Medieval manuscripts blog

635 posts categorized "Medieval"

27 November 2016

The Caption Competition Returns

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We'd love to say that our caption competition returns by popular demand, but that isn't strictly true. The only people who have probably missed it are our lawyers.

Nevertheless, we've decided to don our hard hats and to return to the fray. So what's going on here? You can send your suggestions via the comments button below or tweet us @BLMedieval. The usual terms and conditions apply (in other words, there are none). Oh yes, and if you want to see more of the original manuscript, and it is truly special, you can view it online here: Arundel MS 66.

Remember: no manuscripts were harmed during the making of this competition.

Caption competition

@BLMedieval (your friendly medieval manuscript Twitter account)

25 November 2016

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Supermonk

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While working on the early medieval manuscripts at the British Library, I can’t help notice the sophistication and vision of the people who lived over 1000 years ago. They certainly had different worldviews and priorities from people living today; but I’m constantly surprised by the ambition of some of their inventions and ideas. For example, did you know that the first recorded pioneer of man-powered flight in the British Isles was an Anglo-Saxon monk from Malmesbury Abbey called Eilmer (or in Old English, Ã†thelmaer) who lived between about 980 and 1070?    

Arundel 35   f. 1
Opening page of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum: Arundel 35, f. 1r. Southern England (Winchester?) 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century.

Eilmer’s life is recounted in the Deeds of the Kings of England by William of Malmesbury; indeed, William may have met him when Eilmer was an old man. According to William, many years earlier Eilmer had attached wings to his hands and his feet and jumped from a tower, travelling at least a ‘stadium’ (possibly 200 metres or 600 feet), before being caught by turbulence and breaking both his legs. Eilmer later claimed his error was not fitting a tail to himself, as well as wings. For comparison, the Wright Brothers’ first flight covered about 120 feet.

Harley MS 603, f. 9r
We have no evidence of what Eilmer’s wings looked like, but some contemporary artists depicted humanoid angels with wings, sometimes flying or floating: the Harley Psalter, Harley MS 603, f. 9r. Christ Church, Canterbury, 11th century.

Eilmer was probably born in the 980s and died after 1066, so his flight probably took place in the 1000s or 1010s. We can guess Eilmer’s lifespan because William of Malmesbury claimed Eilmer had seen Halley’s Comet twice, in 1066 and presumably in 989. Comets were associated with political upheaval, and William dramatically described how, upon seeing the comet in 1066, Eilmer became very upset and prophesied the Norman Conquest:

‘Crouching in terror at the sight of the gleaming star, "You've come, have you?" he said. "You've come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country."’ (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, chapter 225, translated by R.A.B. Mynors and others (London: The Folio Society, 2014), p. 248.)

Although 1000 or 1010 is an early date for man-powered flight, Eilmer was not the first human to attempt to fly. The 14th-century writer al-Makkari claimed that the 9th-century Andalusian scholar Abbas ibn Firnas also tried to fly, and also attributed his failure to forgetting to build a tail. Eilmer and Firnas were in good company in this respect: modern reconstructions of Leonardo da Vinci's design for a gilder also failed until a tail was added. Other medieval aviators included the scholar and dictionary-writer al-Jawhari, who reportedly died while trying to fly from the roof of a mosque in Nishapur in what is modern-day Iran in 1003 or 1008. There are even earlier stories about people flying or gliding in China, Ancient Greece and Rome.

Like many of these other early pioneers of flight, Eilmer was also a scholar. Sadly, none of his own writings survive to the present day. However, on Digitised Manuscripts you can see one manuscript which Eilmer himself may have read: an Old English copy of the Gospels (Cotton MS Otho C I/1). This manuscript seems to have been owned at Malmesbury Abbey by the mid-11th century, when an Old English translation of a papal decree relating to Malmesbury was added between the gospels of Luke and John.

Cotton Otho C I!1 ff. 69v-70r
Inserted translation of a papal decree facing the opening page of the Gospel of St John in Old English: Cotton MS Otho C I/1, ff. 69v-70r. England, c. 1000-1050.

Other monks at Malmesbury do not seem to have been amused by Eilmer’s experiments and inventions. Although William of Malmesbury generally respected Eilmer, he chided him for thinking that the ‘fable’ of the Greek inventor Daedalus flying was actually real. Even today, the ‘Birdman of Bognor’ competition for individual flying contraptions features contestants who, for the most part, lampoon the idea of individual flight. Eilmer was not the last human to try to fly, however. His story inspired thinkers from Roger Bacon to John Milton to the 19th-century ornithologist John Wise to 20th-century French scholars. Today, you can see airplanes in the sky above Malmesbury Abbey, some perhaps passing over the exact same stretch where Eilmer first glided.

Alison Hudson


23 November 2016

Alison Balsom Meets the Middle Ages

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The final episode of Treasures of the British Library is now available to watch on Sky Arts. It features musician Alison Balsom, whose interests range far beyond the splendours of the trumpet. From our medieval collections, you'll have the chance to see Leonardo da Vinci's notebook; gorgeous maps; and historic cookbooks.


Alison Balsom at the British Library.

The star of the show is a set of notes made by Leonardo da Vinci, which Alison discusses with our own Curator of Medieval and Tudor Manuscripts, Andrea Clarke. The writing is backwards (like on the front of an ambulance), and the pages feature several of Leonardo's sketches for musical instruments. For a few more weeks, you also have the chance to see the notebook in person in our Treasures Gallery, and you can view the whole book, Arundel MS 263, online.

Drawings and 'mirror writing' by Leonardo da Vinci: Arundel MS 263, f. 137v

Drawings and 'mirror writing' by Leonardo da Vinci: Arundel MS 263, f. 137v

Also from Italy are the maps in Add MS 27376*, an appendix to Marino Sanudo's Liber secretorum fidelium crucis (The Book of the Secrets of the Faithful of the Cross). They are attributed to the 14th-century Genose cartographer Pietro Vesconte, who brought new levels of beauty and accuracy to the art.

A map by Pietro Vesconte: Add MS 27376*, f. 183r

A map by Pietro Vesconte: Add MS 27376*, f. 183r

Alison also examined two historic cookbooks written in Middle English. One is Potage Dyvers, surviving in a 15th-century copy, Harley MS 279. Don't watch the programme on an empty stomach — the book features such delicacies as a 'bruet of almayne' (sauce of almonds). Even more fascinating is The Forme of Cury ('curry' being an old word for 'cookery'), Add MS 5016, written by the chefs of King Richard II (1377–1399), featuring everything from 'salat' and 'cryspes' to 'cawdel of samoun', 'oysters in grauey', and 'ryse of flessh'. It is copied not as a typical codex, but in the form of a roll. We're soon adding this cookbook to our Digitised Manuscripts site to celebrate. Pastry castles, anyone?

The Forme of Cury: Add MS 5016

The Forme of Cury: Add MS 5016

Andrew Dunning

22 November 2016

Magna Carta Room Reopens

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This November it is 800 years since the first revised version of Magna Carta was issued in the name of the boy king, Henry III, in 1216, following the death of his father, King John, in October 1216. This November also marks the opening of a new display of the British Library’s original Magna Carta documents from 1215 in a newly redesigned room within the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery.

Magna Carta Room 1

The newly redesigned Magna Carta room at the British Library.

On display in the new room are the Articles of the Barons, the document recording the draft settlement which formed the basis of the agreement reached between King John and the barons at Runnymede in June 1215. This original document was taken away from Runnymede, probably by Archbishop Stephen Langton (1150–1228), and gives us a direct connection with the momentous events of June 1215.

Articles of the Barons

The Articles of the Barons, June 1215: British Library Add MS 4838.

Also currently on display are one of the Library’s two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta together with the document from Pope Innocent III declaring Magna Carta to be ‘illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people’ and ‘null and void of all validity for ever’ only ten weeks after it had been granted that June.

Magna Carta 1215

Magna Carta, issued by King John in June 1215: British Library Cotton MS Augustus II 106.

Papal bull

The papal bull declaring Magna Carta 'null and void', 24 August 1215: British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra E I, ff. 155–156.

The new display gives visitors to the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery another chance to see the film made for the 2015 exhibition summarising the content of Magna Carta’s 4000 words in two minutes, as well as videos of historians and public figures discussing the history, influence and contemporary relevance of Magna Carta in the anniversary year.

Magna Carta Room 2

Magna Carta 1215 alongside the Articles of the Barons and the papal bull annulling Magna Carta.

The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is open seven days a week and entry is free. You can also read more about the history of Magna Carta on the British Library's dedicated webpages.

Claire Breay


10 November 2016

A Feast for the Senses

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The British Library is pleased to announce the loan of three manuscripts to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, as part of their exhibition A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe. This ground-breaking exhibition aims to recreate sensory experiences of the medieval world through sight, hearing, touch and smell. In addition to manuscripts, the exhibition incorporates a wide range of artworks in diverse media, including stained glass, metals and gems, ivories, tapestries and paintings.

We are delighted to be one of many institutions from around the world to have loaned objects for this remarkable exhibition, which incorporates over 100 items. The three manuscripts from our collection represent the various functions of medieval manuscripts in later medieval society.

Harley_roll_t_11_f001r_detail 2

Harley Roll T11 — the wounds of Christ

The first is Harley Roll T11, which contains drawings of the five wounds of Christ and was believed to function as an amulet to guard against evil and sickness. This unique manuscript, made in England in the 15th century, is a roll rather than the more common codex or book form, made by sewing together sheets of parchment (called membranes) to create one long scroll. There is evidence that this roll was draped over the stomachs of pregnant women to protect them during childbirth, emphasising the importance of touch and the apotropaic properties of manuscripts in later medieval Christian devotion.


Egerton MS 1069, f. 1r, the walled garden

The second manuscript is Egerton MS 1069, dating from c. 1400, an illustrated copy of the Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), a popular allegorical French poem written in the 13th century by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The Roman de la Rose follows the attempts of a courtier to woo a lady, and is set within a symbolic walled garden, the traditional setting for many medieval courtly romances. You can see more of the lovely illuminations in Egerton MS 1069 in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Add_MS_181896_ f01r

Add MS 18196, f. 1r, Agnes Enthroned and Scenes from Her Legend

The final manuscript on loan to the exhibition is folio 1 from Additional MS 18196, which is not a single manuscript but rather a compilation of leaves from various hymnals. The folio shows, at the top, a vibrant depiction of St Agnes, the patron saint of young girls and chastity, surrounded by two angels. Below, the scene on the left shows a priest called Paulinus giving an emerald ring to the statue of St Agnes to receive her permission to marry; and on the right, St Agnes appearing to relatives who are holding a vigil around her tomb. Below these scenes is a section of music meant to accompany songs of praise to St Agnes. You can read more about this folio in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

A Feast for the Senses is on view from now until 8 January 2017 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The exhibition is free to enter and open to all members of the public. We hope as many of our North American readers as possible get the opportunity to visit!

Taylor McCall


07 November 2016

Picturing the Sacred: Byzantine Manuscript Illumination

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Some of the British Library’s most precious manuscripts are those containing beautiful miniatures from the Byzantine world. The majority of these manuscripts are religious in focus, usually Gospels or Psalters, reflecting the central role played by Christianity in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine court functioned as a theocracy, in which the Emperor was seen as God’s representative on earth, acting with divine authority. Religion infused every aspect of Byzantine life, including book production.

Although it is difficult (and somewhat artificial) to distinguish between late antique and early Byzantine art, a useful starting-point is the splendid Golden Canon Tables. Created in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, the manuscript is covered in gold paint, over which the Canon Tables (used to identify parallel passages between the four Gospels in biblical manuscripts) were written, and adorned with floral decoration and small medallions containing portraits of four men. Although they survive only as fragments, they would originally have formed part of an incredibly lavish copy of the Gospels, a testament to the importance of the Bible for the inhabitants of Constantinople at this time.


The Golden Canon Tables. Additional MS 5111, f. 11r. Constantinople, 6th or 7th century.

The Iconoclastic period (726–842 CE) saw the destruction of many existing works of religious art, and a ban on the production of any new works of art. The prohibition on graven images in the Bible was a source of concern for Christian thinkers in late antiquity and early Byzantium, who worried about the propriety of producing depictions of Jesus and other holy figures. This concern was particularly felt in Byzantium owing to the particular emphasis placed on icons in religious worship there (an emphasis that is still found in the Greek Orthodox tradition today). The impact of iconoclasm has meant that relatively few examples of early Byzantine illumination survive, and those that do, like the Golden Canon Tables, are thus even more precious to us today.


Depiction of Iconoclasts in the Theodore Psalter. Additional MS 19352, f. 27v. Constantinople, 1066.

After the prohibition on the production of religious art was lifted for the final time in 842, we see the reappearance of illuminated Biblical manuscripts. A number of illuminated Psalters (discussed in more detail in an article by Kalliroe Linardou) actually include images of iconoclasts erasing icons of Jesus. Such images can be found in the Theodore Psalter. On occasion, later owners of the manuscripts have erased the faces of the iconoclasts themselves!

A great emphasis was placed on tradition in Byzantine art. This is why, for instance, there is such great similarity between portraits of the Evangelists in Gospel manuscripts. Yet this stress on tradition also provided an opportunity for artists to distinguish themselves in more subtle ways, and there is clear variation in Byzantine illumination across the Greek-speaking world, as Elisabeth Yota shows in her article on provincial manuscript illumination. Some Greek manuscripts were illuminated by artists from different traditions, as is the case with Harley 5647, in which the portraits were made by a Syriac artist. Comparison of this with, for instance, the portraits in the Guest-Coutts New Testament, show both the strong tradition in terms of how figures are depicted and the room for innovation that was possible. Further examples can be found in Kathleen Maxwell’s article on illuminated Gospel manuscripts.


 The Evangelist Luke, by a Syriac artist. Harley MS 5647, f. 137v. Eastern Mediterranean, 11th century.


The Evangelist Luke, in the Guest-Coutts New Testament. Additional MS 28815, f. 76v. Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), mid-10th century.

There are more fantastic illuminated Greek manuscripts than we can possibly hope to talk about in a single blog post, so we invite you to explore the collections and articles available on our Greek Manuscripts Project Website, and the many manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts!

 Cillian O'Hogan


03 November 2016

Collaborative Doctoral Research at the British Library: Pre-1200 Manuscript Culture

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Last year we advertised the opportunity for an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Partnership on the theme of ‘Understanding the Anglo-Saxons: the English and Continental Manuscript Evidence’. We welcomed Becky Lawton to the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section, who was chosen as the award-holder, working under the supervision of Dr Claire Breay, Head of the section at the British Library, and Joanna Story, Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Leicester. You may have seen some of Becky’s popular blog posts, including The Great Medieval Bake Off and The Ceolfrith Leaves Are 1300 Years Old.   


The Eadui Psalter, SE England (Christ Church, Canterbury, 1st half of the 11th century), digitised thanks to a generous grant from The Polonsky Foundation: Arundel MS 155, f. 93r.

This year we are delighted to announce another studentship on the theme of England and France: Manuscripts 700-1200, to be co-supervised by Dr Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator, Illuminated Manuscripts. This doctoral research project would focus on an aspect of pre-1200 manuscript culture, using manuscripts from the collections of the Library and of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). The research will be facilitated through the work of a related collaborative project with the BnF, England and France: Illuminated Manuscripts 700-1200, which will digitise in full 400 manuscripts from each institution, which we announced on 12 October. This project is funded externally by The Polonsky Foundation.

The AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships scheme has been running for four years and the British Library is now advertising a call for partnership, for a fifth round of awards to begin in October 2017. Researchers of postdoctoral standing at UK universities are invited to submit proposals to serve as the academic supervisor of this studentship. Full details of our research theme for this partnership, and some suggested areas of study and research questions, can be found here.

The concurrent Polonsky-funded England and France project will provide digital coverage of 800 pre-1200 manuscripts, many of which may form part of the student’s research corpus. The student will benefit from the expertise of the curatorial team that will be cataloguing and interpreting these manuscripts for a general and academic audience. The student will have access to these detailed descriptions as well as internal databases, and as a result will be able to focus on (and create) particular areas of interest using the resources already provided. Both the British Library and the BnF have extensive cultural engagement programmes and the PhD student will have opportunities to contribute to this activity. The project also brings opportunities to engage actively with the interpretative website that will be developed for the Polonsky-funded England and France project, including contributing to online articles and blogposts on the relevant manuscripts.


The Eadui Psalter, SE England (Christ Church, Canterbury, 1st half of the 11th century), digitised thanks to a generous grant from The Polonsky Foundation: Arundel MS 155, f. 53r.

The selected university partner will receive an AHRC training grant to cover the student’s fees and stipend, including a Research Training Support Grant and Student Development Funding (standard RCUK eligibility criteria apply). The Library will provide the students with staff-level access to its collections, expertise and facilities, as well as financial support for research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year. The student will also benefit from the dedicated programme of professional development events delivered by the Library in tandem with the other museums, galleries and heritage organisations affiliated to the CDP scheme.

So, if you are based in a UK Higher Education Institution and would like to co-supervise an AHRC-funded doctoral student on this research theme, or one of the other three themes selected for next year, apply by 25 November 2016. For any queries about how to apply or to find out more about the Library CDP programme, please email

Kathleen Doyle

Lead Curator, Illuminated Manuscripts


01 November 2016

A Calendar Page for November 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for November from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410–1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 11r

Winter is beginning to close in on the calendar pages for November from the Bedford Hours. 

Detail of miniatures of a man feeding pigs and the zodiac sign Sagittarius, from the calendar page for November,
Add MS 18850, f. 11r

November saw a pause in the agricultural calendar of the medieval era, and so in this month we often see different sorts of labours.  A common one can be found at the bottom of the first folio for this month; in the miniature on the lower left a man is at work beating acorns from a tree with two sticks. Below him a group of three hogs are feasting on the acorns, a delicacy given to them at this time to fatten them up for winter. To the right is a centaur archer, charmingly dressed in a gorgeous surcoat, for the zodiac sign Sagittarius.

Detail of a marginal roundel of the Nine Muses, from the calendar page for November,
Add MS 18850, f. 11r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a group of nine women surrounding a stream and pool of water. The banners they carry identify them as the Nine Muses, the Greek goddesses of inspiration for science and the arts that were later adopted into the Greek pantheon. In some versions of their myths they are described as water nymphs, and in one origin story they were born from four sacred rivers which Pegasus caused to spring forth — a possible explanation for the landscape of this miniature. Rubrics at the bottom of the folio tell us that November ‘is attributed to the nine wisdoms’ because of the number nine.

Calendar page for November,
Add MS 18850, f. 11v

The emphasis on the Muses continues in the following folio. On the middle left an armoured man is mounted on a winged horse that has one foot (somewhat gingerly) in the waters of a fountain or pool. The rubrics tell us that this man is Perseus, and the horse must therefore be Pegasus; we may be seeing a scene of the birth of the Muses. At the bottom of the folio the Muses themselves are in evidence beside their spring, kneeling before a well-dressed lady. This is intended to represent Athena on her visit to ‘the font of wisdom’, although this aristocratic and almost matronly version of the goddess is an unusual one.  

Detail of marginal roundels of Perseus and Pegasus and Athena and the Muses, from the calendar page for November,
Add MS 18850, f. 11v

Sarah J Biggs