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10 April 2014

My Kingdom for a Horse

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Recently we had an enquiry about an unusual image that appears in the Rochester Bestiary.  This famous English book of beasts, which dates to the mid-13th century, has featured quite prominently in our ongoing series about medieval animals; have a look at our posts about lions, beavers, dogs, wolves, elephants, and hedgehogs, for example. 

The particular miniature in question can be seen below.  ‘Why,’ asks our slightly tongue-in-cheek correspondent, ‘are those horses having a cuddle?’.

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Detail of a miniature of two horses and two men, from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

At first glance, it certainly does appear that this is what’s going on here.  We are sad to report, however, that the truth is not quite so full of squee – rather than cuddling, these horses are in fact fighting one another.   An inscription in French intended to guide the illuminator can be found beside the miniature, telling us that it is meant to represent two knights and two horses engaged in combat (see below for a detail of this inscription).

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Detail of an inscription beside the miniature of the two horses and two men, altered to increase legibility, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

This is a fascinating scene, and as far as we can tell, a unique one among bestiary images.  The Rochester Bestiary is notable in that the miniatures illustrating each animal appear at the end of the relevant section, rather than at the beginning (for an example of the latter, see the Royal Bestiary:  Royal MS 12 C XIX).  The Royal Bestiary gives us a much more typical example of the kind of horse to be found in the book of beasts:

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Detail of a miniature of a horse at the beginning of the text about that animal, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 34r

A horse (of course) was an animal that every medieval reader would have been familiar with, and so most bestiaries depict the animal just as they are, with little in the way of drama or exposition in the scene.  The Rochester miniature is different, although we're not sure why.  However, there are a few clues – albeit indirect ones – in the text preceding this fascinating scene.

Horses in the early medieval period were largely the possessions of the aristocracy and warrior classes, and the bestiary text reflects their crucial role in battle.  Horses, we are told, rejoice in winning and are disheartened by defeat, and some can become so carried away that they will bite their enemies whilst fighting.  But most importantly, a noble horse is loyal to his noble master, will ‘suffer no one except their master to ride them’, and will weep at the death of its owner.  Amongst many examples of loyal horses, the bestiary text provides us with the story of the horse belonging to the king of the Scythians.  This king was killed in single combat, and when his opponent tried to divest him of his armour, the king’s horse attacked, biting and kicking until he was killed himself.

This is not exactly what is going on in the Rochester scene, but it’s as close as we can come.  We have here a depiction of a story that is not reflected in any of the canonical bestiary texts – nor any others that we have yet uncovered.  We see two horses so faithful to their masters that when the warriors are fighting, the horses mirror their aggression and attack one another.  Whether this scene is reflective of a parallel narrative tradition lost to us today or simply an artist’s unique interpretation of the instructions left for him remains to be determined.

- Sarah J Biggs

05 April 2014

Royal Manuscripts Follow-on Project - Completed!

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The Royal Manuscripts project team are pleased to announce that with the publication of 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, edited by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick, published by British Library Publications, the AHRC-funded follow-on to the Royal Manuscripts research project has been successfully concluded. 

Editors
Kathleen Doyle, Scot McKendrick, and 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts

In February 2012, the AHRC made an additional grant to the Library under the Digital Equipment and Database Enhancement for Impact scheme, to enhance the research undertaken for the original Royal: Illuminated Manuscripts of the Kings and Queens of England project, and its dissemination.  As a digital enhancement project, the principal goal was to augment the resources on Royal manuscripts available to researchers on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.  Regular readers of the blog will know that we have published regular updates on the project of this digitisation (see the links at the end of this post).

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God the creator, from a Bible Historiale, Royal MS 19 D III, f. 3r

The goal of the follow-on project was to provide freely-accessible full online digital coverage of 24,750 pages from approximately 40-50 manuscripts featured in the Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illuminated exhibition held at the British Library 11 November 2011-13 March 2012.  This objective was met and exceeded with 71 manuscripts now available on the website.  Thanks to all of you who provided ideas for digitisation selection.

Durham workshop

The project had two other objectives.  The first was to convene two workshops to allow students and scholars to build on the existing research undertaken as part of the Royal project by analysing texts and images of these manuscripts in collaboration with other researchers.  One workshop was held at Durham University on 6 June 2012, hosted by Professor Richard Gameson, Department of History.  At the workshop eleven undergraduate students presented papers on manuscripts included in the Royal exhibition, and Roger Middleton, Lecturer Emeritus, Department of French Literature at the University of Nottingham, presented a live display of the new research capabilities of the Digitised Manuscripts website.  The second workshop was designed for post-graduate students, and was held in London on 9 November 2012.  This workshop explored the research possibilities of digitisation in a seminar examining three original manuscripts together with their magnified digital images.

The third output was the publication of the book, which is a collection of ten essays on the development of Royal libraries, enhancing and building on the research completed for the initial Royal project.  Two of the essays (by Richard Gameson and Catherine Reynolds) were drawn from the new research presented at the Frank Davis lecture series held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in autumn 2011.  Four (by Michael Wood, Nicholas Vincent, John Goldfinch, and Jane Roberts) grew out of lectures given as part of the British Library lecture series accompanying the exhibition.  One (by James Carley) is on a royal manuscript that was once a part of the Old Royal Library but was not included in the exhibition, and so his research is presented in the volume for the first time.  The remaining three contributions (by Joanna Fronska, Scot McKendrick, and Kathleen Doyle) build on research that was undertaken for the initial Royal Manuscripts project presented in the exhibition catalogue.  Thanks to the grant provided by the AHRC, the book is extensive illustrated with ninety-four colour illustrations.   

AHRC

Previous Royal Manuscripts blog posts:

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/11/new-additions-to-digitised-manuscripts.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/chronicles-lancelot-and-a-journey-to-jerusalem-royal-manuscripts-now-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/gospels-psalms-and-prayer-rolls-more-royal-devotional-manuscripts-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/books-of-beasts-adventure-and-two-from-new-minster-new-royal-manuscripts-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/psalters-bibles-and-the-end-of-days-devotional-texts-from-the-royal-collection-go-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/06/books-of-history-war-and-mystery-more-royal-manuscripts-go-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/06/crowns-romances-and-chronicles-aplenty-new-royal-manuscripts-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/05/the-chosen-royals.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/03/keep-your-royal-suggestions-coming.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/02/which-royal-manuscripts-should-we-digitise.html

- Kathleen Doyle

03 April 2014

Stuck in Limbo: Dante's Purgatorio

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As was the case for the souls condemned to Hell in Dante’s Inferno (described in our previous post No Rest for the Wicked), the punishment for those in Purgatory matches the crime.  But, unlike Hell, the punishments in Purgatory were intended to improve and purify the souls in question, those who could be saved but still needed a little improvement before making their way to Heaven. In one of the first scenes in Purgatory,  the proud bear great stones upon their backs (see below).  

Could the artist of this manuscript know that Dante included among the proud one Oderisi of Gubbio, a famed illustrator of illuminated manuscripts who took a little too much pride in his work!  Is this a warning to all of us who work in the field of manuscripts studies?

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The proud in Purgatory, Italy (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century, Egerton MS 943, f. 82r

In Purgatory, the avaricious and greedy are shown lying face down on the ground.  Dante meets Pope Adrian V here.  Dante certainly wasn’t afraid to take the powerful to task for their misdeed – he even sent another Pope, Boniface VIII, straight to Hell!

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The avaricious,
Egerton MS 943, f. 97v

After passing through much of Purgatory, Dante, Virgil and another poet, Statius, must pass through a wall of fire to be worthy of reaching the Earthly Paradise, or the Garden of Eden, at the summit of Mount Purgatory (see below).

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The wall of fire, Egerton MS 943, f. 112r

Below can be seen the Garden of Eden; Dante (and the capable artist of this manuscript) drew on some unusual biblical imagery to depict the Four Evangelists here as four-headed creatures.  As the three observers in the Garden of Eden look on, a parade of Christian symbols pass them, re-enacting the drama of salvation – much like the parades that would have proceeded through Florence on every holy day.  This parade seems to be building up to something… we sense someone important is on the way, but who could it be?

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The four winged beasts in the Garden of Eden, Egerton MS 943,
f. 116v

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A griffin pulling a chariot, Egerton MS 943, f. 117r

It is Beatrice Portinari, in a chariot drawn by griffins!  Beatrice was Dante’s muse and true love, despite the fact that they only met twice in real life (and those encounters were more or less in passing).  It is here that many begin to feel a certain distance from the poem.  Dante of course wrote in the tradition of courtly love, where the beloved was meant to be entirely unattainable, but it is difficult for the modern reader to be terribly sympathetic about Dante’s deep longing for Beatrice, considering she probably had no idea who he was.  One also can’t help but feel some sympathy for Dante’s poor wife Gemma di Manetto Donati; she never got a single mention in any of his poetry (so it’s no wonder she didn’t accompany him when he was forced out of Florence!).  

Note that Dante seems a little apprehensive in the miniature below.  It almost appears as though he’s being dragged along; could it be that he senses that Beatrice isn’t very pleased to see him?

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Dante is led to Beatrice, Egerton MS 943, f. 121r

Poor Dante.  He has travelled all this way to get to his lady-love and she greets him with anger.  Many consider this to be the funniest bit of the Purgatory – Dante cowering like a hen-pecked husband while Beatrice brutally scolds him for his conduct.  She tells him that was sent by God so that her physical perfection would inspire him to contemplate the beauty of the divine, but instead he got distracted and chased after other girls.  Though she’s presented elsewhere as an idealised and static muse for Dante, our manuscript’s artist perfectly captures something of Beatrice’s fire in this scene.  

This moment really is the dramatic climax of the poem as a whole.  The meeting with Beatrice represents a chance for everything Dante longed for most, forgiveness for his sins, and a final reconciliation with his love.

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Dante and Beatrice meeting, Egerton MS 943, f. 124v

Dante is so contrite (and a little pathetic) that Beatrice eventually forgives him, and takes over from Virgil as his guide into the highest reaches of Purgatory and on to heaven.  Dante’s adoration of Beatrice as they travel in the poem is so touching that we can almost forget the strangeness of their real-life acquaintance.  Their second and final meeting, we are told, took place on a bridge in Florence, when Beatrice passed Dante by chance and smiled at him. That single moment was enough for Dante to make Beatrice’s smile the very image of divine beauty.  Heaven is simply full of smiles and laughter, in the Paradiso, the third and final act of the poem.

Stay tuned for another post about Dante’s Paradiso!

-  Arthur Westwell

01 April 2014

A Calendar Page for April 2014

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Happy April everybody! And what better way to start the month than with some more sensational pages from the stupendous Huth Hours? If you have already been following our blog – and who hasn’t? – you’ll know that our calendar of the year is taken from this beautiful 15th-century manuscript (for more information, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014).


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Calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of an aristocratic couple courting, followed by a small child, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 4v

So what delights does April bring us? The promise of early spring often yields images of very pleasant labours indeed for this month, and these calendar pages from the Huth Hours are no exception. Our first folio gives us a roundel miniature of a well-dressed couple courting while walking along a garden path. The themes of fertility, birth, and rebirth are emphasised by the flowering branch being carried by the ardent young man, and by the small child following the couple (whether he is acting as chaperone or as a sign of things to come remains a bit of a mystery). The saints' days and feasts for April are continued on the following folio, along with a small painting of a bull for the zodiac sign Taurus. In the roundel below is a charming scene of a shepherd surrounded by his flock, playing a recorder for his appreciative dog. A similar musical shepherd can be found on the calendar page for April of 2013; we'll let you know if we encounter any other examples!

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Detail of a calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of an aristocratic couple courting, followed by a small child, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 4v

In the background is one of the earliest representations of the infamous Leaning Tower of Utrecht. Utrecht has often been called the “Pisa of the North”, and historians have long debated how the steeple of the church of St Ignatius the Cripple came to acquire its distinctive kink. Some have attributed the lean to a lightning strike, to subsidence, or to a giant ape climbing the tower. But the image shown here is equally plausible, and seems to confirm the testimony of Lionel the Imbecile, who reported seeing mysterious lights in the sky in 1483. (Lionel was subsequently burnt at the stake by order of the anti-Pope Anacletus III, following a show trial at the Fourth Council of Constance.)

And below is our second scene, featuring the shepherd and his musical dog. Look very closely, and you can also see a startled sheep, caught in the beam of a passing spaceship, and being transported to an uncertain fate. During the 15th century, alien abductions frequently took place during the month of April; and the Huth Hours provides splendid corroboration of that fact. The artist has drawn the alien craft hovering above the trees, with the sheep being captured in a red beam arcing through the sky.


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Calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of a shepherd playing music for his flock and his dog, with the zodiac sign Taurus, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 5r

Many critics have poured scorn on the veracity of such pictures (you can read a summary in the forthcoming festschrift for Prof. Wim van der Wende, No Pain, No Gain: Controversy and Subversion in Late Medieval Art). But we at the British Library have utter faith in their validity, and are on the hunt for other examples: let us know what you think @BLMedieval.

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Detail of a calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of a shepherd playing music for his flock and his dog, with the zodiac sign Taurus, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 5r

- Sarah J Biggs & Julian Harrison

27 March 2014

Say Your Prayers

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A new addition to Digitised Manuscripts comes in the form of Add MS 50005, a Book of Hours in Dutch, which the British Library acquired from the Dyson Perrins collection in the 1950s.  The core of the book was written by one hand, c. 1410-c. 1420, perhaps in Utrecht or Delft.  It contains devotional texts such as the Hours of the Virgin and the Little Hours of the Cross, as well as prayers to the Virgin Mary and Christ, the Crucifix and God.  Whereas Books of Hours made in England or France would have been written in Latin, this example is written entirely in Middle Dutch.  Nor is it unusual; most Books of Hours from the Netherlands are written in the vernacular.

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Historiated initial incorporating the Nursing Madonna (‘Maria Lactans’) at the opening of the Hours of the Virgin, from a Book of Hours in Middle Dutch, Netherlands (?Utrecht or ?Delft), c. 1410-c. 1420, Add MS 50005, f. 8r

The use of Dutch in this way was the outcome of a religious movement known as the Devotio Moderna, which sought to encourage a personal, emotional style of devotion that was accessible to all literate people.  This Book of Hours is decorated with a series of 66 miniatures illustrating scenes from the lives of Joachim and Anna, their daughter the Virgin Mary, and her son Jesus Christ.  The miniatures are lively and expressive: the characters are shown moving, gesturing or performing ceremonial duties.  Being unframed, this sense of activity spills out into the margins, drawing the scenes and the text closer together.

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Miniature of the Disputation in the Temple, Add MS 50005, f. 60v

The miniatures can also be visceral and unsettling.  On f. 59v, under the orders of Herod, and unmoved by the pleas of its mother, a soldier is stamping on an infant and impaling it with his sword; the child’s blood is shown spilling over his boot and onto the grass.  On f. 106v, Christ is tied to a pillar; his torturers are captured mid-swing, one lifting his whip above his head, the other poised to strike a sideways blow on Christ’s already lacerated body, while Pilate is standing in the background, looking on impassively.  The captions directly address the reader and employ the dramatic present tense to pull them into the action: ‘Here does Herod kill the innocent children’; ‘Here they scourge Jesus’. 

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Miniature of the Massacre of the Innocents, Add MS 50005, f. 59v

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Miniature of Christ’s scourging, Add MS 50005, f. 106v

The artist responsible for these miniatures has been identified by James Marrow as ‘The Master of the Morgan Infancy Cycle’.  He is named after his work in M. 866 at the Pierpont Morgan Library, and he is known only through other decorated Books of Hours: Liège, Bibliothèque de l’Université, MS Wittert 35; Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliothek, MS 5.J.26; Berlin, Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, MS Germ. oct. 680; and Berlin, Kupferstichkabinet, no. 2302 (a single detached miniature). 

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Miniature of soldiers casting lots for Christ’s garments, Add MS 50005, f. 119v

The insertion of other texts by other hands in this book presents not only a challenge to the boldest manuscript cataloguer, but also insights into how medieval Books of Hours could be customised and augmented.  The book was added to in two stages during the fifteenth century.  The first additions were made around the mid-fifteenth century, almost entirely on the blank recto sides of leaves containing miniatures on the verso.  The interspersing of new texts among the old seems confusing to modern eyes, but it reflects the emendator’s thoughtful approach to what would be appropriate in the book. 

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A note on three things necessary for salvation, the first page of additions made by ‘Hand 2’ in the mid-fifteenth century, Add MS 50005, f. 83r.

Placing some of the inserted prayers on blank leaves at the front of the volume would have avoided the chopping and changing between texts from f. 95r to 138r, but it would have upset the textual hierarchy by moving the Hours of the Virgin to second place in the volume.  The emendator began his or her additions immediately after this most important text in the volume, slotting them among the Little Hours of the Cross so that the new prayers were grouped with those originally placed in the volume.

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A prayer to St Erasmus (‘O heilighe martelaer Christi sinte erasme’), the first page of additions made by ‘Hand 3’ in the second half of the fifteenth century, Add MS 50005, f. 159v.

The second additions were made later in the fifteenth century, more straightforwardly to blank leaves and possibly inserted quires at the end of the volume.  Whereas prayers found earlier in the volume are directed to God, Christ, or the Virgin Mary, these address a variety of saints – St Erasmus, St Katherine, St Agatha, St Stephen, St Agnes and St Francis – that might reflect the particular devotional interests of the book’s owner.  

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Miniature of a laywoman kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child, Add MS 50005, f. 155v.

There is no firm evidence of provenance in the manuscript.  The final miniature depicts a laywoman – perhaps the original owner of the book – kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child.  A similarly dressed figure is shown attending upon Anna at the birth of Mary (f. 5v), and upon Mary at the birth of Jesus (f. 22v), sitting with the shepherds at the Annunciation (f. 36v), greeting the Magi at the Adoration (f. 45v), and holding a bell-rope at the Purification (f. 46v). 

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Miniature of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, Add MS 50005, f. 5v.

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Miniature of the Adoration of the Magi, Add MS 50005, f. 45v.

The book seems to have remained in female possession, perhaps belonging a Sister of the Common Life, one of the pious lay groups associated with the Devotio Moderna.  An exhortation on the Passion is addressed specifically to a sister – ‘O mijn gheminde suster’ (‘O my beloved sister’, f. 162r) – and includes the phrase ‘soe moecht ghi een ghewarich dienster Christi worden’ (‘may you become a true servant of Christ’, ff. 164r-164v).  It was with this goal in mind that the many owners of this and other Books of Hours pored over their precious manuscripts, reciting the prayers and meditating upon the suffering of their Saviour.

- James Freeman

22 March 2014

Blogtastic!

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You may recall that we asked for your help earlier this year, when we asked for your votes in the inaugural National UK Blog Awards (Vote for Us Please). We're delighted to tell you that, thanks to your overwhelming support, we have made the list of finalists in the Arts and Culture category. We understand that more than 16,000 votes were cast in total (not all for us obviously), but we are hugely grateful for your support: every little vote really did count! You can read more about the National UK Blog Awards here.

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The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, from our blogpost More Unique Than Most (4 February 2014)

The awards ceremony itself takes place on 25 April. We are dusting off our snappiest suits and poshest frocks, to make a good impression on the night itself. Most of our time we spend hovering over our computers, beavering away to make our collections available online or dreaming up ever more outlandish blogposts (and a thousand other things besides). It's great to know that somebody out there is impressed by what we have been doing.

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Imaging the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from our blogpost Gawain Revealed (23 February 2014)

Since the time we asked for your votes, here are some of the stories we have posted on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. We hope that there will be many more like these to come. Let us know your favourite by tweeting @BLMedieval.

A Medieval Comic Strip

A Papyrus Puzzle and Some Purple Parchment

An Illustrated Guide to Medieval Love

Gawain Revealed

Medieval Drama Acquired by the British Library

More Unique Than Most: The Benedictional of St Æthelwold

She Cares Not a Turd: Notes on a 16th Century Squabble

Two Magnificent Manuscripts Saved for the Nation

Mystere
The Mystère de la Vengeance, from our blogpost Medieval Drama Acquired by the British Library (6 March 2014)

Julian Harrison and Sarah J Biggs

 

20 March 2014

Update to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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Here in the British Library’s department of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, we work tirelessly to make our collections accessible and better known among scholars and the public.  While much attention focuses on our Digitised Manuscripts resource, let’s not forget about the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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Text page fragments in uncial script, from Cyprian’s Epistles, North Africa (Carthage?), 4th – 5th centuries, Add MS 40165A, f. 1r

Recently updated, CIM (as we like to call it) now boasts a total of 4,277 manuscripts and some 36,163 images.  These range from a 4th/5th-century copy of Cyprian’s Epistles, perhaps brought to England by Theodore of Tarsus and Hadrian of Canterbury (Add MS 40165A), to a collection of facsimile manuscript pages produced in 1873 by John Obadiah Westwood, a palaeographer and entomologist (Egerton MS 2263) – with a lot in between.

Since the last update in August 2013, we have been cataloguing Anglo-Norman manuscripts from the Additional collection.  Although some of them only contain only decorated initials, the contents are wide-ranging and filled with surprises.

Here are a few favourites (with more to come, so stay tuned!):

 

The earliest English cookbooks? (Add MS 32085 and Royal MS 12 C XII)

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Puzzle initial, from the legal text 'Sentencia Super Easdem Cartas', England, late 13th or early 14th century,
Add MS 32085, f. 11r.

Both manuscripts contain a varied collection of miscellaneous texts – from prophecies to arithmetical puzzles, from charters to a lapidary – bound together after they were copied.  They have one ingredient in common: collections of recipes in Anglo-Norman French, believed to be the earliest surviving examples of English cuisine.  If you fancy trying your hand at medieval cookery, check out Constance B. Hieatt and Robin F. Jones’s edition and translation.

Some of the recipes are mouth-watering (but no roasted unicorn, sadly), and the names are especially appetising:

Teste de Tourk (Turk’s Head): a type of quiche filled with rabbits and poultry; add eels to ‘enhance’ the flavour!

Nag’s tail: the ingredients include pigs’ trotters and ears, grease and wine.

Sang Dragoun: dragon’s blood is a colourful name for what appears to be rice pudding.

Tardpolene: alas, no tadpoles, but just soft cheese, dates and almonds.

 

Scientific and chiromantic texts (Add MS 18210)

This scientific compilation contains Latin texts by Galen, the ‘Dragmaticon’ of William of Conches (tutor to Henry II), as well as some texts on telling the future.  Two are unique to this manuscript: one on spatulomancy/scapulamancy (divination through the use of a shoulder-bone), and another on haematoscopy (prognostication through the examination of blood).  A less visceral means of forecasting is recorded in a treatise on geomancy, where one must interpret the patterns formed by tossing handfuls of rocks on the ground.  A handy table is provided as a guide:

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Table of patterns, from a treatise on geomancy, England or N. France, c. 1275- c. 1325,
Add MS 18210, f. 93r.

Who wouldn’t want the stones to predict ‘proesces ioie et leesce et richesces et si signifie grant profit’ (nobility, joy, gladness, riches and great profit)?

We have also continued to update and augment entries with further details on the contents, provenance and bibliographies relating to illuminated manuscripts.  Tune in for some further highlights later on.

Don’t forget that it’s possible to find manuscripts in the Catalogue by means other than their shelfmarks.  One can conduct advanced searches by keyword, date range, language, provenance, scribe, artist – and so on!  You can bring together manuscripts of the same period in order to compare decorative styles, or see examples of a specific artist’s work at a glance.  One of the best features is that you can search for keywords within the images (try searching for ‘snail’ and see what comes up!).

The Catalogue also includes virtual exhibitions of British Library manuscripts, and an illustrated glossary (most useful for getting to grips with tricky terminology).  Enjoy!

                                                                                               -  James Freeman and Chantry Westwell

18 March 2014

Two Magnificent Manuscripts Saved for the Nation

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We are delighted to announce that the British Library has acquired two major manuscripts, following temporary export bars. One is the Catholicon Anglicum, a 15th-century English-Latin dictionary, and the other is a printed treatise on clerical marriage, owned and annotated by John Ponet, Bishop of Winchester.

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The Catholicon Anglicum, a medieval dictionary newly-acquired by the British Library

Copied in 1483, and still in its original binding, the newly-acquired manuscript of the Catholicon Anglicum (Add MS 89074) is the only complete witness of that text. It had last been seen in 1881, when the text was edited, and its whereabouts were unknown for more than a century. The British Library already holds the only other copy known to survive, Add MS 15562, which is slightly earlier in date but lacks many of its leaves.

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Detail of the Catholicon Anglicum

The newly-acquired dictionary comprises approximately 8,000 Middle English words, each written in red ink, followed by their Latin (and sometimes Greek) equivalents written in brown ink. The use of dialect words by the anonymous compiler indicates that the Catholicon Anglicum was of Yorkshire origin. Entries range from the mundane – for example, ‘a Milne stane’ (a millstone) – to the more conceptually complex – such as ‘a Mynde’. As one of the earliest examples of an English dictionary, the Catholicon Anglicum is of profound importance for the study of the development of both the English language and of English lexicography.

Also following a temporary export bar, the British Library has acquired John Ponet’s personal copy of a 1554 treatise against clerical marriage. Ponet (c. 1514-1556) was a Cambridge academic and a passionate exponent of religious reform, who became Bishop of Winchester under Edward VI in 1551. He had married in 1548, before clerical celibacy had been abolished, and published a treatise the following year, entitled A Defence for Marriage of Priests, by Scripture and Ancient Writers. Upon the accession of Mary I, Ponet went into exile in Strasbourg.

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John Ponet's copy of a treatise denouncing clerical marriage

In 1554, Thomas Martin, a civil lawyer and religious conservative who had recently returned to England, published a refutation of Ponet’s treatise, entitled A Treatise declaring and plainly proving that the pretensed marriage of priests…is no marriage, but altogether unlawful. This new acquisition (Add MS 89067) is Ponet’s own, interleaved and annotated copy of Martin's treatise. Declaring angrily on the frontispiece ‘Martin made me the enemy of all marriage’, Ponet began a point-by-point attack upon Martin’s work and defence of his own, filling the blank leaves and margins with manuscript notes in English, Latin and Greek, which later formed the basis for his own printed response in 1556, An Apology fully answering…a blasphemous book…against the godly marriage of priests.

Full digital coverage of the Catholicon Anglicum and Ponet's book will be made available in the coming months on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and we will also make both items accessible to researchers using our Manuscripts Reading Room. We believe that study of both manuscripts will contribute enormously to knowledge of their respective fields, and anticipate that many researchers will profit from having access to these new acquisitions.

The news of the British Library’s acquisition of Ponet's book has been greeted by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford: ‘I am delighted and relieved that the British Library has stepped in as guardian angel for a very precious book. This printed work has an especial significance for our national history, as it is annotated in manuscript by one of its author's principal enemies. Two major players in England's Reformation have an angry conversation before our eyes, the first married Bishop of Winchester combatting the arguments of his unmarried predecessor-Bishop's Chancellor against clerical marriage. Now this unique document is not just safe in public custody, but will be easily available for all to read.'

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An opening from Ponet's book, showing how he had it interleaved to add his own comments

Ponet's book was offered for auction in the Mendham sale at Sotheby's, London, on 5 June 2013, at which the British Library had bought four lots. The Library's view was that the sale was regrettable, but once it became clear that the sale would go ahead, a decision was made to try to purchase certain lots, in order to preserve some of the Mendham books for the national collection and to maintain public access to them. The dispersal of the collection involved the risk that books hitherto available for research in the United Kingdom would leave the country or disappear into private hands.

Today's announcement comes hot on the heels of our exciting recent acquisition of the Mystère de la Vengeance, a beautiful 15th-century illuminated drama. You can already see images of the Mystère on Digitised Manuscripts (Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2).