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16 April 2015

Murder in the Cathedral

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One of the most notorious episodes in medieval English history took place at Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. During evening vespers, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury and erstwhile friend of King Henry II, was murdered by four of the king’s knights, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville and Richard Brito. They are said to have been incited to action by Henry’s exasperated words, ‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!’

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The earliest known miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B II, f. 341r)

Becket's martyrdom was the subject of T. S. Eliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral, first performed on 15 June 1935 in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral before it moved to a run at the Mercury Theatre in London. Eliot’s play drew on the work of an eyewitness to the event, a clerk named Edward Grim who had attempted to defend Becket from William de Tracy’s blow. Henry had actually hoped that the appointment of his chancellor, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury, would help him to reassert royal authority over the Church. But the king had not anticipated that Becket would resign as chancellor shortly after he was elevated to the see of Canterbury. The conflict between Henry II and Becket centred on the perennial issue of the balance between royal and papal authority and the rights of the church in England.

Becket’s murder sent shockwaves across Western Christendom. The four knights were excommunicated by Pope Alexander III, who ordered them to serve in the Holy Land for 14 years while they sought his forgiveness. Becket himself was canonised in February 1173, less than 3 years after his death, and Canterbury Cathedral became a major site of pilgrimage – Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, from the late 14th century, are testament to the continued popularity of pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas. Henry II, meanwhile, undertook a public act of penance on 12 July 1174. Confessing to indirect responsibility for the murder, he entered Canterbury in sackcloth, both barefoot and mute, and made a pilgrimage to the crypt of St Thomas where he was whipped by the monks while he lay prostrate and naked by the tomb.

Our new exhibition, Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy, includes three items that relate to the legacy of Becket’s martyrdom. One is a 12th-century English manuscript of the Letters of Thomas Becket, collected by Alan of Tewkesbury, which contains the earliest known manuscript miniature of Becket’s martyrdom, shown above. The second is a beautiful enamelled Champlevé reliquary from Limoges, on loan from the British Museum. On one compartment is an image of Becket being struck with a sword; above, he rises from his tomb to ascend to heaven. Reliquaries such as this would have been used to store relics of the saint.

BM-Beckett Casket

A reliquary depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (British Museum 1854,0411.2) 

The third item relating to Becket's martyrdom is the seal of his successor, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury (1207-28). Langton's seal shows the murder of Thomas Becket on its reverse, as a permanent reminder of the suffering endured by the Church. It should occasion no surprise, therefore, that the first clause of Magna Carta, perhaps inserted at Langton's insistence (and still valid in English law today), confirms the liberties of the church in England.

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The seal of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, depicting Thomas Becket's martyrdom (London, British Library, Harley Charter 75 A 14)

Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015 (#MagnaCarta)

Katherine Har

14 April 2015

Ten Things To Know About Medieval Monsters

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In their new picture book published by the British Library, Medieval Monsters, medieval historian Damien Kempf and art historian Maria L. Gilbert explore the fantastic, grotesque and exuberant world of monsters in the Middle Ages through the images found in illuminated manuscripts, from dragons and demons to Yoda and hybrid creatures. The book has already attracted rave reviews: don't forget that you can buy it from the British Library online shop (£10, ISBN 9780712357906).

In this guest post, Damien and Maria describe ten things you should know about medieval monsters in a whimsical poem à la Edward Lear and Dr. Seuss.

With medieval manuscripts one does find

there lurks a particularly special kind

of creature, lurking in the margin,

religious instruction or pure diversion?

Frightening, charming, sometimes alarming;

monsters are Sin and Damnation,

Seduction, Temptation, Allure, Delectation.

We enter their world, they hold us in thrall

let’s take a look, the Middle Ages call.

***

1. They may be shy

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The big-eared Panotii were a monstrous race;

located on the peripheries—an imaginary place.

Their ears were so large they could serve as blankets

or wings to fly away when overcome with shyness.

* * *

2. They may create a wonderful first impression but beware!

MS. LUDWIG XV 3, FOL. 78_mask.png

Bird-woman mermaid, alluring siren at sea,

sings so enchantingly there’s no time to plea.

You’re entranced, you’re drawn in. That voice! Those tail swishes!

Next you’re asleep and then: food for the fishes.

* * *

3. They may crave love and tenderness

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A horse with a long horn, most fierce and shrewd,

the all powerful unicorn easily eludes

an experienced hunter, but tame it becomes

at the touch of a virgin and completely succumbs.

* * *

4. They may be multi-headed

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An end days vision: six heads and ten horns

with multiple crowns, his head is adorned.

Mouth like a lion and feet like a bear

the Beast of the Apocalypse gives quite a scare.

* * *

5. They may be very tempting

Getty Ms. Ludwig XI 8, fol. 6v_demon adjusted.png

Living in the desert, the hermit saint Anthony

besieged by hallucinations seemingly continually.

Facing trial after trial of temptation,

this Christian ascetic retained his concentration.

* * *

6. They may bite off more than they can chew

MS. 37, FOL. 49V_mask.png

Margaret of Antioch, thrown into prison

by the prefect Olibrius for being a Christian.

The devil as a dragon visited her there,

swallowed her whole but having said a prayer

she burst out unharmed, a dragon slayer.

* * *

7. They may take your soul on your deathbed if you behave badly

Ms. 57, fol. 194_mask.png

At death, both an angel and devil are waiting.

Will your soul go to hell or is it worth saving?

It depends on the deeds you performed in life.

whether you repented or caused bitter strife.

* * *

8. They may be quite irksome

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On Patmos, John (the Evangelist probably)

wrote revelations, an apocalyptic prophecy.

A mischievous demon tried to spoil the plot

by sneakily stealing John’s ink pot.

* * *

9. They may be flashy

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Warrior angel Michael, celestial army head

smote the devil down but didn’t strike him dead.

A spectacular battle, some would say,

as theatrical & vibrant as lucha libre.

* * *

10. They may look like Hollywood movie stars

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Sendak, Burton, Lucas, and Seuss

Their films: medieval monster reuse!

Handsome, playful, quirky, and whimsical

Nothing, it seems, is ever new in principle.

 

Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert

FEATURED: Panotti (British Library Add MS 62925, f. 88v, detail); Siren (Ms. Ludwig XV 3, f. 78, detail, J. Paul Getty Museum); Unicorn (BL Stowe 17, f. 90v, detail); Beast of the Apocalypse (BL Add. 54180, f. 14v, detail); Anthony's demon (Ms. Ludwig XI 8, f. 6v, detail, Getty Museum); Margaret's dragon (Ms. 37, f. 49v, detail, Getty Museum); Soul takers (Ms. 57, f. 194, detail, Getty Museum); John's demon (Ms. Ludwig IX 6, f.13, detail, Getty Museum); Michael and the Devil (BL Add 18851, f. 464, detail); Figure in monk's robes ('Yoda') (Royal 10 E IV, f. 30, detail).

07 April 2015

A Giant from Our Collections: The Stavelot Bible

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Historiated initial 'I' ('In principio'), at the beginning of Genesis, fully painted and gilded, with roundels containing scenes relating to Genesis and Christ, from the Stavelot Bible, Netherlands, S. (Stavelot), 1094-1097, Add MS 28106, f 6r.

Readers of our blog will know that our manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes, and they vary from Books of Hours so tiny that they can fit in the palm of one’s hand, to enormous tomes that are almost impossible for one person to lift. Each of the two volumes of the Stavelot Bible exceeds the aircraft carry-on limit, with dimensions of 58 x 39cm, and weighing 40 lb, and the whole work takes four people to carry, two for each volume. Fortunately for scholars, bodybuilding is no longer a requirement to look at this manuscript as it has now been fully digitised and is available online as Add MS 28106 and Add MS 28107.

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Canon tables, from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28107, f 139v

The writing, decoration and binding of this monumental Bible, made for the Benedictine abbey of Stavelot, near Liège, southern Netherlands, took four years to complete, and was finished in 1097.

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Illuminated initial at the beginning of the Book of Samuel, showing the Amakelite bearing the crown of the dead Saul into David’s camp (below), then presenting Saul’s insignia to David (middle) and the executioner holding up the severed head of the Amakelite over his twisted body (above), from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28106, f 109r

Two monks involved in its production, Godderan and Ernesto, are identified in an inscription, although their roles are not specified: Godderan may have been the sole scribe, and Ernesto one of the artists. Its great size and legibility of script indicates that it would have been the principal Bible of the abbey, possibly used for daily services or for display on the high altar.

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‘ET’ at the beginning of the Book of Joshua, with (above) the hand of God coming down to Joshua, shown from the back, in a pose characteristic of the Stavelot artist, and (below) Joshua addressing three followers, from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28106, f 75v

This image, which appears before the beginning of the New Testament, is one of the great monuments of early Romanesque art. It shows Christ in Majesty, holding a book and a Greek cross, with the globe of the earth under his feet, surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists.

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Christ in Majesty, from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28107, f 136r

The two volumes of the Stavelot Bible contain 45 historiated initials in all.  Unfortunately in some places initials have been cut out and blank spaces remain.

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Text page with missing image from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28106, f 144v

Not all initials are historiated. In this masterful composition from the beginning of the Liber Generationis in Matthew’s Gospel, the shape follows the outlines of the letter ‘L’ and animal and human forms struggle to escape from the swirling vines. 

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Decorated initial ‘L’(iber) at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28107, f 142v

 - Chantry Westwell

02 April 2015

A Calendar Page for April 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

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Calendar page for April, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, architectural column and roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 3r 

A pastoral scene greets us on the calendar page for April, with budding leaves on the trees heralding the onset of spring. Sheep and their lambs, a goat and two oxen are being shepherded out from half-timbered barns, to graze in the fields beyond. A cockerel, hens and their hatchlings scrabble about in farmyard, while in the background a woman stands churning milk for butter. The roundels depict the two main feast days for the month – for St George (on horseback, vanquishing a dragon with his lance) and for St Mark (seated at his desk and accompanied by his emblem, a winged lion). Taurus the Bull – the Zodiac sign for April – is standing at the head of page. 

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of animals being let out to graze,
Add MS 35313, f. 3r 

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Detail of a roundel depicting St George and the dragon,
Add MS 35313, f. 3r

- James Freeman

29 March 2015

The Anglo-Saxon Origins of Medieval Justice

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Our major Magna Carta exhibition is now open in London, but for those of you who can't come to the British Library in person, over the coming months we're going to showcase some of the exhibits on this blog. You may imagine that our story starts in the years immediately before the Great Charter was granted in 1215; but in fact the earliest items in our exhibition pre-date the Norman Conquest of England ...

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Miniature of a king dictating the law (London, British Library, Royal MS 11 D IX, f. 6r)

‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.’

So reads the most famous clause of Magna Carta, still valid in English law. But what do we know about the concept of justice before the 13th century?

The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon law code was actually issued around the year 600 by King Æthelberht of Kent (r. 560–616), and was written in Old English. Meanwhile, the Bible provided models for good Christian kingship, as demonstrated in this 11th-century manuscript of the Hexateuch (the first 6 books of the Bible), on show in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

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The Old English Hexateuch (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 59r)

Here is the biblical story of Pharaoh sentencing his chief baker to be hanged (Genesis 40:21-22). However, the 11th-century artist has dressed the figures in costumes of his own day: the king in the centre, holding a sword and a sceptre or rod, is surrounded by his counsellors; the condemned man, on the right, is being strung from the gallows. According to a 14th-century catalogue, this beautifully illustrated manuscript was kept in the monastery library at St Augustine’s Canterbury on the first shelf of its first bookcase. You can see this page in our Magna Carta exhibition, and the whole manuscript can be viewed on our Digital Manuscripts website.

The Ten Commandments were a particularly important model for the drafting of Anglo-Saxon law codes. They are referenced in the laws of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and formed part of the preface to his law book, grounding the secular laws in biblical precedents. God’s law is also specifically referenced in the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, which begins with the line, ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence, and the law of God promoted’. This was issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035) with the advice of his counsellors. The text was drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023), and one of the eight surviving medieval manuscripts containing the text was produced in either York or Worcester in the 11th century. It was probably owned by the archbishop himself, and may contain his own annotations.

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The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

This item is also on display in our Magna Carta exhibition. When you see it in person, you realise that this pocket-sized book was deliberately made to be easily portable, perhaps by Archbishop Wulfstan himself.

It's quickly apparent that the concept of justice in medieval England was firmly established before King John came to the throne. We'll review why Magna Carta came to be granted in some of our later blogposts (look out for them on Twitter, @BLMedieval with the hashtag #MagnaCarta).

You can view the Old English Hexateuch and King Cnut's lawcode alongside other items relating to the history and legacy of Magna Carta in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. They are also featured on our new Magna Carta website (Old English Hexateuch and lawcode of King Cnut).

21 March 2015

True Nobility and Plagiarism

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Being a royal librarian could be a lucrative business in the fifteenth century, as the career of Quentin Poulet illustrates. Born in Lille, he went from obscure scribe in a book-producer’s confraternity in Bruges in 1477-78, to keeper of the library of Henry VII in 1492. From the few records of his life that survive, we know that on 26th July 1497, he was paid £23 sterling for ‘a boke’ with a bonus of 10 marks on top from the royal purse. The ‘boke’ in question may well be Royal MS 19 C VIII, a copy of the Imaginacion de la vraie noblesse, which has just been photographed and uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts. 

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Miniature showing the young knight observing an archer and a carter as models for princely conduct, surrounded by a naturalistic scatter border, from the Imaginacion de la vraie noblesse, London and Bruges, c. 1496-97,
Royal MS 19 C VIII, f. 41r 

One might imagine why Henry was so chuffed with the present. The text is a knightly ‘mirror’ text, intended to offer moral guidance and instruction in courtly behaviour to its aristocratic reader – and what better reader than the ten-year-old Arthur Tudor, prince of Wales? For the heir apparent to Henry VII, this book could plausibly have formed part of his schooling. It offers edifying exempla: from the three aspects of nobility – love of God, love of justice, and love of good reputation – personified as three women, to the virtues embodied by the archer (his skill of focusing on a target) and the carter (his determination, or drive if you’re in the mood for a pun!). It warns how poor counsellors can lead a prince astray, while illustrating the divine right of kings in ruling over their realms. 

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Detail of the colophon of Quentin Poulet,
Royal MS 19 C VIII, f. 97v 

Poulet copied the manuscript himself, writing the text in an elegant Bâtarde script – a style of handwriting common among manuscripts produced under the patronage of the Burgundian court (as illustrated by the copy of the Mystère de la Vengeance made c. 1465 for Philip the Good, acquired last year by the British Library and now Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2). 

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Miniature of Lady Imagination taking her leave of the young knight at the end of his pilgrimage, with the city of Halle in the background,
Royal MS 19 C VIII, f. 90r 

The text was not widely known in England: the only other known insular copy was made for Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, in 1464 (now Geneva, Bibliothèque publique et universitaire, MS fr. 166). Its obscurity may explain why Poulet was able to pass the work off as his own. The narrative frame of a pilgrimage from Lille to Halle (which town is illustrated in the background of many of the miniatures), and its attribution to a member of a prominent Flanders family, Hugues of Lannoy, also explain the text’s appeal to Poulet. 

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Detail of an historiated initial depicting the presentation of the manuscript by Quentin Poulet to Henry VII,
Royal MS 19 C VIII, f. 1r 

Poulet cannily repackaged the text, changing the title slightly from the Enseignement to the Imaginacion de la vraie noblesse, prefacing it with his own dedicatory introduction, and incorporating his name into the colophon at the end (which records the manuscript’s completion at the royal palace of Sheen on 30th June 1496). A historiated initial at the beginning of the preface depicts Poulet kneeling before Henry VII and offering him the book. 

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Miniature showing the young knight a man with severed arms, illustrative of his lack of honour, surrounded by a naturalistic scatter border and animal-rebus on the name of Quentin Poulet,
Royal MS 19 C VIII, f. 32v – this image may be familiar to you from our Valentine’s Day post, An Illustrated Guide to Medieval Love 

Poulet also had his name encoded into the decoration, in the form of a chicken (‘un poulet’, in French) emerging from a shell in one of the scatter borders that surround the miniatures. These borders contain naturalistic flowers and plants (pansies, roses, carnations and strawberry sprigs), animals, birds and insects (a bear, a jay, a grouse, an owl, a fly and a butterfly), and a cheeky monkey that is aping the gestures of the young knight (for more monkey business, take a look at our earlier post, Apes Pulling Shapes). 

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Miniature showing Lady Imagination introducing the young knight to the Three Aspects of Nobility, embodied as young women, surrounded by a naturalistic scatter border,
Royal MS 19 C VIII, f. 11r 

The manuscript contains six large illustrations, which were completed by the Bruges illuminator known to modern scholarship as the ‘Master of the Prayer Books of Around 1500’. (A note was added in pencil to f. 81v by Frederic Madden in 1845, drawing attention to the loss of the following leaf, which presumably contained a seventh miniature). His work is also found in Harley MS 4425, featured on this blog in our posts Sex and Death in the Roman de la Rose and The Height of Fashion, and Royal MS 16 F II, a compilation including poetry by Charles of Orléans.  The British Library also holds one other copy of the Enseignement – Add MS 15469 – another illustrated but much less lavish production on paper.

- James Freeman

17 March 2015

Irish Manuscripts in the British Library

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The British Library holds one of the great collections of Irish-language manuscripts in the world. While it is perhaps not as extensive a collection as those in Dublin or Oxford, and while most of the manuscripts are relatively recent in date, nonetheless the Library’s Irish manuscripts (over 200) contain much that is of considerable scholarly significance. In today’s post, we look at a few of the most important items in the collection.

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Harley MS 1023, f 64v. Below the end of the prologue to John is a drawing of his evangelist symbol, the eagle. A later medieval reader has added John's name above the eagle's head: 'Ioh(ann)es'. Ireland, N. (Armagh?), 1st quarter of the 12th century.

The two Harley Gospel Books are perhaps the jewels of the collection. Harley MS 1802 was completed in Armagh in 1138, and Harley MS 1023 has been attributed to the same place and roughly the same time of origin. Both manuscripts contain the Gospels in Latin, and fine miniatures of Evangelist symbols in ink, along with typical zoomorphic initials. Harley 1802 contains partial commentary in Latin and Irish, and Irish poems and scribal notes. Harley 1023 contains only a few Irish glosses.

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Harley MS 1802, f 61r. Decorated initial and letter 'In'(itium) with animal heads at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Ireland, N. (Armagh), 1138.

The Library has a particularly strong collection of Irish medical texts, including many translations of classical or medieval Latin texts. The highlight is undoubtedly Harley MS 546, a collection of medical tracts in Irish and Latin, dated to 1459, and now digitised in full. It includes such joys as the following advice on how ‘to make the face fair’ (Do gelad na haghthi), including some rather unusual uses for bull’s blood and what is translated by O’Grady as bovinum stercus.

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Harley MS 546, f 39v. Treatise on how to make the face fair. Ireland, c 1459.

Other key medical items available online include a fragment in Add MS 39583 of a 16th-century manuscript containing a translation of Hippocrates’ Aphorisms into Middle Irish, and a longer version of the same text from another 16th-century manuscript, Harley MS 4347.

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Egerton MS 88, f 65r. Zoomorphic initial. Ireland, c 1564.

The Irish collections also include many important poetic and legal texts, but we finish with the famous Egerton MS 88, a legal and grammatical miscellany produced by the school of Domhnall Ó Duibhdábhoirenn in around 1564. This manuscript is not only important for its contribution to the study of Irish legal history, but also for the many scribal notes found throughout the manuscript, which give a vivid insight into the everyday lives (and sufferings!) of 16th-century scribes. Many of these complain about the poor working conditions in which Domhnall’s scribes have to work, and we can quote only one here: "Is fuar mairt cin dinér a Domnaill .i. ria nodlaig" (A dinnerless Tuesday is a cold thing, Donall, and before Christmas too). And it would be hard to argue with that! The later history of Egerton MS 88, including the unusual box it was housed in when it arrived at the British Museum, is another story altogether, and one that will have to wait for another day. (Parts of the manuscript are now also to be found in the Copenhagen, Kongelige Bibliotekat MS 261B, and Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS 23 Q 6.)

There are great riches to be found by dipping into the printed Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts, which contains transcriptions of many of the annotations and colophons, as well as some of the shorter poems, to be found in the Irish collections. There remains a great deal of work to be done on the collections, particularly on the 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts.

Further resources for the collections:

At present the online catalogue does not include most of the Irish manuscripts. Only a few have been digitised either in full or in part, and these can be viewed on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts or on Digitised Manuscripts. Updated bibliography by shelfmark can be found on the Bibliography of Irish Linguistics and Literature housed at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.

The most important resource remains the Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the British Museum, the third volume of which contains a history of the collection and its formation. Some information on the collectors whose activities contributed to the formation of the collections now in the British Library (including Cotton, O’Curry, and Hardiman) can be found in Nessa Ní Shéaghdha, ‘Collectors of Irish manuscripts: motives and methods’, Celtica 17 (1985), pp. 1–28 (also published separately, Dublin: DIAS 1985, BL shelfmark 2702.b.93).

The composition of the Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts is a tale unto itself, as it is the work of three major figures in Celtic scholarship spanning three generations: Standish Hayes O’Grady (who compiled Volume I), Robin Flower (Volume II and III), and Miles Dillon (who revised Volume III after Flower’s death). The story can be found in the prefaces to the individual volumes of the Catalogue, while for a richer picture, a brief biography of Standish O’Grady can be found in Seán Ua Súilleabháin, ‘Standish Hayes O’Grady’, in Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh: Reassessments, ed. by Liam P. Ó Murchú, Irish Texts Society Subsidiary Series 24 (London: Irish Texts Society, 2012), pp. 77-98. (BL Shelfmark YK.2014.a.9606). An obituary of Robin Flower by H. I. Bell was published in Proceedings of the British Academy 32 (1946) pp. 353-79.

- Cillian O'Hogan

05 March 2015

Collaboration and Customisation: The Evolution of a Royal Book

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As we draw to the end of Paris fashion week, let us turn to a manuscript that exudes the best of Parisian style. The haute couture of book illumination, this glorious Book of Hours showcases the work of the French capital’s most in-demand fifteenth-century illuminators. 

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Miniature of the Visitation by the Egerton Master, from ‘The Hours of René of Anjou’, France (Paris), 15th century, Egerton MS 1070, f. 29v

It is the eponymous manuscript of the Egerton Master, whose mastery is elsewhere illustrated in the stunning two-volume Bible historiale that starred in our exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. The Egerton Master collaborated on several occasions with other fashion­able painters of the day. These included the Mazarine Master, who helped to complete the miniatures and decoration towards the end of this lavish manuscript, along with two lesser-known Parisian artists.

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Detail of a miniature of The Last Supper by the Mazarine Master, Egerton MS 1070, f. 113r

One of the more unusual characteristics of Egerton MS 1070 is the unique border decoration. Angels carry freshly unearthed branches of acanthus, roots intact, which extend up the vertical margins.

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Miniatures of Saint Denis and his companions, and Saint George, with border decoration of angels carrying branches of acanthus by the Egerton Master, Egerton MS 1070, f. 90v

A book fit for a king? Well, it was actually owned by several…

Following the original commission, this exceptional Book of Hours passed into the hands of a number of monarchs, including Henry VII, before entering the British Library’s collection (via a short residency at a Jesuit College in Krakow). Today the manuscript is identified by the name of one of its fifteenth-century owners, René of Anjou. ‘Le bon roi René’ (‘good king René’) was an influential European leader, patron of the arts and occasional author, whose many titles included duke of Anjou, duke of Lorraine and Bar, and count of Provence, as well as king of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem.

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Full-page miniature of René’s coat of arms, Egerton MS 1070, f. 4v

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Full-page miniature of Jerusalem with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, Egerton MS 1070, f. 5r

When the book came into René’s possession, it was carefully customised to suit its new owner and assert his status. This is evident from the beginning of the book: two full-page miniatures depict firstly René’s coat of arms and, on the facing page, Jerusalem, the capital of his kingdom in the Holy Land. Painted by Netherlandish artist Barthélemy d'Eyck, they reflect the early stages of the close relationship between this artist and his patron.

Texts were also added to personalise the manuscript for René’s own private devotion, such as the prayer below which incorporates his name.  

Egerton_ms_1070_f043v_detail
Detail of added prayer including René’s name [Renatum], Egerton MS 1070, f. 43v

The additions also permeate into the borders: many of the angels find the burden of their flight eased by billowing sails, which carry René’s motto 'En Dieu en soit' (‘in accordance with God’s will’). As well as furthering his devotional appropriation of the book, they function as a graffiti artist’s tag, stamping René’s ownership in his own distinctive manner.

Egerton_ms_1070_f016r_detail
Detail of border decoration including the addition of René’s motto
'En Dieu en soit', Egerton MS 1070, f. 16r

Why not delve deeper into this fascinating codex by exploring it in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

- Hannah Morcos