Medieval manuscripts blog

439 posts categorized "Medieval"

14 March 2013

A Pauper's Bible Fit for a Prince

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Miniature of Abner visiting King David; miniature of the Adoration of the Magi; the miniature of the Queen of Sheba presenting gifts to Solomon, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 3r


The Biblia pauperum, or 'Paupers' Bible' is a continuation of the tradition of picture Bibles, related to the earlier Bible moralisée (see Harley MS 1526 and Harley MS 1527 for examples)Images, rather than text, are the focus of the Biblia pauperum, and follow a fairly standard layout. At the centre is usually a scene from the New Testament, flanked on either side by an Old Testament scene related to it by typology.  Typology was a brand of Biblical exegesis which was extremely popular in the medieval era, and centered on the belief that people and events in the Old Testament could be viewed as prefiguring or anticipating aspects of the life of Christ.  A common 'type' depicted in this period, for example, was that of Jonah; the three days and nights that Jonah spent in the belly of the whale were believed to prefigure Christ’s burial in the tomb prior to his resurrection (see below).



Miniature of Joseph's brothers deceiving Jacob about what happened to Joseph; miniature of the Deposition of Christ in the tomb; miniature of Jonah being thrown into the sea, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 19r


In the 15th century affordable versions of this text were created, printed and decorated with woodcuts; these were likely used by clergymen to instruct their largely illiterate congregations.  Despite the name, though, most early medieval Biblia pauperum were lavish and expensive productions, well beyond the reach of all but the most wealthy. 



Miniature of David beheading Goliath with a sword; miniature of Christ's descend into Limbo (the Anastasis); miniature of Samson killing the lion, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 21r


Kings MS 5, a recent upload to the Digitised Manuscripts site, is one such manuscript.  Also known as the 'Golden Pauper's Bible', it was produced in the last years of the 14th century, probably in the court of Margaret of Cleves (c 1375-1411).  Margaret was the second wife of Albrecht I, Duke of Bavaria and Count of Holland, and their court in The Hague became a centre for art and scholarship. Kings MS 5 contains 31 scenes from the life of Christ, each accompanied by two Old Testament prefigurations and portraits of apostles and prophets.  Originally each long leaf was folded into three parts, separating the miniatures, so that the manuscript would have looked much like a normal codex, but it was later rebound into its present oblong arrangement.  Kings MS 5 is the only known surviving manuscript in this format, and is also unusual in having fully-painted miniatures rather than pen and wash illustrations.



Miniature of the Judgement of Solomon; miniature of the Last Judgement; miniature of David's order to kill the Amalekite, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 29r


The fully digitized manuscript is available here, and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval.

12 March 2013

Hooray for Public Domain Images!

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Recently we asked our readers how they have been using our public domain images. And we're extremely gratified by the many responses we have received, via Twitter (@blmedieval) and in the comments section at the end of the original blogpost. Here is a selection of your comments:

I do medieval recreation/reenactment, and I like to use the BL images as inspiration for my illuminated/calligraphed texts.

I recently published an article on medieval wood pasture management and was excited to be able to use manuscript images from the BL Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts as part of the analysis. An acknowledgement of the BL's service in providing the image was included in the endnote for each figure. Thanks so much for providing this service to scholars!

Detail of a miniature of men beating down acorns to feed their pigs, on a calendar page for November (London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 81v).

I'm teaching a course on Arthurian literature, art and film from the Middle Ages to the present in October, and am using the image of Arthur from Royal 20 A. II, f. 4 as the course image. It's wonderful to have this readily available representation of Arthur from a medieval manuscript, and hopefully will serve to inspire my students not only in terms of an interest in Arthurian studies, but also manuscript studies too!

I have used your images from the Queen Mary Psalter and your interface to make a point about mediated networks.

Yes (with attribution), on a poster for a Middle English poetry reading.

Thank you, yes! Lady Jane Grey 1  and Lady Jane Grey 2

Text page with coloured initials and line-fillers, and a portion of a message written in the margin by Lady Jane Grey to her father, the Duke of Suffolk: '… youre gracys humble daughter Jane Duddley.' (London, British Library, MS Harley 2342, f. 80r). 

Yep, in my tumblr (but I mentioned it!). By the way, you're doing a very very great job, thanks! 

Just in time for prepping my 13th/14th c Northern Painting class.

Repeatedly in my blogposts, but more importantly (to me, anyway) on the front page of my MA thesis on the Confessor.

I've used bits for my site banner images.

And from one of our regular contributors came this: Well done. This is precisely the sort of thing that the national collection should be doing; enriching the culture of the nation of today by means of images from the public treasury of manuscripts.

Historiated initial (London, British Library, MS Arundel 91, f. 26v).

We've been asked to clarify a couple of issues raised by some of our users. At present, the British Library's policy on the re-use of images in the public domain applies (in the case of our medieval manuscripts) to images downloaded from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and from this blog. Readers who commission or purchase publication-quality images from our Imaging Services should note that they still need permission to reproduce them. Likewise, users should note that the technology behind our Digitised Manuscripts site currently precludes the downloading of images from that resource. This applies to all the manuscripts published as part of our Greek manuscripts, Harley Science and Royal digitisation projects.

Meanwhile, we hope that you continue to find new ways to use our images, so that together we can promote new research and gain new insights into our medieval and early modern heritage. 

09 March 2013

British Library Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies

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The British Library holds an outstanding collection of Classical and Byzantine manuscripts, including highlights such as Codex Alexandrinus, the Theodore Psalter, and the Aratea.

A page from the Theodore Psalter: Constantinople, 1066 (London, British Library, MS Additional 19352, f. 191r).

More than 550 of our Greek manuscripts have already been published in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. By digitising these manuscripts, and by providing enhanced descriptions, we have revolutionised access to this hugely important resource, making them freely available on-line for researchers and interested non-specialists to examine and research.

The British Library wishes to build on these achievements and is therefore currently advertising for the new post of Curator of Classical & Byzantine Studies (3 year, fixed-term contract). The successful candidate will join the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section within the History and Classics Department and will have responsibility for interpreting and actively promoting the Classical & Byzantine collections (both Greek and Latin) for researchers and the public to increase their use and appreciation more widely. They will also project-manage the digitisation and online presentation of the rest of the Library’s Greek manuscripts, so that the entire corpus is freely available to all anywhere in the world.

We are looking to appoint someone with a post-graduate degree, or equivalent, in a relevant subject, and with extensive experience of research in Classical and/or Byzantine Studies. Strong knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin, excellent written and oral communication skills in English, and the ability to promote the collections to a wide range of audiences are essential.

To see a copy of the job profile and information about how to apply, please click here.

Closing date: 7 April 2013. Interviews will be held on 22 April 2013.

A page from Cicero's Aratea, with extracts from Hyginus, Astronomica: France, 1st half of the 9th century (London, British Library, MS Harley 647, f. 12r).

08 March 2013

To Hell and Back: Dante and the Divine Comedy

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It would be impossible to overstate the cultural significance of Dante’s Divina Commedia (the Divine Comedy), so we won’t even try; suffice it to say that the work has had a profound influence on subsequent authors, painters, sculptors, poets, and filmmakers – even modern graffiti artists and video-game designers. The poem tells the story of Dante’s travels through the three realms of the dead: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise).  He is guided through Hell and Purgatory by the Roman poet Virgil, while Beatrice – Dante’s ideal of womanhood – escorts him into Paradise.



Historiated initial ‘N’(el) of Dante and Virgil in a dark wood, with four half-length figures representing Justice, Power, Peace, and Temperance, with the arms of Alfonso V below, at the beginning of the Divina Comedia, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 1r


One of our most recent uploads to the Digitised Manuscripts site is an excellent example of the medieval interpretation of the Comedia.  This manuscript, Yates Thompson MS 36, was produced 1444-c. 1450 in Tuscany, probably in the city of Siena, although the identity of the original patron is still unclear.  Some scholars have argued that it was made for Alfonso V, the king of Aragon, Naples, and Sicily (r. 1416-1458) who was known to have owned the manuscript in the later years of his life.  It was certainly a lavish production, and must have been an expensive undertaking.  The manuscript includes more than 110 miniatures created by two of the preeminent artists of the day; Priamo della Quercia painted the illuminations for the Inferno and Purgatorio, while Giovanni di Paolo produced those in the Paradiso

Below are a number of miniatures from throughout the manuscript; please see here for the fully digitised version.



Detail of a miniature of Dante being rowed by Charon across the River Acheron, from the closing lines of Canto III in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 6r



Detail of a miniature of Virgil addressing the carnal sinners Paolo and Francesca, as Dante swoons in horror, in illustration of Canto V in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 10r



Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil looking into the tomb of Pope Anastasius, and the three tiers of the violent, suicides, and other malefactors, in illustration of Canto XI in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 20r



Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil witnessing Vanno Fucci, the pillager of a church in Pistoia, being attacked by the monster Cacus, who is half-centaur and half-dragon, and Dante and Virgil speaking to three other souls, tormented by snakes and lizards, in illustration of Canto XXV in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 46r



Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil witnessing the gigantic figure of Dis, with his three mouths biting on the sinners Cassius, Judas, and Brutus, and Dante and Virgil emerging from the Inferno, in illustration of Canto XXXIV in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 62v



Detail of a miniature of Dante speaking to two of the Slothful, while Virgil observes the two Slothful, and the Siren, illustrating Canto XVIII/XIX of Dante's Purgatorio, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 98v



Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil with others in the heavenly Procession, from the Paradiso, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 119r



Detail of a 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 rules by the figure of love, from the Paradiso, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 130r



Detail of a miniature of the Resurrection of the dead, from the Paradiso, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 154r



Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before the eagle of Justice, from the Paradiso, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 162r



Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before the Virgin and Child, who are seated within the Celestial Rose, surrounded by various saints, from the Paradiso, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 187r


Don't forget to follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs

06 March 2013

Monsters and Marvels in the Beowulf Manuscript

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Detail of the opening words of Beowulf, beginning 'Hwæt' ('Listen!), from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r.


We recently announced – to great fanfare and excitement – the digitisation of the Beowulf manuscript; the famous Cotton MS Vitellius A XV can be viewed online in its entirety here

Although the manuscript has gone by a number of names over the course of its long history, it is most frequently referred to as the Beowulf manuscript in reference to the renowned poem, beloved of Anglo-Saxonists and English students alike.  But Cotton MS Vitellius A XV is in fact a composite codex, made up of a number of different parts, many in Old English.  Paleographical and codicological evidence suggests that these seemingly disparate bits were intended as part of a coherent whole, with a single scribe writing the bulk of the material.  Besides Beowulf, the manuscript includes some texts from St Augustine, The Homily on St Christopher (now incomplete), the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, the poem Judith, and a number of others as well as the subject of today’s post, The Marvels of the East.



Detail of a miniature of gold-digging ants in the land of Gorgoneus, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101r


The Marvels of the East (sometimes called The Wonders of the East) is a unique and fascinating text which first appeared in the 4th or 5th century.  It is a composite work of long and complicated pedigree, although scholars have been able to track down a number of its sources.  These include the works of Isidore of Seville, St Augustine, Virgil and Pliny, and other texts of ultimately classical origin.



Detail of miniatures of two-headed snakes and deadly horned donkeys, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 99v


Copies of the Marvels were apparently produced throughout Europe, but only three survive, all of Anglo-Saxon origin.  The British Library’s version from the Beowulf manuscript is the oldest, dating from c. 1000; the other two are British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B V (first half of the 11th century) and Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Bodley 614, c. 1120-1140.   All three copies of the Marvels were bound in miscellanies, and all three contain painted or drawn miniatures.  Secular subjects such as these were very rarely illustrated in Anglo-Saxon texts, so the existence of three such copies of the Marvels is no doubt significant.



Miniatures of sheep and rams in the land of Antimolima, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 98v


The text of the Marvels begins without preface or explanation, with a description of an area near Babylon, called Antimolima; we are told of this place that ‘there are rams born there as big as oxen.’*  This opening section is typical of the Marvels.  There is no consistent geographical setting to the wonders described therein; the text jumps from marvels in Africa to those in Asia and back again, suggesting that the author’s interest is the strangeness of these creatures themselves, rather than their surroundings.  A series of disconnected descriptions takes the place of any narrative in the Marvels.  They are short and basic, generally consisting of four pieces of information: the name of the marvel or monstrous race, where it can be found, what it looks like, and finally, what it eats. 



Detail of a miniature of the long-eared panotii, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r

Belief in the existence of monstrous races of human beings was central to medieval thinking, although almost everything about them was open to debate and discussion.  The only characteristic universally agreed upon was that they were always to be found far away, beyond the borders of the world as it was then known.  Almost as common were references to the physical deformities of the monstrous races: there were gigantic races and tiny races, those with extremities misshapen, missing, enlarged, or multiplied, and every variety of human/animal hybrid.  The Marvels provides us with a number of these creatures, many of which are unnamed.  One such is the race that would later be called the panotii (see above), best known for having large ‘ears like fans’, which they were said to wrap themselves in at night to keep warm. The panotii were so timid that they would flee immediately upon seeing a stranger, ‘so swiftly one might think that they flew.’



Detail of a miniature of a blemmya, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 102v

The blemmyae are another monstrous race left unnamed by the author of the Marvels of the East (see above).  We are told that ‘on another island, south of the Brixontes…are born men without heads who have their eyes and mouth in their chests.  They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide.’ This short description does little to hint at the later fame of blemmyae; these creatures were extremely popular subjects for later medieval artists.

Physical deformity in monstrous races was of course their most obvious characteristic, and arguably the most visually striking as well.  But other deviations from the European norms of language, dress, social structure, and dietary habits could be just as powerful.  One final example from the Marvels might be useful here.



Detail of a miniature of a donestre consuming his victim, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 103v


This race of people is called the donestre, ‘who have grown like soothsayers from the head to the navel, and the other part is human.’ Donestre, we are told, are capable of speaking every human language, and use this knowledge to ‘beguile’ any strangers that approach them.  Having disarmed the travellers, the donestre then attack and eat their bodies below the neck (see above), ‘and then sit and weep over the head.’

Be sure to check out the rest of the manuscript for further marvels, and remember that the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is an excellent resource for keyword searching (and now Creative Commons images) - I would particularly recommend having a look for blemmyae there.  As always, please follow us on Twitter @blmedieval.


* Translations of The Marvels of the East are taken from the appendix in Andy Orchard’s excellent Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), pp. 184-203.

- Sarah J Biggs

04 March 2013

British Library Contributes to New Manuscripts Online Site

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The British Library is pleased to be contributing catalogue information from its digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts to an exciting new project, Manuscripts Online, which has just been launched.

John Whethamstede and others, Historical and theological miscellany, St Albans, 15th century (London, British Library, MS Arundel 11, f. 9r, detail).

Manuscripts Online seeks to bring to life early primary sources of medieval Britain, by giving online access to written materials from 1000 to 1500 and allowing users to contribute to the collective body of knowledge on the subject. This freely available literary resource has been developed by the University of Sheffield’s Humanities Research Institute (HRI) and has been funded by Jisc, an organisation aiming to make the United Kingdom the most digitally advanced education and research nation in the world.

Michael Pidd, Project Lead and Digital Manager at the HRI, explains the rationale behind the project: "The crowd sourcing aspect of Manuscripts Online gives people an opportunity to share their understanding of the manuscripts so that they can learn from one another. It allows collaboration in a way that hasn’t been possible in the past and we hope it will build up a central geographical view of people’s interpretation of the information which can be used by others in the future."

Users are able to search the resources by keyword, but also by specific keyword types, such as person and place name, date and language. For example, if you search the word "York", and include all possible variations in its spelling, it will produce around 4,000 results and tell you how this word is spelled and used in medieval records.

Other primary resources in Manuscripts Online include:

  • Middle English Grammar Project – the Middle English Grammar Corpus (MEG-C); Middle English texts transcribed from manuscript or facsimile reproduction
  • Late Medieval English Scribes – catalogue of all scribal hands in the manuscripts of the English writings of five major Middle English authors
  • Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership – electronic text editions of early printed books
  • The Taxatio – detailed records of the assessment of English and Welsh ecclesiastical wealth undertaken in 1291-1292
  • The National Archives – descriptive catalogues for all documents dating between 1000 and 1500 from collections such as the State Papers, records of the Admiralty, Chancery and Exchequer, the Court of the King’s Bench and Petitions and Seals
  • TEAMS Middle English Texts – more than 400 annotated editions of key literary works for teaching and research

01 March 2013

A Calendar Page for March 2013

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



Calendar page for March, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 20v


The full-page miniature at the opening of the calendar pages for March (above) shows the labours associated with the beginning of the agricultural season.  In the foreground, a man pauses from clearing a garden to tip his hat to two richly-dressed ladies, one of whom is carrying a small dog.  Outside of the garden, men are at work trimming vines, while a horseman crosses a moat into a small town in the background.  In the bas-de-page, a group of men are playing with rattles in what appears to be a far more wintry landscape than that above.  On the following folio (below) are the saints' days for March, along with a roundel containing a small ram, for the zodiac sign Aries.  At the bottom of the page a man is ploughing behind a team of horses, while another man on the right (partially trimmed away) is clearing the field of branches.



Calendar page for March, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 21r

27 February 2013

All That Glisters Is Not Gold: The Harley Golden Gospels

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In all the hullabaloo about our most recent upload to Digitised Manuscripts, you may have missed the news that the sumptuous Harley Golden Gospels (Harley MS 2788) is now available online. This early-9th-century gospelbook is written entirely in gold ink (not real gold, alas), and each text-page is enclosed in a frame of gold, silver and other colours, often with interlace or animal patterns.

Miniature of St John in the Harley Golden Gospels, Germany (Aachen?), 1st quarter of the 9th century: London, British Library, MS Harley 2788, f. 161v.

The Harley Golden Gospels has often been associated with the court of Charles the Great (Charlemagne), who died in 814. Certainly, it would have required a wealthy patron to have provided for its production. There is an elaborate title-page (f. 12v), and full-page miniatures of each of the evangelists (Matthew, f. 13v; Mark, f. 71v; Luke, f. 108v; John, f. 161v), each facing an incipit page. It's no exaggeration to state that, for many of our curators, this is their favourite item in all of the British Library's collections. We hope that you enjoy looking at it too! What's your favourite page?

A page from the canon tables in the Harley Golden Gospels, Germany (Aachen?), 1st quarter of the 9th century: London, British Library, MS Harley 2788, f. 11v.

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A typical text-page in the Harley Golden Gospels, Germany (Aachen?), 1st quarter of the 9th century: London, British Library, MS Harley 2788, f. 197v.