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04 October 2014

Magna Carta Tickets On Sale

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Tickets for our major 2015 exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, are now on sale. The exhibition runs from 13 March until 1 September 2015, and promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime show which explores the history and resonance of this globally-recognised document.

A standard adult ticket costs £13.50 (with gift aid); entry for under 18s and Friends or Patrons of the British Library is free, and concessions are available for other visitors. Full ticketing details can be found on the British Library's dedicated Magna Carta webpage.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is sponsored by Linklaters, and will feature the British Library's two copies of King John's 1215 Magna Carta, together with other items from our collections and generous loans from other institutions and private individuals, all of which will help to trace the journey of Magna Carta from its medieval origins to its modern significance. Among the exhibits will be a copy of the American Declaration of Independence, in the hand of Thomas Jefferson (on loan from the New York Public Library), and the copy of the US Bill of Rights sent to Delaware (loaned from the US National Archives). You can read more about these documents in an earlier blogpost.

Cotton_ms_claudius_d_ii_f116r Studio c13220-28
King John riding on horseback, from a 14th-century legal collection (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius D II, f. 116r).

We are extremely grateful to Linklaters for their financial support of our exhibition, and to White & Case for sponsoring the loan of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights from the USA.

More Magna Carta news will be posted on this blog in the next few days. Don't forget to follow our Twitter account (@BLMedieval) for news on Magna Carta: 2015 promises to be a very exciting year!

03 October 2014

Apocalypse Then: Further Medieval Visions from Revelation

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Our recent blogpost, Visions of the Apocalypse, featured a selection of images from five of our favourite Apocalypse manuscripts. These works are filled with imaginative depictions of St John’s visions in the Book of Revelation, and it is interesting to compare how different artists illustrated the same text.

One of the most evocative passages in Revelation is at the beginning of chapter 12:

‘And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars … And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child.’ 

Royal_ms_19_b_xv_f020v - detail

Detail of the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, from the Queen Mary Apocalypse, S.E. England or East Anglia, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 B XV, f. 20v

Medieval illuminators applied their talent and imaginations on this text, and the results are wonderfully varied. In the above image from the Queen Mary Apocalypse, the woman is svelte and elegant, posing nonchalantly in her rather ‘bling’ crown, with the moon at her feet. There is no beast in sight yet, and St John and the winds are watching her in admiration. On the following page (f. 21r), featured in our last blogpost, the horrific seven-headed beast occupies the whole page and the woman is shown in an inset picture, giving up her new-born child to an angel.

Add_ms_11695_ff147v-148r
The Woman and the Beast, from the Silos Apocalypse, Spain, 1091-1109,
Add MS 11695, ff. 147v-148r

This next image from the 11th-century Spanish manuscript, the Silos Apocalypse, is part of a brilliantly coloured tapestry, featuring a rather whimsical monster who looks almost friendly: all seven heads appear to be smiling. In the upper part of the image is a woman holding a magnificent floral shield, her head surrounded by daisy-like stars, while she gestures towards the beast.

The lower half of the page shows water flowing out of one of the beast’s mouths towards the  brightly-clothed woman, who now has wings. The water is being swallowed up by the earth, as described in the following verses from Revelation, 12:13-16:

‘And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness …And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.’

Royal_ms_15_d_ii_f156r - detail
Detail of the woman and the beast spewing water into the earth, from the Welles Apocalypse, England, c. 1310,
Royal MS 15 D II, f. 156r

In this image from the Welles Apocalypse, produced in England between 1300 and 1325, the stars are part of the patterned background and the beast has only one head, with water spewing out of it into what appears to be a hollow tree trunk. The woman resembles Mary with a blue robe and halo.

Yates Thompson MS 20, f. 20v
Detail of the woman and the beast spewing water into the earth, from the Yates Thompson Apocalypse, Paris, c. 1370-c. 1390,
Yates Thompson MS 10, f. 20v

A manuscript made late in the 14th century in Paris, Yates Thompson 10, also has a woman raising her hands in terror. The dragon has only one head once again, but is more lifelike than the one in the Welles Apocalypse, and so is the landscape, though the sky is golden.

Add_ms_42555_f036v - detail
Detail of the woman clothed with the sun and the  seven-headed beast spewing water into the earth, from the Abingdon Apocalypse, England (?London), 3rd quarter of the 13th century,
Add MS 42555, f. 36v

The Abingdon Apocalypse, from the 13th century, shows a woman flying away from the griffon-like beast with seven heads, one of which spews water into a tunnel in the earth. Beneath her, wolves and lions are looking on. A golden screen against a blue sky represents her cloak of the sun and she is holding a book-like object.

These are not the only beasts, in fact Apocalypse manuscripts are full of an awesome array of imaginative creatures that must have struck terror into the hearts of anyone brave enough to open these books.

Here is a selection of Apocalyptic beasts, but we must include a disclaimer: this material could give you serious nightmares.

Add_ms_42555_f043v - detail
Detail of the second beast of the Apocalypse on an altar and the third beast watching saints being killed (left),
Add MS 42555, f. 43v

Add_ms_42555_f060v - detail
Detail of John looking at the three beasts of the Apocalypse with frogs coming out of their mouths,
Add MS 42555, f. 60v

Royal_ms_19_b_xv_f022v - detail
Detail of men battling with a dragon,
Royal MS 19 B XV, f. 22v

A few brave knights are prepared to take on this ferocious creature, while the woman in clothed with the sun flies away.

Royal_ms_15_d_ii_f174v - detail
Detail of John standing before the false prophet, the dragon, and the beast, with frogs emerging from their mouths representing their unclean spirits,
Royal MS 15 D II, f. 174v

These two beasts and the false prophet have frogs in their mouths, according to the text, but they look more like fish, or maybe large tadpoles.

Add_ms_11695_ff151v-152r
The adoration of the Beast with an inscription: 'ubi reges terre bestia[m] et draconem adorant' (Revelation 13:1-10),
Add MS 11695, ff. 151v-152r

And finally, two of the most terrifying beasts of all - and they are being worshipped!

- Chantry Westwell

01 October 2014

A Calendar Page for October 2014

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For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

While the summer growing season may be over, the agricultural labours are by no means at and end, as these calendar pages for the month of October display.  On the opening folio is a roundel miniature of a man scattering grain in a plowed field.  Behind him are some turreted buildings and a bridge, while above, some hopeful birds are circling.   On the facing folio is a small painting of an ominous-looking scorpion, for the zodiac sign Scorpio.  Below, a tired man is heading home from his labours in the field, carrying a bag on his shoulders.  His dog is bounding before him, and swans can be seen swimming in the river beside.

Add_ms_38126_f010v
Calendar page for October, with a roundel miniature of a man sowing grain, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 10v

Add_ms_38126_f011r
Calendar page for October, with a roundel miniature of a man heading home after his work is done, with the zodiac sign Scorpio, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 11r

- Sarah J Biggs

27 September 2014

The life and death of Pompey the Great

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Even by the standards of Rome in the first century BC, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus  had an eventful life. The son of Strabo, a man so loathed by the Romans that his body was dragged from its bier during his funeral, Pomey quickly made his own mark on the world and moved beyond the shadow of his infamous father. Plutarch tells us he was helped in this in no small way by the fact that he was quite good-looking, a fact that the illuminator of this historiated initial, in a Latin translation of Plutarch, seems to have taken on board:

 Harley 3485, f190r

Detail of Harley MS 3485, f 190r (Florence, 1470)

A string of military successes ensured Pompey’s accelerated promotion to the consulship at the unusually early age of thirty-five. Shortly after this, he took on the daunting task of ridding the Mediterranean of pirates, who at the time were causing havoc to trade routes across Rome's sphere of influence. Here is a picture of Pompey subduing the pirates:

 

Royal 20 D I f358r
Detail of Royal MS 20 D I, f 358r (Naples, 2nd quarter of the 14th century)

Some time later, Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus formed the First Triumvirate, a political alliance designed to benefit all three. But this alliance was not fated to last, and after the death of Crassus in Parthia in 53 BC, conflict between Pompey and Caesar seemed inevitable.

The story of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar was hugely popular in the middle ages, best known through vernacular accounts of Roman history such as the French Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César  (well represented in the British Library’s collections) and the Irish In Cath Catharda. These draw in part on the epic poem of Lucan, as well as on late antique epitomes of Roman historical works. In a number of medieval accounts, Caesar and Pompey are depicted fighting at close quarters:

 Royal 16 G VII f 339r

Detail of Royal MS 16 G VII, f 339r (Paris, last quarter of the 14th century)

Though a man of outstanding abilities, Pompey was for a bad end. Like many doomed ancient heroes, he had a vision of what was to come in a dream. The ghost of his former wife Julia (the daughter of Julius Caesar) appeared to him and warned him of impending disaster. Here are two images of this dream:

 Royal 20 C I f130v

Detail of Royal MS 20 C I, f 130v (France, 1st quarter of the 15th century)

 

 

Royal16 G VII f305v
Detail of Royal MS 16 G VII, f 305v (Paris, last quarter of the 14th century)

Pompey’s death itself was a sorry affair. After the catastrophic defeat to Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, he made for Egypt. The then king of Egypt, Ptolemy XIII, was persuaded by his advisor Pothinus that Pompey should be executed in order to curry favour with Caesar. In Plutarch’s vivid account of the event, Pompey sailed to shore in a tiny skiff. Just as he reached the shore, and in full view of his men and his wife Cornelia, he was murdered by those in the boat with him:

 Royal17 F II f271r

Detail of Royal MS 17 F II, f 271r (Bruges, 1479)

Plutarch and Lucan tell us that as he was executed he pulled his toga up over his head, something shown in the following picture:

 Royal16 G VIII f310v

Detail of Royal MS 16 G VII, f 310v (Paris, last quarter of the 14th century)

His assassins dumped his body on the shore and took his head away to be presented to Caesar.

 Royal14 E V f318v

Detail of Royal MS 14 E v, f 318v (Bruges, c1479-1480)

-Cillian O'Hogan

23 September 2014

Guess the Manuscript XV

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Roll up, roll up! It's time to try your luck at another Guess the Manuscript, back by popular demand. As always, the rules are straightforward: the image comes from a manuscript that can be found somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts website, and is part of our medieval collections. Leave guesses in the comments below, or via Twitter @BLMedieval. We'll update this post with an answer on Friday, Sep 26.

Image

Update, 25 September: Many congratulations to @yorkherald, who correctly identified this image as the fore-edge from Add MS 27861, a 14th-century Greek Gospel book. You can view it in full on Digitised Manuscripts.

- Cillian O'Hogan

this image comes from a manuscript that is located somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and is part of our medieval collections.  You can leave your guesses in the comments below, or via Twitter @BLMedieval.  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/07/guess-the-manuscript-xiv.html#sthash.85jnxkjw.dpuf
this image comes from a manuscript that is located somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and is part of our medieval collections.  You can leave your guesses in the comments below, or via Twitter @BLMedieval.  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/07/guess-the-manuscript-xiv.html#sthash.85jnxkjw.dpuf

18 September 2014

Languages in Medieval Britain

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We are proud to announce that the Catholicon Anglicum is now being exhibited in our Treasures Gallery. The British Library acquired the manuscript, the only complete copy of the text in existence, in February this year, for £92,500, following the temporary deferral of an export licence. It had lain hidden for over a century in the Monson family collection in Lincolnshire. 

Add_ms_89074_f102v
Opening of the section for words beginning with M, from the ‘Catholicon Anglicum’, England (Yorkshire), 1483, Add MS 89074, f. 102v
 

Since its arrival at the British Library, it has been catalogued in detail (along with other late medieval dictionaries in our collection), photographed in full and uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts, and now forms the centrepiece of a display of manuscripts about the variety of languages that were spoken and written in medieval Britain. This is your chance to see this rare and precious manuscript face-to-face!

Add_ms_89074_f185v
End of the section for words beginning with
Èœ, and the compiler’s epilogue, Add MS 89074, f. 185v 

The Catholicon was the first such dictionary to have all of its entries arranged in alphabetical order. The positioning of vernacular words first, with Latin equivalents following, shows that it was intended to be used for Latin composition not translation. It would have been of particular utility in the grammar schools that were being founded in large numbers during the 15th century. 

Harley MS 3376, f. 1v
Alphabetical glossary of rare Latin words, with glosses in Latin and Old English, England (?Worcester), 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st half of the 11th century, Harley MS 3376, f. 1v
 

An early predecessor of the Catholicon is the first exhibit in the display: an alphabetical glossary of rare Latin words that was made in the 10th or 11th centuries, perhaps in Worcester. It may have been made for someone familiar with only basic Latin vocabulary, or as an aid to developing a more advanced command of the language. The headwords are glossed with more simplistic Latin equivalents or, sometimes, Old English words. 

Following the Norman Conquest, Old English was supplanted by French as the language of the ruling elites. The next item on display in the Treasures Gallery is a 14th-century copy of a treatise written by Walter of Bibbesworth a century earlier, the Tretize de Langage. It was designed to be used by a mother to teach her two young children, and uses descriptions of everyday life and work, rhymes and riddles – even animal sounds – both to entertain and educate. 

Egerton MS 89, f. 93v
Descriptions of diseases and their symptoms, treatments and cures, from the ‘Lilium medicinae’, Ireland (County Clare), 1482, Egerton MS 89, f. 93v
 

The other two exhibits showcase languages that were spoken elsewhere in the British Isles. The Lilium medicinae, a guide to the treatment of illnesses, was written in 1303 by Bernard de Gordon, a famous physician at the University of Montpellier in France. Bernard was one of the medical authorities named by the Doctor of Physick in the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This Irish translation of the Lilium was written by the scribe Domhnall Albanach Ó Troighthigh of County Clare in 1482. The Latin headings name various illnesses; the subheadings ‘Signa’, ‘Curacio’ and ‘Clarificacio’ describe their symptoms, treatment and cure. 

Arundel MS 285, ff. 5v-6r
Tinted woodcut of the Flagellation of Christ at the beginning of a poem by Walter Kennedy, from a collection of Scottish poetry, ?Scotland, 1st half of the 16th century, Arundel MS 285, ff. 5v-6r
 

A collection of Scottish poetry illustrates the cross-over between manuscript and print in the early 16th century. It contains seventeen 15th-century printed woodcuts, which have been pasted into reserved spaces in the book, often at the beginning of the texts. The source of the woodcuts is not known. They may have been recycled from a previous book, or gathered from a selection of devotional handbills or flyleaves. A poem about the Passion of Christ by Walter Kennedy begins, appropriately, with a scene of the Flagellation of Christ, an elaborate rubric in red ink and the opening words in an imposing display script. 

Harley MS 4353, f. 12r
A page from ‘The Book of Cyfnerth’, Wales (?Neath), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4353, f. 12r
 

There were, of course, other languages spoken in medieval Britain besides these. The British Library holds manuscripts of medieval Welsh, such as this legal text known as ‘The Book of Cyfnerth’. It contains the Gwentian code of Welsh law – a witness to a legal system distinct from that of England – and was written in south-west Wales, perhaps in Neath, early in the 14th century. The scribe who made this book was also responsible for another in the British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra A XIV, which also contains Welsh laws and a copy of the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris. 

Harley MS 1782, f. 14v
Bas-de-page scene of Christ carrying the Cross, from a manuscript of a Passion poem in Cornish, England (Cornwall), 15th century, Harley MS 1782, f. 14v
 

Harley MS 1782 further illustrates the flowering of regional forms of Christianity during the medieval period that we saw in the Scottish poetry book.  This manuscript is a 15th-century copy of a poem about Christ’s passion written in Cornish.  The text is illustrated with a series of scenes from the Passion – here, Christ carrying the Cross – akin to those that marked the Stations of the Cross in medieval churches. 

- James Freeman

16 September 2014

Visualising Stonehenge

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There has been some exciting news recently about Stonehenge.  The discovery of many new archaeological features around the site itself, including chapels, burial mounds, pits and shrines (which featured in a BBC documentary last Thursday), has emphasised that the famous stone circle should not be seen as an isolated monument but as part of a wider complex in the surrounding landscape. 

Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r
Miniature of Merlin building Stonehenge, from Wace, ‘Roman de Brut’, England, second quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r
 

The British Library has a particular interest in Stonehenge, because it possesses the earliest known depiction of the monument, from a manuscript of Wace’s Roman de Brut, made in the second quarter of the fourteenth century.  The mythical figure of Merlin is shown assembling one of the famous sarsen trilithons by placing a lintel on top of two standing stones.  His actions are observed with wonderment by two mortals, emphasising Stonehenge’s legendary status as well as the mysteriousness of its purpose. 

Lansdowne MS 732, f. 1r
The beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth, ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, England, last quarter of the 12th century or first quarter of the 13th century, Lansdowne MS 732, f. 1r 
 

Earlier accounts, but not illustrations, of Stonehenge also survive in British Library manuscripts.  Wace wrote the Roman de Brut in French verse, using octo-syllabic couplets, and presented his work as a translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (though he included additional information). 

Geoffrey claimed that Stonehenge was built on the orders of Aurelius Ambrosius, a mythical Briton king, with Merlin fulfilling the role of supernatural architect and building contractor.  Merlin had advised Aurelius that this would be a fitting memorial to 480 of his nobles who had been treacherously slaughtered by Hengist the Saxon around the year 470. 

Although Geoffrey’s account is largely fanciful, there are implicit elements of it that have been borne out by modern archaeological study: for example, some of the stones were brought from far away (the bluestones used within the outer circle came from the Preseli mountains in Pembrokeshire), that it is related to stone circles in Ireland, and that there were burial sites in close proximity (as the recent discoveries have shown). 

Egerton MS 3668, ff. 2v-3r
The end of the prologue and beginning of the text, from a copy of Henry of Huntingdon, ‘Historia Anglorum’, England, Egerton MS 3668, ff. 2v-3r
 

Geoffrey’s account of Stonehenge is roughly contemporary with another mid-twelfth century history, the Historia Anglorum by Henry of Huntingdon.  Henry offered no explanation of why or how Stonehenge was built, but merely related (perhaps from second-hand accounts) that the stones were ‘erected after the manner of doorways, so that doorway appears to have been raised upon doorway’.  The description is puzzling at first, since Stonehenge never had a second storey, but it probably refers to a trick of perspective gained when one trilithon is observed through another. 

Add MS 28330, f. 36r
Watercolour sketch of Stonehenge, from Lucas de Heere, ‘Corte Beschryvinghe van England, Scotland, ende Irland, England (London), Add MS 28330, f. 36r
 

The British Library also possesses one of the earliest near-accurate depictions of Stonehenge, in the form of a watercolour sketch done ‘on the spot’ by Lucas de Heere (b. 1534, d. 1584), a Flemish Protestant exile who resided in England between 1567 and 1576.  He evidently took to his adoptive country, compiling a guidebook to Britain, its history and the dress and manners of its inhabitants, entitled Corte Beschryvinghe van England, Scotland, ende Irland.  De Heere’s description and drawing of Stonehenge is important for its observations on the techniques of construction.  Tenons – raised points on the tops of the stone pillars, visible on one of the trilithons in the foreground – locked into mortises – matching indentations in the lintels – which held them in place and prevented them from slipping off.  

Stonehenge has been a source of fascination and speculation for historians, writers and archaeologists as well as casual observers, visitors and tourists.  The questions that they have all asked – how and why? – haven’t changed much over the centuries, like the stones themselves.  The answers have, though, and the recent discoveries are only the latest, exciting chapter in a very long tale of imaginings and interpretations. 

- James Freeman

13 September 2014

Apes Pulling Shapes

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Readers of our blog will be familiar, by now, with the fact that some medieval illuminators had a special enthusiasm for marginal mockery.  No matter how overtly devotional the text, its margins were not protected from a carnival parade of visual humour.  In fact, it would be easy to get the impression that the more solemn the central scene, the better the scope for marginal antics.

Add MS 36684, f125r - full page
Aping the Office of the Dead, from a Book of Hours, France, c. 1320s, Add MS 36684, f. 125r

The Office of the Dead, included in many Books of Hours, is a series of prayers to be said in anticipation of death, at a funeral, or in remembrance of the deceased.  This solemn miniature depicts monks standing at the foot of a coffin and singing the Office from a book.  A good incentive for our book’s owner to pray, one might think, even if he or she was a bit distracted by the hybrid form of the grave-digger with his shovel at the bottom of the page.

Add MS 36684, f125r - detail
Detail of the text of the Office held by the hands and hindquarters of apes, Add MS 36684, f. 125r

More difficult to ignore, however, is the episode just beneath the central scene: one ape holds the same book, another uses his hindquarters as a lectern, and the antics of both are overseen by a laughing skeleton!

Add MS 36684, f46v - full page
The Hours of Terce, with an historiated initial showing the Adoration of the Magi, Add MS 36684, f. 46v

Apes are frequently the cause of marginal inversion in this particular Book of Hours, such as at Terce (the third canonical Hour of the day) where the gestures of the Magi in the miniature of the Adoration are parodied by three apes in the bas-de-page (the space at the bottom of the page).  

Add MS 36684, f46v - detail
Detail of the ‘three wise apes’ in the bas-de-page at Terce, Add MS 36684, f. 46v

One grasps a leafy extension of the bar-frame, a vine with a bemused head, apparently the subject of their own ‘adoration’.

Harley_ms_4379_f113r
Detail of an ape on stilts riding a hobby-horse and balancing a stork on its shoulders, from Jean Froissart, ‘Chroniques’, Vol. IV, part 1, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470-1472,
Harley MS 4379, f. 113r

A quick glance, in fact, at the index in Lilian Randall’s Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts reveals an astonishing 18 pages worth of ‘ape and…’ or ‘ape with…’ etc., many of which describe quite peculiar scenarios like the one above (some further examples from British Library manuscripts can be found in our post ‘Monkeys in the Margins’).

Harley MS 1251, f91r
An illuminated border containing an ape holding a piece of fruit, from a Book of Hours, France (Rouen), c. 1430-c. 1440,
Harley MS 1251, f. 91r

The Physiologus, a second-century Greek compilation of knowledge about animals and nature, attempted to redefine the natural world in Christian terms.  Apes, it was thought, were the creation of the devil, the Ape of God who mimicked His actions just as the ape mimicked human behaviour.

Stowe_ms_17_f081v detail
Detail of an ape riding a goat (both animals noted for being lascivious) and looking at part of the Athanasian Creed (‘Perfectus deo perfectus homo’ – ‘Perfect God, perfect man’), from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), c. 1300-c. 1325,
Stowe MS 17, f. 81v (for more on this manuscript, check out our similar simian blog-post ‘Monkeying Around with the Maastricht Hours’)

From being a representation of the devil, the ape also morphed into an image of the devil’s victim, the sinner.  Imprisonments of the material world, such as lust and sin, were best conveyed with an ape.  Nothing said ‘sensuality’ and ‘unreliability’ better than a foolish ape holding an apple or riding a goat.

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f107v detail
Detail of a mother ape being hunted, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, c. 1310 – c. 1320,
Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 107v

The Bestiary developed these themes (see the copy in Royal MS 12 F XIII here) by giving an account of a mother ape fleeing hunters and carrying twins, her favourite in her arms and her least favourite on her back.

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f108r detail
Detail of a mother ape losing her favourite child,
Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 108r

As she tires, she drops the child she likes while the one she dislikes will cling to her.  For the theologian John Scotus, this was an allegory of the human condition, with the favoured child representing worldly pleasures while the neglected one stood in for spiritual values.

Stowe_ms_17_f091v
An ape engaged in the female pursuit of winding wool (with a goat, of course),
Stowe MS 17, f. 91v

Classical writers such as Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and Gaius Julius Solinus, all emphasised the ape’s propensity for imitation.

Egerton_ms_3277_f022v detail
Detail of an ape wearing a bishop’s mitre and playing a trumpet, from the Bohun Psalter, England (?London), after 1356 and probably before 1373,
Egerton MS 3277, f. 22v (for more on apes and other animals in this manuscript, see our earlier post ‘Lions, Monkeys and Bears – Oh My!’)

Indeed, Isidore of Seville, the expert on etymology in the Middle Ages, explained the derivation of simius (ape) from similitudo, remarking that ‘the monkey wants to imitate everything he sees done’.

Stowe_ms_17_f109r detail
Detail of apes at school,
Stowe MS 17, f. 109r

This group of apes is at school: one is being beaten by a master, three are being lectured, and another appears to be smelling the contents of a vase (probably a urinal), alluding to the common trope of the ‘ape as physician’ in the margins of medieval manuscripts.

Harley2887_f29r
Detail of an ape sat in green wicker basket playing the bagpipes, from the Hours of the Earls of Ormond’, England (London), c. 1460-1467,
Harley MS 2887, f. 29r

Finally, apes sometimes get up to such usual activities that they become one means (in combination with a range of distinctive motifs) of identifying individual artistic personalities.  These examples come from the oeuvres of two illuminators active in England in the third quarter of the fifteenth century.  The ape sat in a green wicker basket and playing the bagpipes is a trademark of sorts for a border artist known as ‘the Owl-illuminator’ (who is also known for using owls in marginal decoration).

Add62523_f7r detail
Detail of a miniature illustrating a marriage ceremony, with an ape picking fleas from a human head in the border, from a Book of Hours, England (London or Oxford), c. 1450-c. 1460, Add MS 62523, f. 7r

And then there is this very helpful ape, picking (and eating) fleas from a human head – a very unusual motif and one good indication that you are looking at work by ‘the Caesar Master’.

The contemporary ‘catch all’ term for animal antics in the margins of medieval manuscripts is thought to have been babuini (Latin) or babewyn (Middle English), meaning ‘baboon-like’ or ‘monkey-business’.  It is perhaps fitting, then, that Lilian Randall’s index of ape-activities runs to 18 pages.  Reading through the list, one can’t help but think of Bernard of Clairvaux’s words in 1125: ‘To what purpose are those unclean apes…?’

- Holly James-Maddocks