Medieval manuscripts blog

415 posts categorized "Medieval"

14 January 2013

Alfred the Great: Not a Domestic God, but No Slouch, Either!

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Alfred the Great being scolded by a woman for letting bread burn, from James William Edmund Doyle's 'Alfred', in A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 - A.D. 1485 (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, 1864), via Wikipedia Commons

Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons from 871 to 899, was not just an early example of male incompetence in the kitchen (legend has it that while hiding in the marshes from the Viking invaders he sheltered in the hut of the local purveyor of cupcakes and found himself in big trouble for allowing her cakes to burn when he was left in charge of the oven. His excuse was that he was busy reading!).  Though he was more than a match for the Viking thugs, defeating them convincingly in 878, Alfred had brains as well as brawn, and a softer side, it seems. One of his greatest achievements was a revival of culture and learning in his kingdom; during his reign he organized and was probably involved in translating key religious works into Old English so that they could be understood by his people, whose knowledge of  Latin had declined during almost two hundred years of upheaval and warfare.



Zoomorphic initial (A)'E'(ft) with four heads and interlaced bodies at the beginning of Book III, Chapter I, from Orosius' Historum adversum paganos, England (Winchester?), between c. 892 and c. 925, Additional MS 47967, f. 31v


A British Library manuscript in Old English (Additional MS 47967), contains a translation of the Latin work by Orosius, Historia adversus paganos (History against the pagans). It was written at a time when the Roman Empire was threatened with destruction by pagan armies, a situation which must have seemed familiar to Alfred and the West Saxons. Orosius's aim was to show that although the situation was bad in Christian times, it had been worse before under the pagan gods, and the resulting work is a concise history of the world from Creation to 417 from the Christian viewpoint. Though not a work of great scholarship, it had become a popular source of world history and would have suited Alfred's educational purposes admirably.  The Old English version has been freely adapted from the Latin, with additional contemporary material, including an account of the voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, an important source for the geography of northern and central Europe in the ninth century.  The text states that the Norseman Ohthere delivered this account to King Alfred, his hlaford (lord), indicating a close connection to the Anglo-Saxon court. Orosius was listed by early historians among the translations undertaken by the king himself, but there is no further evidence that it is Alfred's work and the style differs from Alfred's other works, such as the translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care.


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Opening folio with list of chapters, from Orosius' Historum adversum paganos, England (Winchester?), between c. 892 and c. 925, Additional MS 47967, f. 2r


The British Library manuscript is the earliest surviving copy of the Old English work, having been produced between about 892 and 925 (in other words perhaps towards the end of Alfred's reign), perhaps in his scriptorium at Winchester.  It is written in a square Anglo-Saxon minuscule associated with Winchester, and was probably copied by the scribe who wrote the entries in the Parker manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 892 to 933. Distinctive features are the slight horns at the tops of vertical strokes, the letter 'a', formed like a 'u' with the top closed by a slanting stroke, and the tall 'e'.  Five decorated initials mark the beginnings of the first five books.  They contain outline zoomorphic drawings; three are of complete creatures, while two are merely of the animals' heads with interlacing leaves and acanthus. In the miniature below, the three conjoined creatures have tongues, claws, tails and horns whose extremities morph into leafy ornament.  While the foliage is adapted from Carolingian designs, the interlace is of insular origin.


Add 47967 f. 5v c13097-15

Zoomorphic initial 'U'(re) with 3 heads and interlaced bodies at the beginning of Book I, Chapter I, from Orosius' Historum adversum paganos, England (Winchester?), between c. 892 and c. 925, Additional MS 47967, f. 5v


The Orosius text is written in 'early West-Saxon', the dialect found in a very small number of manuscripts associated with King Alfred's literary circle, though it contains certain linguistic features such as the smoothing of ea to e before palatal and velar consonants and a preference for –ade over –ode in forming the past tense, which may indicate Anglian dialectal influence or a later stage of the language.   Nothing further is known of the origins or history of the manuscript before the seventeenth century, when it was catalogued in the library of the duke of Lauderdale.  It was bought by the British Museum in 1953 and is now in the British Library.  Along with the other Old English manuscripts in the Additional collection, it has recently been added to our online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (see here for the entry).

- Chantry Westwell

10 January 2013

Discover Digitised Manuscripts

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While some of our high-grade manuscripts are temporarily unavailable, please take the opportunity to use our Digitised Manuscripts site. We have already uploaded hundreds of manuscripts, digitised in their entirety, including many of our medieval Greek books; some of our scientific manuscripts; and dozens of volumes featured in the British Library's Royal exhibition. Check out some of our greatest medieval books, including one of our most recent acquisitions, the St Cuthbert Gospel. And don't forget to use the deep-zoom facility, which enables users to view the manuscripts as never before!

Cuthbert binding

The late-7th-century St Cuthbert Gospel (Additional MS 89000): note the lack of white gloves!

We are very happy to be able to share our wonderful manuscripts with you -- please pass on the good news, and share them with others.

01 January 2013

A Calendar Page for January 2013

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In an ongoing series on this blog, we have taken a closer look at images from medieval calendars, including the Isabella Breviary (please see this post for more details on calendars in medieval manuscripts) and the Hours of Joanna of Castile (Joanna the Mad).  This year, the featured calendar comes from the 'Golf Book', a mid-sixteenth-century Book of Hours (Additional MS 24098; soon to be featured on Digitised Manuscripts).  In addition to the usual 'labours of the month', the calendar also includes many images of games and sports, and the name 'Golf Book' in fact comes from an early depiction of a game of golf in one of the many bas-de-page miniatures.  Something to look forward to in the months ahead!



Miniature of Boniface of Lausanne, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 1r

The Golf Book is not, in its present state, a complete manuscript.  While it was originally produced as a full Book of Hours – a devotional book containing prayers to be recited at set times – most of the text is now missing.  Only thirty leaves remain from what once would have been hundreds, taken from the most elaborately illuminated parts of the manuscript: the first pages of each of one of the cycles of hours (the Hours of the Virgin), and the calendar.  The full-page miniatures were produced by an important miniature-painter working in sixteenth-century Bruges, Simon Bening (d. 1561), with the assistance of his workshop, and the Golf Book is considered one of his masterpieces.  Nothing is known about the patron of this enigmatic manuscript; illuminators in Bruges worked for buyers all over Europe.  But it is possible that the original owner was Swiss.  One of the surviving pages is a miniature of Boniface of Lausanne, a 13th-century bishop (see above).  He was not canonized until after the medieval period, and his cult in the sixteenth century was primarily a regional one.



Calendar page for January, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 18v

The calendar pages in the Golf Book are spread across two pages, with the first page for each month somewhat unusually reserved for a full-page miniature.  In the foreground of the opening January scene (above) is a man splitting wood for a fire, assisted by a woman close by.  Behind them a man and his wife, who is nursing an infant, can be seen in their home, warming themselves by the fire.  In the snowy background is a church, with bundled-up parishioners exiting.  The bas-de-page scene shows a group of men pulling (with great effort it seems) another man on a sledge.



Calendar page for January, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 19r

This same scene is mirrored on the following folio, which also contains a short listing of saints days for January and a small roundel of a man pouring water from two jugs, for the zodiac sign for Aquarius.


25 December 2012

Happy Christmas!

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The British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section would like to wish you a very happy Christmas, and all the best in the new year!


Detail of a miniature of the Nativity, from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410, Additional MS 18850, f. 65r

K062884 Royal 19 C. vi f. 131r

Detail of a miniature of Greeks making merry (perhaps at a New Year's celebration?), from Xenophon, France, c. 1506, Royal MS 19 C. vi, f. 131r

24 December 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus

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St Nicholas: not always jolly; detail of a miniature of St Nicholas, identifiable by his three bags of gold and bishop's regalia; from Regola della Compagnia di S. Maria della pietà di Firenze, Italy (Florence), 2nd half of the 15th century, Harley MS 3547, f. 1r.

Jolly old St Nick, in his guise as a red-suited traveller through chimneys, is a figure of modern myth and pop culture, and medieval imagery of St Nicholas has very little in common with our modern Santa Claus. The historical Nicholas, about whom very little is known with certainty, was a 4th-century bishop of Myra, a town in Lycia, in modern-day Turkey. He is the patron saint of both Russia and Greece, and was a widely popular saint throughout medieval Europe. His feast day on 6 December has no doubt encouraged the association with Christmas.


Detail of a miniature of St Nicholas; from the Melisende Psalter, Jerusalem, 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 209r.

Setting aside the scanty historical record, it is in the colourful legends surrounding the saint's miracles that manuscript illuminators found their greatest inspiration. The final pages of the stunning Queen Mary Psalter are devoted to images from the life of St Nicholas, including a story of his precocious piety. Asceticism was highly valued in medieval spirituality, and Nicholas adopted such practices from birth. As an infant, he was said to have astonished his parents by fasting and refusing his mother's breast, limiting himself to only two abstemious meals per week. Proof positive he was destined for great things!


Miniature of an infant St Nicholas, refusing his mother's breast; from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 315r.

Perhaps the best-known story has also given rise to his principal identifying attribute, three small bags of gold. Nicholas himself was well-off, coming from a wealthy family. But one of his neighbours, a nobleman fallen on hard times, had three unmarried daughters he could no longer afford to support. The daughters were considering turning to prostitution in order to put food on the table. Nicholas wanted to help the family, and so for each of the three daughters, he crept by the house at night while the family slept and tossed a parcel of gold in the window – the foundational Secret Santa! The poor man was able to use the money as a dowry for the girls, so that they were married and provided for.


Detail of an historiated initial 'M' of St Nicholas passing gold through the window to the poor man and his three daughters; from Wauchier de Denain, Lives of the Saints, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 20 D. vi, f. 144r.

In addition to his generosity, Nicholas was also revered as a patron of children, providing some of the strongest connections between the medieval saint and the modern St Nick. In another famous story, Nicholas performed a miracle to save the life of three boys. The children had been murdered by a wicked butcher, who concealed their bodies by cutting them up and throwing the remains into a tub he used for curing meat. Nicholas not only found them there, he was able to restore the dismembered boys to life, and the image of the bishop standing over the three now-healed children standing up from the tub is a popular subject for illustration.


Detail of a miniature of St Nicholas with the three boys in the tub; from Iacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, translated into French by Jean de Vignay, France (Paris), 1382, Royal MS 19 B. xvii, f. 14r.

Nicole Eddy

22 December 2012

Christmas Presents for Manuscript Lovers

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It's been another hectic year in the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section. We hope that you have enjoyed reading this blog (and continue to do so), and that you derive great pleasure from seeing some of the manuscripts that we look after.

In case you are still chasing last-minute Christmas gifts for manuscript lovers, here is a small selection of items relating to our collections.

Love Letters: 2000 Years of Romance, by Andrea Clarke (British Library, 2011), priced £10.


Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, edited by Scot McKendrick, John Lowden & Kathleen Doyle (British Library, 2011), the catalogue of our hugely successful Royal exhibition in 2011-12, priced £40.


Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths, by Claire Breay (British Library, 2011), priced £7.95.


Beowulf: Treasures in Focus, by Julian Harrison (British Library, 2009), priced £3.99.


21 December 2012

A Royal Gift for Christmas

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Cold, breezy weather, rain and snow, and the onset of darkness at 3pm, all herald that winter has arrived. To brighten up your days, we have recently put online one of the most lavishly illuminated prayerbooks to survive from the Middle Ages, the Book of Hours of John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford.

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The Nativity in the Bedford Hours: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 65r.

Our treat for you to enjoy during these long, dark days was indeed a royal gift for Christmas. On 24 December 1430, Anne of Burgundy, duchess of Bedford, presented what is now known as the Bedford Hours (British Library Additional MS 18850) with her husband’s consent to her nephew, the 8-year-old Henry VI. The newly-crowned king of England was enjoying his Christmas with the ducal couple in their residence at Rouen, awaiting his French coronation in Paris. A page-long memorandum note inserted in the book (below) by the royal physician John Somerset commemorates this event.

Bedford note
Memorandum added to the Bedford Hours: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 256r.

For our medieval ancestors, Christmas was not as obvious an occasion for gift-giving as it is now. By far more popular was the Roman-rooted, festive exchange of presents on New Year’s Day, known in France as etrennes (perhaps from the Roman goddess Strena, whose feast was celebrated on 1 January). At the turn of the 15th century large sums of money were spent on the etrennes, which became, especially in France and Burgundy, a lavish courtly ritual, with princes like Anne’s grandfather, Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, spending on average over 6% of his yearly budget on New Year’s presents. The duchess’s gift may well have emulated this relatively well-established tradition.

The manuscript she offered to Henry was a truly royal gift. Its 38 large miniatures and over 1,200 marginal roundels illustrating its prayers were painted by the best Parisian workshops of the time. The prayerbook was not made with Henry in mind, however. Its royal splendour was a recycled one. The work on the manuscript’s fabulous decoration may have started as early as the 1410s and another royal prince may have been its intended recipient, perhaps the early-deceased dauphin, Louis, duke of Guyenne.

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Portrait of John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford, before St George: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 256v.

John, duke of Bedford, acquired the unfinished manuscript sometime after 1422. Following the deaths of his brother Henry V and the English king’s adoptive father, Charles VI of France, John became Regent of France on behalf of the baby King Henry VI. Soon after, in 1423, the duke married Anne of Burgundy in a powerful political match designed to ensure the stability of English rule in France. Two monumental portraits of the ducal couple in prayer before their patron saints were inserted together with their omnipresent heraldic devices and mottos (above and below), and several other scenes.

18850 f 257v
Portrait of Anne of Burgundy, duchess of Bedford, before St Anne: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 257v.

Among images added to the volume at that time was yet another remainder of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance. The last two leaves of the manuscript tell the story of the heavenly origin of the French royal coat of arms in picture and verse (below). The miniature depicts God sending his angel with a fleur-de-lis banner to the hermit of Joyenval, who then hands it over to Queen Clothilda. The next scene takes place in the royal palace. The queen presents the fleur-de-lis, on a shield, to Clovis, her husband and the first Christian king of France.

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The legend of the Fleur-de-lis: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 288v.

Clothilda like Anne was a Burgundian princess and it is not accidental that she is assisted here by a herald wearing a hat of green, white and black, the livery colours of the dukes of Burgundy, and that the gate to her palace bears the escutcheon of the lion rampant of Flanders. Clothilda’s role in the legend underlines the traditional Burgundian support to the French crown. A similar role was also expected from Anne, the Regent’s consort.

Detail 1Clothilda presenting the Fleur-de-lis arms to Clovis: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 288v.

Detail 2
The arms of Flanders over the palace gate: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 288v.

The legend of the fleurs-de-lis was popular in early-15th-century France. In December 1430, it received a new meaning, directly addressing Henry VI who was about to receive the French crown. A few months later, the legend of Clovis’s miraculous gift was performed as one of the tableaux vivants during Henry VI’s ceremonial entry to Paris. Although it is not certain whether Bedford had his prayerbook enhanced with new images as a wedding gift for his bride, or as a pre-coronation present to his nephew, in December 1430 the ducal Christmas gift was particularly well-suited for the future king of France.

19 December 2012

Can Deer Fly? Rudolph Goes Medieval

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Who will guide my sleigh tonight?: an artist's reconstruction of Cervus rhinorubeus, the elusive red-nosed deer; from (Pseudo-?) Sextus Placitus, Liber medicinae ex animalibus, the Netherlands (Mosan region) or England (?), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 1585, f. 62v.

A series of posts on this blog has highlighted animals in medieval manuscripts, taking a closer look at beavers, weasels, hedgehogs and more.  In honour of the festive season, what could be more appropriate than a red-nosed reindeer?  Rudolph himself may be a product of the 20th century, but some of his distant cousins make frequent appearances in manuscripts, where the stag is both a common heraldic device and a frequent subject in medieval bestiaries.


Detail of a miniature of a stag, drawing a snake out of its burrow with the breath from his nostrils; from a bestiary, England, c. 1200-1210, Royal MS 12 C. xix, f. 23r.

The stag is frequently depicted as the inveterate enemy of the snake.  The deer will aggressively pursue his prey, holding water in his mouth and using it to flood the snake's burrow.  When the serpent is driven out, the stag tramples it underfoot.  In other bestiaries, the stag sucks the snake out of its hole with his breath and eats it.  The viper is a dangerous meal, however, and the snake's venom poisons the deer.  But the stag has a natural defence, mitigating the toxin's effect by drinking large quantities of water.  In either case, the stag represents Christ, overcoming the poisonous devil by the pure and sustaining water of wisdom.  Other Christological imagery is tied up with the yearly shedding of the stag's antlers, which is taken as symbolic of resurrection and renewal of life.


Detail of a miniature of a stag; from Bartholomaeus Minus de Senis, Tractatus de herbis, Italy (Salerno), c. 1280-c. 1310, Egerton MS 747, f. 71r.

Alexander the Great's military reputation fascinated medieval readers, and his conquests in India occasioned many stories about strange people and animals in exotic locales.  He is also frequently depicted as sharing with his tutor Aristotle a passion for natural history, exploring the natural world with an airship carried by griffons and even a proto-submarine.  Alexander can also be counted as a pioneer in the field of biological research, studying deer with an animal tagging catch-and-release program that rivals the methods of modern field researchers.  Alexander ordered several deer to be captured and fitted out with special collars.  A hundred years later, when the animals were recaptured, these collars proved that they were the same individuals – still alive after a whole century!  Bestiary accounts cited this story as proof of the deer's incredibly long lifespan, attributed by the medieval writers to their diet of poisonous snakes, which had the counterintuitive effect of actually renewing youth and good health.


Cheers!: detail of a miniature of a stag, as well as a satyr enjoying a festive libation; from an astronomical text, Germany or Austria, 1491, Arundel MS 299, f. 4v.

With stories like these, and with, moreover, the importance of the stag both as a symbol and as a game animal for the wealthy, it is no surprise that the animals appear frequently in manuscripts – and not just bestiaries or medical books.  Stags could be both decoration and fanciful marginal grotesque.  Above, an astronomical text pairs the stag with a convivial satyr, looking like a holiday party guest, with his drinking cup raised aloft.  The satyr and stag were treated consecutively in the normal bestiary order, and the image here alludes to that tradition.  And finally, below, proof positive that while there is as yet no evidence of a medieval Rudolph, flying reindeer – or at any rate winged stags – are very much attested.  Blitzen, can that be you?


What to my wondering eyes does appear?  Detail of an imaginative marginal grotesque, a winged deer about to take flight; from Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 19v.

Nicole Eddy