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10 February 2017

The Flower of Nature

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The British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site has recently acquired some new residents, including unicorns, amorous elephants, humans and dragons. These can all be found in the recently digitised Der naturen bloeme or The Flower of Nature (Add MS 11390), a natural encyclopedia and bestiary in Middle Dutch verse.

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Add MS 11390, f. 22r

The manuscript is one of only eleven extant copies and contains 571 fantastic illustrations of the humans, quadrupeds, birds, sea creatures, fish, poisonous snakes, insects and crawling animals, common trees, spice trees and medicinal herbs. The text also discusses wells, gemstones and metals.

Add MS 11390 stags
Add MS 11390
, f. 23r

Be warned, however: this bestiary is not rated PG!

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Add MS 11390, f. 13r

The text of Der naturen bloeme was written around 1270 by the Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant (b. c. 1200, d. c. 1272) at the request of his patron, the somewhat appropriately-named Nicolaas van Cats. The British Library’s copy was probably made in the first quarter of the 14th century.

Add MS 11390 elephants
Add MS 11390, f. 13v

In addition to its fantastic drawings, it also provides rare evidence of a medieval lending library. An oath, written on the last page, states that its borrower swears on the cross drawn next to the text that he or she will return the manuscript or die. The oath is signed by a woman, in a 14th- or 15th-century hand, who identifies herself as 'abstetrix heifmoeder' ('obstetrix’ meaning midwife).

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Detail of an oath, Add MS 11390, f. 94v

Clarck Drieshen

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09 February 2017

Dying to Archive: John Lakenheath at Bury St Edmunds Abbey

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On 21 June 1381, during the Peasants’ Revolt, a mob in Bury St Edmunds was out to kill. Among their chosen targets was John Lakenheath, a monk at the abbey as well as keeper of the barony (custos baronie), making him responsible for collecting dues and fines for the abbey’s manors. His crime: putting the abbey’s archives in order after they had been sacked by the townspeople as long ago as 1327. With all the relevant documentation at hand, the abbey had been asserting its claims stridently.

Index in Harley MS 743, f. 4r.

Index in Harley MS 743, f. 4r.

The book that made John so hated survives in the British Library as Harley MS 743, the ‘Lakenheath Register’. It is a calendar or directory of the documentary evidence held at the abbey in John’s time, showing its claim to properties, fees it was owed by tenants, and other legal privileges. It is not highly decorated, but it is full of energy, as reflected in the opening to John’s preface (translated from Harley MS 743, f. 3v):

After our monastery was destroyed by robbers and fire, and the registers of the abbots and other muniments were stolen stealthily without return, the thin ears of corn behind the backs of the reapers had hardly remained from such an abundant harvest of evidence for the church. Because of this, I, brother John Lakenheath, have arranged from various registers a kind of calendar, whatever the circumstances. In it, I have laid out in alphabetical order the names of certain manors about which I learnt any documentary evidence. By this, the evidence may more openly be accessible to future generations, that within and outside their liberty, the abbot and convent may have the power to proclaim their royal rights and other liberties more confidently. I ask the reader to mark this work in kindness rather than presumption.

John’s preface in Harley MS 743, f. 3v.

John’s preface in Harley MS 743, f. 3v.

John goes on to lay out his organisational scheme. Writing in 1379, tensions were already growing, and he may have already realised the danger he was in as he was compiling his register. He ends on an ominous note: ‘If for certain reasons I am unable to complete something noted above, may the reader accept the will for the deed, and may he ask the omnipotent to have mercy on the soul of the compiler.’ The book allows the reader to look up a particular estate, and find all the documents associated with it, going back to the day of William the Conqueror. In a society that was placing an ever-increasing value on written over oral evidence, one can easily imagine the power this conveyed.

The story of John Lakenheath’s death: Cotton MS Claudius A XII, f. 135v.

The story of John Lakenheath’s death: Cotton MS Claudius A XII, f. 135v.

John’s work led to personal disaster. The story of his death is told by another Bury monk, John Gosford, in his Election of John Timworth (Electio domini Iohannis Tymwrith in abbatem, Cotton MS Claudius A XII, ff. 135v–136r):

Hanging the prior’s head on a pillory, that whole cursing band came into the monastery, naming certain brothers, of whom they sought one before all the others, namely Walter Toddington; but when they could not find him, they sought another, namely the keeper of the barony. Although he could have fled from their hands, he refused to do so, declaring that he could not fall to a better cause than for the rights of his church, which he was always defending to the best of his ability, and therefore he wished to await the atonement of death for its sake, if it would drive their murderous hands from it. Some people from the village who hated him very much, pretending that they would be clean by his blood, arranged for the wicked people from the region to capture, hold, and kill him. When they came into his cloister where he had been stationed, they shouted, ‘Where is that betrayer?’ He answered them, ‘I am not a betrayer; but if you wish to have me, here I am.’ They shouted, ‘We have found the betrayer!’ They carried him away from the cloister, and led him into the middle of the marketplace: leading him through the road, they dragged him along. They not only attacked him with blows, but inflicted many mortal wounds on him, so that he was nearly dead by the time he reached that place. There, the killer struck him seven times before he was able to cut off his head. They set it up on the pillory with the other heads.

Depending on one’s point of view, the Lakenheath Register can mean something quite different: the townspeople must have thought it an instrument of tyranny, while the abbey depicted John’s work as that of a martyr. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.

Andrew Dunning

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06 February 2017

A New Opening for the Lindisfarne Gospels

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If in the next few months you visit the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery here at the British Library, you can feast your eyes on a new part of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV), which we have changed from displaying the letter of Eusebius at the beginning of the manuscript to a page from the Gospel of John at the end:

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 A text page from the Gospel of St John in the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 239v)

While the new leaves don’t contain the Gospels’ more famous illustrations, such as the Carpet Pages, they are a good example of what the majority of the Lindisfarne Gospels looks like: simple text on a page, highlighted by the use of colours on the initial letters marking the start of many of the Gospel verses.

The pages currently on display are taken from Chapter 12, verses 7-25. The text is divided into two columns, with Aldred’s Old English translation visible above each Latin word in small brown ink. The scribe has decorated some (but not all) of the initials at the beginning of the verses; the lowest decoration is simple colouring in of an initial (i.e. the yellow ‘h’ for ‘Haec non cognoverunt…’), while more effort has been placed into other initials, such as the more elaborate colours and use of decorative points on the ‘In’ of ‘In crastinum autem…’. The Roman numerals in the margins are references to both the number of verse and to the corresponding verses in the three other Gospels.

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Another text page from the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 240r)

Stop by and see the pages for yourself! The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is free to enter and open to all members of the public, seven days a week. More information, including current opening hours, can be found here.

And remember, you can view the whole of the Lindisfarne Gospels on our Digitised Manuscripts site. For conservation reasons, we change the pages on display on a regular basis; so be sure to check back in three months’ time to read about the new pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels on view.

Taylor McCall

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03 February 2017

A Medieval Wikipedia: Bartholomew the Englishman’s On the Properties of Things

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The British Library has recently digitised a copy of one of the most popular medieval reference works: Bartholomew the Englishman’s On the Properties of Things (De proprietatibus rerum), an encyclopaedia meant to serve as a reference guide for all of the ‘things’ — a Wikipedia equivalent of the Middle Ages.

The copy just digitised is Additional MS 8785, a vernacular translation produced around the year 1308 in Mantua, Italy, and is full of unique illustrations. The author of the Latin original, Bartholomew the Englishman (d. 1272), was a Franciscan monk living in Paris, and On the Properties of Things (completed around 1240) became a medieval bestseller; there are over 200 manuscript copies of the text surviving today.

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Bartholomew the Englishman inspired by Christ to write On the Properties of Things, and next to him a depiction of Christ, marked by the golden halo (Add MS 8785, f. 14r).

Bartholomew divided his encyclopaedia into 19 books on different topics, including natural philosophy and theology, anatomy and medicine, astronomy and astrology, the elements, zoology, botany, geography, geology and mineralogy, among others.

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Book 15: On Geography: an image of an ‘Earthly paradise’, featuring two men debating in a rocky landscape before a burning city, surrounded by angels, plants and streams (Add MS 8785, f. 191v).

Additional MS 8785 is notable for being one of the earliest vernacular translations of the encyclopaedia, put into the Italian dialect local to Mantua by a man called Vivaldo del Belcalzer. Nothing is known about Vivaldo except what he writes in the beginning of the manuscript, which is that he presented it — complete with over one hundred illustrations — to the signore of Mantua sometime around 1308.

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End of book 19 (section entitled ‘mapa del mond’): a small map of the world with buildings in place of cities, Jerusalem at the centre, divided by the seas; the globe is held by Christ, whose head is at the top, hands at each side, and feet at the bottom (Add MS 8785, f. 315r).

This copy includes more illustrations than most, many of which are situated inside small initials beginning the different sections of the text, known as historiated initials. The most popular book is probably number 18, ‘On Animals’, which was often illustrated and associated with the bestiary tradition (for more on bestiaries, see our recent blogpost on Fantastic Beasts). In addition to depictions of familiar animals — dogs, cats, lions etc — there are also descriptions of a few fantastic beasts, including this page devoted to the so-called ‘monstrous’ races of hybrid humans:

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Book 18: On Animals: Fauns and satyrs and monstrous races (Add MS 8785, f. 285r).

It was rare for all chapters of On the Properties of Things to be illustrated, and this is particularly the case for Books 5–7, which dealt with the anatomy of the human body, the four humours and diseases. In these books, the historiated initials beginning each section include small images of organs and other body parts; on the page below, the initial in the left column includes a foot and at top right, a heel. The larger initial ‘S’ towards the bottom right of the page features a robed man holding a book, likely a depiction of one of the medical authors that Bartholomew consulted when compiling the encyclopaedia, whose names are credited in red ink in the margins.

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End of Book 5: On the Parts of the Body, and beginning of Book 6: On the 'Simple Members' of the Body (Add MS 8785, f. 57r).

And finally, one of our favourite images is from Book 17 (On Herbs and Plants): a depiction of a vineyard, in which the lady in the centre has perhaps overindulged in the large carafes of wine being offered to her!

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Book 17: On Herbs and Plants: A vineyard scene (Add MS 8785, f. 257r).

As Bartholomew wrote in his epilogue, this encyclopaedia was meant to be read by ‘the simple and the young, who on account of the infinite number of books cannot look into the properties of each single thing about which Scripture deals, can readily find their meaning herein — at least superficially’. You can see the entire manuscript on our Digitised Manuscripts site – let us know what meanings you find!

Taylor McCall

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01 February 2017

A Calendar Page for February 2017

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To find out more about Additional MS 36684, see last month’s entry (January 2017), and for more on medieval calendars, check out our original calendar post.

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Calendar page for February, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 2v–3r

The February calendar entry in Additional MS 36684 shows ever-more creative animal and human hybrid figures in the margins, including an undoubtedly chilly lady who is missing her clothes while perusing a book. Much warmer is our labour of the month, a grinning man sitting very close to a roaring fire, heating his socks. Wonder what is cooking in his pot!

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Labour of the month, calendar page for February, Add MS 36684, f. 2v

On the opposite folio, the zodiac figure of Pisces, two fishes swimming in opposite directions connected by a single thread, are happily installed in a miniature Gothic cathedral. They are flanked by two curious, vaguely mammalian creatures trumpeting their importance with golden horns.

Fig 4_add_ms_36684_f003r Pisces
Pisces, calendar page for February, Add MS 36684, f. 3r

You might have noticed a significant entry on the fourteenth day of February: the feast of ‘Valentini martyris’, or Valentine the Martyr. It was only in the later Middle Ages that St Valentine first came to be associated with romantic love.

The borders of the first page include several realistic birds alongside the fantastic decorative hybrid figures. This is perhaps because mid-February was thought to be the time in which birds paired off — another reason why St Valentine became the patron saint of lovers.

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Birds (and a butterfly), calendar page for February, Add MS 36684, f. 2v

As a reminder, you can see all of Additional MS 36684 online on Digitised Manuscripts. We hope your feet are as toasty as our labourer’s!

Taylor McCall
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

29 January 2017

The Book with a Fur Cover

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People who visit the British Library would be well advised to take heed of the adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Today, most medieval manuscripts have lost their original covers. As a result, some of the British Library’s finest treasures are hiding behind some rather unassuming-looking brown or blue bindings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nevertheless, the British Library is lucky enough to possess a few examples of medieval bookbinding and covers. These range from wooden boards or pieces of leather to more elaborate examples of tooled leather, ivory and even jewelled metal bindings.

Bindings
Left:
Front cover from the St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Wearmouth Jarrow), early 8th century, Add MS 89000 Right: Ivory and turquoise upper cover of the Melisende Psalter, Kingdom of Jerusalem, c. 1131-43, Egerton MS 1139/1

One binding, however, has recently caught our eyes. It contains a glossed copy of Genesis from Rievaulx Abbey (Add MS 63077), made in the 2nd half of the 12th century. And it stands out because it is covered in… fur.

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Detail of fur on the cover of a glossed copy of Genesis, England (Rievaulx Abbey), 12th century, Add MS 63077

Dark brown hairs stand out from the worn cover. Originally the binding was probably completely covered in fur, and preliminary analysis suggests Add MS 63077's cover may have been made from sealskin. 

Leather was a common material for binding many different types of books in the Middle Ages, from the St Cuthbert Gospel’s carefully tooled leather cover to the less elaborate, rather loose leather that drapes over the thick wooden boards holding together the Sherborne Cartulary (Add MS 46487). In those cases, however, the animal skin would have been treated to remove the fur or hair before the material was added to the binding. Add MS 63077 is not unique in possessing a fur cover (or even a sealskin cover), but it is not clear why its cover was treated in this way (or why the fur survives in this case). 

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In addition to fur, the binding features a small metal roundel describing the manuscript’s contents: a glossed study-copy of the book of Genesis. The roundel is decorated with a zig-zag pattern and is written in capitals.

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The binding also features metal bosses sticking out on that cover. These were perhaps more functional than decorative: there is evidence that books would have been stacked horizontally in western libraries, rather than placed upright along shelves.

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Opening of the book of Genesis, Add MS 63077, f. 1r

Inside the binding, the contents of the manuscript were carefully laid out, with modest decoration. The central column of text contains the book of Genesis. Various notes and commentaries by medieval authors have been added around the side, showing that this volume was carefully planned before the text was written.

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Page from Genesis with commentary from the writing of Bede and Jerome, Add MS 63077, f. 72r 

This manuscript was probably made and owned in the 12th century at Rievaulx Abbey, a house of Cistercians, a relatively new monastic Order which had been founded around 1098. These monks criticised Benedictine monks for what they felt was too opulent a lifestyle. The Cistercians emphasized hard labour as well as study and worship in their day-to-day routines. Some of their surviving manuscripts, such as this glossed Genesis, provide an insight into their scholarly pursuits and priorities. Interestingly, another manuscript with a furry sealskin covering is also associated with a Cistercian house in the late 12th century: from Fountains Abbey, there survives a manuscript containing works of Augustine, the consuetudines (customs) of the Cistercian monks and the passion and miracles of St Olaf protected by a 'sealskin chemise' (now Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 209).

Still, this manuscript with its furry cover remains a bit mysterious. Have any of our readers seen similar manuscripts or know any reasons why the hair may have been left on this cover?

Alison Hudson

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25 January 2017

Address to a Medieval Haggis

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Today we celebrate the birthday of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (1759–1796). Robert Burns was born in Alloway, a small village near the river Doon just south of Ayr in south-west Scotland. He was made famous by his innovative volume of verse, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, first published in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire in 1786. Burns is perhaps best known for composing the poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which is to this day sung to ring in the New Year. Every year on 25 January, Scotland and the world celebrate his literary legacy by hosting Burns Night suppers with delicious treats such as neeps and tatties, and the famous Scottish dish of haggis. The British Library holds one of the oldest known recipes for haggis in a text composed around 1430, the Booke of Curtassye (now Sloane MS 1986). The recipe for ‘hagese’ features in English verse along with references to potages, roasted meats and humble pie. The whole collection is translated here.

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Address to hagese: one of the earliest recipes for haggis, Sloane MS 1986, f. 55r

For hagese

The hert of schepe the nere thou take
    Thou bowel noȝt thou schall forsake
On the turbilen made & boyled wele
    Hacke all togeder wit gode parsole
Isop saueray thou schall take then
    And suet of schepe take in I ken
Wit powder of peper & egges gode wonne
    And seth hit wele & serue hit thenne
Loke hit be saltyd for gode menne
    In wynter tyme when erbs ben gode
Take powder of hom I wot in dede
    As saueray mynt & tyme full gode
Isop & sauge I wot by the rode

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The town of Ayr appears as ‘Aier’ in the 16th-century Nowell-Burghley Atlas, 
Add MS 62540, f. 4r

If you are inclined to try a more exotic haggis, look no further than this 15th-century English recipe for pudding of porpoise that appears in a cookbook of extravagant banquets (now Harley MS 279). Prepared in the same manner as traditional haggis made with sheep’s stomach, one must mix porpoise blood, porpoise grease, oatmeal, salt, pepper and ginger, then stuff the ingredients into the porpoise stomach before cooking. Perhaps this dish should be served with a side of 'dolphinoise' potatoes?

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Great chieftain o’ the porpoise pudding-race! Recipe for 'puddyng of purpaysse' in Harley MS 279, f. 32v

However you choose to celebrate Burns Night, remember to raise your dram to the Scottish bard!

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Bagpipes, from the Hours of the Earls of Ormond, England (London), c. 1460, 
Harley MS 2887, f. 29r

Alison Ray

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24 January 2017

Stars in Their Eyes: Art and Medieval Astronomy

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After coming across a familiar-looking diagram of the planets in a 10th-century manuscript a few months ago, I asked my colleagues here at the British Library how cosmology was represented in some of the manuscripts on which they are currently working. The manuscripts they recommended offered a diverse array of ways to represent the planets and stars. Stargazing may have been a common human pastime throughout the ages, but how to depict the night sky was evidently another matter.

Harley 4431   f. 189v
Christine and the Sybil pointing to a ladder from the heavens, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410-1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 189v

Today, planets are often depicted with a diagram which shows their orbits as a series of concentric circles. This type of diagram may have ancient roots, stretching back to Greek philosophers and astronomers like Ptolemy and Heraclides. Such models illustrated excerpts from the Roman thinker Pliny’s Natural History  in some early medieval manuscripts. Over time, some copies were elaborated to take into account planets’ apparent retrogrades, leading to some spectacular models where planets are given overlapping or even zig-zagging paths. Diagrams using concentric circles were incorporated into medieval authors' works, too. Such a diagram illustrates a copy of Isidore of Seville’s influential text, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things), made in England in the 10th century. These diagrams reverse the positions of the Earth/moon and the sun, and some of the names of the planets are different from the names we use today, but otherwise they are largely recognizable to modern viewers.

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Left:
Diagram of the planets, from excerpts of Pliny’s Natural History, France (Fleury), c. 990-1000, Harley MS 2506, f. 53r; Right: Diagram of the planets’ orbits, from Isidore of Seville’s De Natura Rerum, England (St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury?), Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23v.

In some cases, diagrams illustrating Pliny and other classical texts were also combined with theories attributed to Pythagoras about the relationship between musical tones, mathematical ratios and planets' orbits. Hence, a 12th-century diagram includes notes about tonus (tones) in between the planets.

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Diagram of the harmony of the planets, marked with names of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, and the Moon, following a commentary on Ovid's Metamorphoses, France, c. 1225-1275, Burney MS 224, f. 191v

The concentric model was expanded in later medieval art to include the seven planets and the earth encircled by a layer of ‘fixed stars’ which was held up by angels. The elements of fire, air, water and earth were given their own layers, under the moon.

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Circular diagram of the spheres of the Ptolemaic system, including the four elements, the seven planetary spheres, and the sphere of fixed stars, with four angels surrounding them, from Matfré Ermengau of Béziers's Breviari d'Amour, Spain (Gerona?), c. 1375-1400, Yates Thompson 31
, f. 66r 

Other depictions of the ‘spheres’ could be even more elaborate, with Hell at the centre and the throne of God at the outermost layer.

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Full-page miniature of the Universe as a diagram formed of concentric circles, from Gautier de Metz’s L’Image du monde, Low Countries (Bruges), 1464, Royal MS 19 A IX, f. 149r  

But concentric circles were not the only way of depicting star systems in medieval manuscripts. By contrast, the model of the sun, moon and earth, from a 13th-century copy of Bede’s De temporibus, might look a bit alien to modern viewers.

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Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets,
 England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v

Earth is represented by a house-/ tomb-/ reliquary-shaped box at the bottom of the diagram, while the moon is labelled in a roundel above it. According to the annotations on the side, the other roundels include Mercury, Venus and other planets, all the way up to Saturn, ‘in the 7th heaven’. The diagram accompanies a passage explaining ‘why the moon, though situated beneath the sun, sometimes appears to be above it’ (translated by F. Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning of Time (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 77). While these diagrams look rather different from modern textbook representations of the sun, moon and earth, some of Bede’s text, updating to previous models of the universe, still stands. In particular, Bede is notable for being the first European to observe and record the connection between phases of the moon and the tides of the ocean.

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Diagram of planets’ orbits, from a scientific miscellany, France or England, late 11th or 12th century, Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 143v
 

The diagram in a scientific miscellany made in the late 11th or early 12th century takes yet another approach, mapping planets’ orbits onto a sort of graph. The sun’s regular appearance in the sky here contrasts with the other planets’ (and the moon's) more variable appearances over days, months and years.

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Astrological drawing of the moon and Zodiac constellations, from a collection of astronomical and alchemical treatises, England, 16th century, Egerton MS 845, f. 21v

Other depictions of cosmology and the stars prioritised artistic creativity over mathematical calculations.

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Two angels turning the axes of the world, from Matfre Ermengaud's Breviari d'amor, France (Toulouse?), mid-14th century, Harley MS 4940, f. 28r

Byzantine manuscripts provide some stunning examples of the planets as personified, depicted containing tiny portraits.

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Planets, from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, February 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 135v

Like the concentric model, these personified models were also based on classical sources, which meant that these common themes emerged even in manuscripts produced in distant regions. For example, 11th-century manuscripts from as far apart as Constantinople and England depict the sun as a charioteer.

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A personification of the rising sun, orbs of day and night, and a personification of the setting sun, from the Bristol Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), 11th century, Add MS 40731, f. 80v

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The chariots of the sun and the moon, from a scientific miscellany, Southern England, c. 1030-1060, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 47r

Maps of the constellations were another way of representing the stars that was classically inspired and widespread in the Middle Ages: see our earlier blog post on Cicero’s ‘map to the stars’. Although the image of a night sky teeming with mythical monsters, ships and heroes contrasts with the model of orderly concentric orbits that began this post, we also use some of the same imagery of constellations today. See the similarities between an early medieval map of the constellations below and an advertisement for Air France which features in the British Library’s exhibition on Maps and the 20th Century (on until 1 March 2017). 

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Map of the constellations of disputed origin, 9th or 11th-century, Northwestern Europe (Northern France? Low Countries? St Augustine’s, Canterbury?), Harley MS 647, f. 21v 

This is just a small sample of the ways the planets and stars were portrayed in medieval manuscripts. It does not even begin to touch on diagrams outlining specific celestial events, like eclipses, phases of the moon and zodiac cycles. Hopefully, however, this post gives a small taste of the myriad of ways medieval people thought about and depicted the heavens. 


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Men observing the stars, from Bartholomaeus Anglicus' De Proprietatibus rerum, 
Italy (Mantua), c. 1300-1310, Add MS 8785, f. 108v

Alison Hudson

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