The improvements to Matthew Paris’ depictions of elephants, for example, are the result of his journey from St Albans to the Menagerie to draw Henry III’s elephant from life. Looking at the miniature above, you can almost imagine William de Botton with his chains worth 14 shillings, cajoling his captive ...

To learn more about the lions and other exotic creatures, their keepers, and the vanished menagerie that was a distant predecessor of London Zoo, check out the Royal Beasts exhibition at the Tower of London.

- Holly James-Maddocks

13 November 2014

Fire and Brimstone: Another Apocalypse Manuscript Goes Live

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Just in case you’ve been living in a cave on the island of Patmos, here’s a reminder about the forthcoming illuminated manuscripts conference at the British Library! It will be taking place on Monday 1st December, 10.45am-5.15pm. It is being held in honour of Lucy Freeman Sandler, who has published extensively on British Library manuscripts. The speakers are each leading lights in the field of art history and manuscript studies: Nigel Morgan, Kathryn Smith, Julian Luxford, Alixe Bovey and Paul Binski. Lucy Freeman Sandler will also be giving a paper on Egerton MS 3277, the Bohun Psalter. This is an unmissable opportunity to hear them talk about their most recent research.

150 people have registered to attend so far. If you haven’t reserved your place yet, don’t delay! E-mail James Freeman (james.freeman@bl.uk) to bag a seat, and check out our earlier blog post for further details of the programme.

As a taster of what we have to look forward to next month, let’s take a closer look at the manuscript that will be the subject of Nigel Morgan’s paper: Add MS 38842, an English apocalypse fragment, which has recently been published on Digitised Manuscripts

Sadly, only 8 folios are known to survive, but they contain wonderful illuminations on every page, including these of the Woman and the Beast. 

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The Woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet and the Beast with seven heads, from an Apocalypse fragment with a commentary in French prose, England, early 14th century,
Add MS 38842, ff. 3v-4r 

A fierce red dragon with seven heads attacks the woman, but she looks back at him defiantly while passing her child up to God in heaven. Below, a host of angels come to her aid with spears, fighting off the beast and his army of club-wielding creatures, which represent vice. They are soon dispatched into a waiting hell-mouth, into which they dive headlong with evil grins. The woman grows wings and escapes from the beast; here she represents the Church, as the French commentary explains, escaping from the evil on earth. 

On either side of the final folio of the British Library fragment is the episode of the angels and the seven vials (Revelation 16). First, the angels, clothed in pure white gowns with golden girdles, receive their vials at the temple door. Although the text states that the vials, containing the wrath of God, are given to the angels by one of the four beasts of the Apocalypse, the image shows an angel giving out the last vial. 

Add_ms_38842_f008r
The seven angels with golden vials,
Add MS 38842, f. 8r 

The commentary in Anglo-Norman French tells us that the angels represent ‘li precheur de la foi’ (the preachers of the faith), ‘ki dampnerunt ceux ki ne la voudrent receuvre’ (who will damn those who do not want to receive it).

On the following page is a scene of high drama: six of the angels pour out God’s wrath on the earth, the sea, the rivers, the sun, the beast’s kingdom and the air. Some people lie sleeping or dead on the left, while in the foreground three figures writhe in terror, at the same time attacking each other violently. 

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The first six angels pour out their vials (right),
Add MS 38842, f. 8v 

This Apocalypse is believed to have been illuminated by the English court artist who worked on the ‘Treatise on Good Government’, given by Walter of Milemete to Edward III (Oxford, Christ Church MS 92). Milemete also presented a copy of the Secretum Secretorum to Edward III as companion volume to his treatise: Add MS 47680, one of the manuscripts displayed in our exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.  

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Three men worshipping the beast out of the earth, with the dragon on a hill;  fire descends from heaven and four men lie dead,
Add MS 38842, f. 5v 

- Chantry Westwell

11 November 2014

The Codex Crippsianus: A Byzantine Manuscript of the Attic Orators

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Of all the manuscripts collected by the schoolmaster and bibliophile Charles Burney (d. 1817), two stand out for their significance for the transmission of classical texts. One is the Townley Homer (Burney MS 86), an important witness to the text of the Iliad and the key source for the exegetical scholia on that text. (You can read more about the Townley Homer in this blog post from last summer.) The other is the Codex Crippsianus (Burney MS 95), recently added to Digitised Manuscripts. It is the most important witness to the text of the minor Attic Orators, containing the speeches of Andocides, Isaeus, Dinarchus, Antiphon and Lycurgus, as well as works by Gorgias, Alcidamas, Lesbonax and a work attributed to Herodes Atticus.

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Zoomorphic initial of a bird, from the Codex Crippsianus, Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), 1st half of the 14th century, Burney MS 95, f. 34v

The hand of the manuscript caused some confusion about how best to date it, in the absence of a scribal colophon, and most attempts to date it placed it in the thirteenth or even the twelfth century. In 1960, however, Nigel Wilson noted the similarities between the script and that of chancery script in two early 14th-century manuscripts on Athos, and he suggested that the manuscript had been written by a chancery scribe commissioned to write a book. Certainly, the script differs greatly from a typical contemporary book-hand such as that found in Arundel MS 523, copied by the priest Michael Lulludes in Crete, in 1312-13:

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Detail of the hand of Michael Lulludes, from a copy of the Chronicle of Constantine Manasses, 1312-13, Arundel MS 523, f. 143v

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Detail of the hand of the Codex Crippsianus, Burney MS 95, f. 16v

On the other hand, Burney MS 95 is much closer to the hand of Romanus Chartophylax, in Harley MS 5579, copied in 1320-21. This script is the form known as “notarial” Cypriot script.

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Detail of the hand of Romanus Chartophylax, from the Codex Goblerianus, Cyprus, 1320-21, Harley MS 5579, f. 98r

Finally, in the 1990s, the scribe was identified by Erich Lamberz as Michael Klostomalles, a notary also known as the “Metochitesschreiber”. It is heartening to think that such a famous manuscript can now be associated with a known person, and is also a good reminder of the vast amounts of work remaining to be done on Greek manuscripts.

It remains to say a few words about how the manuscript ended up in Burney’s possession. The manuscript contains an early pressmark identifying it as belonging to the monastery of Vatopedi, Mount Athos, and it may well have been part of the gift of the Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus (r. 1347-54). Like many public figures during the Byzantine age, John planned to retire to a monastery, and prepared for his retirement by having many of his books sent in advance. The manuscript contains annotations in the hand of Prince Alexander Bano Hantzerli, and from him it passed into the possession of Edward Daniel Clarke, who procured it for John Marten Cripps, from whom the manuscript gets its name. There was great excitement when the manuscript went up for auction in 1808, as can be seen from the printed sale notice now preserved as ff. 171r-172v, and Burney acquired it for the not insignificant sum of £372 15s. Now, along with Burney MS 96, a descendant of the Codex Crippsianus, the manuscript and its riches can be viewed by all online.

- Cillian O'Hogan

08 November 2014

The Harley Psalter: Devils in the Details

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Harley_ms_603_f051v
Miniature illustrating Psalm 103 (Vulgate numbering): The creations of the Lord: valleys and mountains (left) with springs where beasts and birds are drinking, a man ploughing with oxen, a sea with ships on it and beasts in the water (centre); lions and other beasts among the rocks (right), from the Harley Psalter, S.E. England (Canterbury), 1st half of the 11th century, Harley MS 603, f. 51v

The Harley Psalter is one of three manuscripts copied from the very well-travelled Utrecht Psalter, a Carolingian masterpiece made around 825 at the Benedictine monastery of Hautvilliers near Rheims in Northern France. Now MS 32 at the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Utrecht, the Utrecht Psalter spent at least two hundred years in Canterbury from about 1000 AD, where it was the inspiration for our very own Harley Psalter, Harley MS 603. Dating from the first half of the 11th century, the Harley Psalter has a very similar arrangement and many near-identical images to those of the Utrecht Psalter, though the version of the Psalms is different. In each one of the large pen drawings, the artist has attempted to represent the words of the Psalms in pictorial form - not always an easy task. The images often include four or five episodes from the text of the Psalm that follows, depicted in a vibrant yet intimate style. They are extraordinarily detailed, filled with tiny people and animals and many details, some amusing, and some bizarre.  This is the medieval ‘Where’s Wally?’: the reward for hours of searching is an unexpected delight from time to time.

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 5: The psalmist entering a sanctuary (left), from which a winged demon is fleeing (centre), and above him an angel placing a wreath on a martyr's head; on the right, demons are prodding the wicked in a pit of fire, Harley MS 603, f. 3r

There are, of course, the standard variations on the theme of the righteous and unrighteous, such as holy tabernacles and fiery pits, the psalmist appealing to God and his angels for help against foes and demons.  

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 134
: The Lord unleashing the fury of the wind and rain and his angels with spears slaying kings and their armies, Harley MS 603, f. 69r

God’s vengeance is portrayed repeatedly and with relish, as are the agitated gestures of the figures who suffer the consequences, particularly kings and judges.

So much for the standard fare. Here are a few unusual and interesting details we found to enjoy (apart from a medieval umbrella!). Please look for your own favourites in the online images and share them with us via Twitter: unlike the ‘Where’s Wally?’ books, Digitised Manuscripts allows you to zoom in for added searchability.

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Detail from a miniature illustrating Psalm 7: a female demon with quadruplets (below right), Harley MS 603, f. 4r

Here is a female demon with her brood of quadruplets. She seems to have her hands full!

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 21: The themes include: (1) the lamentation of the psalmist, who is shown holding two vials, and is attacked by bulls, dogs and lions, with a unicorn below (lower right); (2) prophetic images of Christ’s passion including an empty cross and two men dividing a garment in front of a lot machine (centre); and (3) praise to heaven, represented by the tabernacle with the meek eating at a circular table and seven women seated with babies (the seed of Israel), Harley MS 603, f. 12r

As those of you who follow this blog will know, we have a soft spot for unicorns. Here is one that seems to be facing up to two men with scythes. One has to wonder what the outcome of that contest will be. Our money is on the unicorn, naturally.

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Detail of a miniature illustrating Psalm 30: People watching acrobats and a dancing bear
, Harley MS 603, f. 17r

Continuing with the animal theme, this image includes a dancing bear and acrobats, presumably as a condemnation of frivolous pastimes.

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 108: Below Christ in a mandorla with angels, a wicked man is seized by a demon (left) and the psalmist with a locust, standing in oil from an oil-horn (right); the sinner is punished (lower left), his wife and children abandoned and his treasures taken from his chest, Harley MS 603, f. 56r

And here a locust is an onlooker to the punishment of a sinful man. The sinner’s treasure is looted, his wife tears her hair out and his children are abandoned, naked.  

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Added miniature illustrating Psalm 59: The Lord in a mandorla handing a pair of shoes to an angel; the defenders of the city of Edom(?) are facing the attacking soldiers
, Harley MS 603, f. 32v

Finally, did you know that angels wore shoes? No, nor did we, but in the picture the Lord is handing a pair to an angel (illustrating the line, ‘Over Edom will I cast out my shoe’). The style of this image is different: it is one of the drawings added to the Psalter in the 12th century. 

There are 112 of these fascinating and skilful illustrations in the Harley Psalter, an impressive achievement by any standard. The artistic style, originally from Reims, was influential in the development of late Anglo-Saxon book decoration and the coloured line drawings that became especially popular in England at the time. For further examples of this style, check out the Tiberius Psalter (Cotton MS Tiberius C VI), which dates to the third quarter of the 11th century. Two copies of the Psychomachia at the British Library also contain similar decoration: Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII and Additional MS 24199 (the latter will soon make an appearance on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts).

- Chantry Westwell

04 November 2014

“Snip It!” at The Jewish Museum, Berlin

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Detail of Abraham and the men of his family being circumcised, from the Egerton Genesis, Southern England, c. 1350–c. 1375,
Egerton MS 1894, f. 9v

Two manuscripts from the British Library are featured in the exhibition “Snip it! Stances on Ritual Circumcision”, newly opened at The Jewish Museum in Berlin (24 October 2014 to 1 March 2015). The British Library’s Egerton Genesis Picture Book and Omne bonum are two of some sixty objects and artworks gathered from international collections to examine the cultural and historical context of circumcision.

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The story of Abraham and Sarah from
Egerton MS 1894, f. 9v

Together with 19 other leaves, this page forms part of a remarkable picture book containing 149 illustrations of Genesis, from the Creation to the history of Joseph. The relative size of the illumination makes clear the primacy of image over the text, with the latter consisting of short captions in Anglo-Norman French, derived from Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica. The exhibition features this page for its inclusion of Abraham and the men of his family being circumcised (see top for detail). Many more images from this manuscript feature in this previous blog post, and a discussion of the picture book genre can be seen here.

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Detail of the illustrated entry on ‘Circumcisio’ in the encyclopaedic 'Omne bonum', London, c. 1360–1375,
Royal MS 6 E VI, f. 269

The author of the second volume on loan to the exhibition, James le Palmer, said of his work: “Since virtually all good things are in one way or another contained herein, I thought it fitting to name this little work Omne bonum – all good things.” Containing more than 1350 entries arranged in alphabetical order, this work aspired to be a universal collection of knowledge. Over 750 entries are illustrated, including “Circumcisio” above. The ritual is performed on an ordinary child, in agreement with the text which discusses circumcision in the Old Testament, but the artist has followed the pictorial tradition of the Circumcision of Christ.

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Detail of the Circumcision of Abraham in Omne bonum,
Royal MS 6 E VI, f. 3

It is not the entry on “Circumcisio” which is on display in Berlin, however, but a scene depicting the Circumcision of Abraham included in the biblical cycle at the beginning of Omne bonum. This occurs among 109 tinted drawings of Old and New Testament subjects. The curators of the exhibition, Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek and Martina Lüdicke, explain that “Snip it!” illuminates “ritual circumcision from the perspective of the three monotheistic religions. Both loans, Omne bonum and the Egerton Genesis, are exhibited in the room dedicated to the Christian perception of the ritual. The depiction of Abraham’s circumcision greatly enriches our content, emphasizing the Christian interpretation of Abraham’s circumcision as an act of sacrifice.” Starting from the Jewish concept of the Abrahamic covenant, via sculptures exploring the body-shaped-by-culture, to clips from contemporary TV series, this exhibition is described as “incisive in every sense of the term”; for the full details see this press release.

The British Library is delighted to be a lender to this exhibition, and we hope that as many people as possible have the opportunity to see our manuscripts while they are on display in Berlin.

- Holly James-Maddocks