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420 posts categorized "Medieval"

20 July 2014

Enter the Dragon: Happy St Margaret's Day!

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Today is the feast day of St Margaret of Antioch (not to be confused with St Margaret of Scotland or Hungary).  Although St Margaret was declared to be apocryphal in the year 494 by no less an authority than Pope Gelasius, and many people over many years have entertained doubts about her authenticity, she is still widely venerated as a saint today.

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Miniature of St Margaret, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 234v

St Margaret was particularly popular in the medieval period, and her cult and image spread widely.  No doubt this was aided by her inclusion in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend.  In this text, Margaret was said to have been born in Antioch in the closing years of the 3rd century.  Although she was the daughter of a pagan priest, Margaret converted to Christianity and vowed eternal chastity.  She moved to an area in what is now Turkey with her godmother, and there caught the attention of a Roman prefect or governor.  In a turn of events that echoes many of the other early female martyrs, the prefect proposed marriage to her, but Margaret chose to remain true to her vow and to Christianity. 

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 255v G70033-99a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Margaret being brought before the Roman prefect, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London?), 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 255v

Harley MS 5347 f. 26v c12046-06
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret in prison being visited by her godmother, from Tectino’s Life of St Margaret of Antioch in verse, northern Italy, first half of the 15th century, Harley MS 5347, f. 26v

In retaliation, the prefect ordered her to be tortured and thrown into prison.  Whilst there, according to the legend, she was visited by Satan in the shape of a dragon.  Resisting temptation yet again, Margaret was swallowed by the dragon, but emerged from his side unscathed and carrying a cross after praying for aid.  Giving up on the idea of dragon-based revenge, her captors eventually beheaded her.

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 256r G70032-65a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Margaret emerging from the belly of the dragon, and being beheaded, from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 256r

St Margaret is one of the most instantly recognisable saints in the medieval pantheon, because she is so frequently depicted emerging from the belly of a dragon (for more on the latter subject, see our post The Anatomy of a Dragon).  Her suffrage was widely included in medieval manuscripts, as were miniatures of her torture and death.  Below is a selection of some of our favourite images of St Margaret from throughout our collections; please do let us know if we’ve left out any of your favourites.  As always, you can reach us in the comments below, or on Twitter @BLMedieval.

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Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 406v

Egerton MS 2019 f. 216r K051116 copy
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1440 – c. 1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 216r

Harley MS 3000 f. 42v K051118
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret in prison, emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), and Psalter, southern Netherlands, c. 1460 – c. 1470, Harley MS 3000, f. 42v

Harley MS 2974 f. 165v c6725-03
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours, France (Troyes?), c. 1460 – c. 1470, Harley MS 2974, f. 165v

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Margaret being thrown into prison, and escaping from the belly of the dragon, from the Taymouth Hours, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 86v

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Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the fire-breathing dragon, from the Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v

Besides providing us with numerous dragon images St Margaret is the patron saint of pregnancy and expectant mothers (something that has particular relevance to me at the moment!).  Happy St Margaret’s Day, everyone!

-  Sarah J Biggs 

17 July 2014

This Year's Summer Blockbuster: A Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks!

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Here we go again with the giant list of digitised manuscript hyperlinks, friends!  For our new readers, this is a regular feature of the blog; on a quarterly basis we upload a massive spreadsheet for your persusal.  As always, this list contains all of the manuscripts to date that have been uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site by those of us in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section.  This does not include the work of our colleagues in other departments, of course - but we're pleased that this quarter's list does include the newest Greek manuscripts digitised as part of our ongoing project on these glorious texts.  And a few more, including the one below.  Happy clicking!  Here is the list: Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 17.07.13

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Decorated initial 'M' and historiated initial 'B'(eatus) with scenes from the life of King David, from a Psalter and Canticles (Rahlfs 1062), with parallel Latin text, Add MS 47674, f. 2r

- Sarah J Biggs

15 July 2014

Set in Stone

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One of the most famous images from our collection is this one from Egerton MS 3028. It is the earliest picture we have of Stonehenge and is one of close to 100 coloured pen drawings accompanying an abridged version in verse of Wace’s Roman de Brut, copied in Britain between 1338 and 1340. This manuscript is currently on display at the Stonehenge Visitors’ Centre, as part of the temporary Set in Stone exhibition.

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Stonehenge, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

Wace’s version of the legend, adapted from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, tells of King Aurelius, son of Constantine, who, having conquered the usurpers Vortigern and Hengist, decides to erect a monument to the British nobles murdered by the Saxons.  Merlin suggests using huge stones that were brought by a giant from Africa to create a stone circle known as the Ring of Killaraus in Ireland.  When the King is incredulous at this suggestion, saying that the stones are much too heavy to transport so far, Merlin replies that ‘wit is more than strength’.  With the help of his magic powers, the stones are indeed brought back to the Salisbury plain by Uther and an army of men, who defeat the Irish on the way. The image above shows either a giant helping Merlin to erect Stonehenge or helping to take down the stones from the Giant’s ring to be carted off to England.  Of course, modern scientific research has shown that Stonehenge was built from two types of rock that must have been transported from far away: the sarsen stones, a type of sandstone, are believed to come from Marlborough Downs, 20 miles away and the smaller bluestones (even they weigh 25-30 tons) are believed to be from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales, 250km away! There have been many hypotheses as to how they were transported, but none, it could be argued, are any more plausible than Wace’s account involving Merlin and the giant.

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The Shipwreck of St Ursula and the 11 000 virgins, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 10r

The Stonehenge image is one of many delights in Egerton MS 3028.  The shipwreck of the 11000 virgins is another.  The story goes that the mainland Bretons sent an army across the channel to help the British fight off the Saxons, and in return they were sent a shipload of young maidens, descendants of Brutus, to be their wives.  Unfortunately the ship was blown off course and the ladies fell into the hands of the pagans of Cologne, who slayed them all, including St Ursula, when they refused to surrender their virginity.  In some versions of the legend, they die in a shipwreck, as we see here.  St Ursula was a popular saint and the story of the 11000 martyred virgins captured the popular imagination for centuries.  Christopher Columbus named the Virgin Islands after them, Cologne has the Basilica of St Ursula and even London may have had a memorial, the Church of St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, on the site of what is now the ‘Gherkin’ in St Mary Axe street in London, where it was said that one of the axes used by the murderous Saxons was kept.

On more familiar territory, here is the coronation of King Arthur, who sports a magnificent red beard.

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King Arthur crowned by bishops, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 37r

Wace, a cleric from Jersey, composed his French version of the Historia for Henry II, who was keen to portray himself as a worthy successor to King Arthur.  Wace cleverly focused on parts of the story which served the king’s aims, giving it a more factual bent and introducing new details such as the Round Table, which became a symbol of the English court.  The name Brut refers to Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of Britain, and Arthur is portrayed as one of a long line of kings including Henry.

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The Death of King Arthur, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 53r

In this manuscript a section has been added updating the chronicle to the reign of Edward III, who established the Order of the Knights of the Garter, an institution with its foundation in the Arthurian legends.

Real historical events are chronicled in the continuation from ff. 56-63, including the reign of Henry I, who is described as the king who made just laws (‘fist fair[e] les bones leis’).

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The Coronation of Henry I, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 60r

The final part of the manuscript contains two romances from the cycle of Charlemagne: Fierabras, and its ‘prequel’, the Destruction of Rome.  Each one is preceded by a full-page image of one of the heroes :

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Fierebras , England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028,  f. 63v

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Charlemagne, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 83v

Once again, pen drawings are inserted in the text, and this one of a trebuchet is from the story of Roland. Note the two fearful knights peeping over the battlements.

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Attacking a tower with a trebuchet, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 106r

It has been suggested that this manuscript may have been produced in the Gloucester area or South Wales, far from the centres of London and East Anglia, where a more sophisticated  style of illumination was common in the mid-14th century.  Though lacking refinement of technique, the artist of Egerton MS 3028 uses gesture and facial expression to bring out the full drama of the events portrayed.   This image of Lucifer is a wonderful example:

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Lucifer is cast into the fire, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 101r

For more images (105 in total), see the entry for Egerton MS 3028 in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Egerton MS 3028 will shortly be fully digitised and available on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Chantry Westwell

11 July 2014

Benedict Rules

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There is simply no earthly honour greater than a British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog post in your memory.  So it is with all due reverence – and a selection of manuscripts from our collections – that we observe the feast day of Benedict of Nursia, saint and progenitor of the first monastic order. 

Egerton MS 1070, f. 89r
Detail of an historiated initial depicting St Benedict, from the Hours of René of Anjou, France (Paris), c. 1410,
Egerton MS 1070, f. 89r

Born c. 480 in Nursia, Benedict was educated in Rome but abandoned his studies in order to pursue a spiritual life.  After living variously as a hermit or with other religious recluses, and narrowly escaping being murdered by a local priest in Subiaco, he founded Monte Cassino with his followers and there died, tradition has it, on 21st March 543.  11th July marks the translation of his relics to the abbey of Fleury (those of his sister, the wonderfully named Scholastica, were taken at the same time to Le Mans). 

Burney MS 319, f. 22r
Detail of an historiated initial depicting St Benedict, from the opening of the second book of Gregory the Great’s ‘Dialogues’, Italy (?Bologna), 1st half of the 14th century,
Burney MS 319, f. 22

Scant details of Benedict’s life survive.  The main source is the second book of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great, which recounts mainly miraculous events intended to edify and inspire rather than specific details suited to historical biography. 

Benedict’s principal literary legacy was his Rule, in which he set forth the practical and spiritual guidelines by which communities of monks ought to live.  Composed c. 526, it comprises 73 chapters, covering such diverse matters as the qualifications required of an abbot of a Benedictine monastery, the twelve ways in which a monk can seek humility, how a monk should pray, read and eat and behave towards his brothers, a scale of punishments of increasing severity for misdemeanours, and the reception and treatment of guests.  A chapter of the Rule was read aloud to the monks at their daily convocation: hence ‘chapter meetings’, and the ‘chapter house’ in which they took place.

Harley MS 5431, f. 7r
Opening of the Prologue, with zoomorphic initials and coloured display capitals, from the Rule of St Benedict, England (Canterbury), c. 1000,
Harley MS 5431, f. 7r

The Rule survives in three main textual versions – ‘pure’, ‘interpolated’ and ‘received/mixed’.  The British Library possesses the oldest surviving copy of the ‘received’ recension, shown above: it dates from c. 1000 and the presence of a fourteenth-century pressmark suggests that it was written and illuminated at St Augustine’s, Canterbury.  The unusually narrow format indicates that the manuscript may have been made to fit ivory covers recycled from an older book.

Harley MS 948, f. 24v
Chapters 38 and 39 from the Rule of St Benedict, with coloured initials and rubrics, England, 2nd half of the 12th century,
Harley MS 948, f. 24v

Since the Rule was an essential text for the monastic life, it was copied and circulated very widely, and the British Library possesses numerous copies.  The above example is taken from Harley MS 948, and contains Chapters 38 and 39 (mislabelled as 39 and 40): the first dealing with the care of elderly brethren and child oblates, the second with the duties of the monk appointed each week to read to brothers in the refectory while they ate in silence.  Instructions to the rubricator can still be seen at the foot of the page.  Old English translations of the Rule are found in two Cotton manuscripts (Titus A IV, Faustina A X part B) and there is a Latin-Middle English bilingual version in another (Claudius D III).

Arundel MS 155, 133r
Full-page miniature of St Benedict, ?Eadwig Basan and the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, from the Eadui/Arundel Psalter, England (Canterbury), 1012x1023, Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

As one of the major saints of the medieval Christian church, St Benedict was frequently depicted in liturgical or devotional texts, such as this Psalter from Christ Church, Canterbury.  It was produced a little later than the Rule from neighbouring St Augustine’s, and was written by one of the priory’s monks, Eadwig Basan.  The full-page miniature of St Benedict – at first glance apparently incomplete – recalls that of St Aethelwold in his eponymous Benedictional (Add MS 49598, 963x984).  Fully illuminated, the enthroned figure of St Benedict on the left sits in stark contrast to the more simply tinted figures of monks on the right – as in the Benedictional, likely a deliberate artistic decision that privileges the founder of a monastic order beside whom its followers at Canterbury are metaphorically and visually pale imitations.  Only one of them is fully coloured: a figure, perhaps Eadwig himself, dressed in dull brown monastic robes and girded with a ‘belt of humility’ (zona humilitatis), and kneeling in adoration at St Benedict’s feet.  St Benedict, described in his nimbus as ‘father and leader of monks’ (pater monachorum et dux), is bestowing upon the Christ Church monks a copy of his Rule, the opening words of which are clearly visible in the open book.

Cuttings from late medieval Italian liturgical manuscripts have been attracting quite a bit of interest among followers of this blog recently, so we conclude with two especially fine historiated initials from Benedict’s native country.

Add MS 18196, f. 68r
Historiated initial depicting St Benedict in colours and gold, cut from a choirbook, Italy (Lombardy), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 18196, f. 68r

Add MS 39636, f. 13r
Historiated initial depicting St Benedict in colours and gold, with a hedgehog, cut from a gradual, Italy (Lombardy), 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 39636, f. 13r

 - James Freeman

10 July 2014

Thirty-three Greek Biblical manuscripts added to Digitised Manuscripts

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The third phase of the British Library's Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project is now well underway. So far, the following items, all Greek biblical items, have been added to Digitised Manuscripts. We will continue to update the blog with new additions over the course of the year, and will also look at some individual manuscripts in more detail in later posts. We are extremely grateful to the foundations and individuals who have funded this project, especially the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the A. G. Leventis Foundation, Sam Fogg, the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation and the Thriplow Charitable Trust.

Add MS 24112, Four Gospels in Greek (Gregory-Aland 694; Scrivener evan. 598; von Soden ε 502), written throughout with space for a Latin translation, which has been added for a small number of verses. 15th century, possibly Italy.

Add MS 24373, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 695; Scrivener evan. 599; von Soden ε 327), with illuminated Evangelist portraits. 13th century. Also online is an old 19th-century binding for this manuscript.

Add MS 24374, Fragments from a Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic notation (Gregory-Aland l 325; Scrivener evst. 273). 13th century.

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Add MS 24376, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 696; Scrivener evan. 600; von Soden ε 328), with illuminated Evangelist portraits (St Mark illustrated above). 14th century (illuminations added in the 16th century), Constantinople.

Add MS 24377, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 326; Scrivener evst. 274), with ekphonetic notation, imperfect. 2nd half of the 12th century, possibly from the Monastery of Patir in southern Italy.

Add MS 24378, Menaion for September, October, November, December, January and February (Gregory-Aland l 927; Scrivener evst. 275). 13th/14th century.

Add MS 24379, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 327; Scrivener evst. 276), imperfect. 14th century.

Add MS 24380, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 328; Scrivener evst. 277), with ekphonetic notation, imperfect. 14th century.

Add MS 27860, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 329; Scrivener evst. 278), imperfect at the beginning, with marginal decorations thruoghout. Late 10th/early 11th century, Southern Italy (possibly Capua). Also online is an old 17th-century binding for this manuscript.

Add MS 27861, Gospels (Gregory-Aland e 698; Scrivener evan 602; von Soden ε 436), imperfect (lacking Matthew). 14th century.

Add MS 28815, New Testament, imperfect (Gregory-Aland 699; Scrivener evst. 603; von Soden δ 104), with Evangelist portraits and a silver-gilt plated cover. Mid-10th century, Constantinople. The subject of a recent blog post along with Egerton 3145.

Add MS 28816, New Testament, from Acts onwards (Gregory-Aland 203; Scrivener act. 232; von Soden α 203), with Euthalian apparatus, and other works. Written between 1108 and 1111 by the monk Andreas in March 1111, in the cell of the monk Meletius in the monastery of the Saviour.

Add MS 28818, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 331; Scrivener evst. 280). 1272, written by the monk Metaxares.

Add MS 29713, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 332; Scrivener evst. 62), imperfect at the beginning. 14th century.

Add MS 31208, Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic notation (Gregory-Aland l 333; Scrivener evst *281), imperfect. 13th century, possibly Constantinople.

Add MS 31920, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 335; Scrivener evst 283), imperfect and mutilated. 12th century, South Italy (possibly Reggio).

Add MS 32051, Lectionary of the Acts and Epistles, imperfect, with ekphonetic notation (Gregory-Aland l 169; Scrivener apost. 52). 13th century.

Add MS 32341, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 494; Scrivener evan. 325; von Soden ε 437), imperfect. 14th century.

Add MS 33214, New Testament: Acts and Epistles (Gregory-Aland 1765; von Soden α 486). 14th century.

Add MS 33277, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 892; von Soden ε 1016; Scrivener evan. 892). 9th century, with replacement leaves added in the 13th and 16th centuries.

Add MS 34108, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 1280; Scrivener evan. 322; von Soden ε 1319). 12th century, with some replacement leaves added in the 15th century.

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Add MS 34602, Fragments from two Psalters (Rahlfs-Fraenkel 2017, 1217) (illustrated above). 7th century and 10th century, Egypt.

Add MS 36751, Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic neumes, called ἐκλογάδι(ον) (Gregory-Aland l 1491). Completed in 1008 at the Holy Monastery of Iviron, Mount Athos, by the scribe Theophanes.

Add MS 36752, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 2280). 12th century.

Add MS 37005, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 1493). 11th century.

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Add MS 37006, Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic neumes (Gregory-Aland l 1494 [=l 460]). 12th century, with late 13th-century replacements, including a full-page miniature of Christ and a figure identified as Andronicus II Palaeologus (Byzantine emperor 1282-1328) (illustrated above).

Add MS 38538, New Testament, Acts and Epistles (Gregory-Aland 2484), with Euthalian apparatus. Written by the scribe John in 1312

Add MS 39589, Psalter (Rahlfs 1092) with introduction and commentary based on that of Euthymius Zigabenus (PG 128), attributed in the manuscript to Nicephorus Blemmydes, imperfect, with ornamental headpieces and the remains of a miniature of the Psalmist. 2nd half of the 12th century.

Add MS 39590, New Testament, without the book of Revelation (Gregory-Aland 547; Scrivener evan. 534; von Soden δ 157). 11th century.

Add MS 39593, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 550; Scrivener evan. 537; von Soden ε 250), with prefaces taken from the commentary of Theophylact, and synaxaria. 12th century.

Add MS 39612, Revelation (Gregory-Aland 2041; Scrivener apoc. 96; von Soden α1475). The quire-numbers on ff 1v and 10v show the manuscript formed part of a larger volume, possibly Athos, Karakallou 121 (268) (Gregory-Aland 1040). 14th century, possibly Mount Athos.

Add MS 39623, Fragments from a Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 1742). Late 14th century, possibly Mount Athos.

Egerton MS 3145, Epistles and Revelation (Gregory-Aland 699; Scrivener paul. 266; von Soden δ 104), concluding portion of the manuscript of the entire New Testament of which Add. MS 28815 is the earlier portion. Mid-10th century, Constantinople. Also online is an old (18th century?) binding for this manuscript.

- Cillian O'Hogan

08 July 2014

Up Close and Personal with the Holy Grail

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A picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes the impact of the thousand words themselves can also be stunning, even without the picture. 

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Space was left for a half-page illustration on the first page of Merlin, but we can only guess what might have been planned, since the picture was never added; from Merlin, England, 1300-1325, Add MS 32125, f. 206r

One of my favorite British Library manuscripts has recently been made available on the Digitised Manuscripts website.  This book (Add MS 32125, which includes copies of the monumental Arthurian romances The History of the Holy Grail and Merlin) is not embellished with gold leaf or lavishly painted illustrations, but it remains a jewel nonetheless.  Digital photography, meanwhile, allows us a unique aesthetic experience of the book.

F200vcorrection
Two corrections do not mar the beauty of the text: on the second line, a word is crossed out and further cancelled by the three dots written below, while on the third line the erroneous text was written-over, after being physically scraped off with a knife (literally “rasored out,” or “erased”); from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 200v

The manuscript is not a large one – less than ten inches by seven – and such a close-up view gives a perspective on the page that would be impossible in person.  We can see the richness of the colors of the ink and parchment (far from simple black on white), and their texture as well, as the letters almost seem to have a three-dimensional quality sitting on the page: the text almost glows.  And the beauty of the letters is no accident.  ‘Gothic’ handwriting, of which this book is an extremely legible example, sometimes even sacrificed clarity to aesthetic concerns, emphasizing the regularity of letters’ vertical lines at the expense of making those letters easily distinguishable from one another.

F82r
Detail of a pointing hand drawing attention to a moment of textual interest, where a fifteenth-century reader has helpfully recopied his predecessor’s fainter note, still slightly visible underneath; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 82r

This book is not a favorite of mine simply because of its visual appeal, however.  It also offers a highly unusual opportunity to enjoy the dialogue between the text of two of the Middle Ages most important Arthurian romances, and their medieval reading audience.  Often, romances from the so-called ‘Vulgate Cycle’ (see, for example, Royal MS 14 E III and Royal MS 20 D IV are deluxe productions, fit for a king and kept in pristine condition by their royal owners (for more on these manuscripts, see our posts Lancelot and the Quest for the Holy Grail, and Arthurian Manuscripts in the British Library).  This partial copy, however, is on a more modest scale, and must have seemed more approachable to its fifteenth-century readers, who have not hesitated to write notes in the margin or sketch in a tempting blank space.

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Drawings of trees added by a medieval reader; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 205v

Even better, these marks offer clues about the way medieval readers understood the romances they enjoyed.  The twisted trees drawn at the end of the Grail story are not just distracted doodles or spooky blasted oaks.  They are literally ‘family trees’, inspired by the closing words of the text itself: ‘And so now’, the author writes, ‘the story is silent about all the lineages which have come from Celidoine’, founding father of a hereditary line culminating in the Grail knights Lancelot and Galahad, ‘and returns to another ‘branch,’ which is called The History of Merlin’, the story beginning on the following page.

F191r
Detail of one of this manuscript’s several inhabited initials, ‘Ore dit li contes’, ‘Now the story says...’; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 191r

Above, a more professional version proves that this medieval reader was correct in being so struck by the text’s ‘branches’.  A passage on the lineage of Sir Gawain is introduced by an inhabited initial that recalls traditional depictions of a fertile family tree sprouting from the genitals of a sleeping ancestor – but here the foliage sprouts not from the patriarch’s groin, but from his mouth, since the branching of the family-tree is partially conflated with the branching of the story itself.

F127r
Detail of a marginal grotesque tooting his own horn – surely with excitement at his new digital form!; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 127r

 

-          Nicole Eddy

01 July 2014

A Calendar Page for July 2014

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For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

The aristocratic pleasures of April and May have been left far behind in these pages for the month of July.  Set amongst a riot of red flowers (perhaps characteristic of this month) is a roundel in which two peasants are kneeling and harvesting the wheat crop.  Behind them is a peasant’s hut and what may be a cathedral in the background, while overhead, lightning strikes as a summer storm rolls in.   On the next folio, beneath the continuation of saints’ days for June, is a roundel containing a bushy-tailed lion, for the zodiac sign Leo, within a frame of similarly-threatening clouds.  Below him is a shepherd, standing in a rather downcast manner among his flock (he is not as unlucky as our April shepherd, however), which his dog relaxes in the foreground.

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Calendar page for July, with a roundel miniature of people working in the fields, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 7v

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Calendar page for July, with a roundel miniature of a shepherd with his flock, with the zodiac sign Leo, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 8r

- Sarah J Biggs

28 June 2014

Art and Alchemy

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Attention all budding alchemists!  Four of the British Library’s ‘Ripley Scrolls’ (Add MS 5025) are the latest additions to our Digitised Manuscripts website. They are currently on loan to the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf as part of an exhibition on ‘Art and Alchemy: The Mystery of Transformation’ until 10 August, starring alongside works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens and many others.

Add_ms_5025_f002dr
Detail of a man (?George Ripley) in rustic dress, bearing a staff with a horse’s hoof, from the Ripley Scrolls, late 16th/early 17th century,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

Based on The Compound of Alchemy of George Ripley (d. c. 1490) and other pseudo-scientific texts, these scrolls are intriguing, bizarre and perplexing in equal measure.  They date from around the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the seventeenth century, however their origins are unknown.  An inscription on the second scroll records that ‘This long Rolle was Dra[ur]ne for me in Cullers at Lubeck in Germany  Anno 1588’ – however, two other scrolls bear a similar note, so neither the date nor the location may be established with any certainty.

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Detail of a hermetic illustrating stages in the alchemical process and the revelation of alchemical wisdom,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

The scrolls illustrate stages in the alchemical process of preparing the philosopher’s stone, which was needed to turn base metals into gold.  The scrolls give visual form to the furnaces, flasks and other paraphernalia its practitioners were supposed to use.  They also contain emblematic imagery whose meaning remains obscure to scholars as well as more familiar symbols, such as the zodiac.

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Detail of a zodiac diagram enclosing two dragons, a sun and a moon,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

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Detail of an alchemist, probably Hermes Trismegistus, holding a hermetic flask,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

The large figure at the top of the second, third and fourth scrolls probably represents Hermes Trismegistus, the ancient and likely mythical author of hermetic texts that later formed the basis of alchemical experimentation in the medieval and early modern periods. Alchemists (often holding flasks or overseeing experiments) are depicted throughout the scrolls, alongside symbolic figures of unknown significance. Labels on some of these figures suggest they represent the elements that alchemists sought to transpose during their experiments.

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Detail of alchemists holding flasks,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

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Detail of symbolic men and a woman surrounded by flasks, within an enclosure decorated with a dragon vomiting a frog,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

Alongside them is an array of fantastical and grotesque anthropomorphic creatures: a woman with the tail of a dragon, a Bird of Hermes (a bird with the head and torso of a human), and a winged dragon with female features (perhaps representing Satan). There are also real and mythical creatures worthy of any medieval bestiary: toads and frogs, dragons aplenty, lions, and a cockatrice.

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Detail of a Bird of Hermes,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

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Detail of a dragon with a cockatrice perched on its head,
Add MS 5025, f. 1r.

George Ripley was an Augustinian canon of Bridlington. He claimed to have studied at the University of Louvain, and there is evidence to indicate connections with Edward IV beyond Ripley’s dedication of The Compound to the king. Another British Library manuscript, Cotton MS Vitellius E X, contains a drawing of Ripley’s tomb at Bridlington, upon which alchemical symbols feature prominently, indicating the integration of alchemy with medieval Christianity.

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Detail of an alchemical distillation furnace,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

Seventeen other Ripley scrolls are known to survive, scattered across institutional collections in Britain and the United States. Recent studies have concentrated on comparative study of the different designs found on these scrolls. The four that make up Add MS 5025 represent each of the three main designs – and their availability on Digitised Manuscripts constitutes an important scholarly resource for the study of alchemy in the late medieval and early modern periods. There are two further Ripley Scrolls held at the British Library: Add MS 32621 and Sloane MS 2524A.

- James Freeman