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608 posts categorized "Medieval"

29 August 2016

Monster Monday

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You may have noticed the recent trend for naming days on Twitter. We've had #WorldElephantDay, #InternationalDogDay and even #nationalburgerday (seriously, who makes this stuff up?!). So, without more ado, we've decided to make a stand and to reclaim Mondays as our very own #MonsterMonday. (You know it makes sense.)


A man without a head, with eyes and a mouth in his chest (a blemmye): Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 102v

For the inaugural #MonsterMonday (the trademark application is in the post), we thought we'd kick off with the Marvels of the East, from the copy that forms part of the famous Beowulf manuscript. A quick advert for our Digitised Manuscripts site here: you should know that you can view digitised images of Beowulf and hundreds of the British Library's other medieval manuscripts, for free and online, from the comfort of your own office/living room/bathroom, 24/7. The manuscript of the Marvels of the East featured here was made sometime around the year AD 1000, most likely during the reign of King Æthelred the Unready (978–1016) or his successor, King Cnut (1016–35). Sadly, it was damaged during the Cotton Library fire of 1731, but the pages containing the images of fantastic beasts are mostly intact, even when the parchment has warped under the intense heat of the flames.

Which monsters do you recognise here? We'd love you to tweet us your favourites, to @BLMedieval, and to join in our little game of Monday mayhem, using the hashtag #MonsterMonday. Otherwise, someone else will come up with an equally daft idea, like #GlobalTurnipWeek, and we wouldn't want that to happen, would we?


A serpent and a two-horned beast: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 99r


A cynocephalus (a man with a dog's head): Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 100r


A man 15 feet high with white bodies and two faces: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101v


A beast-headed man, holding a human leg and foot, alongside a person with long hair: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 103v


A man with ears like winnowing fans: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r


A woman with long hair: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 105v


Julian Harrison


24 August 2016

The Great Medieval Bake Off

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The return of a certain baking contest to British television screens this evening marks the time of year when viewers are struck by a peculiar kind of ‘baking fever’. Typical symptoms include: massively overestimating your own baking talents; buying and using peculiar ingredients you would never usually use; and avidly discussing whose cake had more of a ‘soggy bottom’. This fascination with the baking process and an enjoyment of bread, cakes and pies has long been an important part of society. Baking is, after all, one of the world’s oldest professions, and baking guilds were among the earliest craftsmen guilds established in medieval Europe.

The high level of skill required in the baking craft was certainly recognised in medieval society. In the passage below, the Anglo-Saxon monk, Ælfric, implied that everyone can cook, but it took special skills to be a baker! 'You can live a long time with my skills', he described a baker saying, 'but you cannot live well without them.'

Detail of passage from Ælfric’s colloquy which claims that everyone can cook, but it takes special skills to be a baker (pistor), from marginal additions to a copy of Priscian’s De Excerptiones, Abingdon, 11th century, Add MS 32246, f. 16v

The realities of medieval baking are also depicted in the beautiful illustrations of the Smithfield Decretals. This manuscript contains a collection of 1,971 papal letters, heavily illustrated with scenes which complement the letters and aspects of medieval life. These two illustrations depict two figures, one putting a loaf of bread into the oven and another who waits nearby with a basket of loaves. It is likely that this depicts a communal bread oven, which was popular in the 1300s and allowed all members of the village to bake their own loaves.

Detail of a baker putting a loaf in an oven, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145r


Detail of a man with loaves in a basket and a baker putting loaves in an oven or taking loaves out of an oven, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145v

Another illustration from a 14th-century manuscript depicts a rabbit baking its own bread in a miniature oven!


Detail of marginal image of a rabbit, from Lansdowne MS 451, f. 6r

In medieval society, bakers also provided extravagant fare at feasts and celebrations. Feasts were a fundamental part of medieval society and were used to celebrate victories, proclaim social bonds and enjoy the products of the land.

Detail of men feasting, from the Tiberius Psalter, England (? Old Minster Winchester), 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 5v 

It is easy imagine that preparing for these feasts could be an extremely stressful experience for the cooks and bakers. The illustration below depicts an angry cook brandishing his knife at a member of the service staff.


Marginal illustration from the Luttrell Psalter, Additional MS 42130, f. 207v

Like their modern counterparts, medieval bakers created and used cookbooks, containing recipes and lists of ingredients. A particularly fascinating cookbook was recently discovered here at the British Library, which included recipes for hedgehogs, blackbirds, and even unicorns! The image below, however, is taken from the Forme of Cury, the oldest known instructive cookbook in the English language, dating to the 14th century. The world ‘cury’ is the Middle English word for ‘cookery’. This recipe is for a ‘toastee’, in which two pieces of toasted bread are flavoured with a spiced honey and wine sauce. This cookbook also includes recipes for ‘Pygg in sawse sawge’ or ‘Pig in sage sauce’ and ‘Bank mang’, the predecessor of blancmange.

Recipe for a ‘tostee’, from the Forme of Cury, England, c. 1390, Add MS 5016

Other medieval recipes can be found in the 15th-century cookbook known as the ‘Boke of Kokery’. This manuscript contains 182 recipes, instructing the reader how to ‘hew’ (chop), ‘mele’ (mix), and ‘powdr’ (salt). The page below describes some of the dishes served at a feast for the ordination of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1443. The page also describes a ‘sotelte’ or ‘subtlety’, which was an elaborate sugar sculpture, designed to replicate a biblical scene.


Description of sugar sculptures and other subtleties at a feast for the ordination of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1443, from A Boke of Kokery, England, c. 1443, Harley MS 4016, f. 2r

It is clear that there are many similarities between the medieval and the modern baker. Bakers are still valued members of society, use cookbooks and recipes, and cook for a wide range of functions. One particular difference, however, is the more tolerant approach that modern critics have for bakers whose culinary skills are just not up to scratch. No matter how bad their skills, modern bakers will not be drawn through the streets on the back of a horse with the evidence of their failure tied around their neck.

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a bad baker being dragged on a horse-drawn hurdle with his deficient loaf of bread around his neck, from the Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (Toulouse?), c. 1300-1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 94r

Neither will modern bakers be strung up for their failures of the kitchen, and meet the same fate as the baker in the image below. This is taken from the illustrated Book of Genesis in the Old English Hexateuch, and accompanies the story of the hanging of the Pharaoh’s baker.


Depiction of the hanging of the Pharaoh’s baker in the Old English Hexateuch, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 59r.

Thankfully to many an aspiring baker, modern society is far more tolerant of the varying talents of bakers and the cakes an loaves that they produce!

Becky Lawton


23 August 2016

Which Star Sign Are You?

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Are you one of those people who reads their star charts religiously? Does it matter whether you were born a Taurus or under the sign of Aries? Do Leos rub you up the wrong way or Capricorns get your goat?

If you've answered yes to any of these questions, it might warm your heart to realise that astrology was taken very seriously in the Middle Ages. Take, for example, the Psalter of Lambert le Bègue (Add MS 21114), which contains this cycle of calendar pages, each adorned with its own zodiac sign. For January we have an image of a hooded man drinking from a bowl, below which is the sign of Aquarius; February is represented by a man lopping branches from a tree, with the sign of Pisces; while December depicts a man about to slaughter a bull, supported by the sign of Capricorn. Lambert (died around 1177) had founded the Béguine monastery of St Christophe in Liège, and his portrait is found on f. 7v of this Psalter, made sometime between 1255 and 1265.

Whoever illustrated this calendar clearly wished to supply the star signs for their readers, supplemented by drawings of typical activities for each month of the year, from hawking (May) to harvesting (August) and making wine (October). The vaguely optimistic bull on the calendar page for December is contrasted with the indignant boar for November and the proud hawk for May. Meanwhile, the star signs all resemble their modern forms, with that for Sagittarius firing its arrow into the distance off the right-hand edge of the page. So, which star sign are you?


January (Aquarius): Add MS 21114, f. 1r



February (Pisces): Add MS 21114, f. 1v



March (Aries): Add MS 21114, f. 2r



April (Taurus): Add MS 21114, f. 2v



May (Gemini): Add MS 21114, f. 3r



June (Cancer): Add MS 21114, f. 3v



July (Leo): Add MS 21114, f. 4r



August (Virgo): Add MS 21114, f. 4v



September (Libra): Add MS 21114, f. 5r



October (Scorpio): Add MS 21114, f. 5v



November (Sagittarius): Add MS 21114, f. 6r



December (Capricorn): Add MS 21114, f. 6v

You can find our more about calendar pages in our monthly post taken this year from the magnificent Bedford Hours.


20 August 2016

The Grandisson Psalter

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When John Grandisson (1292–1369) became bishop of Exeter in 1327, he was not taking up an easy job. His predecessor, Walter Stapeldon, had been murdered in London the previous year. The cathedral was half-finished. By 1348, the city was struck by the Black Death, bringing poverty everywhere.

John struck back at the confusion with beauty, ensuring that building works could continue, amassing a library, and making space to write. Perhaps the most stunning book he owned was his Psalter, held at the British Library, Add MS 21926, is now available on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


An angel with John Grandisson’s arms: Add MS 21926, f. 2r

Although the ‘Grandisson Psalter’ was made long before he was born, around 1270–80, we know that it was owned by John because he conveniently had his coat of arms added to the opening page. His will also survives, in which he bequeathed the book to princess Isabella (1332–79), the eldest daughter of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. He called it ‘my rather beautiful Psalter’, with good reason.

The manuscript opens with a delightful calendar – like almost every liturgical book, as regular readers will know – showing the labours of the months and signs of the zodiac. Following this is a marvellous series of miniatures, first showing various saints. Opening the line-up are a cheerful St Christopher, carrying Christ, and St Margaret, triumphantly slaying a dragon with an extended cross/spear.


St Christopher (‘Cristoforus’) and St Margaret (‘Margareta’): Add MS 21926, f. 9v

Following the saints are scenes from the life of Christ. Among these are an incredibly creepy Judas. He often comes across in medieval art as a merely pathetic figure, but here he looks to be aiming to replace Moriarty in the next series of Sherlock.


Judas eating at the Last Supper and kissing Christ: Add MS 21926, f. 18v

Another scene shows an appropriately sceptical Thomas touching the side and hand of Christ. In the panel below is another scene of physical contact, showing Christ having dinner, presumably with Martha and Lazarus: he looks mildly embarrassed to have Mary Magdalene washing his feet.


A doubting Thomas touching Christ and determined Mary Magdalene washing his feet: Add MS 21926, f. 23r

Following the miniatures, the psalms are beautifully written, with large decorated initials and intricate patterns filling in the white space at the end of the lines to create a unified block of text. Like several other illuminated Psalters from the period, some figures are included that act out the literal meaning of the text in a mildly humorous manner, probably meant as a memory aid. One page shows a man on a journey grabbing his tongue to illustrate the phrase, ‘I said, I will take heed to my ways that I offend not in my tongue. I placed a guard on my mouth’ (Psalm 39:1/Vulgate 38:2, ‘Dixi custodiam uias meas ut non delinquam in lingua mea. Posui ori meo custodiam’).


‘I said, I will take heed to my ways that I offend not in my tongue’: Add MS 21926, f. 66v

John Grandisson’s use of the book also comes through beyond his coat of arms. At the beginning of most psalms, music has been added in the lower margin giving the text and music of the antiphon, a sentence sung before and after the psalm. Since the music used for the antiphon is also used for the entire psalm, these small additions would have allowed him to sing the entire book.


A motley crew of engaged and not-so-engaged clerics singing from a book on a lectern, with the chant for ‘Cantate domino canticum nouum’ (Psalm 97/98) later added: Add MS 21926, f. 132v

The continuing active use of the book is confirmed by the last section, which includes the text of the Office for the Dead. A later reader, probably John, used a slightly different variant on the rite than that recorded in the book. A scribe has carefully erased and modified sections of the text, also making changes to the punctuation of the text to fit local usage. These pages must have become particularly poignant for John in the context of the pestilence he faced.


The beginning of the Office for the Dead, with the initial showing a body under a shroud being sprinkled with water: Add MS 21926, f. 208v

John Grandisson’s Psalter is a brilliant witness to the skill of artists and scribes in the late 13th century. We hope you love it as much as its original owners and creators.

Andrew Dunning


18 August 2016

Explore our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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When we started this blog, back in the distant past (2010 to be precise, though sometimes it seems longer), we never anticipated how many people would take an interest in the beautiful world of medieval manuscripts. Who ever knew that unicorn cookbooks, knights fighting snails, magical swords and cats in submarines would inspire so many people worldwide. (And no, we never expected to discover we have readers in Antarctica and Greenland either!)


A cat, a rat and a mouse, from a 13th-century miscellany (Harley MS 3244)

Some of our readers, of course, study manuscripts and ancient documents for their profession, being art historians, palaeographers and papyrologists, to name but a few. But we do appreciate that others may have less technical expertise; and for that reason we wanted to remind everyone of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. This is a free online resource, supplying selected images of some of our greatest treasures alongside other useful information for the specialist and non-specialist alike.

The Nativity, from our introduction to Bible manuscripts 

Here are some of the key features of our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

a search function by keyword, with the ability to select a specific date range

a search function by manuscript number

an advanced search function, with fields including scribe, artist, language, illumination and script

a number of virtual exhibitions, including An introduction to liturgical manuscripts, Arthurian manuscripts and the medieval bestiary

illustrated glossaries of terms, including Hebrew terms

guidance notes on access and re-use


A zoo-anthropomorphic initial, from our online glossary

We hope that as many of you as possible find our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts as useful as possible. Go on, give it a try. You might find out the difference between channeling (ooh, painful) and rinceaux (bless you). And you might just discover the manuscript that will change your life ...





12 August 2016

Pokémon Go! The Medieval Edition

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Over the past few weeks, a certain new game has been captivating worldwide interest. It’s not a new Olympic sport or an updated version of Angry Birds, it’s the legendary Pokémon Go! Young and old alike have been out on the streets, climbing up trees and exploring unknown places. With their smartphone in hand, players have been tracking down rare creatures and capturing them inside Pokeballs.

It is traditionally thought that Pikachu, Squirtle and their comrades originated in Japan in the 1990s. However, revolutionary research by the Medieval Manuscripts section has unearthed some familiar scenes among the British Library's collections.


The Luttrell Psalter, Add MS 42130, f. 196v

Pokémon are characterised by their hybrid appearance, bright colours and distinctive qualities. Many medieval manuscripts are also filled with similarly fantastical creatures. A manuscript in the collection here at the British Library which contains an astounding variety of creatures within its margins is the Rutland Psalter. Produced in the 13th century, the manuscript is filled with many weird and wonderful depictions of men, women, real and imagined animals, hybrids and dragons. Many of these creatures could today easily be mistaken for Pokémon.


The Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925, f. 44r


The Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925, f. 59r

The marginalia in the Rutland Psalter were heavily influenced by the traditions of the Marvels of the East. An extensively illustrated copy of the Marvels of the East, recently uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site, contains a variety of marvellous creatures. This griffen-esque character would surely make an extremely fearsome Pokémon!


The Marvels of the East, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 86v

In the game, a player can catch a Pokémon by throwing a Pokeball towards it and hoping that the Pokeball encases the creature, much like this purple clothed figure appears to be doing!


The Luttrell Psalter, Add MS 42130, f. 145r

There is much mystery surrounding what happens to Pokémon once they are encased within the Pokeball. Perhaps they are shrunk down to a faction of their size and float peacefully within the ball, much like the creatures depicted in this 13th-century bestiary.


A medieval bestiary, Harley MS 4751, f. 62r

The map which guides players through the simultaneously real and imagined world of Pokémon Go is not too dissimilar to the pilgrimage itinerary maps drawn by Matthew Paris. These maps were primarily designed to guide an imagined pilgrimage to Jerusalem, rather than a functional map to be carried by a traveller. One could argue that this is similar to the use of ‘virtual reality’ maps in games such as Pokémon Go today.


Itinerary to Jerusalem, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

Pokémon Go is not just about catching the Pokémon; it’s also about training them, and battling against other players and their own Pokémon. One of the most frequently illustrated battles in medieval manuscripts is that between a knight and his eternal enemy, the snail. If snails were a kind of Pokémon, they would be among the most elusive and hard to catch of all. Perhaps it’s their hard shell, agile antenna, or slimy trail; who knows?! For a full chronicle of the enduring battle between knights and snails, see our legendary blogpost.


The Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r 

The Medieval Manuscripts team wishes you the best of luck in your endeavours to ‘catch them all’!


A juggler in a gradual, Harley MS 4951, f. 298v

Becky Lawton


08 August 2016

True Colours

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Our friends at the Fitzwilliam Museum have recently opened a spectacular new exhibition, called Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. This exhibition showcases some of the Fitzwilliam's greatest manuscript treasures, integrated with scientific and art historical research into medieval painting materials and techniques.

The British Library is delighted to have been able to loan four of our own manuscripts to this show, which is open until 30 December 2016. We highly recommend that you make a special journey to Cambridge to view the exhibition, and to take in all these manuscripts in their breath-taking glory.


Add MS 5112, f. 134r: St John the Evangelist, from a gospel book (Byzantium, late 12th century)

This astonishingly beautiful miniature depicts St John the Evangelist, about to sharpen his quill with a knife while a blank codex rests on his lap. This is a particularly fine example of painting with gold leaf; the vermilion red and ultramarine blue of the drapery make a sharp contrast with the gold leaf, and help to distinguish between the gold background and the yellow building in the lower half of the portrait. The miniature itself was not created for the volume in which it was found, and the high quality of the materials and the painting technique strongly suggests a Constantinopolitan origin.


St John the Evangelist, from a gospel book (Byzantium, late 12th century): Add MS 5112, f. 134r


Harley MS 3915: Theophilus, De diversis artibus (NW Germany?, late 12th or early 13th century)

This medieval craft treatise contains instructions for painting, glassmaking and metalworking, as well as pigment recipes and painting instructions for manuscript illumination. The pages shown below describe the manufacture of 'salt green' followed by 'Spanish green', both of which are types of verdigris; next come the production methods for lead white (cerosa) and red lead (minium). Harley 3915 is the most complete and one of the oldest surviving copies of this treatise, the script and ornament of which suggest that it was made somewhere in North-West Germany. We had it digitised a few years ago as part of our Harley Science Project.

Harley_ms_3915_f018v   Harley_ms_3915_f019r

Making green, white and red pigments, in Theophilus, De diversis artibus (NW Germany?, late 12th or early 13th century): Harley MS 3915, ff. 18v–19r 


Sloane MS 1975: A medical and herbal collection (France or England, late 12th century)

This medical treatise concludes with a series of illustrations of medical procedures. The spots represent cautery points, showing doctors where to apply hot irons to treat patients suffering from ailments such as toothache, fever and kidney disease. On the second page shown here, not for the squeamish, are operations to excise haemorrhoids, a nasal growth and cataracts. This manuscript belonged to the Cistercian monastery of Ourscamp in the 14th century, and it later entered the collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753).

Sloane_ms_1975_f092v   Sloane_ms_1975_f093r
Cautery points, in a medical collection (France or England, late 12th century): Sloane MS 1975, ff. 92v–93r)


Harley MS 4336: Boethius, De consolatio philosophiae (Bourges, 1476)

Produced in Bourges in 1476, this manuscript of Boethius's famous treatise, De consolatio philosophiae, is displayed open with this allegorical figure of Fortune, identifiable by the gold letters f emblazoned on her garment. The figures that surround her may represent two different families, one blessed and one cursed by Fortune, or a once prosperous household that has fallen on hard times.

Harley MS 4336 f. 1v

Personification of Fortune, in Boethius, De consolatio philosophiae (Bourges, 1476): Harley MS 4336, f. 1v

Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts is on at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 30 December 2016.


05 August 2016

Medieval Selfies

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It is tourist season here in London, so while dodging groups armed with selfie sticks and smart phones, it's easy to wish that selfies didn’t exist. (Apologies to anyone whose holiday photos have been accidentally photobombed by a befuddled British Library curator.) But such curmudgeonly attitudes to self-portraitists overlook the fact that selfies have existed for a very long time and offer unique insights into some brilliant and multi-talented artists.

Self-portrait of John Dee, mathematician, astronomer, occultist and adviser to Elizabeth I, from a genealogical roll, England, late 16th or early 17th century, Cotton Ch XIV 1

The Oxford English Dictionary limits the definition of ‘selfie’ to ‘photographic self-portraits’. However, if we extend the definition of ‘selfie’ to cover self-portraits made with pen and ink, selfies have existed in Britain for over 1000 years. One of the earliest known manuscript self-portraits to survive from England was made by St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 988), in the 10th century. He depicted himself kneeling before Christ in a manuscript now known as ‘St Dunstan’s Classbook’ (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Auct F.4.32).

How can we tell if an image is a self-portrait? First, we can sometimes identify an artist by analysing brushstrokes, penwork, design or the accompanying handwriting, especially if the artist is well-known or worked on other manuscripts. However, even if we can identify the artist, how can we be sure that an image was intended as a self-portrait, rather than as an image of somebody else? This is where captions come in handy. Most known self-portraits are identified by nearby text which states or suggests that an image depicts its own artist.

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Detail of a self-portrait of Matthew Paris with his name, from the prefatory material to Matthew Paris’s Historia Anglorum, St Albans, c. 1250-1259, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r 

For example, the image above is a self-portrait of the noted medieval writer, scribe, artist and polymath Matthew Paris. We have other manuscripts which are known to have been copied by Matthew Paris, so we can be confident that the first part of this manuscript contains his handwriting and drawing. He also conveniently labelled this self-portrait of him kneeling beneath the Virgin and child: ‘Frater Mathias Parisiensis’.

Self-portrait of Matthew Paris kneeling beneath the Virgin and child, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r 

Similarly, red letters next to two historiated initials in a 13th-century Book of Hours (Add MS 49999) identify the self-portraits of William de Brailes, the book’s artist. William and his workshop are important as some of the earliest known producers of books in England who were not based in a religious institution. Although his self-portraits portray him with a tonsure, William did not depict himself wearing the habit of a religious order, and legal documents from Oxford suggest that he was based at a workshop on Catte Street, at the centre of the Oxford book trade. If selfies never existed, we would know much less about this important figure in the history of book production, and about the way he presented himself.

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Self-portrait of William de Brailes, from the de Brailes Hours, Oxford, c. 1240, Add MS 49999, f. 43r 

In other cases, unlabelled self-portraits have been identified with comparison to labelled self-portraits by the same artist. For example, some scholars claim the image below is a self-portrait of the artist John Siferwas or Cyfrewas (fl. 1380-1421) presenting a work to his patron John, Baron Lovell, because its features and content resemble a labelled self-portrait of Siferwas in the Sherborne Missal. Siferwas drew himself next to the Missal’s scribe, John Whas.

Harley 7026   f. 4v

Left: possible self-portrait of John Siferwas with John, Baron Lovell, from the Lovell Lectionary, Glastonbury?, c. 1400-1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 4v Right: self-portrait of John Siferwas with John Whas, from the Sherborne Missal, Sherborne, c. 1399-1407, Add MS 74236, f. 276v

Other medieval images could be self-portraits, but this is more difficult to prove. Some scholars have argued that the Eadui Psalter contains a self-portrait of its scribe and possible artist, Eadwig (also spelled Eadui) Basan. Eadwig (fl.1012-1023), a monk of Christ Church Canterbury, was one of the most talented Anglo-Saxon scribes, writing charters, the Grimbald Gospels and part of the Harley Psalter, among other works. That said, there is no agreement whether Eadwig really depicted himself in this Psalter and, if he did, which figure he is supposed to be.

Arundel 155   f. 133
Miniature of monks presenting the Rule of St Benedict to St Benedict, with a prostrating figure, from the Eadui Psalter, Christ Church Canterbury, c. 1012-1023, Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

Some believe the figure kneeling at Benedict’s feet might be a self-portrait of Eadwig. Others argue that the prostrate figure could be a patron or could simply have been copied from an earlier exemplar. Still other historians have argued that Eadwig appears as a member of the crowd presenting a book to Benedict. Nevertheless, some of these figures seem a little slim to be Eadwig: it has been suggested that Eadwig’s second name, basan, was derived from a Hebrew word for ‘the fat’.  Or maybe this was just a very flattering self-portrait!

Whereas modern selfie-takers are often stereotyped as vain and self-promoting, medieval selfies frequently involved a different type of self-promotion, one focused on humility before the divine and saints. In other contexts, medieval artists and writers emphasized the dangers of narcissism and of being too concerned with one’s own appearance. The story of Narcissus, the figure from Greek myth who became obsessed with his own reflection, was retold throughout the Middle Ages, notably in the Roman de la Rose

Harley 4425   f. 20
Detail of Narcissus, from the Roman de la Rose, Bruges, c. 1490-1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 20r 

So, you can see that self-portraiture is not strictly a modern phenomenon. If you come to the British Library’s current major exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts (open until 6 September 2016), you can even view a possible self-portrait of Richard Burbage, the actor who first played Hamlet, Richard III, Othello and King Lear.

Alison Hudson