Medieval manuscripts blog

472 posts categorized "Medieval"

06 June 2013

What Did Medieval Kings Really Look Like?

Add comment Comments (2)

The first 10 folios of Royal MS 20 A II (the newest upload to our Digitised Manuscripts site) are a portable portrait gallery of the kings of England in chronological order.  Each king is depicted in a tinted drawing, surrounded by symbols or events from his reign. The images of later kings are followed by genealogical tables or Latin verses about the monarch in question.

Here are some examples of the ways that artists in the 14th century portrayed their rulers.  The question is - can the images tell us anything at all about how these kings really looked?

Edward the Confessor is shown in the manuscript as tall, upright, and elegantly dressed, posing with a sceptre and a book, looking pensively into the distance.

Detail of a miniature of Edward the Confessor, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 5r

In his portrait, Richard I (or Richard the Lion Heart), though seated on his throne, appears ready to leap into action and his garments seem rather ill-fitting. He is cross-eyed and looks somewhat belligerent. The heads of three Christians and three Saracens - a reference to his Crusading fame - glare at each other from either side of his throne.

Detail of a miniature of Richard the Lionheart, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8r

Compare the above to the fine figure on the 19th century statue in front of the House of Lords in London!

Statue of Richard the Lionheart, before the Palace of Westminster, via Wikipedia Commons

King John is shown in the manuscript smiling tenderly at his dogs, while stroking one of them playfully.  He has a simple, open face, and does not seem to be weighed down by the cares of state.

Detail of a miniature of King John, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8v

Henry III, on the other hand, looks rather disgruntled in his portrait as he shows off the bells of his new cathedral, Westminster Abbey.  He does not seem very pleased with the way his project has turned out, or perhaps he is frustrated by the building costs!


Miniature of Henry III enthroned, flanked by Westminster Abbey and church bells, with a genealogical table of his descendants below, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 9r

The portrait of  Edward the Confessor (top) is one of 10 produced by the same artist, which can be found on folios 2 to 5 of the manuscript, beginning with legendary kings like Vortigern and Arthur.  They are all framed in black.  The portraits on folios 5v to 10 are by a second artist, who drew the later kings from Edward the Confessor to Edward II.  In this final portrait (below), Edward II is referred to as prince (‘princeps’), in the caption, indicating that the image might date from before or around the time of his coronation in 1307. He has a rather pretty face, and the person presenting the crown is looking at him sideways, apparently unsure of him.  Beneath the image, a poem in praise of King Edward has been erased, and replaced by a lament, allegedly written by the king after his deposition in 1327, bemoaning his fate as ‘le roys abatu’ (the beaten-down king) who is mocked by everyone.

Miniature of Edward II enthroned, being offered the crown, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 10r

This series of portraits of English kings precedes a copy of Peter of Langtoft’s French verse chronicle, tracing the history of Britain from the early legends of Albion and Brutus up to the time of Edward II.  Langtoft was a canon at an Augustinian priory called Bridlington in Yorkshire, and this manuscript of his work was copied in the North of England.  It also contains fragments of the Lancelot-Grail romances and a letter attributed to Joanna, Queen of Sicily.

Section of Langtoft's Chronicle detailing battles of King Arthur, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 34r

Royal 20 A II was one of the manuscripts displayed in last year's Royal exhibition, and can be seen in its fully digitised version here.

- Chantry Westwell


03 June 2013

Robert the Bruce letter found at British Library

Add comment Comments (0)

A previously unknown letter of Robert the Bruce, addressed to the king of England, has been found in a British Library manuscript. The letter was written in 1310, and reveals how, when faced with an English army marching into Scotland, Robert made an eloquent appeal to King Edward II, asking for peace on the understanding that Scottish independence be recognised.

The letter of Robert the Bruce to Edward II, added at the foot of the page (London, British Library, MS Cotton Titus A XIX, f. 87r).

Robert's letter, written in Latin, is entered into the pages of a manuscript made towards the end of the 15th century by the monks of Kirkstall Abbey (Yorkshire). Its significance was recognised by Professor Dauvit Broun of the University of Glasgow, the principal investigator of the Breaking of Britain project (Cross-border society and Scottish independence, 1216-1314). The letter is actually included in a dossier of the correspondence of King Edward III of England (1327-1377) with the king of France, the archbishop of Canterbury, Popes Benedict XII and Clement VI, and the emperor of Bavaria. Previously identified as a letter sent by Robert II, king of Scots, to Edward III, the letter in question has now been convincingly attributed to Robert the Bruce by Professor Broun.

At the time of writing (1310), King Edward II of England (1307-1327) was leading an army into Scotland. Robert the Bruce (1306-1329) was trying to stave off this invasion by seeking to open negotiations with Edward, aimed in turn at asserting Scottish independence. Describing the letter, Dauvit Broun reports that "Bruce’s tone is extremely conciliatory; he seems to be offering to do anything possible to establish peace. However, he is nonetheless plainly addressing Edward as one king to another. There is no doubt that the bottom line here is that Edward should recognise Robert as king of the Scots." Soon after the letter was sent, Edward II's army returned south of the border. When Edward subsequently re-invaded Scotland, he suffered a humiliating defeat at the battle of Bannockburn (24 June 1314).

Detail of the letter of Robert the Bruce to Edward II (London, British Library, MS Cotton Titus A XIX, f. 87r).

Translation of the letter of Robert the Bruce (courtesy of Dauvit Broun, University of Glasgow)

To the most serene prince the lord Edward by God’s grace illustrious king of England, Robert by the same grace king of Scots, greeting in Him through whom the thrones of those who rule are governed. When, under the sweetness of peace, the minds of the faithful find rest, then the life of Christians is adorned with good conduct, and also the whole of Holy Mother Church, because the affairs of all kingdoms are everywhere arranged more favourably. Our humility has led us, now and at other times, to beseech your highness more earnestly so that, having God and public decency in sight, you would take pains to cease from the persecution of us and the disturbance of the people of our kingdom in order that devastation and the spilling of Christian blood may henceforth stop. Naturally, everything which we and our people will be able to do by bodily service, or to bear by giving freely of our goods, for the redemption of good peace and for the grace of your good will for all time, which must be earned, we are prepared and shall be prepared to accomplish in a suitable and honest way, with a pure heart. And if it accords with your will to have a discussion with us on these matters, may your royal sublimity send word in writing to us, by the bearer of this letter. Written at Kildrum in Lennox, the Kalends of October in the fifth year of our reign [1 October 1310].

We are grateful to Dauvit Broun for sharing his research with us, and to Chris Lee and Tony Grant of the British Library for providing the photograph. You can read more about the new find here. Don't forget that we're always happy to publish any new discoveries relating to the British Library's medieval manuscripts -- contact us via Twitter @blmedieval, or using the comments field at the end of this post.

01 June 2013

A Calendar Page for June 2013

Add comment Comments (0)

For more details on calendar pages or the Golf Book, please see the post for January 2013.



Calendar page for June with a tournament scene, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 23v


A tournament scene is a fairly unsual 'labour' for the month of June, although in keeping with this manuscript's emphasis on aristocratic pursuits.  In the foreground two knights on horseback are engaged in a sword-fight, with their attendants beside them and broken lances on the ground.  Behind them two others are jousting in full armour; in the background throngs of spectators can be seen in the stands, including some multi-storied structures accessible by ladders.  The bravest (or most foolhardy) members of the audience have climbed to the roofs of nearby buildings to get the best view of the tournament. Four men in the bas-de-page are involved in another kind of tournament, riding on hobby-horses and literally tilting with windmills.  On the following folio is a more typical June scene of shepherds shearing their flock, below the saints' days for June and a lobster-like crab for Cancer.



Calendar page for June with a bas-de-page scene of sheep-shearing, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 24r

29 May 2013

Film Screening of the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander

Add comment Comments (0)

Last September, the Bulgarian Embassy and His Excellency Mr Konstantin Dimitrov, the Ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to the United Kingdom, hosted a private view of two Bulgarian manuscripts that are now on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. On that occasion, we were delighted to announce that the whole of the Gospels of Ivan Alexander can now be viewed on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

На тази електронна страница можете да разгледате Четириевангелието на цар Иван Александър, най-богато украсеният средновековен български ръкопис.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, British Library, MS Additional 39627, f. 3r).

Now, as part of the British Weeks in Bulgaria, the British Embassy in Sofia will host a screening of the film ‘Portrait of a Quest’ about the Gospels of Ivan Alexander. The event will be held on 5 June 2013 at the British Residence, 6pm to 8pm. Free entrance, RSVP:

The British Weeks in Bulgaria is a celebration of Bulgarian-British links that includes more than twenty events to take place in Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna. The events highlight the close links and prospects resulting from the close relationship between Bulgaria and Great Britain. For more information and a full programme, please follow this link.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, British Library, MS Additional 39627, f. 32v).

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (Additional MS 39627) is the most celebrated surviving example of Bulgarian medieval art. Written over 650 years ago, in the middle of the 14th century, the manuscript contains the Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Accompanying and fully integrated into the text, no fewer than 366 illustrations – one for each day of the year – illustrate an extensive range of events from the narrative of the four Evangelists. The scribe Simeon recounts that the book was created ‘not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration, of colours, gold, precious stones and diamonds, but primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision’. On display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery at St Pancras is a portrait of the Tsar in Paradise between Abraham and the Virgin Mary and within the overall context of a magnificent depiction of the Last Judgment. The starting point for this large illumination is Mark’s account of Jesus’s prophecy of the end of time.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, British Library, MS Additional 39627, f. 265v).

The manuscript is a remarkable survival.  Within forty years of the completion of the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, its patron was dead and his empire destroyed. Unlike many other artistic treasures of this remarkable period in Bulgarian history, the Gospels escaped destruction, finding its way north across the Danube. Here it came into the possession of the ruler of Moldavia, also called Ivan Alexander. For several centuries the history of the Gospels is unclear. By the 17th century, however, it appears to have reached the monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos. There it remained until its presentation in 1837 by the abbot of St Paul’s to the young English traveller the Hon. Robert Curzon. Brought by Curzon to England, it was later presented to the British Museum by his daughter.

27 May 2013

Rejoice Now!

Add comment Comments (1)

Our newest upload to the Digitised Manuscripts site is a gorgeous example of a rare early medieval liturgical document known as an Exultet roll.  Exultet rolls contain the hymns and prayers said during the blessing of the Easter (or Paschal) candle; their name comes from the opening exhortation: Exultet iam angelica turba caelum ('Rejoice now, all you heavenly choirs of angels'; see below).

Detail of a decorated initial 'E'(xultet) at the beginning of the prayer for the lighting of the Paschal candle, Italy (Monte Cassino), c. 1075-1080, Add MS 30337, membrane 2

Our Exultet roll, Add MS 30337, comes from the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino in southern Italy. This region of Italy was strongly influenced by Byzantine practice, and by the 11th century had developed a distinct style for the Easter vigil, continuing to use liturgical rolls in the ceremony; such rolls had largely fallen out of favour elsewhere in Europe.

Exultet rolls were read aloud from an ambo, or elevated pulpit, which faced the congregation.  As the deacon chanted the words, he would allow each finished section to hang over the edge of the ambo so that the gathered people could see the accompanying pictures.  This courtesy to the audience required, of course, that the images be painted upside-down on the roll.  We have published the online version of Add MS 30337 with the 'correct' orientation so that the text can be easily read, but as a courtesy to all of you, please see the images in all their splendour (and right-side-up) below.

Detail of Christ enthroned between two angels, Add MS 30337, membrane 1

Detail of four angels ('Angelica turba caelorum'), Add MS 30337, membrane 2

Detail of Tellus, the personification of Mother Earth, with a cow and a serpent suckling her breasts, and in the lower register, a personification of Ecclesia between a group of lay people and a group of clerics, Add MS 30337, membrane 3

Detail of a deacon reading and unrolling the Exultet roll from the ambo and the Paschal candle being lit, Add MS 30337, membrane 4

Detail of the Crucifixion, Add MS 30337, membrane 6

Detail of the Crossing of the Red Sea, and Christ's Harrowing of Hell, Add MS 30337, membrane 7

Detail of the Noli me tangere, and below, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Add MS 30337, membrane 8

Detail of the Paschal candle being censed inside a church, Add MS 30337, membrane 9

Detail of bees gathering nectar, and a bee-keeper collecting wax to create the Paschal candle, Add MS 30337, membrane 10

Detail of the Virgin Mary enthroned, with two figures excised on either side, Add MS 30337, membrane 11

You can check out the fully digitised roll here, and don't forget to follow us on Twitter @blmedieval.

24 May 2013

Of Captions, Clerics, and Queens: Tweeting the Medieval Illuminated Manuscript

Add comment Comments (0)

And now for something a bit different: a guest post from one of our most faithful Twitter correspondents, Robert Miller (many thanks, Robert!).

From LOLcats to the seductive Hey-Girl-I-Like-the-Library-Too musings of Ryan Gosling, the internet was made for captioning: slapping a surprising phrase on an unsuspecting image in the service of humour and hipsterish irony.

It was only a matter of time before captions were used to retrofit medieval art for the social media age.  With the help of Photoshop, Star Wars fans have creatively rewoven the Bayeux Tapestry.  And then there is Dutch medieval scholar Erik Kwakkel, the (decidedly youthful) father of illuminated manuscript captioning.  Erik works to popularise manuscript studies with a heady mix of tweeting, blogging, and tumblring, in both serious and LOL modes: his captions typically evoke a delightful dissonance between a centuries-old image and our modern sensibilities.

My first attempt at Kwakkelian captioning on Twitter was my most successful, if one measures success by the number of retweets one gets (and what else matters, these days, but to tweet and be retweeted in turn?):

Add MS 39636 f. 10r
At the medieval Apple store, trying out the latest iPad.  Additional MS 39636, f. 10r

I've been inspired to caption for a few reasons:  an amateur's love of medieval illuminated manuscripts, the vibrant, welcoming community of medievalists on Twitter (Damien Kempf, Sarah Peverley, Kathleen McCallum, and Shamma Boyarin, to name just a few); and the British Library's farsighted decision to make its medieval images free of copyright restrictions, meaning manuscript geeks like myself can caption, post, and play with the Library's image-hoard to their hearts' content.

Sharing captioned illuminations on Twitter is a great way to spark scholarly discussion, and I have learned much from tweeters and bloggers such as Steffen Hope and A Clerk of Oxford.  Of course, given the impish nature of many captions, the online conversation is not always entirely serious.  The following image, for example, gave rise to a debate between tweeting medievalists (Sarah J Biggs among them) as to the 14th-century origins of designer handbags:

Harley MS 4399 f. 22r
A queen, a monk, and a fabulous bag (probably Kate Spade).  Harley MS 4399, f. 22r

 Undoubtedly the best captions, like the best lyric poems, write themselves:

Royal MS 6 E VI f. 104r
With this bagel, I thee wed.  Royal MS 6 E VI, f. 104r

Other captions heighten the drama of crucial moments in a manuscript's narrative:

Harley MS 4399 f. 82r
A monk, bopped on the head with a baguette.  Harley MS 4399, f. 82r

But my favourite type of caption isn't even the funny kind.  My favourite type of caption is a simple acknowledgement of the beauty, the intimacy, and the exceptionally human quality of medieval manuscript illumination.  The British Library's savvy use of social media is doing much to bring delightful, tender images, like the one below, to an even wider audience:

Royal MS 20 C VII f. 12r
The abbot of Saint-Denis consulting a wise-woman, which is kinda awesome.  Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 12r

An academic librarian in the United States, Robert Miller dreams of a full-time position as a medieval anchorite (with paid vacations).  You can follow his tweets @robmmiller.

And of course, you can follow us at @blmedieval.

22 May 2013

A Good Walk Spoiled

Add comment Comments (1)

One of the most charismatic manuscripts in the British Library's collections is the so-called "Golf Book". This Book of Hours was made at Bruges around the year 1540, and is so named because on one page (the calendar for September) it contains a depiction of a game resembling golf.

A miniature of four men playing a game resembling golf, at the bottom of the calendar page for September (London, British Library, MS Additional 24098, f. 27r).

Of course, golf is not to everyone's taste. Mark Twain is accredited with describing the game as "a good walk spoiled"; and, like many sports, it's arguably better fun to play than to watch, notwithstanding the fact that golf is to be introduced to the summer Olympics at Rio 2016. But just what is the game being played below?


At first sight, we can certainly deduce that this game does resemble golf, even down to the cloth caps that some of the competitors are wearing (see the image below). We can clearly see in our miniature three balls, with three of the competitors holding curled sticks, reminiscent of modern golf clubs. One man, wearing a green cloak, is gesticulating to his companion, and may be what we might call a "caddie"; and another is standing at the door of the adjacent building (the "nineteenth hole"). But surely the stance of the player on the right, in the orange-red jerkin, is all wrong. Modern golfers play the game on their feet, rather than on their knees, both to get a better purchase on the ball and for better balance. We think that the current-day authorities would view this player's technique very dimly. Maybe this stance would be outlawed in the same way that the anchoring of putters (don't ask) is to be banned from 2016. Less a good walk spoiled than a good crawl spoiled.

Image courtesy of

You can view the whole of the magnificent Golf Book on our Digitised Manuscripts site. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @blmedieval.

20 May 2013

Look on these Works and Frown?

Add comment Comments (1)

Our post on the Codex Alexandrinus last December brought this comment from Dave P.: "I wonder if conservators in 100 years time will look at this work and frown, as you do at older work?" The simple answer is that we hope not. Before conserving any collection item we consider all the options and are confident that we choose the most suitable and least invasive treatment available to us. But that, surely, is what past conservators thought too?

A39603 silking detail

Add MS 39603  This  beautifully decorated 11th/12th century Greek cruciform Gospels now has pigment corrosion throughout. In the past it was treated by covering the damaged areas with a fine silk net to prevent further losses. This process is not easily reversible, should the manuscript require further conservation in the future.

Our brow-wrinkling is more likely to be pondering the why of an old repair than expressing displeasure with it. No conservator can justify unnecessary work or has the time to do it, so we should assume that everything we see was thought to be an essential and efficient treatment. If earlier generations have left us problems, they didn’t do it deliberately! The only sensible reaction is to learn from their work what is effective and harmless in the long-term.


Add MS 43790B   When this manuscript of few folios was rebound, many short folds of blank modern paper were added to bulk the spine sufficiently to achieve a satisfactory round. The manuscript is well protected, but the book is wedge-shaped. In hindsight, it would have been better to use full size blank leaves.

Not all historic repairs make us frown. Some early sewn or laced repairs to splits in parchment have endured for many centuries. Similarly, Humphrey Davy’s recipe for relaxing cockled parchment, a mix of spirits of wine (i.e. ethanol) and water, works very well and continued as a treatment until recently. The older the repair, the more likely it will use natural materials and simple techniques with known and trusted outcomes.


Add MS 64797  The wooden board split and part was lost, though the full-width covering leather remains.  An infill was carefully built up from layers of millboard (which has more desirable qualities than new wood). The top layer was recessed to hold and protect the old leather which would have been vulnerable to further damage if simply adhered on top of a flat board.

However, historically the available range of repair materials was limited, so tears and weak edges were supported with whatever was to hand. Occasionally, we find a medieval manuscript on parchment with strips of 18th century writing paper reinforcing damaged edges, apparently adhered with wet flour paste by a previous owner. We see now that such heavy repairs cause further damage to the weak parchment, and microscopy reveals that wetting parchment can degrade it too. These days we make lighter repairs, so that if there is further deterioration the repair materials will split, not the original, and we use adhesives that add no or little moisture to the parchment. But that earlier repair, however flawed, has both ensured the manuscript survived to the present, and forced us to improve our methods.


Harley 5201, f.90r  The damage is caused by touching or kissing the saint’s image. It is unlikely to get worse and is a valuable record of historic devotional practices. It does not require treatment at present but, if it should, we would also try to preserve the material culture evidence.

A wide range of repair resources is now available to us. The British Library buys traditional materials like paper and adhesives of the highest quality, often made specifically for conservation. They are tested, so we can be sure they neither contain undesirable additives, nor will degrade over time to release damaging compounds. But we also have access to newly-developed specialist supplies for the more difficult tasks, where customary techniques are inadequate. We use these cautiously for, despite accelerated aging tests, we cannot be entirely certain how they will behave in 50 or 100 years from now. We remember problems with experimental treatments briefly used last century, and take them as a warning. We also make sure our repairs can be removed without causing any more damage, just in case re-treatment is necessary in the future.


Harley 3334, f.59r   The holes suggest this flaw started to split during manufacture while the parchment was drying under tension, and the maker stopped it progressing by temporarily sewing or pinning. Once dry, the flaw was stable and the text could be written around the damage.

At the same time, our focus is changing from invasive treatment to preservation. It is better to use limited resources to slow down the deterioration of whole collections by controlling temperature and humidity, by providing simple protective enclosures, and by training staff and readers in good handling techniques, so that fewer items require active conservation in future. There is always likely to be the need for running repairs in a working library, but it is surely better to prevent damage when we can. For the future, digitisation will mean our manuscripts are less handled and spend more time in optimum storage conditions, so conservators of the future should need to intervene and treat manuscripts more rarely. Perhaps they will frown at some of our work, but we hope they will mostly be content that we did our best to preserve these unique objects for many more generations to enjoy.