Medieval manuscripts blog

525 posts categorized "Medieval"

04 November 2013

Blackburn's 'Worthy Citizen': A Colloquium on the R. E. Hart Collection

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Personification of Death at the beginning of the Office of the Dead, from an Italian Book of Hours, c. 1470-1480, Hart 20966, f. 106v

It is our very great pleasure to invite you - by proxy - to an upcoming colloquium about one of England's 'hidden' rare book and manuscript collections.  Although it is not entirely unknown to scholars, the R. E. Hart collection of manuscripts, incunables, and early printed books (now held by the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery) is rarely utilised by academics; the present curator of the Museum, Vinai Solanki, has welcomed only three such visitors in the past five years.  This is a particular shame as the collection, though small, is spectacular, and contains such gems as the Peckover Psalter (France, c. 1220-40) and the Blackburn Psalter (England, William of Devon workshop, c. 1250-60), as well as a number of significant Books of Hours and early printed books. 

Detail of an historiated initial 'B'(eatus vir) with two scenes of King David, at the beginning of the Psalms, from the Peckover Psalter, France, c. 1220-40, Hart 21117, f. 14v

An exhibition of ten items from the Hart collection will be available from 8 November to 28 November in Goldsmith's Library Reading Room, Senate House, London (see below), and this exhibition will culminate in a one-day colloquium on 23 November at the Institute of English Studies, Senate House; please see the relevant IES page here.  Registration includes refreshments, lunch, and a wine reception at the end of the day, and the first 25 student places are offered free of charge. 

More details about the project can be found at:  We hope to see you there!

Blackburn poster 10.10.13 final

01 November 2013

A Calendar Page for November 2013

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

Hunting takes centre stage in these calendar pages for the month of November.  In the full-page miniature, a nobleman can be seen returning from a stag-hunt; his quarry, a magnificently-antlered animal, is in the foreground, draped across a white horse.  This nobleman is accompanied by two retainers and a group of tired-looking hounds, while in the background, peasants can be seen feeding their chickens and pigs, and preparing their farm buildings for winter.  In the bas-de-page, a group of men are bowling - and, it appears, heatedly disputing a recent shot.  On the following page are the saints' days and feasts for November, alongside a roundel containing a centaur archer for the zodiac sign Sagittarius; below, two men are coursing hounds on yet another hunt.

Calendar page for November with a miniature of a nobleman returning from a hunt, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), Additional MS 24098, f. 28v

Calendar page for November with a bas-de-page scene of men on a hunt, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), Additional MS 24098, f. 29r

, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 27v - See more at:
, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 27v - See more at:

31 October 2013

Dress Up for Halloween, Medieval Style

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If Halloween has once again caught you unprepared, you may, like many of us, be desperately casting your mind about for a suitable get-up for this evening’s revelries.  Have no fear!  The Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section would like to offer the following last-minute costume ideas: 

A medieval fool:  some rags, a stick, a round loaf of bread, and a vacant expression are all that you will need for this particular get-up; see below.

Detail of an historiated initial ‘D’(ixit) of King David and the fool, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 150v

Detail of a miniature of the Fool, with a bauble, loaf and a dog, from Guyart de Moulins’ Bible historiale, France (Paris), 1356-1357, Royal MS 17 E VII, vol. 1, f. 241r

A memento mori:  Nothing could be easier!  Just wear a skeleton costume and carry around a banner reading 'Memento homo quod cinis es et in cinerem reverteris' (Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return) and you will provide an instant moral exemplar for everyone you meet. 

Egerton MS 1070 f. 53r c13671-08
Detail of a full-page miniature of a Memento Mori with a banner reading 'Memento homo quod sinis es et in sinere reverteris', from The Hours of René d’Anjou, France (Paris), c. 1410, Egerton MS 1070, f. 53r

Detail of an historiated initial 'D'(ilexi) with a woman (Duchess Dionora?) with a skull for a face admiring herself in a hand mirror, and a partial scatter border with gems and flowers including the motto ‘Memento homo’, at the beginning of the Office of the Dead, from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino, Italy (Florence or Mantua), c. 1480, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 174r

Vanno Fucci: This unlovely character is featured in Cantos 24 and 25 of Dante’s Inferno.  He stole treasure from the church of St James in the town of Pistoia, and accused an innocent man of the crime, who was then executed unjustly.  For his sins Vanno was condemned to an eternity of torment by the monster Cacus, who will attack him until the day of judgement.  This costume is a particularly easy one as it requires, well, nothing at all (except an angry monster and a willingness to abandon modesty).  Those seeking a slightly less revealing get-up may consider the damned soul being attacked by a serpent on the right, or perhaps, if you have a companion for the Halloween festivities, you might like to dress up as Dante and Virgil and wander around providing a moral commentary on all you observe.

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, from a copy of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia, Italy (Tuscany, possibly Siena), between 1444 and c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 46r

If you are lucky enough to be possessed of a number of fellow Halloween revelers, we have several suggestions for group costumes:

Wodewoses:  you will need a number of hairy suits, some false beards, clubs, and a predilection to dance, but you are guaranteed to be the life of any party (warning: some other guests may attempt to set you on fire, so be wary).

Detail of a miniature of burning costumes of the 'hommes sauvages' during a masked dance in Paris, at the beginning of chapter 32, from  Jean Froissart’s Chroniques, Vol. 4, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1480, Royal MS 18 E II, f. 206r

Harley MS 4380, f. 1r E070011
Detail of the Dance of the Wodewoses, from Jean Froissart’s Chroniques, Vol. 4, part 2, Netherlands (Bruges), between c. 1470 and 1472, Harley MS 4380, f. 1r

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:  this group costume necessitates some horses (or horse substitutes), and a level of agreement about who will be assigned which persona.  For reference, they are as follows:  White Horse – Conquest (sometimes Pestilence), Red Horse – War, Black Horse – Famine, and finally the Pale Horse – Death.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from Beatus of Liébana, Commentary on the Apocalypse (The 'Silos Apocalypse'), Spain (Santo Domingo de Silos), 1091-1109, Add MS 11695, f. 102v

Personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins:  carrying off these get-ups successfully might require a bit more organization, the acquisition of props, and again, suitable mounts, but what could be more fun?

Detail of a miniature of a man with a sword riding a lion, as a personification of Pride (Orgueil), and a woman with a sword, riding a wolf, as a personification of Envy (Envie), in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 159r

Detail of a miniature of a man riding on a donkey, head in hand, across a bridge, as a personification of Idleness (Peresse), in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 162r

Detail of a miniature of a man riding a leopard and stabbing himself with a sword, as a personification of Anger (Ire), in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 165v

Detail of a miniature of a wealthy man riding a wolf, carrying a sword and a chalice and followed by a servant with flagons of wine, as a personification of Gluttony (Gloutenie), in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 168v

Detail of a miniature of a well-dressed woman riding a white goat, carrying arrows and a mirror, as a personification of Lust (Luxure); behind, David spying upon Bathsheba in her bath, in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 172v

Detail of a miniature of a man riding an ape, carrying a chest full of coins, with scales and money on a table behind him, as a personification of Avarice (Auerrice), in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 174r

Please do let us know if you have any other suggestions for us; you can leave a comment below or on Twitter @BLMedieval.  And of course, if you proceed with any of these costume ideas, please please send us pictures!  Happy Halloween!

- Sarah J Biggs

22 October 2013

Lindisfarne Gospels Back in Treasures

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Regular visitors to the British Library may be aware that some of our greatest treasures are often to be found on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery. At the time of writing you can see medieval manuscripts such as Magna Carta, Beowulf and the Luttrell Psalter; and we're delighted to announce that the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels is a new addition to that list.


Canon table in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 14v).

Now on display in London are two pages from the canon tables which preface the Lindisfarne Gospels. This Northumbrian gospel-book, renowned for its lavish carpet-pages and miniatures of the four evangelists, was made at the beginning of the 8th century, according to a colophon added some 250 years later (f. 259r). The canon tables provide readers with a concordance to the Four Gospels, allowing them to locate episodes described by more than one evangelist. Those tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels are notable for the intricate ornamentation of the columns, and for the rich palette of reds and blues, found elsewhere in the decoration of the manuscript.


Detail of the Lindisfarne Gospels canon table (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 15r).

The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library is open seven days a week, and is free to visit. You may also like to know that the Lindisfarne Gospels can be viewed in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

14 October 2013

Anglo-Saxon Medicine

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Do you suffer from asthma, warts or hiccups? Are you fed up with modern medical remedies? If so, we are pleased to tell you that How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies, by Julian Walker, has just been published by the British Library.

Here the author describes for us the state of Anglo-Saxon medicine ...


Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Royal 12 D XVII, ff. 20v-21r).

Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England was a complex mix of charms, the remnants of classical theories and practice, pragmatic folklore, and faith-healing; despite a longstanding reputation for worthlessness, it was perhaps more based on observation than the reliance on astrology and the theory of humours that marked the medicine of the later medieval period. Sometimes the presence of an odd superstition colours the whole, for example in a fairly accurate account of foetal development, which ends by suggesting that a foetus unborn after the 10th month could be fatal to the mother, but mostly on a Monday night. But there are frequent records of practices which are eminently sensible and probably effective.

The oldest surviving medical documents in Old English are from the 9th century, but there is evidence that older texts were not all in Latin. Bald’s Leechbook, Leechbook III and Lacnunga are the most complete texts, all of them in the British Library. Bald’s Leechbook contains some of the best Mediterranean medicine from the 3rd to the 9th centuries, so the learning was by no means isolated. While some of the herbs mentioned in the texts were only available around the Mediterranean, there are directions for the use of materia medica traded from distant areas, frankincense, pepper, silk, ginger and myrrh.

500 years after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, medical practice relied less on the theories of Galen and Hippocrates, but there remained the process of diagnosis by urine-examination and the therapy of balancing the humours by bleeding. Bloodletting was widely used, sometimes causing infection itself, which was treated by herbal poultices; if the bleeding got out of control it could be stopped with horse-dung. A practical side to the control of infection is seen in the injunction not to let blood in summer, when infection would be most likely. There are warnings against taking too much blood, for example ‘if you let too much blood then there is no hope for his life’; presumably this happened on occasion. 


Anglo-Saxon medical recipes corresponding to Book 2, chapter 59 of Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Harley 55, f. 1r).

There is little documentation of surgery, compared to other forms of healing, though the archaeological record indicates some successful trepanation, and later there are some gruesome images of how to treat haemorrhoids. The use of splints for broken limbs is mentioned only twice, texts offering salves and poultices as treatment for fractures. Wounds are to be sewn up with silk, which would gradually dissolve – there is even a description of surgery to correct a harelip. Poultices that had antiseptic effects were applied over sutured wounds, with herbs such as lesser centaury used to help healing.

The use of herbs, individually or together, was of great importance in medicine at this time; though there are difficulties in finding exactly corresponding names in the modern flora, many common native plants found some use in medicine. Imported plant matter was often added, so that a recipe in the Lacnunga for a wen salve includes pepper and ginger as well as radish, chervil, fennel, garlic and sage, in a list of 16 plants. Tested through the centuries, herbal remedies connect the past to the present – Bald’s Leechbook contains a recipe for a nettle-based ointment for muscular pain, similar ointments being commercially available now. Leechbook III contains a large number of remedies using only native ingredients; their names are not Anglicised Latin names, implying that this reflects a largely home-grown practice.

Materials other than herbs were also in use. One recipe, quoted in How to Cure the Plague, recommends eating buck’s liver for night vision loss, and indeed the Vitamin A in liver would help this condition. Unlike in Mediterranean medical practice, the use of animal faeces is recommended only rarely, but spittle, snails, urine, worms, weevils and ants are called for, as well as the less startling pigeon’s blood, lard and ale. On occasions the improbable and the feasible were combined, one recipe for a burn including silver filings, bear’s grease, thyme, rose petals and verbena.


Detail of Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Royal 12 D XVII, f. 20v).

Though learning was largely connected to the church, not all physicians were clerics. Prayers and charms were both used, but possibly the charms were less likely to be adminstered by priests. No doubt many charms worked through assurance and faith. One area that has interested me for a long time is the process of healing by touch at a remove. Bede, writing in the 8th century, tells the story of the death in battle of the Christian king Oswald, whose body was mutilated and set on a stake; people took soil from the place, put it in water, and used this to relieve the sick. While raising questions about the nature of touch and its continuing relevance (the desire to touch celebrities, the fascination of the possessions of the famous), this also provides an exact mirror to germ theory, and a model for both contagion and healing.

In our world of healthcare systems in crisis and general reliance on prescription or non-prescription medicines and a variety of alternative therapies, we are not so far from the charms and prayers, the herbal folklore and amulets of the Anglo-Saxons. Their frequent use of the number nine in healing rituals (charms or prayers are directed to be repeated nine times) may have been a way of marking the period of time for a salve to take effect or a mixture to boil, or may have been a ritual. A shadow of the ritualistic element perhaps survives in directions for antibiotics to be taken ‘three times a day for seven days’.

How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies is available from the British Library Shop, priced £10 (ISBN 9780712357012).

Julian Walker

10 October 2013

British Library Ivories in the Gothic Ivories Project

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Regular readers of our blog will (hopefully) already be using the magnificent website of the Gothic Ivories Project.  This project is based at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and is dedicated to producing a database which aims to include all the readily available information on every surviving Gothic and neo-Gothic ivory, accompanied by at least one image.  The focus of the project is on objects made in Europe dating from c. 1200 - c. 1530 (excluding Embriachi work) and also modern imitations.  The online database now contains data about 3,800 objects from nearly 300 museums around the world; these objects are illustrated by more than 10,000 images.  Ultimately it will be possible to view in one place images and detailed information on about 5,000 pieces. 

Like the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, the Gothic Ivories online resource allows wide-ranging searches on iconography, provenance, and origin.  Now, two British Library manuscripts with ivory plaques inserted into their bindings have been included in the project.

The first is an English ivory, found on the cover of Add MS 10301, an English Legendary from the end of the 14th century.

Add MS 10301 front binding c13120-01
14th century ivory panel of the Crucifixion with Mary and John the Evangelist, with a dragon in the lower border, and two rosettes in the spandrels, Add MS 10301

And the second is a French ivory, now inserted into the binding of Add MS 36615, a 14th century French copy of Le Roman de Godefroy de Bouillon.

Add Ms 36615 front binding B20083-42
14th century ivory fragment, probably originally from a casket with scenes from Arthurian romance, including: Gawain in armour fighting the lion; Lancelot, driven by his love for Guinevere, crossing the sword bridge while spears and darts fall on him from the sky; Gawain, at the Castle of Merveille, sleeping with his own sword on the perilous bed; and the three maidens at the Castle of Merveille, Add MS 36615

The British Library's images have been included in the Gothic Ivories website under our new Public Domain policy.

- Kathleen Doyle and Catherine Yvard

07 October 2013

Fancy Another Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks?

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As promised back in July, we have an updated list of digitised manuscripts to offer you, our loyal readers.  This master list contains details of everything that has so far been uploaded by the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts department, complete with hyperlinks to each individual record on our Digitised Manuscripts site.  You can download the Excel spreadsheet here:   Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 07.10.13

Miniature of King Alfonso V praising our spreadsheet as Bishop Juan de Casanova looks on, from the Prayerbook of Alfonso V of Aragon - a new arrival to our list! produced in Spain (Valencia), 1436-1443, Add MS 28962, f. 14v

We should have another new list for you in 3 months - happy hyperlink clicking!

- Sarah J Biggs

Greek, Harley Science, Royal, and Medieval Manuscripts projects. - See more at:
Greek, Harley Science, Royal, and Medieval Manuscripts projects. - See more at:

03 October 2013

It's a Busy Life in Camelot

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Those who are familiar with Royal MS 14 E iii, the gorgeous Arthurian manuscript which was in our Royal Exhibition last year and is now fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts site, will know that it contains The Estoire del Saint Graal, La Queste del Saint Graal, and Morte Artu, which tell the religious and mystical sections of the legends of King Arthur.

Add MS 10282 f. 91 K147734
Detail of a miniature of Arthur and Merlin at dinner at Pentecost, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 91r

In our collections we have another manuscript made at the same time by the same workshop in northern France, which contains the entire French prose ‘Vulgate Cycle’, as it is often called, and is now divided into 3 volumes: Additional MSS 10292, 10293 and 10294.  Our virtual exhibition on Arthurian manuscripts on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts puts these manuscripts into context.

In addition to the texts in the Royal manuscript, these three volumes also contain the Histoire de Merlin, about Merlin’s early involvement in the story, and the Lancelot du Lac, the original stories of Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table and their chivalric exploits, including the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere.

There are catalogue entries and a selection of images already online in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, but these manuscripts contain over 600 of these colourful, imaginative images, which are soon to be available online, as we are currently preparing them for digitisation. Here is a selection of the delights in store:

Add MS 10282 f. 42v K151434
Detail of a miniature of King Celidoine at sea in a small boat, with a lion, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 41v   Quiz question: who is King Celidoine and why is he having a 'Life of Pi' experience?  (A tip: see H. Oskar Sommer, The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances (Washington, 1909-1916), a 7 volume edition based on the Additional Manuscripts.  It is available online here; happy searching!

Add MS 10283 f. 292v K149438
Detail of a miniature of Lancelot, fully armed, joining knights and ladies in an enchanted dance in a forest, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 292v

Add MS 10283 f. 325v K147523
Detail of a miniature of Lancelot and Guinevere, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 325v

Detail of a miniature of Hector and Gawain meeting in a forest, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10294, f. 29v

Miniatures of a lady being wounded by a sword while she mourns for Gawain, and of King Arthur ont the Wheel of Fortune with a blindfolded Lady Fortuna, northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10294, f. 89r

Watch this space and be the first to know when the full digitisation of these gorgeous manuscripts appear online!  Or follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval.

- Chantry Westwell