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22 February 2013

Images in the Public Domain

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Just a reminder that images from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts are now available under a Public Domain mark. This means that they are available for download and reuse, on condition that certain basic principles are observed: (1) please respect the creators; (2) please credit the source of the material; (3) please share knowledge where possible; (4) please consider the efforts of the British Library in preserving and making such works available, should they be used for commercial or other for-profit purposes.

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Initial word-panel Shir (song) inhabited by a unicorn and bear, in the "Duke of Sussex's German Pentateuch" (Germany, 14th century): London, British Library, MS Additional 15282, f. 296v.

That's the legal bit out of the way. You can search our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts by keyword, search for a particular manuscript, explore our virtual exhibitions (such as the Royal collection of manuscripts, French illuminated manuscripts and the medieval bestiary), and search our glossaries of terms used when describing illuminated manuscripts and Hebrew manuscripts. Just think -- a simple search for "unicorn" produces no fewer than 34 results, including manuscripts made in England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Scotland, Spain and Switzerland. Maybe in time you'll even be able to download images of our infamous unicorn cookbook.

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Miniature of a unicorn, in Philes, De natura animalium (France, 16th century): London, British Library, MS Burney 97, f. 18r.

Let us know how you're using our images, either by sending a comment (via the link at the foot of this post) or tweeting us @blmedieval. A selection of uses will be publicized in a future blog-post.

09 February 2013

Treasures Wonderful To Behold

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Over the past few years, we've had great pleasure in making many of our books available to view in their entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Periodic announcements have been made on this blog, relating notably to the digitisation of our Greek and Royal manuscripts and to our Harley Science Project. But nothing quite compares to the new treasures now added to Digitised Manuscripts, encompassing the fields of art, literature and science.

And when we say "treasures", we really mean it! The six books in question are none other than (drumroll, please) the Harley Golden Gospels, the Silos Apocalypse, the Golf Book, the Petit Livre d'Amour ... and, um, two others. What were they again? Oh yes, remember now. Only Beowulf and Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook. How could we forget?

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The Harley Golden Gospels (London, British Library, MS Harley 2788, f. 71v).

Each of these six manuscripts is a true splendour, and has immense significance in its respective field, whether that be Anglo-Saxon literature, Carolingian or Flemish art, or Renaissance science and learning. On Digitised Manuscripts you'll be able to view every page in full and in colour, and to see the finer details using the deep zoom facility. You can read more about the chosen six in a special feature in the Financial Times Weekend magazine, published on 9 February 2013.

Harley Golden Gospels (Harley MS 2788): this beautiful gospelbook was made in early-9th-century Germany, perhaps at Aachen. The text is written entirely in gold ink, which even today glistens in the light; the sheer wealth of its decoration lends this manuscript its association with the Carolingian royal court.

Beowulf (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV): contains the longest epic poem in Old English, and arguably one of the greatest works of world literature. The manuscript of Beowulf was made around the year AD 1000, and escaped destruction by fire in 1731: the scorch marks are still visible on its pages.

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Beowulf (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV. f. 132r).

Silos Apocalypse (Additional MS 11695): this commentary on the Apocalypse was made by monks at the Spanish abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos, being started in AD 1091 and completed in 1109. The decoration leaps out from every page, remaining as vivid as the day it was painted.

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The Silos Apocalypse (London, British Library, MS Additional 11695, f. 5v).

Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook (Arundel MS 263): compiled between the years c. 1478 and 1518, this notebook deals with many of the subjects close to Leonardo's heart: mechanics, geometry, hydraulics, optics, astronomy and architecture. Written in his characteristic mirror script, one scholar has described Leonardo's book as an "explosion of ideas".

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Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook ("Codex Arundel") (London, British Library, MS Arundel 263, ff. 84v + 88r).

Petit Livre d'Amour (Stowe MS 955): Pierre Sala (d. 1529), a valet de chambre of Louis XII of France, made his "Little Book of Love" for his mistress (and subsequently wife) Marguerite Builloud. Who could not have been bowled over by such a gift? The manuscript is still preserved in its original carrying case, inscribed with the letters P and M.

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Petit Livre d'Amour (London, British Library, MS Stowe 955, f. 17r).

Golf Book (Additional MS 24098): famous for its depiction of a game resembling golf, this Book of Hours contains a series of miniatures attributable to Simon Bening (d. 1561), one of the greatest Flemish artists.

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The Golf Book (London, British Library, MS Additional 24098, f. 20v).

We are delighted to be able to share these six glorious manuscripts with our readers around the world; and we hope in turn that you share them with your friends too. You can also currently see Beowulf, the Harley Golden Gospels and select pages from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Gallery.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter @blmedieval.

10 January 2013

Discover Digitised Manuscripts

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While some of our high-grade manuscripts are temporarily unavailable, please take the opportunity to use our Digitised Manuscripts site. We have already uploaded hundreds of manuscripts, digitised in their entirety, including many of our medieval Greek books; some of our scientific manuscripts; and dozens of volumes featured in the British Library's Royal exhibition. Check out some of our greatest medieval books, including one of our most recent acquisitions, the St Cuthbert Gospel. And don't forget to use the deep-zoom facility, which enables users to view the manuscripts as never before!

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The late-7th-century St Cuthbert Gospel (Additional MS 89000): note the lack of white gloves!

We are very happy to be able to share our wonderful manuscripts with you -- please pass on the good news, and share them with others.

25 December 2012

Happy Christmas!

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The British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section would like to wish you a very happy Christmas, and all the best in the new year!

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Detail of a miniature of the Nativity, from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410, Additional MS 18850, f. 65r

K062884 Royal 19 C. vi f. 131r

Detail of a miniature of Greeks making merry (perhaps at a New Year's celebration?), from Xenophon, France, c. 1506, Royal MS 19 C. vi, f. 131r

22 December 2012

Christmas Presents for Manuscript Lovers

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It's been another hectic year in the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section. We hope that you have enjoyed reading this blog (and continue to do so), and that you derive great pleasure from seeing some of the manuscripts that we look after.

In case you are still chasing last-minute Christmas gifts for manuscript lovers, here is a small selection of items relating to our collections.

Love Letters: 2000 Years of Romance, by Andrea Clarke (British Library, 2011), priced ÂŁ10.

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Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, edited by Scot McKendrick, John Lowden & Kathleen Doyle (British Library, 2011), the catalogue of our hugely successful Royal exhibition in 2011-12, priced ÂŁ40.

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Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths, by Claire Breay (British Library, 2011), priced ÂŁ7.95.

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Beowulf: Treasures in Focus, by Julian Harrison (British Library, 2009), priced ÂŁ3.99.

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21 December 2012

A Royal Gift for Christmas

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Cold, breezy weather, rain and snow, and the onset of darkness at 3pm, all herald that winter has arrived. To brighten up your days, we have recently put online one of the most lavishly illuminated prayerbooks to survive from the Middle Ages, the Book of Hours of John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford.

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The Nativity in the Bedford Hours: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 65r.

Our treat for you to enjoy during these long, dark days was indeed a royal gift for Christmas. On 24 December 1430, Anne of Burgundy, duchess of Bedford, presented what is now known as the Bedford Hours (British Library Additional MS 18850) with her husband’s consent to her nephew, the 8-year-old Henry VI. The newly-crowned king of England was enjoying his Christmas with the ducal couple in their residence at Rouen, awaiting his French coronation in Paris. A page-long memorandum note inserted in the book (below) by the royal physician John Somerset commemorates this event.

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Memorandum added to the Bedford Hours: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 256r.

For our medieval ancestors, Christmas was not as obvious an occasion for gift-giving as it is now. By far more popular was the Roman-rooted, festive exchange of presents on New Year’s Day, known in France as etrennes (perhaps from the Roman goddess Strena, whose feast was celebrated on 1 January). At the turn of the 15th century large sums of money were spent on the etrennes, which became, especially in France and Burgundy, a lavish courtly ritual, with princes like Anne’s grandfather, Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, spending on average over 6% of his yearly budget on New Year’s presents. The duchess’s gift may well have emulated this relatively well-established tradition.

The manuscript she offered to Henry was a truly royal gift. Its 38 large miniatures and over 1,200 marginal roundels illustrating its prayers were painted by the best Parisian workshops of the time. The prayerbook was not made with Henry in mind, however. Its royal splendour was a recycled one. The work on the manuscript’s fabulous decoration may have started as early as the 1410s and another royal prince may have been its intended recipient, perhaps the early-deceased dauphin, Louis, duke of Guyenne.

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Portrait of John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford, before St George: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 256v.

John, duke of Bedford, acquired the unfinished manuscript sometime after 1422. Following the deaths of his brother Henry V and the English king’s adoptive father, Charles VI of France, John became Regent of France on behalf of the baby King Henry VI. Soon after, in 1423, the duke married Anne of Burgundy in a powerful political match designed to ensure the stability of English rule in France. Two monumental portraits of the ducal couple in prayer before their patron saints were inserted together with their omnipresent heraldic devices and mottos (above and below), and several other scenes.

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Portrait of Anne of Burgundy, duchess of Bedford, before St Anne: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 257v.

Among images added to the volume at that time was yet another remainder of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance. The last two leaves of the manuscript tell the story of the heavenly origin of the French royal coat of arms in picture and verse (below). The miniature depicts God sending his angel with a fleur-de-lis banner to the hermit of Joyenval, who then hands it over to Queen Clothilda. The next scene takes place in the royal palace. The queen presents the fleur-de-lis, on a shield, to Clovis, her husband and the first Christian king of France.

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The legend of the Fleur-de-lis: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 288v.

Clothilda like Anne was a Burgundian princess and it is not accidental that she is assisted here by a herald wearing a hat of green, white and black, the livery colours of the dukes of Burgundy, and that the gate to her palace bears the escutcheon of the lion rampant of Flanders. Clothilda’s role in the legend underlines the traditional Burgundian support to the French crown. A similar role was also expected from Anne, the Regent’s consort.

Detail 1Clothilda presenting the Fleur-de-lis arms to Clovis: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 288v.

Detail 2
The arms of Flanders over the palace gate: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 288v.

The legend of the fleurs-de-lis was popular in early-15th-century France. In December 1430, it received a new meaning, directly addressing Henry VI who was about to receive the French crown. A few months later, the legend of Clovis’s miraculous gift was performed as one of the tableaux vivants during Henry VI’s ceremonial entry to Paris. Although it is not certain whether Bedford had his prayerbook enhanced with new images as a wedding gift for his bride, or as a pre-coronation present to his nephew, in December 1430 the ducal Christmas gift was particularly well-suited for the future king of France.

12 December 2012

The Four Seasons

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London is getting progressively colder, and the Summer Olympics seems a lifetime away. It's instructive at this time of year to see how winter was portrayed in earlier days.

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London, British Library, MS Royal 14 E VI, f. 305v.

Our first illustration is taken from a late-15th-century Flemish manuscript, Royal 14 E. VI, containing a French translation of the Ruralia commoda of Pietro di Crescenzi (Livre des proffits ruraux). On f. 305v is depicted a man sitting before a fire and warming his hands, with a table laid with a meal beside him. The decoration of this manuscript has been associated with the Master of the Getty Froissart, and the book itself was owned by King Edward IV of England (r. 1461-70, 1471-83). We can all empathise with this scene of someone trying to warm themselves up, wrapped in a long cloak.

Another winter scene is found in a second Bruges manuscript, Royal 17 F. II, illustrated by the Master of Edward IV. This manuscript contains La grant hystoire Cesar, and was made in 1479. F. 116v shows the winter march of Caesar's army, with foot-soldiers seen shovelling the snow from under the feet of Caesar's horse. The whole book can now be found on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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London, British Library, MS. Royal 17 F. II, f. 116v.

Our final illustration is less conventional. This decorated initial is found in a 13th-century French manuscript, Sloane 2435, and contains a figurative representation of the Four Seasons. Spring stands in the upper left, wearing a cote and a sleeveless surcote with his hands in the armholes; summer wears a cote on its own; autumn is wrapped in a cloak; while winter wears a hood and long sleeves.

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London, British Library, MS Sloane 2435, f. 23r.

And here is the whole of the initial in question, which has at its foot a snail with a human head!

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A quick reminder that images available on the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts are in the public domain and free of known copyright restrictions. For guidance on their use, please click here. Something to warm you on a cold winter's day ...

05 December 2012

Lions, Monkeys and Bears - Oh, My! The Bohun Psalter and Hours

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Egerton_ms_3277_f133r

Historated initial 'D'(omini) at the Penitential Psalms: the priests give Judas money (Luke 22:5), Christ sends Peter and John to prepare the passover (Luke 22:8), the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, and the Last Judgment in the border, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 133r.

 

The Bohun Psalter and Hours (Egerton MS 3277) is, as Lucy Freeman Sandler describes it, 'virtually a royal manuscript'. It was probably produced for Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford, Essex and Northampton (d. 1373), who was the great-grandson of King Edward I, and the father of Eleanor (who married Thomas of Woodstock, son of Edward III), and of Mary (the wife of Henry of Bolingbroke, who later became Henry IV).

This Psalter is part of a larger group of at least 10 manuscripts that were created for various generations of the Bohun family by a scriptorium and workshop in residence at the main Bohun home of Pleshey Castle, Essex. It is unclear whether this sort of arrangement existed with other noble families of this time, but this may have been a comparatively common practice for the English aristocracy.

 

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Historiated initial 'S'(alvum) at the beginning of Psalm 68 ('Salvum me fac Deus'), with scenes of the Ark's arrival in Jerusalem, and to the left of the initial, King David standing holding his harp, with a small hybrid musician playing under his feet, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 46v.

 

The Bohun Psalter and Hours was probably written around 1361, and the first campaign of illumination – verse initials and line fillers – was likely completed at this time. Little appears to have been done on the manuscript until the 1380s, when work on the Bohun Psalter and Hours was resurrected and the major initials and other miniatures were completed. The original programme of illumination contained nearly 400 subjects, both large and small, although a number of decorated pages were later excised – get in touch if you see anything similar at a car boot sale! As Lucy Freeman Sandler has pointed out, the various 'minor' components of illumination, such as the marginalia, often complement or respond to the 'main' meaning of the historiated initials. For example, see the large historiated initial on f. 29v (which was the opening on display during the Royal exhibition).

 

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Historiated initial 'D'(ixit) of four scenes in the life of David: Saul entering the cave in which David and his men are hiding to relieve himself; David cutting a corner of Saul's robe; David calling after Saul with the corner of his robe and Saul speaking to David, confessing that he believes David will soon be king, at the beginning of Psalm 38, The Canticle of David, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 29v.

The initial 'D'(ixit) at the beginning of Psalm 38 (above and below) was one of the major divisions of the Psalter, and was commonly marked out for special decoration at this period. The iconography in this scene is remarkable. On the outer edges of the initial are four human and hybrid musicians, playing the viol, horn, cymbals and harp – all instruments mentioned in the Psalter.

 

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Detail of an historiated initial 'D'(ixit) of four scenes in the life of David, at the beginning of Psalm 38, The Canticle of David, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 29v.

 

In the centre of the initial are four scenes taken from I Kings: 24 (1 Samuel: 24 in the current division of the Bible). This book narrates the conflict between King Saul and David, and the first scene in the upper left shows Saul and his army searching for David and his men in the wilderness of Engedi. Saul enters a cave in which, unknown to him, David and his men are hiding. Saul is described in various translations of the Bible as needing to 'cover his feet', 'relieve nature', or even 'go to the bathroom', as can be seen in the upper right. David is shown standing behind the vulnerable Saul and, according to the text, his men urge him to kill the king, but instead David cuts off part of Saul’s cloak. After Saul leaves the cave, David approaches him, in the lower scene on the left. David holds out the cut cloth and tells Saul that although he had the opportunity to kill him, he did not, as Saul is his king and the Lord’s anointed. Saul sees this as evidence of David’s righteousness, and proclaims that David will be his successor for the kingdom of Israel; on the lower right David swears fealty – interestingly, with his hand on a book – and Saul anoints him as future king.

Besides depicting this unusual scene from the Bible, this miniature makes a number of ideological points. Bear in mind that this was painted during the Hundred Years' War. If you look on the right, you can see the arms of France in the initial frame, which aligns Saul with the French ruler. On the left part of the initial are the arms of England as well as those of the Bohun family, which are similarly aligned with the ultimately-prevailing King David.

 

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Detail of an historiated initial 'D'(efecit) of the Ark of the Covenant being carried into the Temple, with an ape and a bear in the margins, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 84r.

On f. 84r (above) is an historiated initial 'D'(efecit in salutare meum anima mea), or 'My soul hath fainted after thy salvation'. This is at Psalm 118:81, a subdivision of what is a very long Psalm indeed. Inside this initial, King Solomon is shown accompanying the Ark of the Covenant, which looks like a chest of pirate booty, into the Temple of Jerusalem (from III Kings 8:6). Similarly, the upright ape standing on the initial is also carrying a bag of money, and seems to mimick the procession below. He is carrying an owl, which would have been understood by medieval readers as a reference to a fairly well-known saying: 'Pay me no less than an ape, an owl, and an ass', although of course the ass is absent.

This ape focuses attention on the piety displayed in the initial, but it may refer to those who laboured to create the manuscript itself, as artists at the time were often described as 'apes of nature'. Further evidence of this can be seen above – look at the bear who sits uncomfortably on the lower extender of the initial, and who appears to be licking a pen, in preparation for working on a scroll of music. This may be intended to represent the scribes who worked on this manuscript.

 

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Detail of a marginal illumination of a bear-scribe writing on a scroll, from the Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 13v.

Lest you think this bear-scribe is too fanciful, see one final detail from f. 13v, the last folio of the first quire. There are a number of bears to be found elsewhere in the Bohun Psalter and Hours, but this one does not seem to be directly related to the text nearby. This bear stands holding a quill and working on a scroll. Behind the bear is a goose, in the act of literally goosing the bear. The first word on this bear's scroll is 'screbere' which is conveniently split so that the second word is bere – of course a reference to the creature itself. But the rest of the text is not so immediately apparent: following 'screbere' is some indecipherable scribbling, and then the names 'mar / tinet' and 'robi / net', and on the back is 'pi / erz'. So these are the names Martin, Robert and Piers – presumably the names of three scribes who worked on this very manuscript.

But what might seem like a self-reference is more complicated, because this image was created not by the scribes but by an artist whose name does not survive. Perhaps he was poking fun at those with whom he worked closely to produce such a well-integrated manuscript? Perhaps this is a partial explanation for the disrespectful goose? A larger question is for whom this sort of humour was intended. Lucy Sandler has noted that the artist responsible for much of this Psalter continued working for the Bohun family for decades after the manuscript was finished, so it is hard to imagine that they objected to this in-joke. An inventory made of the library at Pleshey Castle at the end of the 14th century includes more than 120 books, including a number of Bibles and other religious texts. Indeed, it is likely, knowing what we do of the Bohuns, that they would have appreciated this clever interplay between human and animal, text and image.

- Sarah J Biggs