Medieval manuscripts blog

525 posts categorized "Medieval"

16 September 2015

Caption Competition 3

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Thank you to everyone who entered our last caption competition, the image of the medieval water clock from Additional MS 18719. There were some really great one-liners but our favourite caption (no prizes, unfortunately!) goes to M. Mitchell Marmel for the following:

"Sorry, but if you want a double-caff grande latte espresso, this is how it's done."

Our next image is from a Parisian book of hours (Egerton MS 2019), recently published on our Digitised Manuscripts website and featured in the blogpost Martyrdom in Action. We look forward to seeing your creative suggestions for this one. Please add a comment at the end of this post or submit your ideas via Twitter to @BLMedieval.


Detail of a roundel showing a man and a woman on a horse: France, Central (Paris), c. 1440 - c. 1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 5r


Update (22 September)

Thank you to everyone for their brilliant suggestions. We have a 'winner' (remember, no prizes), but first, here are some of the entries via Twitter, and you can see submissions as comments to the blogpost below:

@Lezmondo "Quick, look away, it's that bird again!"

@classicalgeek "There's a rest stop a couple of miles ahead. I'm sure they have it."

@MythicalStig "And we can use the bird to tweet our adventures to all of our followers"

‏@ScroogeDLWP2015 "You know, dear, we probably could afford a second horse..?"

@GriffHistorical "Look, if you think you can drive better..."

@SlCathy "We'll never get the stream-lining sorted with you wearing that ridiculous head-gear!"

‏@LitteraCarolina  "Now, the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow..."

@TtamAlubic "ACTUALLY, it's about ethics in bear-baiting journalism"

‏@susanhillwriter  "What do you mean, you feel sick?"

@julianaeleanore  "Honey, I know you like to pamper him, but can your bird just fly a little bit of the way? My arm is killing me."

But our favourite, posted by Crayfish, is this:

"I told you that stupid twig's no good for travel sickness"

14 September 2015

Martyrdom in Action

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One of the newest additions to our Digitised Manuscripts website is Egerton MS 2019, a petite Parisian Book of Hours made in the mid-fifteenth century. Despite its small size (it measures less than 20 centimetres tall and only 14 centimetres wide), this book is packed with an ambitious level of detail.


St John the Baptist is beheaded at the door of a prison while a woman (?Salome) is given a plate, from a Book of Hours, Use of Paris, 1440-1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 208r

The majority of the illustration has been attributed to the Master of the Munich Golden Legend (fl. c. 1420-1460), who was named after his work in a manuscript now in Munich containing a French translation of the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod. gall. 3). He also collaborated with the Bedford Master on one of our most famous illuminated manuscripts, the Bedford Hours. His most intricate work in Egerton MS 2019 is found in the roundels that accompany the calendar (ff. 1r-12r) and the stamp-sized scenes that illustrate the life of Job (ff. 156v-177v).


The martyrdom of St Lawrence, Egerton MS 2019, f. 209r

He is also responsible for the striking series of images that accompany the suffrages of saints. In many cases, the artist focuses on the moment of martyrdom. His vivid depictions often feature a Tarantino-esque degree of violence and gore, from beheadings to the brutal extraction of teeth. These scenes are not for the faint-hearted!


The martyrdom of St Stephen, Egerton MS 2019, f. 210r

 The martyrdom of St Sebastian, Egerton MS 2019, f. 211r

The martyrdom of St Katherine with a wheel, Egerton MS 2019, f. 215r

 The martyrdom of St Apollonia, Egerton MS 2019, f. 217r


A virgin martyr being beheaded, Egerton MS 2019, f. 232r

Why not explore more of this incredible book now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website?

- Hannah Morcos

10 September 2015

Did Someone Say a New List of Manuscript Hyperlinks?

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It's that time of year when we update the list of manuscripts published on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Since spring, more than 30 medieval and early modern manuscripts have been added to our site, and you can find the full listing here:

British Library Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Digitised Manuscripts Master List 10.09.15

The new additions include a veritable cornucopia of delights, from the Articles of the Barons to the incredible 15th-century illustrations of Sir John Mandeville’s Travels.


Full-page miniature of recreation in Cyprus with a deer hunt using leopards above, and a feast below, from Illustrations for Sir John Mandeville, Voyage d’outre mer, Bohemia, c. 1410–c. 1420, Add MS 24189, f. 5v

Two of the most recent additions to Digitised Manuscripts are the early 14th-century Penwortham Breviary from northern England, and Egerton MS 2019, a striking 15th-century Book of Hours from Paris.


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

You can also now explore in full Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours (King’s MS 9), which contains love tokens exchanged between Henry VIII and his second wife (as seen on television ). We’ve also added volume 2 of the monumental Worms Bible (Harley MS 2804), a Gallican Psalter from Ireland (Additional MS 36929), and two more folding almanacs (Sloane MS 2250 and Stowe MS 1065).


Large initial with foliate and zoomorphic decoration and interlace patterns of yellow, terminating in animal and human heads, from the ‘Psalter of Cormac’, Ireland, 1275-1325, Add MS 36929, f. 2r


Zodiac man diagram, from a physician’s folding almanac, England, 1st half of the 15th century, Sloane MS 2250, f. 12r

Some of our favourite recently digitised illuminated manuscripts are the Paduan Bible Picture Book (featured in Ex(odus) Men), a charming 14th-century Book of Hours from north-eastern France (Additional MS 36684, which has something for everyone), and this Latin Apocalypse manuscript (discussed here).


Miniature of Satan returning and attacking the Holy City, from an Apocalypse in Latin with commentary, 2nd half of the 13th century, S.E. England, (?London), Additional MS 35166, f. 27r

In addition, six manuscripts with French prose narratives were digitised in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research project, Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France. Find out more in our blogposts on Guiron le Courtois, the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César and the prose Tristan.

 - Hannah Morcos

08 September 2015

A Romance from Ward’s Catalogue: Apollonius of Tyre

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Harry Leigh Douglas Ward (1825–1906) worked in the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum for 44 years from 1849, two years after he graduated from Oxford, until his retirement in 1893. During this time he produced the monumental British Museum Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in 3 volumes (the third volume was published posthumously from his notes by his colleague, J. A. Herbert). For medieval scholars this remains an essential reference work on literature, legends and chronicles, as well as a comprehensive overview of the large numbers of manuscripts containing these works in the collections of the British Library. We plan to feature his work in a series of blogposts, focusing on some of the lesser-known tales he catalogued, and featuring images from our online catalogues.

The first volume of the Catalogue, published in 1883, covers the classical romances of Troy and Alexander, the cycles of French and English origin (King Arthur, Charlemagne and William of Orange), and associated legends. 

We will start, as he does, with the CLASSICAL ROMANCES:

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Alexander on horseback addressing his army, from the ‘Talbot Shrewsbury Book’, northern France (Rouen) 1444-1445, Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 11r

The Troy legend and the Alexander romances have already been featured on this blog. Less well-known is the legend of Apollonius of Tyre, for which Ward lists 10 British Library manuscripts from the 13th to the 18th century, one in French, two in Icelandic and the remainder in Latin (Ward, Catalogue of Romances I (1883), pp. 161–70). The Historia Apollonii regis Tyri, to give it its Latin name, is a prose narrative from the imperial or late antique era, perhaps based on a Greek original, popular throughout the medieval and renaissance periods, and adapted by Gower and Shakespeare. According to Ward, the earliest mention of this work is in a list of books belonging to Wando, abbot of Fontanelle in the diocese of Rouen from AD 742 to 747, which lists ‘Historiam Apollonii regis Tyri in codice uno’. Ward tells us that the booklist is from the Gesta Abbatum Fontanellensium published in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, vol ii of 1829 (Catalogue of Romances, I, p.161).


King Antiochus attacking his daughter in her chamber, with a full border containing a space left for a shield of arms, at the beginning of the ‘Historia Apollonii regis Tyri’, Netherlands, S., last quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 20 C II, f. 210r

The story exists in several different versions, but in a nutshell, is as follows: King Antiochus of Antioch has an exceptionally beautiful daughter, so beautiful that he cannot resist her charms and forces her into an incestuous relationship. Many suitors come to try to win her hand, but the King sets them an unsolvable riddle, then beheads them, whether or not they are able to solve the riddle. Prince Apollonius of Tyre comes to try his luck and is successful, but King Antiochus will not relinquish his daughter. Apollonius flees and is pursued by the king’s men, surviving various shipwrecks and adventures (including more riddle-solving), marrying and later being separated from his wife and daughter, Thasia, both of whom he believes to be dead. He is finally reunited with them and goes on to rule for many years, a virtuous king and faithful husband. In some versions of the legend, the wicked King Antiochus is struck by God’s thunderbolt as he is lying in bed with his daughter — a fitting end!

The earliest manuscript of this text in the British Library is in Sloane MS 1619, dating from the beginning of the 13th century, with a collection of three tales, the others being an abridged version of the Alexander legend and Dares Phrygiusaccount of the Trojan war. It was copied in England, probably at the Priory of St Oswald, Gloucester and contains 10 riddles, which Ward lists (Catalogue of Romances, I, pp. 161–63).


Concluding lines of Apollonius of Tyre and decorated initial at the beginning of Dares Phrygius, England, 1st half of the 13th century, Sloane MS 1619, f. 29r

From the end of the 13th century is Arundel MS 292 (Catalogue of Romances, I, p. 163), in which Apollonius is rather out of place in a devotional miscellany from Norfolk that includes a copy of the Creed, a bestiary in English and various tracts in prose and verse. Ward tells us that this version has only 7 of the 10 riddles and is in 22 sections. There are no photographed folios from Apollonius but here is the opening page of the manuscript with the Creed in Middle English beginning 'I leve in Godd almicten fader / Dat hevene and erthe made to gar':


The Creed and the Lord's Prayer in English, with their titles in Latin in red in the margin : 'Credo in Deum' and 'Pater Noster'.  The pressmark of Norwich Cathedral library in the upper margin, England, E (Norfolk) last quarter of the 13th century, Arundel MS 292, f. 3r

Of course, Edward IV had to have a copy of this popular work with lavish illustrations to add to his collection of classical and historical works in French. His volume, Royal MS 20 C II, begins with a version of the prose romance of Cleriadus et Meliadice, distantly related to the Arthurian tales (this will be featured in a later post), followed by the legend Apollonius. The miniature below is taken from this manuscript, the only illustrated version of the legend in our collections. And here at last, is a picture of the eligible Apollonius, kneeling before his future wife, the daughter of Archestratus of Cyrene! He has been shipwrecked on the shore of Cyrene and becomes her lute teacher, then is chosen by her from among her many illustrious suitors to be her future husband.


The princess of Cyrene giving Apollonius a letter to her father telling him she has chosen the shipwrecked sailor as her husband, Royal MS 20 C II, f. 217v

The two Icelandic manuscripts, Additional MS 4857 and Add MS 4864 are of much later provenance, copied in the 17th century. Ward had a special interest in Norse sagas, and he provides a comprehensive description of the origin of the texts, scribes and quotations in Icelandic (Catalogue of Romances, I, pp. 167–68). His colleague at the British Museum, J. A. Herbert, wrote of Ward in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

In his early official years he made a catalogue of the Icelandic manuscripts in the British Museum; this was never printed, but is preserved among the books of reference in the students' room. His attention was thus directed, by way of the Norse sagas, to the study of mediæval romantic literature in general, which became henceforth the engrossing interest of his life, and in which, through his wide reading, retentive memory, and sound critical instinct, he acquired exceptional proficiency. 

A final word on Apollonius. There is an Old English version of the legend in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 201, a mid-11th century manuscript containing homilies by Ælfric and Wulfstan. It is an extremely rare early example of prose in the vernacular, and has even been described as the first novel in English!

Chantry Westwell

04 September 2015

Tales of Lincolnshire from Five British Library Manuscripts

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As part of the 800th anniversary celebrations of Magna Carta, the county of Lincolnshire is currently hosting an exhibition that celebrates everything that makes this county great. One of the four original 1215 endorsements of Magna Carta is held at Lincoln Cathedral and it was this piece of parchment that Churchill promised to the Americans as an incentive to join WWII (revealed in these cabinet papers recently on display in the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition). But of course this is not Lincolnshire’s only claim to fame.

Lincolnshire’s Great Exhibition explores the key historical events, famous figures and artistic achievements of this influential English county. In partnership with the British Library, five manuscripts from our collection are being exhibited, including one of the most renowned English illuminated manuscripts, the Luttrell Psalter.

So what can we learn about Lincolnshire from these five books?

1. Following the earthquake of 1185, Lincoln Cathedral was rebuilt under the supervision of its new Bishop, St Hugh

Detail of the beginning of ‘The Metrical Life of St Hugh’, from a miscellany of theological, grammatical and historical texts, England, 1st half of the 13th century, Royal MS 13 A IV, f. 9r

Royal MS 13 A IV contains one of only two extant copies of The Metrical Life of St Hugh. In this account of the Bishop’s life, a significant passage is dedicated to his expansion and rebuilding of the cathedral, and the theological symbolism of its architectural design.

2. Lincolnshire is the birthplace of St Gilbert, founder of the only native English religious Order


Beginning of the Life of Gilbert of Sempringham, England, 1st half of the 13th century, Cotton MS Cleopatra B I, f. 32r

One of Lincolnshire’s most famous sons is Gilbert of Sempringham (b. c. 1083, d. 1189). Unsuited to follow in the footsteps of his father, a Norman knight and landholder, Gilbert was sent to be educated. On his return, while rector of the parish church of Sempringham, he became the spiritual director of a community of anchoresses residing in a cloister attached to the church. Over a number of years and despite Gilbert’s own intentions, the Gilbertine Order was gradually established.

3. Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, patron of the Luttrell Psalter, was involved in a dispute between his friend Roger de Birthorpe and the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham

Detail of a miniature of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, mounted, armed, and attended by his wife Agnes (d. 1340), daughter of Sir Richard de Sutton, and his daughter-in-law Beatrice, daughter of Sir Geoffrey Scrope of Masham, below the inscription 'D(ominus) Galfridus Louterell me fieri fecit' (Lord Geoffrey Luttrell caused me to be made), from the Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 202v

Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (b. 1276, d. 1345) of Irnham, Lincolnshire, is most renowned for being the patron of the Luttrell Psalter. He was a knight of the realm and landowner, possessing a large number of estates across England, thanks both to fortunate conjugal alliances and his great-great-grandfather, also called Geoffrey, who was rewarded with many properties for his loyal service to King John. Around the year 1312, Geoffrey was involved in a dispute between a group of local gentry and the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham, situated seven miles to the north east of Irnham. In a royal order dated 27 July 1312, they are accused of breaking down the doors of the priory and making off with £500 worth of goods. Yet, in a review of the evidence, Joyce Coleman suggests that Geoffrey’s friend Roger de Birthorpe was in fact the instigator (‘New Evidence about Sir Geoffrey Luttrell's Raid on Sempringham Priory, 1312’, British Library Journal (1999), 103-28). Whilst this event appears to have caused no lasting damage to the patron of our famous manuscript, Roger ended up exiled as an outlaw in Ireland. By the time of his death, Geoffrey was on better terms with the priory; his daughter Isabella was residing there as a nun, which might explain why he bequeathed 20 shillings to the establishment in his will.   

4. Eleanor of Castile’s entrails were interred in a tomb in Lincoln Cathedral


Tomb of Eleanor of Castile, from Dugdale's Book of Monuments, England, 1640-1641, Add MS 71474, f. 98v

To commemorate the death of Eleanor of Castile (b. 1241, d. 1290), Edward I commissioned the manufacture of three lavish tombs and twelve memorial crosses between Lincoln and London. Her embalmed body was interred in a tomb in Westminster Abbey, and an almost identical tomb was created for the Queen’s entrails in Lincoln Cathedral. The third tomb, containing her heart, was constructed in the Dominican church of the Blackfriars, London. The tombs at Lincoln and Westminster were the most elaborate, each surmounted by a gilt-bronze effigy, made by the goldsmith William Torel. Unfortunately, the Lincoln tomb was defaced during the English Civil Wars. However, thanks to this pen and colour wash illustration by William Sedgwick, in Sir William Dugdale's Book of Monuments, we have evidence of its original form and similarity to the Westminster tomb.

5. John Longland, Bishop of Lincoln and confessor to Henry VIII, was an unpopular figure during the Lincolnshire rising


Full-page miniature of a bishop, with Bishop Longland’s coat of arms and the red-and-white Tudor rose of Henry VIII in the border, from the Benedictional of John Longland, England, c. 1521, Add MS 21974, f. 21v

A great scholar and preacher, John Longland (b. 1520, d. 1547) became Bishop of Lincoln in May 1521, and was Henry VIII’s confessor by 1524. While in many ways a traditionalist, Bishop Longland supported the king’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the dissolution of the monasteries (indeed, he was particularly critical about the bad behaviour of monks). The residents of Lincolnshire, however, did not share his views. In October 1536, they mobilised in protest against the suppression of the monasteries and the establishment of the Church of England. The Bishop’s chancellor was even murdered by a mob in Horncastle. The movement gained momentum across the north of England and Longland was named on a list of heretics compiled by the rebels in York.

The British Library is proud to be a lender to Lincolnshire’s Great Exhibition, which runs until 27 September 2015.

- Hannah Morcos

01 September 2015

A Calendar Page for September 2015

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

Calendar page for September, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 5v 

A distinctly autumnal feel is creeping into the bas-de-page scene of September’s calendar page. Against a grey backdrop, with trees that are beginning to look a little bare, two peasants are ploughing and resowing a field in preparation for next year. There is a look of concentration on the ploughman’s face as he steers two rather sprightly horses and attempts to cut a straight furrow in the soil. Just above his head is a roundel depicting the Archangel Michael, equipped with sword, shield and crossed spear, vanquishing Satan and his demons. The other roundels on this page show St Giles (accompanied by his emblem, a deer), the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the Martyrdom of St Matthew the Apostle. The artist has mixed up this and October’s Zodiac symbols, erroneously inserting Scorpio here and Libra on the next page. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants ploughing and sowing a field, with a roundel depicting Archangel Michael,
Add MS 35313, f. 5v 

Detail of a roundel depicting St Giles,
Add MS 35313, f. 5v 

- James Freeman

21 August 2015

When Tristan met Lancelot

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Add_ms_5474_f027v DETAIL
Tristan swearing an oath and being accepted as a knight of the Round Table. Add MS 5474, f. 27v, France, N., 4th quarter of the 13th century

Who was the best knight ever to wield lance or sword? Was it Lancelot, whose love for Queen Guinevere spurred him on to no end of daring-do? Was it his son, Galahad, so pure-hearted that he could even be entrusted with the Holy Grail? Or was it perhaps Tristan, a dab-hand on the tournament circuit, but also a masterful musician? These are some of the questions at stake in the Old French prose Tristan, composed before 1235 in northern France. Its authors took their raw material from the 12th-century verse romances of Tristan and Iseult, but they fused it with the cast, setting and indeed much of the narrative of the so-called Lancelot-Grail Cycle. The result was a runaway success. The prose Tristan was transmitted in French across much of medieval Europe, inspiring translations and retellings of the Tristan legend in several other European tongues.

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Historiated initial depicting Luce del Gast, one of the authors to whom the prose Tristan is attributed in manuscripts. Add MS 23929, f. 1r, Italy, N. (Padua or Bologna?), 1st quarter of the 15th century

About a quarter of the c. 85 manuscripts of the prose Tristan that survive today were produced in Italy. This list includes Add MS 23929, the first of two volumes discussed here. The first part of this manuscript (ff. 1r-64r) was copied in a regular rotunda script of the late 14th or early 15th century. To judge by the large opening historiated initial depicting the author at work and the 14 smaller ones marking the beginning of chapters, it was made in north-eastern Italy, perhaps in Padua. The volume’s binding lends credence to such a localization: the motifs impressed into the leather, which include suns and dogs, tell us that in the 15th century it was just down the road in Mantua in the library of the Gonzaga family. Indeed, the first part of the manuscript may well be one of more than a dozen Arthurian prose romances listed in the Gonzaga inventory dated 1407. Even with their sizeable collection of Tristan manuscripts, however, the Gonzaga clearly hadn’t had enough of Tristan’s exploits: after the inventory was made, further episodes were added in a different hand (ff. 64r-86v).

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Small historiated initial illustrating Tristan’s birth. Add MS 23929, f. 37v, Italy, N. (Padua or Bologna?), 1st quarter of the 15th century

The Medieval Francophone Literary Cultures Outside France Project has aimed to trace some of the literary traffic between France and Italy in the Middle Ages, but inevitably some mysteries remain. Add MS 23929 is unusual among the surviving prose Tristan manuscripts made in Italy because it preserves the first part of the romance, including a prologue attributed to the unidentifiable Luce del Gast and the tale of Tristan’s distant (and equally adventure-prone) ancestors. Only after recounting Tristan’s family history does this version give us the story as it begins in other manuscripts of Italian origin, relating Tristan’s birth, his arrival at the court of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, and his potion-induced love for the Irish princess, Iseult. The francophilia and bibliophilia of the Gonzaga family may go some way to explaining the presence of the first part of the prose Tristan in Mantua, but the full details escape us for now.

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A note in Italian at the end of the manuscript points to the continuation of the story in another volume. Add MS 23929, f. 86v, Italy, N. (Padua or Bologna?), 1st quarter of the 15th century

Additional MS 23929 ends with Iseult’s disastrous honeymoon: shortly after marrying King Mark she is abducted by the Saracen knight Palamedés and will only be reunited with her husband thanks to Tristan’s intervention. A note in Italian tells us that the adventure continues in another volume, which seems to have been listed in the Gonzaga inventory of 1407 but has not survived.

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Tristan outperforms fourteen knights of the Round Table. Add MS 5474, f. 74r, France, N., 4th quarter of the 13th century

In marked contrast to Add MS 23929 is a second prose Tristan manuscript in the British Library’s collections. The text of Add MS 5474 was written in a smaller and rather more angular script, pointing to production in northern France in the (very) late 13th century. Its language bears all the hallmarks of the prestigious Picard scripta of Old French. The conclusions we might draw from the text, moreover, are corroborated by the 26 framed miniatures illustrating the volume: these were in all likelihood painted by the artist responsible for Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, fonds français 110, a Lancelot-Grail manuscript made c. 1295 in the County of Artois or the Cambrésis. There is relatively little evidence of production of Tristan manuscripts in Paris before 1300, but to the north and north-east – beyond the boundaries of the kingdom of France – it was thriving.

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Lancelot escaping in his underpants after being tricked into sleeping with King Pellés’s daughter. Add MS 5474, f. 150v, France, N., 4th quarter of the 13th century

Like several other surviving volumes, Add MS 5474 begins about a third of the way through the romance, with King Mark shamefully ambushing Yvain of the White Hands (and feeling pretty smug about it, too). The ensuing narrative, with its countless jousts and tournaments, is dominated by the spectacular Tournament of Louveserp, at which Tristan even outshines Lancelot, and by the story of the Quest for the Holy Grail, which sees Galahad come to prominence. Add MS 5474 bulks up the Grail story with passages borrowed from the Agravain section of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle (ff. 144r-162v). In one of these interpolated episodes, illustrated in the above miniature, Lancelot makes a hasty getaway from Guinevere’s chambers, dressed only in his underwear. He had been tricked into sleeping with the daughter of the guardian of the Holy Grail. Hardly becoming of a Grail knight!

The ‘Voir Disant’ lay, which spreads the unvarnished truth about King Mark throughout the land. Add MS 5474, f. 73r, France, N., 4th quarter of the 13th century

The prose of the Tristan is punctuated throughout by letters, laments and lays in verse. Like the song above, which denounces King Mark as ‘muck and filth’ (to put it politely), these more ‘lyrical’ moments are often easily spotted in manuscripts thanks to their layout as lines and stanzas of poetry, as opposed to the long-lines of prose. The master composer and performer of songs is, of course, Tristan himself. And it is while playing one of his lays on the harp in Iseult’s bedchamber that the villainous Mark murders him. But is Tristan’s musicianship enough for him to be crowned best knight that ever was? You’ll have to explore the prose Tristan to find out...

 - Huw Grange (University of Cambridge)

18 August 2015

Medieval Music Mash-Up

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Every year there is always that one song (you either love or hate) that seems to take over the summer months. Friday night’s episode of The One Show featured the earliest known English song of the summer, which is found in one very special manuscript from the British Library’s collection. Harley MS 978 includes the only witness of Sumer Is Icumen In, the most famous piece of English secular medieval music. Copied in the 1260s, the manuscript is associated with Reading Abbey, and has been linked to one of its monks, William of Winchester.

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Close-up of Sumer Is Icumen In, Harley MS 978

Four main voices are intended to sing the round, plus two further parts are written at the bottom of the page.


The text inset to the right of the page gives instruction in Latin for the performance of the round, Sumer Is Icumen In, England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 978, f. 11v

Featuring Dr Nicolas Bell, the British Library’s Curator of Musical Manuscripts, the episode brings this famous medieval song from the 13th century into the 21st century. Musician and TV presenter, Richard Mainwaring even performs a modernised version at Latitude Festival, with a backing track provided by 2013’s summer classic, Get Lucky by Daft Punk (featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers).

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Dr Nicolas Bell, the British Library’s Curator of Musical Manuscripts, discusses Harley MS 978

For anyone who missed it, the episode is available on BBC’s iPlayer (UK only, approximately 12 minutes in).

This TV appearance also coincides with the return of Harley MS 978 to the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery. The lyrics of Sumer Is Icumen In and a translation into modern English can also be found on our blog.

- Hannah Morcos