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21 November 2015

New to the Treasures Gallery

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As frequent visitors to the British Library will know, we regularly make changes to the items displayed to the public in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, also known as our Treasures Gallery.  We are pleased to announce that the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section has placed a number of new manuscripts on display.  Most of these manuscripts are fully digitised and can be found online at Digitised Manuscripts, so if you’re not able to make it to the Gallery here in London, there’ s no need for you to miss out!

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Painting of Mont Saint Michel burning,
from 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel', France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 45v

The ‘Literature’ section sees the addition of Add MS 10289, 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel' (the Romance of Mont Saint-Michel), a late 13th century miscellany of romances, moralistic and religious texts, and medical recipes written in Anglo-Norman.   The folio displayed shows the burning of the monastery in the year 922; much more about this fabulous manuscript can be found in our post The Romance of Mont Saint-Michel.

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Miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer, from Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, England (London or Westminster), c. 1411 – c. 1420, Harley MS 4866, f. 88r

Also in this section is one of the earliest copies of Thomas Hoccleve’s The Regiment of Princes, which was created c. 1411 – c. 1420, possibly under the supervision of Hoccleve himself.  This manuscript (Harley MS 4866) includes the famous portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and wearing a pen-case on a string around his neck

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Miniature of Homer in a landscape listening to his Muse, from a copy of Homer’s Iliad, Italy (Florence), 1466, Harley MS 5600, f. 15v

Three manuscripts featuring the works of classical authors have been added to the ‘Art of the Book’ section.  A 15th century Greek manuscript, copied in Florence in 1466 by Ioannes Rhosos of Crete, contains a gorgeous miniature of Homer surrounded by Muses, in a typical Florentine style (Harley MS 5600).  This Homer is joined by the works of two more Roman authors who were also hugely popular in Renaissance Italy: a late 15th century copy of the works of Cicero (Burney MS 157), and a Virgil copied in Rome between 1483 and 1485 (Kings MS 24).

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Drawing of a ‘stout woman’ from a notebook by Albrecht
Dürer, Germany, c. 1500, Add MS 5231, f. 5r

Manuscripts in another section contain material from two of the great artists of the Renaissance: Albrecht Dürer and Michaelangelo.  Dürer’s interest in anatomy are reflected in four sketchbooks now owned by the British Library, one of which includes a sketch of a ‘stout woman’ accompanied by detailed notes on how to correctly construct a human figure (Add MS 5231).  Alongside Dürer’s volume is one composed of a series of letters exchanged by Michaelangelo Buonarroti and his family.  On display is a letter Michaelangelo wrote to his nephew from Rome in 1550, offering some genial advice on the best way to select a wife (Add MS 23142).

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Text page with musical neumes, Spain (Silos), c. 1050, Add MS 30845, f. 13r

We have also updated the ‘Early Music’ section with two of our best-known musical manuscripts.  Dating from c. 1050, Add MS 30845 is a liturgical manuscript with musical notation, created in the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in northern Spain.  This notation consists of graphic signs that indicate the direction of the melody; as the pitch is lacking, however, the original melody is now impossible to recover.  Accompanying the Silos manuscript is one containing perhaps the most famous piece of English secular medieval music, ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, which is known only from this manuscript. 

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Page with ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, from a miscellany, England (Reading Abbey), c. 1260, Harley MS 978, f. 11v

If you’re interested in more information on this wonderful piece of music (from Harley MS 978), please see our post Sumer is Icumen In.  And whether your visit is in person here in St Pancras, or virtual amongst our digitised manuscripts, we hope you enjoy yourselves!

-  Sarah J Biggs

19 November 2015

Anglo-Saxon Digitisation Project Now Underway

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The British Library possesses the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world. Many of these manuscripts are already available via our Digitised Manuscripts website, and we are delighted to announce that dozens more will be added in the coming months as part of a new digitisation project.  These manuscripts will include the B, D, and F versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, manuscripts with early musical notation, Archbishop Wulfstan’s letter book, laws, saints’ lives, early manuscripts of Ælfric’s writings, charms, and medical recipes.  This digitisation has been generously funded by a donation made in memory of Melvin R Seiden.

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Zoomorphic pen-drawn initial from the beginning of a book in an Old English translation and compilation of Orosius, from the Tollemache Orosius, Add MS 47967, f. 48v

The first five manuscripts have gone already gone online.  These include the earliest copy of the Old English version of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos, an early eleventh-century schoolbook, and two manuscripts associated with Bishop Leofric of Exeter.  So click over to Digitised Manuscripts for images of fantastical creatures in interlace initials, an imaginary dialogue between a monk, a cook, and a baker, and early musical notation! 

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Zoomorphic initial ‘H’ at the beginning of a text, Harley MS 110, f. 3r

Add MS 28188:  Pontifical with litanies and benedictional (imperfect), England (Exeter), 3rd quarter of the 11th century

Add MS 32246:  Fragment of Excerptiones de Prisciano with the 'Elegy of Herbert and Wulfgar', glossaries, and Ælfric's Colloquy, England (Berkshire?), 1st half of the 11th century

Add MS 47967:  Orosius, Historia adversus paganos ('The Old English Orosius' or 'The Tollemache Orosius' ), England (Winchester), 900-1000

Harley MS 110:  Glossed copy of Prosper, Epigrammata ex sententiis S. Augustini, Versus ad coniugem, Isidore, Synonyma de lamentatione animae peccatricis; two leaves from a gradual, England, 975-1060

Harley MS 2961:  Leofric Collectar, England (Exeter Cathedral), 1050-1072

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Text page with musical neumes, from the Leofric Collectar, Harley MS 2961, f. 10r

Additionally, as this project continues, some manuscripts may be unavailable as they are being digitised.  Readers intending to consult Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that have not already been made available on Digitised Manuscripts should therefore please contact the British Library's Manuscripts Reference Team (mss@bl.uk) before planning a visit.

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Detail of a text page with a sheep drawn around a hole in the parchment, from the Tollemache Orosius,
Add MS 47967, f. 62v

-  Alison Hudson, Project Curator, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

17 November 2015

Piecing Together the Puzzle of the Hungerford Hours

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Cataloguing a manuscript often demands a little detective work, and even more so when the original book is no longer intact. An important 14th-century English Book of Hours has provided a particularly intriguing project of reconstitution. Produced around the year 1330, the Hungerford Hours now exists in a fragmentary form, with leaves scattered around the world in both private and public collections.

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A historiated initial 'D'(eus) of the Resurrection of Christ, depicting Christ with stigmata holding a cross and an angel in colours and gold, from ‘The Hungerford Hours’, E. England (?Lincoln or Ely), c. 1330, Add MS 62106, f. 1r

The Hungerford Hours is one of a handful of surviving English Books of Hours produced between the 13th and mid-14th centuries. Other English examples from this period are the De Brailes Hours, the Neville of Hornby Hours, the Harley Hours, the Egerton Hours, and the Taymouth Hours. These books of private devotion are principally formed of a series of eight short services to be read at different times of the day and night, modelled on the Divine Office. The first item is usually a calendar, detailing the religious feasts and saints’ days of each month. Other content includes extracts from the Gospels, Hours in honour of the Cross and the Holy Spirit, the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Office of the Dead, and prayers to the Virgin, the Holy Trinity and different saints.

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Miniature of the Annunciation, with the Virgin reading, from the 'Neville of Hornby Hours', England, S. E. (?London), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 2781, f. 71r

The British Library holds eight leaves from the now dismembered Hungerford Hours: six from the Calendar (Add MS 61887), a leaf from the hour of None in the Hours of the Virgin (Add MS 62106), and a leaf from the Litany (Add MS 72707). These leaves are now available to consult in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

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Calendar page for November, with roundels depicting the slaughter of a lamb and Sagittarius, from ‘The Hungerford Hours’, E. England (?Lincoln or Ely), c. 1330, Add MS 61887, f. 6r

The Calendar provides many clues to the history of the book. Its origin has been located to the dioceses of Lincoln or Ely because of the inclusion of the feast days of St Guthlac of Croyland (f. 2v), and Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (b. 1135, d. 1200) (f. 6r) (who features in this blog post).

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Detail of the feast day of St Guthlac on the calendar page for April, Add MS 61887, f. 3r

The book is named after the 15th-century owner of the manuscript, Robert Hungerford, 2nd Baron Hungerford (b. c. 1400, d. 1459), whose obit is added to the Calendar on f. 3r.

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Detail of the obit of Robert Hungerford, 2nd Baron Hungerford (b. c. 1400, d. 1459), added to the calendar page for May, Add MS 61887, f. 3r

Part of our research into the Hungerford Hours has involved revising the list of identified leaves compiled by M. A. Michaels (‘Destruction, Reconstruction and Invention’ (1990)). Since the publication of his article, a number of leaves have been sold at auction. The British Library acquired Add MS 72707 and two further leaves entered university libraries in the USA: Stanford University Library and the Lilly Library, Indiana University. The leaf held by the Lilly Library bears the probable arms of the Pattishall family, who held land in the East Midlands. Robert Hungerford's sister was married to a descendant of John Pattishall, the possible 14th-century owner of the book, which offers a potential explanation for how it entered the hands of the Hungerford family in the 15th century.  

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A leaf from the Litany, from ‘The Hungerford Hours’, E. England (?Lincoln or Ely), c. 1330, Add MS 72707, f. 1r

There still remains much work to do on the post-medieval provenance of this manuscript and deciphering when it was dismembered. We will keep you updated as we continue to work on the puzzle of the Hungerford Hours and do let us know if you have any insights to share on its intriguing history!

Further Reading

Janet Backhouse, ‘An English Calendar circa 1330’, in Fine Books and Book Collecting, ed. by Christopher de Hamel and Richard A. Linenthal (Leamington Spa: James Hall, 1981), pp. 8-10.

M. A. Michael, ‘Destruction, Reconstruction and Invention: The Hungerford Hours and English Manuscript Illumination of the Early Fourteenth Century’, in English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700, Volume 2, ed. by P. Beal and J. Griffiths (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 33-108.

Christopher de Hamel, Gilding the Lilly: A Hundred Medieval and Illuminated Manuscripts in the Lilly Library (Bloomington, IN: Lilly Library 2010), p. 97.

- Hannah Morcos

13 November 2015

Visions of Paradise

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It is our great pleasure to announce that the British Library’s exquisite copy of Dante’s Divina Commedia is on display at the National Gallery in London.

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Miniature of Beatrice explaining to Dante that the universe is a hierarchy of being, with creatures devoid of reason in the early 'sea of being', and heaven as nine spheres ruled by the figure of love, from Divina Commedia, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 130r

This wondrous manuscript (discussed in more detail here) is being exhibited as part of the free exhibition Visions of Paradise, which centres on Francesco Botticini’s resplendent Assumption of the Virgin (1475-76). Botticini’s altarpiece was commissioned by Matteo Palmieri (b. 1406, d. 1475) for his funerary chapel in the church of San Pier Maggiore, Florence. Palmieri was an influential Florentine humanist and a big Dante fan. He even composed a poem based on the Divina Commedia, entitled La Città di vita (1465), which describes a journey through Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.

To celebrate the exhibition of Yates Thompson MS 36 we have compiled some of the most spectacular visions of Paradiso in this manuscript. Let us know your favourites by tweeting us @BLMedieval

Images from this manuscript are also available in our online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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Detail of a miniature of five Just Princes, atop the eagle of Justice, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 164r

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Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice witnessing the Triumph of Christ, with Christ looking down on a group of kneeling souls, enclosed in a circle of stars, in illustration of Paradiso XXIII, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 170r

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Detail of a miniature of Beatrice watching as Dante kneels before the orders of angels, who are kneeling before the Trinity; on the right, Dionysius sits, with an open book on his knee, in illustration of Paradiso XXVIII, Yates Thompson MS 36,  f. 180r

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Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before the Empyrean, the Heavenly City, with the congregation of the blessed seated on benches surrounding an empty imperial throne, in illustration of Paradiso XXX, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 184r

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Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before the Virgin and Child, seated in a garden and surrounded by angels and a kneeling Bernard, in illustration of Paradiso XXXIII, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 186r

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Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before Dante's vision of the Virgin, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 190r

You now have until 28 March 2016 to enjoy this manuscript, the Botticini altarpiece, and many other works of art on display in the National Gallery's Visions of Paradise exhibition.

- Hannah Morcos

07 November 2015

Caption Competition 4

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We know you've all been waiting for another caption competition! 

Today's contender comes from a manuscript made in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem at the end of the 13th century. It contains the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, an incredibly popular universal chronicle discussed in this blog post. You can also explore this manuscript in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Send your suggestions to @BLMedieval or add a comment at the end of this post.

The winner will be announced at the beginning of next week.* Good luck!

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 Detail of a miniature of Polibus finding Oedipus hanging in a tree, from the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), before 1291,  Add MS 15268, f. 75v

 

* There is no official prize, but as victor you will be the envy of your peers and inaugurated into the elite clan of caption competition winners.

 

Update 12 November 2016

Thank you for all of your entries. We are delighted to announce our 4th Caption Competition Winner! 

M. Mitchell Marmel: 'O dear! Verily, this shalt cost the establishment at least one Star of Michelin...'

 

We've listed below some of the captions we received via Twitter:

@laevisiloki: 'You've put your Christmas tree decorations up *already*?'

‏@Montalmano: '(Looking at man in tree) “See? That's what happens if Santa's in a bad mood. Now don't make him angry when you see him."'

 @luke_baugher: 'Geoff's first hunt didn't end so well...'

@SlCathy: 'Junior doctors' representatives report a very successful outcome to their meeting with Jeremy Hunt.'

@slewisimpson: '"Who's that?" "That's just Odin, he's studying for exams."'

‏@feastandphrase: 'Fresher student initiation: 13th century edition.'

@sheenaghpugh: 'The things you see when you haven't got your camera...'

@ShelbyLynnLFC: 'Happy Birthday Your Majesty. It's called a "piñata".'

@thepaleographer: 'We should play hangman more often.'

 

 

01 November 2015

A Calendar Page for November 2015

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

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Calendar page for November, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 6v 

In November, the threshing and winnowing is taking place: in the background, a male figure wields a flail, beating wheat to separate the grains from the husks.  Two peasants in the foreground are beating flax to break down the stem fibres, while a woman to the right in the background is using a stick known as a 'swingle' to 'scutch' or dress the flax.  A woman is pouring swill out for the pigs, while doves and pigeons gather in the dovecote and on the thatched roofs of the barns waiting to feed on any loose grains. This month, marked by the Zodiac symbol of the centaur for Sagittarius, saw the celebration of several important festivals in the Christian calendar, each illustrated in the roundels to the left: All Souls’ Day, the Commemoration of Souls in Purgatory, St Martin of Tours (shown mounted on a horse, cleaving his cloak in two and giving half to a beggar), and the deaths of St Clement, Pope and Martyr (shown being thrown into the Black Sea with an anchor tied around his neck, as punishment for converting local pagans), St Catherine (shown being beheaded, her wheel in the background) and St Andrew (shown being crucified on the saltire). 

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants beating flax, threshing wheat and feeding pigs,
Add MS 35313, f. 6v 

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Detail of a roundel depicting the martyrdom of St Clement,
Add MS 35313, f. 6v 

- James Freeman

23 October 2015

Hybrids and Shape-Shifters

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Animal Tales, an exhibition exploring the role of animals in literature and what it says about us as humans, is open in the entrance hall of the British Library until 1 November 2015. One of the exhibition cases is devoted to shape-changing: stories where human and animal identity is blurred, with humans taking on the shapes and characteristics of animals. Works on display include illustrated editions of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Little Red Riding Hood.

The Library's collections of medieval manuscripts contains a wealth of the most incredible images of animals, humans and everything in between. For example, an advanced search for ‘Hybrid’ in Iour Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts gives 196 results! Here are some of the most intriguing.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is perhaps the earliest example of, well, metamorphosis, and it was widely copied and adapted in medieval manuscripts. Here is an example from 15th-century Germany.

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Decorated initial 'I'(n) with acanthus leaves, a lion, a lady with pointed headdress and the head of a hybrid creature holding arms in its mouth, at the beginning of book 10 in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Germany, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2489, f. 120r

Of course, most of the shape-shifters in our manuscripts are in the marginalia livening up the pages of a wide variety of texts, some of them religious. This image, illustrating an episode from the Old Testament apocryphal legend of Tobit, has a knight-centaur and a hairy man in the border.

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Miniature of the blinding of Tobit, lying in bed in his house; outside, Tobias leading the angel Raphael into the house; with a full border including a wildman holding a banner bearing the royal arms of England and a centaur, with a banner inscribed with the Yorkist motto, 'Dieu et mon droit', Netherlands, S. (Bruges); 1470 and c. 1479, Royal MS 15 D I, f. 18r

The Luttrell Psalter, featured many times in this blog, is filled with fantastical marginal creatures and here are two delights: a bishop and a king with bird/animal/reptile-like bodies.

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A page from the Psalms with marginal hybrids, from the Luttrell Psalter, England, N. (Lincolnshire), 1325-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 175r

The Gorleston Psalter has a variation on the knight versus snail theme, one of our favourites. Here a knight with a horse’s body holds up a face-shield to the snail, while attacking it with curved blade.

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Marginal image of a knight/horse attacking a snail from the Gorleston Psalter, England, E. (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 179r

This Book of Hours from St Omer, formerly owned by John Ruskin, has some of the cutest marginal creatures, and what a great hairstyle for a hybrid!

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Marginal images of a male hybrid holding a fish and a female hybrid in the St Omer Hours, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Therouanne) c. 1320, Add MS 36684, f. 96v

Legends and romances are often decorated with marginal creature too and this manuscript of Arthurian tales, known as the Prose Lancelot-Grail contains an image in the top left-hand margin of a hybrid man reading an almanac, with an ape trying to snatch it away.

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Opening page of Lancelot du Lac with the lines ‘En la marche de Gaule’, a large miniature in colours on a gold ground of King Ban of Benoith and King Bohort of Gaunes, and a full bar border with hybrid creatures, animals and human figures, one side consisting of a 3-storey chapel, each storey containing a courtly character, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 1r

This page from a book of canon law, the ‘Smithfield Decretals’, is a riot of imagination. The lower margin contains some great hybrids doing what hybrids do!

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Two hybrid creatures blowing trumpets on either side of a castle full of people, from the Smithfield Decretals, England, S. E. (London), 1325-1350, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 2v

Of course, hybrid creatures are found not only in the margins. This miniature illustrates an episode from Froissart’s Chroniques: the Dance of the Wodewoses. These were mythical satyr-like creatures or men of the woods who were popular figures in medieval folklore. The episode illustrated is the tragedy at the Bal des Sauvages in Paris on 28 January 1393. King Charles VI of France and some of his courtiers were dressed as wild men and chained together for a masquerade. Their costumes contained flammable glue attaching a hemp-like material that made them appear ‘hairy from head to foot’. As they were dancing, a spark from a torch set their highly-flammable costumes alight, so that some of them were burned alive; the king's life was saved through quick action by his aunt, the Duchesse de Berry, who used her dress to smother the flames.

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Miniature of the dance of the Wodewoses, from the Harley Froissart, Netherlands, S. (Bruges), c. 1470 and 1472, Harley MS 4380, f. 1r

Animal Tales is a free exhibition at the British Library until 1 November 2015.

Chantry Westwell

 

21 October 2015

A Kestrel for a Knave

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Set in a coal-mining community in northern England, Ken Loach’s film Kes (1969) portrays the solace a young boy finds when nurturing a kestrel. The film is based on A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), a novel by Barry Hines currently on display in the British Library’s free exhibition Animal Tales. This 20th-century tale of social realism may seem out of place in a blog post about medieval manuscripts. However, it has an unexpected connection to an item in the British Library’s Harley collection and provides the perfect opportunity to explore one of the most frequently written about and depicted human-animal interactions in medieval books.

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Detail of a miniature of different types of hawks, from Brunetto Latini’s Livres dou Tresor, N. France (Picardy), c. 1315-1325, Yates Thompson MS 19, f. 54r

 In the preface of A Kestrel for a Knave, Hines alludes to the source of his title:

‘“An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, a Saker for a Knight, a Merlin for a Lady; a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, a Musket for a Holy water Clerk, a Kestrel for a Knave.”

Selected from the Boke of St. Albans, 1486, and a Harleian manuscript.’ (Kes: A Kestrel for a Knave (London:  Michael Joseph, 1974), p. 7)

The manuscript mentioned is Harley MS 2340, a 15th-century collection of treatises on hawking. It is one of a number of English hunting and hawking manuals created during this period. For an intriguing illuminated example, check out this blog post on the Kerdeston Hawking Book.

The first item in Harley MS 2340 is The Booke of Hawkyng after Prince Edwarde Kyng of Englande (ff. 1r-22v), which includes such useful information as treatments ‘ffor the hawke that hath lost his corage and luste’ (f. 12r). This text was also incorporated into the hawking section of The Boke of St. Albans (1486), the first source mentioned by Hines, which is the earliest printed English treatise on hawking and hunting.  

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The hierarchy of owners and hawks from a collection of treatises on hawking, England, 1st half of the 15th century, Harley MS 2340, f. 50r

 The hierarchy of owners and hawks modernised by Hines is largely the same in both Harley MS 2340 (f. 50r) and the printed Boke of St. Albans (Hands (ed.), ll. 1164-1203). However, the famous line ‘a Kestrel for a Knave’ is only found in the Harley manuscript (‘A kesterell for a knafe’ (f. 50r)), despite The Boke of St. Albans being widely cited as the source of the title.

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Detail of marginal drawing of a man hawking, from the Luttrell Psalter, N. England (Diocese of Lincoln), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 42130, f. 41r

It is unlikely that the hierarchies in the printed book and the Harley manuscript represent actual medieval practices. Indeed, specific types of bird were selected according to the nature of the prey or the location of the hunt. The two principal categories of bird, hawks and falcons, manifest different ways of attacking prey. Whereas falcons dive from a height and are better suited to hunting in open countryside, hawks swoop on their prey from a lower altitude, making them also suitable for woodland hunts.   

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a mounted king, hawking, and a stag feeding, from the 'Smithfield Decretals', Southern France (Toulouse?) and England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 254r

The hierarchy of birds and owner does, however, make clear how hunting with birds was a socially-coded activity. The circumstances surrounding this form of venery distinguished the rich and powerful from the lowly knave. What game keepers did to make a living, the aristocracy enjoyed as sport.

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Portrait of King John with a hawk from a genealogical roll of the kings of England, England (East Anglia?), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 14 B VI, membrane 6

The equation of falconry with nobility is frequently found in manuscript illumination. Aristocratic figures were often portrayed holding hawks as a sign of their status, even the ignominious King John. The time and wealth required to train and keep these often very valuable birds was substantial. As Robin S. Oggins sums up, hawking was ‘an almost perfect example of conspicuous consumption: it was expensive, time-consuming, and useless’ (The Kings and Their Hawks, p. 111).

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 Detail of a bas-de-page scene of three kings, Royal MS 10 E IV,  f. 258v   

Participation in hawking as a leisure activity increased by the 15th century, and so too did the ways of marking social superiority. It not only counted how one hunted, but also how one spoke about it. For example, after the hierarchy in Harley MS 2340, we find a list of the collective nouns for different types of bird, a terminology that distinguished the elite from the uneducated.

In addition to high social status, falconry was also associated with youth, as seen in this roundel from the Ten Ages of Man.

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Detail of a roundel from the section on Youth from the Wheel of the Ten Ages of Man, in the De Lisle Psalter, Arundel MS 83, f. 126v 

Hunting with birds was also an activity open to women. Two of our most famous illuminated manuscripts, the Taymouth Hours  and the Smithfield Decretals, both feature multiple scenes of ladies using hawks to hunt for hares and ducks.

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady observing her hawk fly towards a duck, from the 'Taymouth Hours', England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 73r

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady observing her hawk bringing down a duck, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 73v

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady hawking for a hare, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 74r

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady holding her hawk and a dead duck, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 74v

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two women with hawks catching ducks, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 78r

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a woman hawking, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 79r

Venery and courtship were often connected in medieval literature and art. As well as the sexual connotations of the hunt, birds of prey represented the ultimate luxury accessory for the courtly lover.

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A couple courting and hawking, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 243r

Images of lovers hawking also often accompany the month of May in calendars at the beginning of books of hours, such as the manuscript from our recent caption competition and the Huth Hours discussed in this blog post.

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Calendar roundels for the month of May depicting Adam and Eve and two lovers hawking, Book of Hours, Paris, 1440-1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 5r

As with other symbols of social status or authority, the margins of the page provided the space to parody the prestigious connotations of hawking. Rather than an aristocratic male, here a monkey is depicted wooing a lady. Instead of a bird of prey, an owl rests on his arm, a nocturnal bird laden with negative and ignoble connotations, and even used as bait. The lewd sexual nature of these animals subverts the courtly erotic evoked in the images of lovers above. 

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a courting monkey holding an owl, Stowe MS 17, f. 62r

In other examples, parodic monkey falconers are depicted riding goats instead of horses. This fellow looks like he's having a hoot!

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a monkey holding an owl and riding a goat, Additional MS 42130, f. 38r

You have until 1 November 2015 to explore the fascinating books (and sounds) on display in the British Library’s free Animal Tales exhibition.

 

Further reading

Rachel Hands, ‘Juliana Berners and The Boke of St. Albans’, The Review of English Studies, 18 (1967), 373-86.

Rachel Hands, English Hawking and Hunting in ‘The Boke of St. Albans’. A facsimile edition of sigs. a2–f8 of ‘The Boke of St. Albans’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

Robin S. Oggins, The Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004).

Jean Wirth, Les Marges à drôleries des manuscrits gothiques (Geneva: Droz, 2008).

 

- Hannah Morcos