Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

12 September 2017

The Mostyn Psalter-Hours: a new acquisition

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We are delighted to announce that the Mostyn Psalter-Hours has been acquired for the national collection at the British Library, thanks to the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and other generous supporters. The manuscript is a late 13th-century illuminated Psalter-Hours produced in London, and is now Additional MS 89250.


The Mostyn Psalter-Hours: British Library Add MS 89250, f. 52r

The book includes a calendar, decorated with twenty small miniatures of the labours of the months and the signs of the Zodiac (two months are lacking), and a Psalter with eight of the original ten large historiated initials, the Hours of the Virgin, and the Office of the Dead. 

The manuscript’s original patron is unknown, but its high quality illumination indicates that it was made for an important individual, possibly a bishop, as an image of a bishop appears in the illustration for Psalm 101, where a donor portrait might be expected.      

Importance to the national heritage

The manuscript can be identified securely as having been produced in London: its calendar records a sequence of London saints, including the 7th-century bishops of London, Melitus and Erkenwald, and the feast of the translation of Edward the Confessor in Westminster in 1269. Relatively few examples of luxury books made in London survive from the medieval period. The book is therefore of clear national heritage importance and a natural fit for the national collection, which holds the largest collection of English Psalters made in this period. 


The Mostyn Psalter-Hours: British Library Add MS 89250, f. 13r

As an outstanding example of English illumination of the highest quality, the manuscript represents a crucial piece of evidence for the history of English painting. Textually, it is an interesting example of a combined Psalter Hours. Because it is localised to London, it is a critical focus around which to group other manuscripts—of Psalter texts and others—in a Westminster/London context, and to compare with books made in other centres.  

The addition of the Mostyn Psalter to the British Library’s collections will facilitate identification of other London-based scribes and artists in other manuscripts. Similarly, the representation of the possible patron within the book, as noted above, may also shed light on the production of these luxury books. 


The manuscript has been digitised in full, and has been added to our Digitised Manuscripts website (Add MS 89250), where it may be accessed free of charge. In the coming months it will be placed on display in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, which is open seven days a week. Thereafter it will be available to scholars in the Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room. 


The purchase price of the manuscript was £775,000. We are grateful to the many funders who made this acquisition possible: the National Heritage Memorial Fund, who contributed £390,000, the Art Fund, Sir Siegmund Warburg’s Voluntary Settlement, the late Bernard Breslauer, the Friends of the British Library, and the Friends of the National Libraries. 

09 September 2017

Guess the Song 4

It’s that time again to put your best moves and suggestions forward for our Guess the Song Competition!

Simply guess the name of the popular song and the artist from the clues provided by these medieval manuscripts. There are no prizes, just feel the rhythm and send us your answers via Twitter or using the comments field below this post. Good luck!


Update 11 September: Put your hands up if you got it, answer below!


Image 1
Image 1, from the Queen Mary Psalter, c1310-1320,
Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 229r

Image 2
Image 2, from Roman de la Rose, c1340-1350,
Royal MS 20 A XVII, f. 9r

Image 3
Image 3, from Omne Bonum, c1360-1375,
Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 553r

Image 4
Image 4, from a physician’s folding almanac, 1st half of the 15th century,
Sloane MS 2250, f. 12r

Image 5
Image 5, from the Dunois Hours, c1439-1450,
Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 201v


  1. A choir of virgins singing before St Dunstan of Canterbury = All the single ladies
  2. Love’s dance (‘la karole damours’) with ten figures dancing to drum and bagpipes = Now put your hands up, Up in the club
  3. Donacio propter nupcias (bridal gift) = If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it
  4. Zodiac Man with the signs of the zodiac illustrated on the body parts under their rule = A man on my hips
  5. Soul rising to angels from a corpse, as demon attempts to snatch it = Like a ghost, I’ll be gone

= Beyoncé, All the Single Ladies


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06 September 2017

A rough guide to making a manuscript

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Tonight, when you pick up your book, observe the legacy of sewn gatherings in the fixings of the pages. Discern, in your fountain pen, the memory of the hollow feather.

What follows is a general, Wiki-How-style overview of how a medieval manuscript would have been fashioned. The craft flourished for over 1,000 years and dominates the material foundation of Western literary culture.

A page which bears the scars of vigorous scraping, which have become ingrained with dirt over the years: from a Bible, Central France (Tours), 1st half of the 9th century,
Harley MS 2805, f. 149r

1. Make your parchment

You may choose to outsource parchment but, just for the sake of it, here's the process:

  • Source an animal, such as a cow, sheep or goat.
  • For high-quality pages, select an unblemished skin (skins are a consequence of meat production, as much in the Middle Ages as today).
  • Remove hair by soaking the skin in lime for a few days and rubbing over a wooden stump.
  • Stretch skin on a frame and scrape with a curved blade to get rid of all the flesh.
  • Stitch fly-bites or tears with strips of parchment.
  • Dry the stretched skin in a warm place.

Add MS 46487 f.48r Royal MS 1 B XI f53r
Fly-bites received while the animal lived grow when the skin is stretched and dried. Larger flaws can be stitched: examples from the Sherborne Cartulary, 2nd quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 46487, f. 48r (left) and a 12th-century Gospel-book from St Augustine's, Canterbury, Royal MS 1 B XI, f. 53r (right).

2. Prepare your gatherings (or quires)

  • Cut sheets from your parchment. You may need more than one skin for each gathering of sheets. If you’re making a deluxe Bible, you may need thousands.
  • Fold your sheets into bifolia (Latin for two leaves, or pages).
  • Prick your sheets as a guide for ruling, using a knife or other metal point.

Add MS 46487 f.38v
Pricking marks on folio 38v of Add MS 46487

  • Rule your sheets in dry-point (using a sharp-ish stylus) or lead-point. Ruling defines the position, number and spacing of the lines of text per folio (page or leaf). If you (and your patron) are feeling flush, leave nice big margins and lots of space between lines.

Royal MS 1 B XI f.45starr
Royal MS 1 B XI
, f. 45*r, how pages might have looked prior to writing.

  • Assemble your bifolia into a gathering or quire. It is quite common for quires to consist of four bifolia (called quaternians), which will give you eight folios. Books are made up of multiple quires, stacked and stitched together.

Sheet to quire 2

3. Write your text

  • Prepare your quill, which may be a goose feather and can be sourced from the bank of a lake in late summer when they moult. The wing your feather comes from will be the opposite from the hand you write with. In Latin, penna (wing) is the root of our word ‘pen’. Incidentally, it’s also the root of ‘penne’ pasta which, like a quill, is a hollow cylinder!


  • It will need regular sharpening with your pen-knife (which is the origin of the modern term).
  • Prepare your ink, perhaps a dark ink made from oak galls.
  • Decide in advance or on-the-go where to leave gaps for illustrations and decorative initials. Making a note of the page order, you may want to separate your bifolia so that you have a single-layer, flat surface to write on. 
  • Choose your script. Scripts in the Middle Ages were very prescribed (excuse the tautology). What you use will vary according to the time and area in which you live (maybe half-uncial in 8th-century Northumbria, English Caroline minuscule in late 10th-century Winchester) and the nature of the book (majuscule, minuscule, cursive and so on).
  • Start writing! You may be copying meticulously from an exemplar. 

4. Decorate!

It is unusual for manuscripts to be the product of a single person's labour. Certainly at the decorating stage, multiple hands are likely to be at work.

  • Do under-drawings in crayon or lead-point and outline.
  • Apply gesso (a mixture containing gum) to areas intended for gilding. This might be stained red.

Cotton MS Caligula A VII 1 6v
In a 12th-century image of the angel appearing to the shepherds, the red gesso is visible through the worn gilding: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v.

  • Carefully apply the fragile gold leaf and burnish (polish). The gold will stick to gesso, the red tone of which enhances its warm glow.
  • Apply pigments made from organic (usually plant-based) and inorganic (mineral) ingredients, suspended in a water soluble medium such as egg yolk.

Royal MS 1 B XI   Royal MS 1 B XI f72r
Royal MS 1 B XI, ff. 9r and 72r, are unfinished.

Royal MS 1 B XI f72r detail
Royal MS 1 B XI
, f. 72r, detail showing the ruling, under-drawing and ink outline.  

5. Bind your book

  • Sew along the spine of each gathering.
  • Now, sew your quires together at evenly spaced sewing stations along their spine (see drawing of binding process) and affix long cords across to them.
  • Sew end bands to the top and bottom for extra reinforcement.


Quarter sawnBinding

  • Source your book-boards for the front and back covers. In Northern Europe, book boards were commonly made from quarter sawn slabs (see drawing of tree-trunk) of dense, durable timbers such as oak and beech.
  • Thread the cords into holes and channels in your two book-boards, binding them to the edges of the spine.
  • Cover with leather and hide the cut edges on the inside covers with paste downs. Odds and ends from around the workshop will do.

Add MS 46487 top
Notice how the ends of the boards of this 12th-century binding show short sections of the growth rings of the tree. Cutting the board this way ensured the least amount of warping as the wood dried: Add MS 46487.

Optional Extra: decorate your binding

  • Sheets of precious metal, ivory plaques, roman gems and jewels will enhance your binding no end. But be warned, these rarely stand the test of time, being a particular favourite of plundering invaders, wont to rip treasure-encrusted bindings from their pages.  

Add MS 46487 front Add MS 46487 enamel
The 12th-century binding of Add MS 46487 has been carved to receive a plaque or some other decoration. At some point in the later 13th century, this was replaced with a small Limoges enamel, affixed upside down.

And voilà, you should now have made your own medieval manuscript. Easy, isn't it?

Further reading and links:

M. P. Brown & P. Lovett, The Historical Source Book for Scribes (London, 1999)

Under the Covers: the conservation and rebinding of Fitzwilliam MS 251 [accessed 31/08/2017]

Short Documentary: How Parchment is Made - Domesday - BBC Two [accessed 31/08/2017]

Amy Jeffs

with thanks to Jessica Pollard

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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04 September 2017

Ping pong merrily on high

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In 1934, two exceptional discoveries in the history of medieval studies were made. And they were both made by accident.

In July 1934, Walter Oakeshott, a teacher at Winchester School, decided to go looking for some interesting book bindings in the Fellows’ Library, at the suggestion of his friend, James Basil Oldham. He was keen to look at some manuscript bindings. The manuscripts were kept separately from the books, in a safe in the Warden’s bedroom. Oakeshott wrote that this safe had

'a legendary reputation with me since not so many years before a knowledgeable visitor who had made his way into it had recognised in the bedside mat, a magnificent piece of Tudor tapestry … probably woven for the occasion of the christening of Prince Arthur, Henry VII’s eldest son in Winchester Cathedral.' 

Roses Tapestry

Image of the 'Roses Tapestry', formerly known as a bedside mat, Winchester College

Opening the safe, Oakeshott felt immediate ‘disappointment’. There were no interesting bindings. He decided to glance at the manuscripts nonetheless. One of them was ‘clearly about King Arthur and his Knights’, but it was lacking a beginning and an end. Oakeshott ‘made a vague mental note’ of the manuscript and moved on to the next one.

What Oakeshott had stumbled on was the only known manuscript of Thomas Malory’s great work of Arthurian legend, the Le Morte Darthur — the last major work on Arthurian legend to be produced in the Middle Ages, but also the first and only text in Middle English to recount the entire legend of Arthur from his birth to his death. It was only when, a few weeks later, he was preparing for a visit from the Friends of the National Libraries that Oakeshott returned to the safe and realised the significance of what is now called ‘the Winchester Manuscript’, British Library Add MS 59678.


The first surviving folio of Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte Darthur', Add MS 59678, f. 9r

When Oakeshott made his discovery, the only surviving copy of this text was a print by England’s first printer, William Caxton (c. 1422–c. 1491). The manuscript is not the original one made by the author, but its version of the text is thought to be closer to the original.


Later that summer, in September 1934, another chance discovery was made. This time, the discoverers were not even looking for books, but ping pong balls. Maurice Butler-Bowdon described how he was playing ping pong with some friends at his family’s Georgian house near Chesterfield and how,

'one of us trod on the Ping Pong ball and my father went to the cupboard to get out a replacement and it was soon apparent that he was having difficulty in finding either a ball or a tube of balls … There was in there an entirely undisciplined clutter of smallish leather books.'

Ping pong

Image courtesy

Butler-Bowdon recounted his father’s exasperation at this pile of book-clutter: ‘I am going to put this whole ­­­­­––– lot on the bonfire tomorrow and then we may be able to find Ping Pong balls & bats when we want them’. Thankfully, the books were not burnt before one of them in particular had been identified: its cover ‘had been eaten away, presumably by a mouse’. It was none other than the lost Book of Margery Kempe, which had previously only been known in seven pages of extracts printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501. How the manuscript came into the possession of the Butler-Bowdons is unclear — they apparently owned it in the late 18th century, but before the Reformation it belonged to the Carthusian brothers at Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire.


The opening folio of  the 'Book of Margery Kempe', Add MS 61823, f. 1r

The Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, is sometimes called the earliest autobiography in English. Margery lived in the East Anglian town of Lynn in the early 15th century and was at various times a horse-mill owner and a brewer, but later in her life she became a visionary and mystic. She was also the mother of 14 children. Her remarkable Book is a window into the life of an ordinary, middle-class person in a prosperous town in late-medieval England but, perhaps more importantly, it is a rarely-opened window into medieval female experience.


Never judge a book by its mouse-eaten cover: the chemise binding of Add MS 61823, the 'Book of Margery Kempe'.


At the end of the essay in which he describes his extraordinary encounter with the Malory manuscript, Oakeshott compares his discovery to the biblical story of King Saul, who was sent to seek his father’s lost asses:

'We are told that Saul the son of Kish went out to seek his father’s asses and found a kingdom. The fate of the literary detective is comparable only in that, if he finds anything at all, he will find something different from that for which he is looking. It is seldom a kingdom … The asses almost always prove obstinately elusive. Certainly I did not, on this occasion, find them. All I could tell Oldham was that there were no bindings on the manuscripts to interest him.'

The lesson of this remarkable year in literary history is clear: you must always keep searching, because you might find something magical, beneath a mouse-eaten cover, while looking for something quite different altogether.

I have been reading more about these stories of discovery as part of my writing and research for the medieval section of the library’s Learning site, Discovering Literature, which will go live early in 2018. The site ties in with a new on-site adult learning course, Discovering Literature: Beowulf to Chaucer, which will run over six weeks, on Tuesdays, from 24 October 2017. The final session of this course will feature a rare opportunity to work with original manuscripts from the British Library. You can find the course description and booking form here. Places are now down to the last few, so please book as soon as you can.

Mary Wellesley

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01 September 2017

A calendar page for September 2017

September: school is starting up again (or has already begun, for some of our readers), the weather is cooling off – time to check in with Additional MS 36684! If you’d like to know more about the manuscript, check out January’s post, and for more on medieval calendars, please see our calendar post from 2011. 

Add_ms_36684_f010r Add_ms_36684_f010r
Calendar pages for September, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 9v-10r

While the first page of each month in the Additional MS 36684 calendar has sometimes included an extra scene or two involving a human figure (see, for instance, the bathing woman in July), September’s first page is a riot of animal decoration, a combination of the usual strange hybrids and more realistic-looking birds and rabbits. 

Detail of text noting the feast of Saint Omer, Add MS 36684, f. 9v

Notable on the first page is the red-letter feast day on the 9th of September, the ‘Depositio sancti Audomari’, the deposition (or burial) of St Omer. As remarked in January’s post on the manuscript as a whole, it was probably made in the monastery of Saint-Omer in Northern France, or perhaps in nearby Thérouanne. Regardless, St Omer was clearly important to the recipient of the book of hours, appearing more than once in the calendar.  

Add_ms_36684_f009v labour
Labour of the month for September, Add MS 36684, f. 9v

The base of the first page includes the labour of the month: a peasant wielding a flail, a tool used in threshing wheat. Wheat threshing involved hitting the wheat so that the edible grain would separate from the inedible husk. The wheat was then bundled up, and we can see our thresher has several neat bundles stacked outside his miniature gothic structure.  

Scorpio, Add MS 36684, f. 10r

As discussed in August’s post, the Additional MS 36684 artist has skipped ahead one month in his zodiac figures, leaving Scorpio (traditionally October-November) to fill in the gilded niche on the second page of September’s calendar. Scorpio is an interesting pastiche of animals: his mammalian head is paired with a serpentine body, and instead of pincers and eight legs, he has only two legs, which end in hooves.  

Remember, you can see Add MS 36684 in full digital glory on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Happy threshing!

Taylor McCall 
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27 August 2017

The medieval cartulary behind a ghost story

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A medievalist's mind can be bizarre to behold. If you had been drudging through a cartulary — a collection of charters copied into a single volume — for the last month, what would you choose to publish:

(a) its complete text, as the last word on the matter;

(b) a simpler calendar, as a guide to its contents;

(c) a ghost story?

If your name is M.R. James, the correct answer is the last one!

Cartulary of Wormsley Priory: Harley MS 3586, f. 132r.

Cartulary of Wormsley Priory: Harley MS 3586, f. 132r

M.R. James (1862–1936) is esteemed for his many catalogues of medieval manuscripts (for collections at Cambridge, Lambeth Palace and elsewhere) and as a scholar on the history of libraries and apocryphal literature. In popular culture, he is far more famous for his ghost stories. A new hardback edition of his Collected Ghost Stories has just appeared, with a critical text and notes. The book’s editor, Darryl Jones, suggests that it was precisely James’ training that allowed him to write such brilliant stories. His detailed knowledge brings to life some of the most magical places that we see every day: churches, libraries, even trains.

The Department of Manuscripts Students’ Room in the British Museum (photo from the departmental archives).

The Department of Manuscripts Students’ Room in the British Museum (photo from the departmental archives)

The plot of James’ Casting the Runes, first published in 1911, turns on the consequences of the main character consulting a manuscript in the Students’ Room at the British Museum, opened in 1885 as a separate reading room for the Department of Manuscripts. He is stalked by a bitter academic whose paper he has just rejected for publication. The book is Harley MS 3586, which contains cartularies of Battle Abbey and Wormsley Priory, bound together after they entered the Harley collection along with some letters addressed to Edward Harley. One would usually think of this as the most innocuous of objects, and at first glance the pivotal scene has nothing sinister about it; but the main character’s life has just been put at stake:

It was in a somewhat pensive frame of mind that Mr Dunning passed on the following day into the Select Manuscript Room of the British Museum, and filled up tickets for Harley 3586, and some other volumes. After a few minutes they were brought to him, and he was settling the one he wanted first upon the desk, when he thought he heard his own name whispered behind him. He turned round hastily, and in doing so, brushed his little portfolio of loose papers on to the floor. He saw no one he recognized except one of the staff in charge of the room, who nodded to him, and he proceeded to pick up his papers. He thought he had them all, and was turning to begin work, when a stout gentleman at the table behind him, who was just rising to leave, and had collected his own belongings, touched him on the shoulder, saying, ‘May I give you this? I think it should be yours,’ and handed him a missing quire.

The choice of Harley MS 3586 does not seem to be random: in the manuscript of the work (Egerton MS 3141, f. 13r), he first started writing ‘30’ and changed his mind. A surprising amount of commentary has been written on why James used this particular manuscript. Jones suggests that it might have had something to do with the 1676 letter to Harley from Thomas Goad, whom James might have mixed up with the antiquary by the same name who died in 1638, an antiquarian who, like James, was based at Eton College and later King’s College Cambridge. The most plausible link appears in James’ edition of Walter Map’s De nugis curialium or Courtiers’ Trifles, which uses documents in the Wormsley cartulary relating to the author. Walter’s own work has been considered within the history of ghosts in culture. James is simply inserting himself into the story.

The manuscript of Casting the Runes: Egerton MS 3141, f. 13r.

The manuscript of Casting the Runes: Egerton MS 3141, f. 13r.

The British Museum's curators were so delighted by James’ story that, in November 1936, they purchased the autograph manuscript of the tale in his memory, now Egerton MS 3141. The story has since been adapted in film (Night of the Demon, 1957) and multiple times for television and radio.

M.R. James wasn’t the only writer to exploit the possibilities of the reading room as a setting for a thriller. John Rowland’s Murder in the Museum (1938), which the British Library republished last year, centres on the death of a scholar of Elizabethan drama. Dorothy Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, expressed the contemporary appreciation for the Library in a letter to her mother dated 8 November 1921: ‘I spend all my time reading or writing crimes in the Museum. Nice life, isn’t it?’

Andrew Dunning

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23 August 2017

Colin Tite: a tribute

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We were extremely sorry to hear of the recent death of Colin Tite. Colin was, without question, the greatest scholar ever to work on the history of the Cotton collection of manuscripts, housed here at the British Library. Over a number of years, Colin delivered the Library's Panizzi lectures (1993), compiled an invaluable record of the early modern history of the Cotton manuscripts, and wrote a number of insightful studies of individual volumes in the collection. But Colin was perhaps best known, for those fortunate enough to encounter him at work in our Manuscripts Reading Room, as the most generous of all men, generous with his time, generous with his support, and generous with sharing his knowledge.

Colin Tite's research had as its primary focus the formation of the Cotton library in the late 16th and early 17th century. His Panizzi lectures dealt with that subject in three stages: (1) The Development of the Manuscript Collection, 1588–1753; (2) Librarians and Aspiring Librarians; and (3) Cotton House and the Reputation of Sir Robert. His investigations were always meticulous, based on first-hand scrutiny of the early, handwritten catalogues of the Cotton library, on the papers of Sir Robert Cotton and his contemporaries, and on the later plans for housing the manuscripts. He argued persuasively that Robert Cotton, an antiquary and Member of Parliament, was the first 'librarian' of his own collection; and he uncovered little-known nuggets about those who used (and abused) the manuscripts. The story of Humfrey Wanley's interest in the library is recounted in these lectures, including the infamous reaction by Thomas Smith, the then Cotton librarian, to Wanley's request to borrow the Augustus charters (among them, perhaps, one of the original copies of Magna Carta, 1215): 'the mountaine cannot come to Mahomet, Mahomet must condescend to go to the mountaine'. Colin Tite then moved on to completing his seminal survey of the early modern formation, cataloguing and use of the Cotton collection (The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library, 2003), before devoting his attention to locating Cotton's surviving printed books.

In tribute to Colin Tite, we publish here a selection of images from some of the Cotton manuscripts which meant so much to him. Everyone who works on the Cotton collection is deeply indebted to Colin's work, and we remember him with the deepest gratitude.


Portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen (d. 1661)


An original Cottonian binding, 17th century: Cotton MS Domitian A VII


A Cottonian binding instruction: Cotton MS Caligula A VII, f. 1r

Cotton_ms_vespasian_f_xiii_f002r 2

 A preparatory sketch for a Cottonian title-page: Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII/1, f. 2r


 A fire-damaged Cottonian title-page, from the Beowulf manuscript, 17th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 2r


The opening page of Matthew Paris's Liber Additamentorum, with Sir Robert Cotton's signature in the lower margin: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 2r 


A letter of Sir Edward Dering, 30 May 1630, sending an original manuscript of Magna Carta to Sir Robert Cotton: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143


Colin G. C. Tite: A Select Bibliography

‘The early catalogues of the Cottonian library’, The British Library Journal, 6, (1980), 144–157

Thomas Smith, Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum Bibliothecæ Cottonianæ (Oxford, 1696): facsimile edited by C. G. C. Tite, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Cottonian Library, 1696 (Cambridge: Brewer, 1984)

‘A catalogue of Sir Robert Cotton’s printed books?’, The British Library Journal, 17 (1991), 1–11

‘Sir Robert Cotton and the gold mancus of Pendraed’, The Numismatic Chronicle, 152 (1992), 177–81

[with James P. Carley] ‘Sir Robert Cotton as collector of manuscripts and the question of dismemberment: British Library MSS Royal 13 D. I and Cotton Otho D. VIII’, The Library, 14 (1992), 94–99

The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton, The Panizzi Lectures, 1993 (London: The British Library, 1994)

‘“Lost or stolen or strayed”: a survey of manuscripts formerly in the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London: The British Library, 1997), pp. 262–306

[with James P. Carley] Books and Collectors 1200-1700: Essays presented to Andrew Watson (London: The British Library, 1997)

‘Sir Robert Cotton, Sir Thomas Tempest and an Anglo-Saxon Gospel Book: A Cottonian paper in the Harleian library’, in Colin G. Tite & James P. Carley (eds.), Books and Collectors 1200-1700: Essays presented to Andrew Watson (London: The British Library, 1997)

The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton’s Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London: The British Library, 2003)

'The Durham Liber Vitae and Sir Robert Cotton', in David Rollason et al. (eds.), The Durham Liber Vitae and its Context (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004), pp. 3–15

‘The printed books of the Cotton family and their dispersal’, in Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor (eds.), Libraries within the Library: The Origins of the British Library’s Printed Collections (London: The British Library, 2009), pp. 43–75

'The printed books of the Cotton family and their dispersal: additions', Electronic British Library Journal (2011), article 15



Julian Harrison

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21 August 2017

Total eclipse of the Sun

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On 21 August 2017, American readers of our Blog have the exciting opportunity to witness a full solar eclipse (some of them may even be able to hear Bonnie Tyler singing 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' at the very same time: what more could you want?). Of course, solar and lunar eclipses have been a source of wonder across the centuries, with or without Bonnie Tyler. Since Antiquity, astronomers and astrologers have had a clear understanding of how and why eclipses occur, and they were able to predict their arrival using diagrams and tables. Eclipses were also described by medieval chroniclers, who often interpreted them as an omen.

Our first historical example of an eclipse is found in this 15th-century French manuscript of the History of Alexander the Great. The scene it depicts is not a contemporary one, rather it shows the lunar eclipse which occurred during the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, when Alexander the Great’s army met the Persian army of Darius III. Alexander is shown consulting his astrologers about the eclipse's meaning: the soldiers perhaps interpreted it as a bad omen.

Burney 169 f.69

Miniature of Alexander the Great consulting his astrologers about an eclipse of the sun after the battle of Arbela: British Library Burney MS 169, f. 69r

Early medieval scholars knew that a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Sun and Earth. One of our favourite medieval writers, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede (d. 735), explained this phenomenon in his scientific texts entitled De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things), composed around 703. In the chapter headed 'On the eclipse of the sun and the moon', Bede described how a solar eclipse occurs when the Sun is hidden by the intervention of the Moon, and a lunar eclipse when the Sun, Earth and moon are aligned with Earth in the centre.


Extract from an 11th-century copy of Bede’s De natura rerum: British Library Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 18r

In some medieval manuscripts, astrological texts are accompanied by diagrams illustrating an eclipse. For example, this diagram, found in  a 14th-century compilation of mathematical and astronomical texts, illustrates the Sun's position in relation to the Earth and Moon.


Diagram of a solar eclipse: British Library Royal MS 12 C XVII, f. 32r

Elsewhere, we sometimes find diagrams showing the different stages of the Sun's visibility during an eclipse.


Series of diagrams of solar eclipses: British Library Additional MS 10628, f. 28r

Diagrams of lunar and solar eclipses could also be included in almanacs, alongside calendars and other astrological material. Almanacs were used to predict the movement of the stars and the tides, often during medical consultations. A special kind of folding almanac, favoured by medical practitioners, could be hung from its owner's belt. This folding almanac, produced in the 15th century, contains a series of diagrams of the solar eclipse, based on the Kalendarium of John Somer.


Diagrams of solar and lunar eclipses: British Library Harley MS 937, f. 8r

For those with no astronomical knowledge, the darkening of the sky during a solar eclipse may have been particularly ominous. People would have heard or read about such events from the Old Testament story of the Plagues of Egypt, describing a darkness that lasted for three days. According to the Gospel of St Matthew, a period of darkness lasting for three hours, accompanied by earthquakes and the raising of the dead, followed the Crucifixion of Christ. These apocalyptic associations were supported by other medieval accounts. For instance, the Middle English copy of The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday found in British Library Harley MS 913, explained that the first sign of the approaching Apocalypse is that the ‘Sun will give no light and will be cast down to Earth – while you now see it [the Sun] as pleasing and bright, it will become as black as coal.'

Harley 913

The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday: British Library Harley MS 913, f. 20v

You may wish to muse on this as you observe or read about this August's solar eclipse (with or without Bonnie Tyler on your headphones, obviously!). 

Sun and moon

God creating the Sun and the Moon: British Library Additional MS 18856, f. 5v

Becky Lawton and Clarck Drieshen

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