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14 July 2015

Caption Competition 2

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The second of our caption competitions is from a manuscript newly published in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.   There are many possibilities for this image – use your imagination! Leave your suggested caption in the comments, or tweet us @BLMedieval. Results will be published here and on Twitter!

??? England, S. (Westminster or London); 4th quarter of the 13th century, Additional 18719, f. 92.



09 July 2015

Papal Overlordship of England: The Making of an Escape Clause for Magna Carta

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From Rome on 21 April 1214, Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) issued a papal bull taking the kingdom of England under his protection. Since 1208, England had been under a papal interdict and its king had been excommunicant since 1209; it looked like this would finally be resolved.

Bull of Pope Innocent III (Cotton Charter VIII 24), Italy, Central (Rome), 21 April 1214

In this large and impressive-looking document Innocent III confirms King John’s submission of his kingdom to the temporal lordship of Rome. John had come to an agreement with papal representatives in a meeting at Ewell outside Dover on 15 May 1213. There, he had placed England and Ireland under both the spiritual and temporal lordship of Rome, receiving it back as a vassal of the Pope for an annual tribute of 1000 marks (£666). Having done this, he was absolved from excommunication by Stephen Langton in July 1213 and on 3 October 1213, at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the agreement was confirmed by a royal charter bearing a golden seal and by the King placing his hands between those of the papal legate as a token of his submission.

The gesture would not have been dissimilar to the miniature in the Chronique de France ou de St Denis (Royal MS 16 G VI), depicting the moment in 1193 when John had paid homage to King Philip Augustus of France (r. 1180–1223) for his brother’s Richard’s continental lands.

Chroniques de France ou de St Denis (Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 362v), France, Central (Paris), after 1332, before 1350

Innocent III solemnly confirmed these acts in his 21 April letter to John, noting:

‘…you by a devout and spontaneous act of will and on the general advice of your barons have offered and yielded, in the form of an annual payment of a thousand marks, yourself and your kingdoms of England and Ireland, with all their rights and appurtenances, to God and to SS Peter and Paul His apostles and to the holy Roman to church and to us and our successors, to be our right and our property….’
(trans. C. R. Cheney and W. H. Semple)

He then goes on to recite the text of the King’s charter. At the foot of the bull appear the names and signatures of fourteen cardinals assembled as witnesses as well as the pope’s own signature, or ‘rota’ (a cross inscribed within two concentric circles). The bull has been sealed, like all papal bulls, with a lead seal (or bulla, from which the category of documents gets its name).

The interdict was itself lifted the following year, on 2 July 1214. The church bells were no longer silent and the sacraments of the church were no longer forbidden, meaning masses would again be celebrated and people could again bury their deceased relatives according to Christian rites. For the previous six plus years only the baptism of infants and the confession of the dying had been permitted.

Marginal drawing of a bell and clapper referring to the papal interdict (Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 90r), England, S. (St Albans), 1250-1259
Marginal drawing of bells being rung referring to the relaxation of the papal interdict (Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 94r), England, S. (St Albans), 1250-1259

Innocent III’s support for John would be crucial during the baronial rebellion that led to Magna Carta. The Security Clause enforcing the 1215 agreement concludes: ‘We will not seek to procure from anyone, either by our own efforts or those of a third, anything by which any part of these concessions or liberties might be revoked or diminished’. And yet, on 24 August 1215, Innocent III would issue a papal bull annulling Magna Carta on the grounds that it was extorted from the king by violence and fear, degrading his rights and dignity and the rights of the apostolic see besides.

The annual tribute from this agreement was paid to Rome, if irregularly, into the 1290s. However, English kings grew increasingly at odds with the papacy; no tribute was paid from 1300 to 1330 with the last payment ever recorded being for £1,000 in 1333 from Edward III (r. 1327–1377). The papacy continued to request its tribute, and the question of the growing backlog due from England on account of John’s submission was raised in 1365. This was debated in parliament with the conclusion that John’s original surrender had lacked the assent of the bishops and was thus in fact invalid, marking the formal end to English recognition of papal overlordship.

Both papal bulls are among the items you can see close up in our exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy open until 1 September 2015.

- Katherine Har

01 July 2015

A Calendar Page for July 2015

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

Calendar page for July, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 4v 

The agrarian labours continue in this month’s bas-de-page scene. Amidst a gently rolling landscape, two men are mowing grass with scythes. To the left, a woman is using a pitchfork to turn the grass to dry into hay in the sunshine. Another woman approaches from the background, bearing a basket on her head and a satchel in her hand – perhaps containing refreshments for the workers. Note how the artist has included little details to convey a sense of the midsummer heat: the broad-brimmed hats the labourers are wearing to protect their faces from the sun, and the rolled-up sleeves of the man on the right. The roundels for July show the key religious dates for the month: the Visitation of the Virgin Mary, the Translation of the Relics of St Thomas the Apostle, and the feast days of St Benedict, St Mary Magdalene, and Sts James and Christopher. A lion – the Zodiac sign for Leo – is included as a header in the calendar. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants making hay,
Add MS 35313, f. 4v 

Detail of a roundel showing St Mary Magdalene,
Add MS 35313, f. 4v 

- James Freeman

25 June 2015

Getting Under the Covers of the St Cuthbert Gospel

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This week has seen the launch at the British Library on Monday and at Trinity College, Dublin on Wednesday of a new book, The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John, edited by Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, and Bernard Meehan, Head of Research Collections and Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College, Dublin. 

New book cover


The St Cuthbert Gospel is the earliest intact European book and a landmark in the cultural history of western Europe. Now dated to the early eighth century by Richard Gameson and Leslie Webster, the manuscript contains a beautifully written copy of the Gospel of John in Latin and is famous for the craftsmanship and outstanding condition of its contemporary decorated leather binding. Found in Cuthbert's coffin when it was opened in Durham Cathedral in 1104, the Gospel was acquired for the national collection following a major fundraising campaign in 2011-12.

One of the most exciting aspects of the long preparation for the new book on the Gospel was the day that we took the manuscript to the Natural History Museum for a CT scan. The videos produced from this scan have allowed us to look inside the book as never before, to appreciate the many remarkable features of this manuscript. We were able to examine the extraordinary refinement and careful shaping of the wooden boards, establishing that at their maximum the left (front) board measures only 2.4mm thick and the right (back) board only 1.5mm. We could see the cords beneath the raised frames in the decoration and we could examine for the first time the much-debated foundation material lying beneath the raised plant-motif decoration in the centre of the left cover. Roger Powell had suggested that the foundation material might be cord or leather, while Jim Bloxam and Kristine Rose found more recently (in making a facsimile of the binding which they generously made available to the project) that gesso could be used to produce comparable results. It was immediately apparent from the CT scan that neither cord nor leather had been used for the foundation of the central motif, as it is a clay-like material which completely fills the space between the leather and the board.

Cross-section from CT scan
Cross-section of left board from CT scan, showing clay-like material between the leather and the wooden board.

In the CT scan and in an X-ray image this clay-like material shows as a dull grey, completely different from the gesso used in the most accurate modern facsimile by Rose and Bloxam, which shows as black in the X-ray image.

X-ray of left board (facsimile on left and original on right)
X-ray of left board (facsimile on left and original on right).

Christina Duffy, Imaging Scientist at the British Library, has produced videos of the St Cuthbert Gospel from the CT scan which show the manuscript, its wooden boards, the cords which lie under the raised frames in the decoration and a cross-section through the whole manuscript showing the structure of the book and the raised decoration. You can watch the video (courtesy of Christina Duffy) here:


In his chapter in the new book launched this week, Nicholas Pickwoad explains in detail how the central motif on the binding appears to have been made using a matrix, carved with the plant design, to impress the wet leather over the clay-like material on to the wooden board.

This new collection of essays is the most substantial study of the book since the 1960s, and is the culmination of our work to promote new research on the Gospel since its acquisition by the British Library. As well as Nicholas Pickwoad's chapter on the structure and production of the binding, the book includes detailed commentary on: Cuthbert in his historical context by Clare Stancliffe; the codicology, text, script and medieval history of the manuscript by Richard Gameson; the decoration of the binding by Leslie Webster; the Irish pocket Gospels by Bernard Meehan, the other relics found in Cuthbert's coffin by Eric Cambridge; and the post-medieval ownership of the book by Arnold Hunt. The book, which significantly revises the existing scholarship on one of the British Library's most recent acquisitions, is now available through the Library's online shop.


- Claire Breay

01 June 2015

A Calendar Page for June 2015

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

Calendar page for June, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 4r 

In June, we are taken back to the labours of the peasantry with a scene of sheep-shearing. Two men sit and remove two sheep’s wool with hand-clippers, while a third bundles another unwilling sheep out of a nearby barn. A freshly shorn sheep grazes to the right, before a gaggle of geese. Five religious festivals have been depicted in roundels this month: the feast days of St Boniface, St Barnabus, St Eligius, and Sts Peter and Paul, and (in the middle) the Nativity of St John the Baptist. The Zodiac sign for this month is Cancer. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants shearing sheep,
Add MS 35313, f. 4r 

Detail of a roundel portraying the Nativity of St John the Baptist,
Add MS 35313, f. 4r 

- James Freeman

21 May 2015

Something for Everyone

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Additional MS 36684 is a Book of Hours, about the size of a small paperback, made in Northern France in the area of Saint-Omer, near where our large set of Arthurian volumes (recently immortalised in cake) were made and decorated, also in the 2nd decade of the 14th century. Though this is a completely different type of book, it was probably aimed at a similar audience. Delightfully idiosyncratic and amusing images once again decorate the text, in seeming contrast to its serious purpose as a devotional aid. The medieval imagination is allowed to run riot, with every aspect of human and animal physiognomy, and everything in between, on display.

The twelve opening pages contain the calendar with activities for the months of the year. Here is the page for January. Rather than attempting it ourselves, we would like to ask you our readers to write a caption for the image in the lower margin. This will be the first in a series of ‘Invent a caption’ competitions on our blog, so over to you, dear readers!

Calendar page, northern France (Saint-Omer or Therouanne), c. 1320, Add MS 36684, f. 1v

Go on, provide us with a caption to f. 1v, the wittier the better. You can enter via Twitter @BLMedieval or in the comments section below this post.


Some of the pages of this manuscript are almost unbeatable for sheer weirdness:

Page from the Hours of the Virgin with border and margins containing hybrid creatures,  Add MS 36684, f.17r

Others are jewel-like, a perfect ensemble of colour and design to delight the eyes of the reader (is that the legs of a pair of bell-bottomed trousers emerging from a cauldron?):

Page from the Hours of the Virgin with border and margins including butterfly, Add MS 36684, f.50v

Birds and fish are favourite subjects, but not always as we know them:

Page from the Hours of the Virgin with border and margins decorated with birds,  Add MS 36684, f.31v

Large historiated initials have scenes from the life of Christ, including the Nativity: here the angel appears to the shepherds, one of whom is playing a bagpipe-like instrument.

Historiated initial with the angel appearing to the shepherds and decorated border,  Add MS 36684, f.43v

This Book of Hours was owned by none other than John Ruskin in the 19th century. It was in his library at Brantwood and contains his bookplate. Unfortunately there is no record of what he must have made of some of the marginalia!

The images here are just a small selection, evey page is filled with delights. Feast your eyes on our Digitised Manuscripts site, Add MS 36684. You may also like to know that the second half of this amazing book is now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.754 (you can see images of it here).

Chantry Westwell

05 May 2015

An Even More Giant List of Manuscript Hyperlinks: Spring Update

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The trees are blossoming and so too is our giant list of manuscript hyperlinks.

Download BL Ancient Medieval and Early Modern Digitised Manuscripts Master List 28.04.15

Miniature of a group of angels singing and scattering flowers, from Divina commedia, Italy, N. (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century, Egerton MS 943, f. 118r


The British Library’s website of Digitised Manuscripts has been flourishing over the last few months. It now features a second illustrated copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Egerton MS 943), an 11th-century Mozarabic liturgy (Add MS 30845) and psalter (Add MS 30851), a treatise in French written by a young Edward VI (Add MS 5464), and the Hours of René of Anjou (Egerton MS 1070).

Mozarabic Liturgy, Spain, North (Burgos, ?Santo Domingo de Silos), 11th century, Add MS 30845, f. 42r

There was cause for cheer (and the most incredible cake) when we published the long-awaited manuscripts of the Lancelot-Grail cycle (Add MS 10292, Add MS 10293, Add MS 10294 and Add MS 10294/1).

The Greek Digitisation Project also came to a triumphant close with the upload of the final 75 manuscripts, which were featured in a recent blog post.

Some other early highlights from 2015 include three monumental Romanesque Bibles: the Parc Abbey Bible (Add MS 14788, Add MS 14789 and Add MS 14790), the Stavelot Bible (Add MS 28106 and Add MS 28107, find out more here), and the Arnstein Bible (Harley MS 2798 and Harley MS 2799), with its famous depictions of the monstrous races. In addition, we published the British Library’s volumes of the Paris-Oxford-London Bible moralisée (Harley MS 1526 and Harley MS 1527, discussed here) and a rather wonderful Apocalypse manuscript (Yates Thompson MS 10).

St Luke's ox introduces the final horseman: he emerges from a gaping monster's mouth riding a pale horse and holding a sword (Revelation, 6: 7-8), from Apocalypse, France (Paris), c. 1370–c. 1390, Yates Thompson MS 10, f. 10r


And the first batch of Paston letters recently went live too!

But of course our work does not end here. As well as more letters from the Paston volumes, the summer months will bring six manuscripts with French prose romances, two incredible Biblical picture books and the 15th-century illustrations of Sir John Mandeville’s Travels. Watch this space!

- Hannah Morcos

01 May 2015

A Calendar Page for May 2015

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

Calendar page for May, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, architectural column and roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 3v 

The Zodiac sign for May is Gemini, portrayed here unusually as conjoined twins (cephalothoracopagus twins, to be precise, who are joined at the thorax and share a single head). May is the month in which the Finding of the Holy Cross is celebrated. The event is depicted in one of the roundels, with the Pope and other figures standing as witnesses. In the scene below, the gentlewoman and her lapdog make a reappearance, boating on a river. She is playing music on a lute, while one of her companions accompanies her on an instrument resembling a recorder. In the background, two gentlemen are out hunting: they are riding on horseback, one of them bearing a hawk on his wrist. A servant follows, carrying a lance and also a hunting bird. 

Detail of the Zodiac sign for Gemini, portrayed as conjoined twins,
Add MS 35313, f. 3v 

Detail of a roundel depicting the Finding of the Holy Cross,
Add MS 35313, f. 3v 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of boating and hunting,
Add MS 35313, f. 3v

- James Freeman