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21 January 2015

Das Ende der Welt: An Overlooked German Apocalypse

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‘Bad work’: that is how M.R. James described an unusual German Apocalypse at the British Library, in his 1927 Schweich Lectures on The Apocalypse in Art. The full-page illustrations in Add MS 15243 – which was published on Digitised Manuscripts at the end of 2014 – may lack some of the finesse of those found in English or French Apocalypses, but a closer look reveals plenty of interest in this manuscript. 

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Detail of large pen flourished initial with zoomorphic grotesques at the beginning of the Book of Revelation, Germany (?Erfurt), c. 1350-c. 1370, 
Add MS 15243, f. 3r 

As followers of this blog will know already, the particular fashion for Apocalypse manuscripts in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century France and England is illustrated by the numerous copies that survive from those countries. Many in the British Library’s collections have been digitised and have featured in such blog posts as Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Then, Fire and Brimstone, and Visions of the Apocalypse. 

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Full-page illuminated miniature depicting an angel casting a millstone into the sea,
Add MS 15243, f. 31r 

How common were German Apocalypse manuscripts? James’s survey – acknowledged at the time as being incomplete – gives a slightly misleading impression of the manuscript’s rarity. Of the 92 Apocalypses he listed, a mere six were from Germany, and only Add MS 15243 among them contained the text in German. Further surveys in the journal Traditio in 1984-86 and the Katalog der deutschprachigen illustrierten Handschriften des Mittelalters have increased the numbers, and Carola Redzich’s 2010 study of the language, transmission and reception of German Apocalypses has revealed a lively tradition in that country as well. (All bibliographical references may be found in full in the catalogue entry). 

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Full-page illuminated miniature depicting the beginning of John’s visions,
Add MS 15243, f. 4r 

The manuscript dates to around 1350-1370 and is possibly from Erfurt in Thuringia, Germany: blind-stamped motifs on the pig-skin binding match those used by a workshop there around 1490-1520. It contains a series of fourteen full-page, unbordered, illuminated miniatures. How closely these illustrations relate to the text varies from image to image. Some are very close to what John described, while others are not, owing to idiosyncratic inclusions or omissions by the artist. The book opens with a miniature of John in a cave on the island of Patmos (which featured in our most recent hyperlinks announcement). This is followed by another that depicts the beginning of his visions (shown above). Here, the artist has compressed two narrative stages together into a single scene: the appearance of Christ with various accoutrements (Rev. 1:12-16), and John’s falling ‘at his feet as dead’ and Christ laying his right hand upon him and saying ‘“Fear not”’ (Rev. 1:17). 

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Full-page illuminated miniature depicting the appearance of the four horsemen,
Add MS 15243, f. 12r 

The miniature illustrating the appearance of the Four Riders diverges from the text (Rev. 6:1-8). The first two Riders are as described in the Book of Revelation: the first on a white horse, wearing a crown and carrying a bow; the second on a red horse and wielding a large sword. Differences emerge thereafter. The third Rider is on a white, rather than a black, horse. Most strikingly, the fourth Rider – an emaciated figure with a skull-head, representing Death – is mounted on a winged lion. According to the text, Death is mounted on a ‘pale horse’. Why does the decorative scheme deviate here, and how common was this in Apocalypse manuscripts? Lion-hybrids are described elsewhere in the Apocalypse text, the closest but by no means exact match being the first of the ‘four living creatures’ described in Rev. 4:7-8. This lion was accompanied by a calf, a man and an eagle, each furnished with six wings and ‘full of eyes’, which are immediately recognisable as the symbols of the Evangelists. A winged lion is also mentioned in the Old Testament, in the first of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions (Daniel 7:4). Their relevance to this particular part of the Book of Revelation, and the reasons for the artist’s choice, are unclear, however, as are the reasons for the artist’s deviation from the text. 

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Full-page illuminated miniature depicting the Woman and the Beast,
Add MS 15243, f. 19r 

The complexity of John’s visions, and the obscurity of the language in which they are expressed, presented obvious challenges to the manuscript illuminator. Here, the artist has included certain elements from the text: the moon being under the Woman’s feet, her bringing forth a child that is delivered up to God, and the Beast with seven heads and crowns that drew stars from the heavens and cast them down to earth. Others he has abandoned: the ten horns on the Beast (Rev. 12:3) and the Woman being ‘clothed with the sun’ (Rev. 12:1). According to the text, the Woman is also ‘crowned with twelve stars’ (Rev. 12:1), which the artist has interpreted as ‘crowned, with twelve stars’, placing the twelve stars around her head like a nimbus or halo. That three are meant to be hidden behind the child is cleverly indicated by the twelfth star emerging from behind his back as the Woman lifts him up to God.

Download Add MS 15243 collation

The collation of this manuscript is highly irregular. Each of these illustrations, as well as two leaves of text, are on single leaves of parchment that have then been inserted into the manuscript. The order in which they have been stitched in is unusual in places, and to add to the complexity in a few instances parchment strips have been added to reinforce the leaves against the sewing. We have provided a detailed description of the collation in the record, but this seems an instance where a visual aid might be helpful!  

- James Freeman

19 January 2015

Surviving the Winter: Medieval-Style

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There is a Middle English aphorism that says, ‘Winter all eats / That summer begets’. Living alongside 24-hour supermarkets, it is easy to forget the once vital preoccupation with preserving the autumn harvest and stocking our larders to the brim. As we approach the sign of Aquarius, long nights and short days will persist until mid-March when the sun enters Aries, and we spare a thought for our medieval forebears in the most barren and cold of seasons. Depictions of wintry concerns and activities from the medieval era are frequently featured in the calendars which preface many Books of Hours and Psalters (for a discussion of calendars, see the post from January 2011).

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Detail from an October calendar showing the fattening of hogs, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497,  
Add MS 18851, f. 6r

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A February calendar with a bas-de-page scene of men chopping wood and a woman gathering it, from a Book of Hours, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500,
King’s MS 9, f. 3v

Surviving a medieval winter was the result of forethought and hard labour. The calendar page for October shows two men knocking acorns from trees to fatten their hogs in readiness for winter, while the calendar page for February depicts two men with curved knives cutting wood to be gathered and bundled, in this case, by a woman.

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Detail from a February calendar of a man drying his shoe by the fire, from a Psalter, France (Paris), c. 1250,
Royal MS 2 B II, f. 1v

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A February calendar with roundels showing of a man warming his feet by the fire (top) and the sign of Pisces (below), from a Psalter, England (Oxford), c. 1200–c. 1225,
Arundel MS 157, f. 13v

Little agrarian activity could take place in winter and miniatures of Labours of the Month for December, January and February show mostly indoor scenes. The practical discomforts of winter are illustrated in the February calendars of two contemporary Psalters, one made in Oxford and the other in Paris, both showing a man attempting to dry his shoe or warm his feet over the fire.

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Detail from a January calendar of warming by the fire and feasting, from a Book of Hours (the ‘Hours of Joanna I of Castile’), Southern Netherlands (Bruges), 1486–1506,
Add MS 18852, f. 1v

Kings ms 9 f_2v
A January calendar with a bas-de-page scene of feasting by an open fire, from
King’s MS 9, f. 2v

The standard activity featured in the January calendar is one of feasting and warming oneself by the fire. These miniatures were produced in Bruges around 1500, and both show men sitting to a rich feast attended by a woman. The dominant ‘humour’ of the winter season was thought to be phlegm, and one contemporary text, the Secretum Secretorum, recommended combatting its injurious effects through a modification of the diet. It prescribes figs, grapes, ‘fine red wine’ and ‘hot meats’ such as mutton or pigeon, while warning that the somewhat odd assortment of laxatives, bloodletting and lovemaking are to be avoided. Overindulgence in general is very bad, according to our source, but better to do so in the winter season when the body’s natural heat is drawn inwards, resulting in good digestion. This is good to know in the season which includes Christmas.

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Detail of activities on a frozen river, from
Add MS 18852, f. 2r

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Detail from a November calendar of a boar being snared, from a Book of Hours, Germany (?Worms), c. 1475–c. 1485, from
Egerton MS 1146, f. 12v

Snow sports of many varieties are another feature of January calendars, such as the skating, sledging and ball games taking place on the frozen river above. An activity which combined sport and the acquisition of food was boar-hunting, the principal quarry of noblemen in the winter. Above, a boar is chased through a gallows-like-structure in a snowy landscape, becoming ensnared in the noose and speared by a knight. Another good ‘hot meat’ to combat the phlegm.

- Holly James-Maddocks

13 January 2015

RIP Æthelwulf, King of the West Saxons

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King Æthelwulf, who died on 13 January 858, has been rather overshadowed by his more famous son, Alfred the Great – but did he lay the foundations for Alfred’s success?

Æthelwulf consolidated the West Saxon kingdom, strengthened his family’s rule over Kent and brought Devon and Cornwall under his influence. It seems that he was quite a networker, currying favour with Pope Benedict III and Charles the Bald, the Carolingian emperor. He travelled to Rome in 855 ‘with a multitude of people’, and gave gifts of ‘a fine gold crown weighing 4 lb, … one sword bound with fine gold; four silver-gilt Saxon bowls; one all-silk white shirt with roundels, with gold-studding; and two large gold-interwoven veils’, as well as lavish donations of gold and silver to ‘the clergy, leading men and people of Rome’ (from the Liber Pontificalis: AD 817–891, ed. by R. Davis (1995)).

On his way home, Æthelwulf stopped off at the court of Charles the Bald for three months and married the emperor’s daughter Judith in an elaborate ceremony. His new bride replaced Æthelwulf’s wife Osburh, who had borne all his children, including five sons. It is not known if Osburh had died before this or was discarded in favour of Judith, who was probably only fourteen. Æthelwulf’s connection to Carolingian royalty is referred to many times in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and was no doubt considered a very prestigious move.

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Detail from a genealogical roll, showing Æthelwulf (centre), his father Ecgberht, King of the West Saxons (above), King Beorhtric (right), and below, 4 roundels containing his sons, Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and Alfred, England, 4th quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 14 B V, Membrane 1.

Here is an image of King Æthelwulf (in the centre) from a genealogical roll chronicle produced in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). He is shown against a shiny gold background, with his left hand on his heart. The French text beside him focuses on the gifts of money he gave to the Pope. Beside him is a man on stilts playing a pipe with an animal head.

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Text page with West-Saxon genealogy to King Alfred, England, S.E. (Winchester), 4th quarter of the 11th century, Add MS 34652, f. 2v.

This is a leaf that has been detached from Cotton MS Otho B XI, one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It contains an Anglo-Saxon genealogy from King Cerdic (519-534) to Alfred (871-899). On the 7th line, Ecgberht (‘ecbyrht’), father of Æthelwulf, is listed as reigning for 37 years and 7 months (802-839).  He was succeeded by his son: ‘þa feng æþelwulf to his sunu 7 heold nigenteolðe healf gear’ (‘his son Æthelwulf took over the kingdom and held it for the nineteenth half year’, i.e. eighteen and a half years) (lines 8-9). There follows a seven-line list of Æthelwulf’s antecedents with their patronymics: Æthelwulf is ‘ecbyrhting’ (son of Ecbyrht), Ecbyrht is ‘ealmunding’ (son of Ealhmund), Ealmund is ‘eafing’ (son Eafa, who married a Kentish princess) and so on back to ‘cynric cerdiccing’, Cynric, son of King Cerdic, who some believe was a Saxon invader and founder of the dynasty of Wessex.

Stowe Charter 17
Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, England, S. E. (Christ Church, Canterbury), 843, Stowe Charter 17

The earliest surviving charter of a king of Wessex is a grant by King Æthelwulf, dated 28 May 843 (Stowe Charter 17). Æthelwulf gave to his thegn Æthelmod land at Little Chart, Kent, including woods called Theodorice-snad and Beaneccer, and swine-pastures at Ætingden, Lidingden, Meredenn and Uddanh. Attached to the bottom of the charter is a small fragment of parchment containing a note of the witnesses, including Æthelwulf himself and Ceolnoð, Archbishop of Canterbury. This must have been used as an aide-memoire by the scribe when writing up the fine copy.

Æthelwulf was succeeded by his sons Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and finally Alfred, his youngest son, who reigned for 22 winters.

- Chantry Westwell

12 January 2015

The Canterbury Magna Carta: A New Discovery

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One of the questions we're most frequently asked at the British Library is: why is there more than one manuscript of Magna Carta? The simple answer is that, when the Great Charter was first granted by King John in 1215, numerous copies were made so that its terms could be distributed more easily throughout the kingdom of England. Four of those 1215 manuscripts survive to the present day, one of which is owned by Lincoln Cathedral, another by Salisbury Cathedral and the other two being held at the British Library in London.

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The Canterbury Magna Carta, granted by King John of England (1199-1216) on 15 June 1215 (London, British Library, Cotton Charter XIII 31A). This manuscript was sadly damaged by fire in 1731, and by a restoration attempt in the 1830s.

The Lincoln manuscript of King John's Magna Carta is undoubtedly that presented to Hugh of Wells, bishop of Lincoln, in 1215, while that at Salisbury is presumably that sent to Herbert Poore, the bishop of Salisbury at the same time (or alternatively was made for William, earl of Salisbury and one of King John's chief confidants). Until now, the medieval provenance of the two British Library manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta has been less certain. One was reputedly found in a London tailor's shop in the 17th century, and then given to Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631) as a New Year's gift on 1 January 1629 (now British Library Cotton MS Augustus II 106); the other was sent to Cotton by his friend, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644), lieutenant of Dover Castle, in 1630 (now British Library Cotton Charter XIII 31A). It has previously been assumed that Dering's Magna Carta must have been that sent to the Cinque Ports in 1215. However, new research by Professor David Carpenter of King's College, London, has demonstrated conclusively that the Dering Magna Carta had in fact been kept at Canterbury Cathedral in the Middle Ages, and that it must now be re-designated the Canterbury Magna Carta.

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Letter of Sir Edward Dering to Sir Robert Cotton, 10 May 1630, informing him that he is sending him one of the original manuscripts of King John's Magna Carta (London, British Library, Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143)

Professor Carpenter is a Co-Investigator of the Magna Carta Project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and his research is published by Penguin Classics in his new commentary and translation of Magna Carta. Essentially, Carpenter's discovery is based on two key pieces of evidence: first, Cotton Charter XIII 31A contains a handful of unique readings that are also preserved in a copy of Magna Carta in a late-13th century Canterbury Cathedral register (Register E), which suggests that the Cotton charter was the exemplar of Register E; secondly, Dering is known to have removed other charters from Canterbury Cathedral, and he clearly had access to a manuscript of Magna Carta in the Canterbury archives, undoubtedly that now known as Cotton Charter XIII 31A.

Carpenter's discovery is of fundamental importance for our knowledge of the dissemination and preservation of Magna Carta in the Middle Ages. As the other surviving witnesses of the 1215 Magna Carta were potentially sent to King John's bishops, does this also mean that the Canterbury Magna Carta once passed through the hands of Archbishop Stephen Langton (1207-28), one of the possible architects of the Great Charter?

Sadly, the Canterbury Magna Carta (Cotton Charter XIII 31A) was damaged by fire in 1731, and still further by a restoration attempt at the British Museum in the 1830s. It is the only 1215 Magna Carta still to have the Great Seal of King John attached, though its text is now largely unreadable with the naked eye (you can read more here about the recent multi-spectral imaging of this manuscript).

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The Great Seal of King John attached to the Canterbury Magna Carta, damaged by fire in 1731

The British Library's two manuscripts of King John's 1215 Magna Carta will be on display in our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (13 March-1 September 2015), and tickets are on sale now. We hope that as many of you as possible are able to see these documents in London this year.

08 January 2015

Point The Finger

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Many people assume conservators work directly on collection items all day long, repairing and treating them so as to keep them accessible to researchers. But Conservation’s wider role is to support other library activities, which can lead to some unusual tasks. 

Recently, since new photographers have joined the digitisation teams, extra equipment has had to be made for the Imaging Studios: cradles to support books during photography, straps to secure them and “fingers” – plastic strips that hold springy leaves flat. Although a variety of equipment is now available commercially (and is used in our high volume digitisation projects), none of it quite fits our requirements for the safe handling of old and fragile manuscripts. The first rule is always “do no damage”, so tools are adjusted to the needs of the individual manuscript, not the other way round. All materials used must be of conservation quality, and must also be soft and smooth, so there is no possibility of marking the manuscript, or of snagging and damaging fragile edges. 

Photo 1
A bound manuscript secured in the cradle.  The fixed camera is above it, looking down.
 

Ideally, once settled in the cradle, the folio being photographed will lie absolutely flat, but often it springs up. Occasionally, in photographs taken many years ago, a human fingertip can be seen resting on the edge of the leaf, but this means a second person (with clean, dry hands) must be present.  Historically, photographers used office equipment to hold leaves down – you may imagine the fuss the conservators made when they saw bulldog clips in images! Briefly, plastic paper clips were trialled, with the same response (for example, the Kerdeston Hawking Book, Add MS 82949, f.1v). Even now, when we spot these in digitised manuscripts, the Imaging Studio may get an email to check the photograph was not taken recently. Other institutions have different solutions: melinex strips, or even kebab sticks, but these days the British Library mainly uses shaped acrylic strips (aka “fingers”) which are clamped in a stand with a rotating joint, so they can be moved aside quickly. 

Photo 2
James Freeman, with hand-held fingers, facilitating the photography of parchment stubs in the gutter of the Catholicon Anglicum (Add MS 89074).

To make a pair of fingers, the conservator first makes a visit to Exhibitions, hunting for off-cuts of Plexiglas® 10-15mm wide, 5mm deep and at least 1m long. Back in the BLCC, the strip is halved, giving two identical 50cm lengths, and the shaping begins. This is best done by hand, as power tools heat the plastic too quickly. First, all the edges and corners are rounded off with a file. One end is reduced in thickness and shaped to a gently rounded point – making sure each pair is near-identical. 

Photo 3
A pair of roughly-shaped fingers. 

Then the sanding begins, working through every grade from P240 to P2500 wherever the file has touched, to remove all scratches and give a clear, smooth surface. The end of the finger should be translucent, so that it is scarcely seen in digital images, but it may have to be dulled slightly, to prevent flare. The whole process takes half a day.  

Photo 4
On the left, sanding has just begun; on the right it is almost finished. 

Mostly the fingers are fairly robust, but to facilitate the digitisation of the Brontë miniature books some tiny ones were fashioned from various diameters of acrylic rods. Even so, they look huge in the images. Making them was a challenge as the thin rods snapped if flexed too much during shaping. However, a 15cm length was sufficient as they were hand-held for imaging, not used in a clamp-stand. These books gave us another problem: no blank margins. The fingers were placed wherever they would not obscure text.  

Photo 5
A finger just visible at the foot of Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, First Series, No. 6, f.6v 

Photo 6
And showing the size of the manuscript (Ashley MS 157).

Generally we try to show as little of the fingers as possible once the photographs are cropped, but they have a starring role in a couple of images of a Greek manuscript, Add MS 82957. Even with two people handling the manuscript for the photographer, we had a little trouble holding flat a damaged leaf and securing the scale – as can be seen here:

Photo 7
Add MS 82957, f.280r   

Not every book needs fingers but, for those that do, their unobtrusive presence in a digital photograph ensures the viewer gets a clear and focused image.

- Ann Tomalak

06 January 2015

A New Year, A New Giant List of Manuscript Hyperlinks

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Here’s an update of all the manuscripts that have been published to Digitised Manuscripts by the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section here at the British Library. 

Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 01.01.15

We publish these lists every three months: January, April, July and October.  According to the list, we now have 1220 manuscripts and detached bindings available to view online in their entirety (at the last count, it was 1111, so we’ve been busy!).  It’s a great tool for exploring the collection, so enjoy!

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Detail of a miniature of St John sitting in a cave on the island of Patmos, from a German Apocalypse, early 14th century, Add MS 15243, f. 2v

- James Freeman

01 January 2015

A Calendar Page for January 2015

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Regular readers will know that one of our blog traditions is to highlight a calendar from a particular medieval manuscript throughout the course of the year.  Past manuscripts have included the Isabella Breviary, the Hours of Joanna the Mad, the Golf Book, and the Huth Hours.  In 2015 we are pleased to present a manuscript that has featured on our blog before, the London Rothschild Hours.  Confusingly, this manuscript is often also called the Hours of Joanna the Mad (or the Hours of Joanna I of Castile), as it has been suggested that the manuscript belonged to that famous lady.

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Miniature of John the Evangelist on Patmos with his symbol the eagle, being tormented by a demon and visions above, at the beginning of his suffrage, from the London Rothschild Hours (The Hours of Joanna I of Castile), Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 10v-11r

Evidence that the book was Joanna’s is tantalising, but inconclusive.  The repeated presence of Joanna’s name saint, John the Evangelist, is a potential clue, and the presence of a number of Spanish saints in the calendar suggests that it was probably produced for a member of the Spanish aristocracy.

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Miniature of the Pentecost, with the Virgin Mary at the centre seated at a lectern, Add MS 35313, f. 33v

In any case, this manuscript is certainly a lavish production, and the prominent places given to women and books in the miniatures indicate that it was prepared for a noble lady who was highly literate.  Every miniature in the manuscript – and there are many – is surrounded by a detailed and extravagant border, often containing animals, flowers, or jewels. 

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Miniature of St George and the dragon, surrounded by a jewelled border, Add MS 35313, f. 223v

The structure of the calendar echoes the beauty of the rest of the manuscript.  Each folio contains a single month, beginning with a small painting of the sign of the zodiac at the top.  Below this is the listing of the saints’ days for the month, and, unusually, every slot is filled with an observance or feast.  Even more unusual are the roundels on the outer edge of the folio that contain illustrations of the most important saints’ days, those days marked in red on the calendar (which is where we get our contemporary phrase ‘red letter days’).  At the bottom of each calendar page is a miniature of the labour for that month, painted by one of the most accomplished Flemish illuminators of the day.

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Calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

Our calendar for January begins with a particularly charming scene.  The traditional labour for this wintery month is to feast before a fire, and at the bottom of the folio we can see a couple preparing to do just that in their bedchamber, watched by an attentive cat.  Outside, a bundled man appears to be making his own way home.   

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Detail of a bas-de-page miniature of a couple feasting indoors, and a man standing outside, from a calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

Four saints’ days have been given red letter status in this manuscript, and one notable one is the conversion of St Paul (see below); the constraints of monochrome still allow for some sense of drama for the scene on the road to Damascus.

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Detail of a roundel miniature of St Paul on the Road to Damascus, from a calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

- Sarah J Biggs

31 December 2014

The Top Ten Blog Posts of 2014

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Before 2014 is out, we’d like to say a big thank-you to all our readers for your support of the BL Medieval blog and your interest in the work that we do.

Back in April, we were honoured to receive a National UK Blog Award (Arts & Culture category), beating off stiff competition from the Tate, Horror Cult Films and other organisations. The award was made after an online ballot in which 16,000 votes were cast – so we literally couldn’t have done it without you!

In the course of the year, we’ve also passed another major milestone: the blog has now received over 1.5 million hits! Can we break the 2 million barrier in 2015? 

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Detail of a knight fighting a snail, from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 193v
 

So which posts have helped us to achieve this fantastic result? Two in particular, written in previous years, remain at the top of the tree: our ‘discovery’ of the Unicorn Cookbook, and our study of the those bitter enemies who slug it out (no pun intended) in the margins, Knight vs Snail. For 2014, however, here is the top ten, in reverse order: 

10. The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts 

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Detail of a miniature of the constellation ‘Draco’, from an astrological compilation with political prophecies, England (London?), 1490,
Arundel MS 66, f. 33v 

Here are some depictions of scribes hard at work from the pages of British Library manuscripts: pen in hand, eyes fixed in concentration over the page, labouring over desks and lecterns. 

9. A Calendar Page for April 2015 

Add_ms_38126_f004v
Calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of an aristocratic couple courting, followed by a small child, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480,
Add MS 38126, f. 4v 

Manuscript miniatures offer wonderful insights into the medieval world...but there’s just something a bit odd about these ones. 

8. A Medieval Comic Strip 

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Detail of a miniature of the building of the Tower of Babel, from the Egerton Genesis Picture Book, England (Norwich or Durham?), 3rd quarter of the 14th century,
Egerton MS 1894, f. 5v 

Inspired by the British Library’s exhibition Comics Unmasked, this post takes a closer look at the Egerton Genesis Picture Book, which contains 149 illustrations of the Book of Genesis, from Creation to the story of Joseph, with captions from the Historia scholastica. 

7. How to be a Hedgehog 

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Hedgehogs rolling on the ground to collect grapes for their young, as illustrated in the Rochester Bestiary (England, c. 1230): London, British Library,
Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r 

We love it when people are inspired by British Library manuscripts to make things: here’s an animation about a hedgehog’s life, according to one of our bestiaries (Royal MS 12 F XIII). 

6. Sex and Death in the Roman de la Rose 

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Detail of a miniature of the Lover being beaten by Honte (‘Shame’), Peur (‘Fear’) and Dangier (‘Danger’), from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490-c. 1500,
Harley MS 4425, f. 131v 

Beatings, murder, mutilation, suicide – oh, and handholding, dancing, music and polite courtship – in the miniatures of a beautiful 15th-century copy of Guillaume de Lorris’s staple of medieval romance literature, the Roman de la Rose. 

5. Weird and Wonderful Creatures of the Bestiary 

Harley MS 4751, f. 11r
Detail of a miniature of hunters pursuing a bonnacon with a very long lance and strategic shield, from a bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury), 2nd quarter of the 13th century,
Harley MS 4751, f. 11r 

We’ve found our animal posts are always popular, but we think you’d struggle to find the bonnacon cute – and don’t make eye contact with the basilisk! 

4. Anatomy of a Dragon 

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Detail of a miniature of a dragon attacking and suffocating an elephant, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210,
Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r 

We all know about St George – but what about his reptilian foe? Here’s a look at dragons across a range of medieval manuscripts, from bestiaries (apparently they prey on elephants) to astrological texts and apocalypses. 

3. The Three Living and the Three Dead 

Harley MS 2917, f. 119r
Detail of a miniature of the Three Living (a pope, an emperor, and a king) and the Three Dead (wearing matching crowns), at the beginning of thee Office of the Dead, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1480-c. 1490,
Harley MS 2917, f. 119r 

Need a sober reminder of man’s mortality and the inevitability of his demise? Look no further! 

2. An Illustrated Guide to Medieval Love 

Egerton MS 881, f. 141v
Detail of a miniature of Mars and Venus being discovered in bed by Vulcan, from the ‘Roman de la Rose’, France (Paris?), c. 1380,
Egerton MS 881, f. 141v 

There still time to prepare for Valentine’s Day next year, singletons, so don’t despair: read our handy guide to the do’s and don’ts of courtship. 

1. Bugs in Books 

Royal MS 20 A IV, f. 3v
Detail of a grasshopper, from a copy of Martin de Brion's Description of the Holy Land, France (?Paris), c. 1540, Royal MS 20 A IV
, f. 3v 

Not actual bugs – goodness, no! – but the butterflies, caterpillars, beetles, spiders and other creepy crawlies that are found to populate the decorative borders of British Library manuscripts. 

- James Freeman