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22 July 2014

Conservation in the 17th Century

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The ‘Mayerne manuscript’, Sloane MS 2052, is on display at the National Gallery’s exhibition Making Colour and is also available to view on Digitised Manuscripts.  Compiled over twenty-six years, it reflects Mayerne’s abiding interest during his middle age in the chemistry of painting and the preparation of pigments, glues, varnishes and other substances.  As Making Colour reveals, before the synthesis and manufacture of pigments in the nineteenth century, artists made their own colours from the raw materials, experimenting and developing them through trial and error. 

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Tests for the preparation of a pigment from blackberry juice, from the Mayerne manuscript, England (London), 1620-1646, Sloane MS 2052, f. 26r (inverted)
 

Such information is vitally important for conservators: understanding the chemical make-up of early modern or medieval pigments can help them to determine why paintings have degraded in certain ways, and inform any interventions that they might make to rectify or halt such deterioration.  The Mayerne manuscript is also of interest in the history of conservation as a discipline, since it also contains notes about how paintings were repaired and cleaned nearly four centuries ago. 

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Title page of ‘Inaccessible Glory: or, The impossibility of seeing God’s face whilst we are in the body’, England (London), 1655, 1417.c.44
 

At the close of his sermon, preached at the funeral of Sir Theodore de Mayerne on Friday, 30th March 1655 at St. Martin-in-the-Field, Rev. Thomas Hodges remarked that: 

‘He [Mayerne] was a person of rare accomplishments...I confess I know not any subject which might be either for necessity or delight whereof he was ignorant, nay in which he was not a great proficient, and expert master.  And, which is more admirable, this variety was not attended with the least discernable confusion, but so methodised and digested that he readily at his pleasure commanded it when occasion required, and brought it forth clothed in such language as he spoke him no less an orator than an artist.’ 

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Notes on cyan and pigments derived from blackberries with samples, Sloane MS 2052, f. 23v
 

However tidy-minded and articulate Mayerne might have been in life, his manuscript Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium is something of a jumble.  In Sloane MS 2069 (f. 172r), we find a letter from Mayerne to his friend Dr Monginot in 1630, in which he recognised the need ‘to take up my pen, if I wish to leave to posterity some of my dearest children – that is, the fruits of my genius – as my conscience dictates, and as my friends invite me’.  Yet, as with his medical case notes, Mayerne never succeeded in imposing order upon his artistic notes or preparing them for print during his lifetime.  Those illustrated with pigment samples or coloured diagrams have naturally attracted most attention and, until 2004, there was no complete edition in English of this manuscript.  

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Assorted notes, recipes and observations, Sloane MS 2052, ff. 56v-57r
 

Buried among them are fascinating insights into conservation, 17th-century style.  The above page, for example, contains a note that to repair a cracked painting, it should be washed and rinsed thoroughly, and coated on the back with a thick water paint, that may be removed when necessary.  It is tucked among miscellaneous observations on the purification of light linseed oil by filtering it through a cow’s bladder, or the transparency of ox intestines in which gold has been wrapped. 

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Notes on the repair of oil paintings gleaned from Sir Anthony van Dyck, Sloane MS 2052, f. 153v
 

Sir Anthony van Dyck was a source of other conservation tips.  To repair a peeling oil painting and protect it from a damp wall, he advised painting the reverse with umber very finely ground in oil – a recipe essential for paintings undercoated with glue or water colours. 

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Notes on the cleaning of surface impurities and dirt from oil paintings, Sloane MS 2052, f. 14v
 

An unfortunate incident with paintings imported from Italy for Charles I prompted Mayerne to formulate his own ideas.  The paintings had been shipped, ill-advisedly, with a cargo of currants and mercury sublimate.  The former fermented and the latter vaporised, blackening both the oil and tempera paintings in the hold.  Mayerne jotted in the margins that the oils were apparently cleaned with milk – but observed that a more watery liquid would have been better: the oil would have resisted it and prevented the washing away or smearing of the pigments. 

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Notes on the cleaning and restoration of oil paintings, Sloane MS 2052, f. 15r
 

Mayerne continued with further, more specific instructions: that a picture soiled with dust should be washed with a wrung-out sponge, with any parts painted with the pigment Dutch pink protected from spoiling by glued-on paper.  Apparently, potash from crushed grape skins or urine are also effective! 

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Notes on the bleaching of paper, Sloane MS 2052, f. 61r
 

Mayerne’s interest extended beyond oil paintings to include prints, and he sought information from craftsmen such as Mark Anthony, a painter from Brussels, the royal apothecary Louis le Myre and Jean Anceaux, a bookseller from the French town of Sedan.  From the latter, Mayerne acquired some of the earliest recorded information about the bleaching of paper: one stage involved the soaking of paper in water in which a cod has been boiled. 

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Mayerne’s recipe for cleaning tempera paintings, Sloane MS 2052, f. 147r
 

These and many other such notes formed the basis for subsequent experimentation, also recorded in the manuscript.  The same motivation drove Mayerne’s medical and artistic pursuits – a passion for the study, development and application of chemistry – and sustained the compilation of this notebook over twenty-six years.  He also had an eye for the commercial potential of his discoveries.  Towards the end of the manuscript, there is a recipe for ‘freshening tempera pictures and making them equal to those painted with oil’.  To distinguish it from his other notes, many of which had been obtained second-hand, he recorded in the title that it had been ‘invented by T. de Mayerne, 1632’, perhaps with the aim of ensuring that it remained his or his heirs’ intellectual property. 

- James Freeman

19 July 2014

The Colourful Career of Sir Theodore de Mayerne

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It is a curious fact that at present the Mayerne manuscript (Sloane MS 2052) is probably physically closer to its author than at any time since his death.  Visitors to the National Gallery exhibition Making Colour will be able to see this fascinating compilation of writings and observations on painting and the technology and chemistry of art by Sir Theodore de Mayerne (b. 1573, d. 1655) – and, if they choose to stroll across Trafalgar Square, a monument to the man himself in the church where he was buried, St Martin-in-the-Fields.  This is the latest in a series of exhibition loans this year that has seen British Library manuscripts travelling near and far to exhibitions at the British Museum here in London, the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf.  It is also the most recent addition to Digitised Manuscripts.

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The hand-written title page of the Mayerne manuscript, 'Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium', England (London), 1620-1646, Sloane MS 2052, f. 2r
 

Physician to French and English royalty, English and foreign ambassadors and reputedly the most expensive doctor in London, as well as author of a travel guide and a contributor to the first authorised pharmacopeia of the Royal College of Physicians, compiler of a cookery book, diplomatic agent and experimental chemist – Sir Theodore de Mayerne led a varied, distinguished life.  He was born on 28th September 1573 in Geneva to Huguenot parents.  A student of the universities of Heidelberg and Montpellier, Mayerne embarked on a medical career in Paris at the close of the sixteenth century, treating members of the French royal family.  In 1605, he experienced a stroke of good fortune: succeeding where other physicians had failed, he cured Lord Norreys of Rycote (a young kinsman of Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury), who had fallen victim to an epidemic in the city.  With a visit to England in the spring of 1606, this medical success laid the foundations for his emigration to England five years later: he secured the post of chief physician to James I, just as the religious atmosphere at the French court began to sour.  

image from http://s3.amazonaws.com/hires.aviary.com/k/mr6i2hifk4wxt1dp/14071811/a0bde7cd-8362-4f14-98f5-2273261d113b.png
Portrait of Sir Theodore de Mayerne by Peter Paul Rubens, in oil and black chalk with grey wash, c. 1630,
British Museum PD 1860-6-16-36. © Trustees of the British Museum. 

Mayerne spent the next forty-four years in England, though he travelled regularly to the continent and in 1620 purchased the estate of Aubonne, not far from Geneva.  Contemporaries remarked upon, and several likenesses bear witness to, Mayerne’s corpulence.  Accounts relate that he did not eat regular meals, but preferred to graze whenever he fancied at a table that was kept well-stocked for this purpose.  He died at his home in Chelsea aged eighty-two on 22nd March 1655, apparently as a consequence of drinking bad wine. 

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Monument to Sir Theodore de Mayerne, St Martin-in-the-Fields, c. 1655
 

For all his considerable medical achievements, Mayerne is remembered today principally for his chemistry experiments and observations.  Although they had a better reception in England, Mayerne’s chemical remedies were frowned upon by the Parisian medical establishment and his approach was, by the standards of the day, rather unorthodox.  

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Mayerne’s notes on the mixing of colours, taken from Peter Paul Rubens while sitting for his portrait, Sloane MS 2052, f. 150r
 

It was this preoccupation that led him to make extensive notes over a quarter of a century upon artistic techniques and the preparation of pigments and oils, many gleaned first-hand from leading artists, artisans and craftsmen of the day.  The notes shown above were taken down by Mayerne almost certainly while he sat for his portrait with Peter Paul Rubens. 

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Mayerne’s notes on oil, taken from Anthony van Dyck, Sloane MS 2052, f. 153r
 

These notes on oil are from an interview with Anthony van Dyck – whom Mayerne describes as a ‘Peintre tres excellent’ – on 30th December 1632. 

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Watercolour sketch of a priming knife, Sloane MS 2052, f. 5r
 

Every stage of the painting process was of interest to Mayerne, even the preparation of the canvas: the above illustration showing the shape of the knife used for this purpose, with a marginal note that such blades were a foot long.  Elsewhere, he recorded van Dyck’s experiments with different undercoats: fish glue caused the paint to flake off and ruined the colours; amber varnish thickened the paint too much; and bismuth white with oil was suitable only for illuminating (f. 10v). 

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Sketch of an artist’s palette and the location of colours, Sloane MS 2052, f. 90v
 

The manuscript contains extensive notes on the preparation of a wide range of colours, taken from a variety of sources – orpiment (a type of yellow), as described by Mr Janson, ‘bon Peintre’ (f. 152r); white oils, from Mr Feltz (f. 142v); white, black, yellow, green and azure from John Hoskins, ‘excellent peintre inlumineur’ (f. 29r); cyan (f. 23v), red (f. 62r), purple (f. 65v), azure (f. 68r), and many others – as well as pen sketches of palettes.

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Mayerne’s experiments with pigments, Sloane MS 2052, f. 80v
 

Most striking are a few leaves in the middle of the manuscript that are filled with neat circles of colour.  Resembling modern-day swatches, these leaves record Mayerne’s testing of the preparation of different pigments: in particular, what formulations best preserved the colour and did not crack as they dried. 

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Mayerne’s experiments with pigments, Sloane MS 2052, f. 81v
 

The Mayerne manuscript is an outstanding witness to the diverse intellectual pursuits of a remarkable individual at the heart of court life in Jacobean and Caroline England.  It is an invaluable record of the seventeenth-century ‘medical arts’: the application of scientific methodologies to the study of artistic techniques, and the contribution that painting could make to the development of chemical knowledge.  For Mayerne, there were no ‘two cultures’: he used a broad palette, drawing on science and art, individually and in combination, to make discoveries of benefit to both.  It is an approach that we in the twenty-first century would do well to imitate. 

Making Colour is at the National Gallery, Sainsbury Wing, until 7th September 2014.

- James Freeman

28 June 2014

Art and Alchemy

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Attention all budding alchemists!  Four of the British Library’s ‘Ripley Scrolls’ (Add MS 5025) are the latest additions to our Digitised Manuscripts website. They are currently on loan to the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf as part of an exhibition on ‘Art and Alchemy: The Mystery of Transformation’ until 10 August, starring alongside works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens and many others.

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Detail of a man (?George Ripley) in rustic dress, bearing a staff with a horse’s hoof, from the Ripley Scrolls, late 16th/early 17th century,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

Based on The Compound of Alchemy of George Ripley (d. c. 1490) and other pseudo-scientific texts, these scrolls are intriguing, bizarre and perplexing in equal measure.  They date from around the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the seventeenth century, however their origins are unknown.  An inscription on the second scroll records that ‘This long Rolle was Dra[ur]ne for me in Cullers at Lubeck in Germany  Anno 1588’ – however, two other scrolls bear a similar note, so neither the date nor the location may be established with any certainty.

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Detail of a hermetic illustrating stages in the alchemical process and the revelation of alchemical wisdom,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

The scrolls illustrate stages in the alchemical process of preparing the philosopher’s stone, which was needed to turn base metals into gold.  The scrolls give visual form to the furnaces, flasks and other paraphernalia its practitioners were supposed to use.  They also contain emblematic imagery whose meaning remains obscure to scholars as well as more familiar symbols, such as the zodiac.

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Detail of a zodiac diagram enclosing two dragons, a sun and a moon,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

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Detail of an alchemist, probably Hermes Trismegistus, holding a hermetic flask,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

The large figure at the top of the second, third and fourth scrolls probably represents Hermes Trismegistus, the ancient and likely mythical author of hermetic texts that later formed the basis of alchemical experimentation in the medieval and early modern periods. Alchemists (often holding flasks or overseeing experiments) are depicted throughout the scrolls, alongside symbolic figures of unknown significance. Labels on some of these figures suggest they represent the elements that alchemists sought to transpose during their experiments.

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Detail of alchemists holding flasks,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

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Detail of symbolic men and a woman surrounded by flasks, within an enclosure decorated with a dragon vomiting a frog,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

Alongside them is an array of fantastical and grotesque anthropomorphic creatures: a woman with the tail of a dragon, a Bird of Hermes (a bird with the head and torso of a human), and a winged dragon with female features (perhaps representing Satan). There are also real and mythical creatures worthy of any medieval bestiary: toads and frogs, dragons aplenty, lions, and a cockatrice.

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Detail of a Bird of Hermes,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

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Detail of a dragon with a cockatrice perched on its head,
Add MS 5025, f. 1r.

George Ripley was an Augustinian canon of Bridlington. He claimed to have studied at the University of Louvain, and there is evidence to indicate connections with Edward IV beyond Ripley’s dedication of The Compound to the king. Another British Library manuscript, Cotton MS Vitellius E X, contains a drawing of Ripley’s tomb at Bridlington, upon which alchemical symbols feature prominently, indicating the integration of alchemy with medieval Christianity.

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Detail of an alchemical distillation furnace,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

Seventeen other Ripley scrolls are known to survive, scattered across institutional collections in Britain and the United States. Recent studies have concentrated on comparative study of the different designs found on these scrolls. The four that make up Add MS 5025 represent each of the three main designs – and their availability on Digitised Manuscripts constitutes an important scholarly resource for the study of alchemy in the late medieval and early modern periods. There are two further Ripley Scrolls held at the British Library: Add MS 32621 and Sloane MS 2524A.

- James Freeman

07 February 2014

Saints' Lives... and Deaths

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With the twin goals of our readers’ edification and entertainment forever at the forefront of our minds, we at the BL Medieval Manuscripts Blog have hatched a plan for a series of posts on saints over the coming weeks and months, timed to coincide with their individual feast days.

In devotional compilations such as Books of Hours, miniatures of saints were a common presence alongside biographies of their lives or other texts to be read during private prayer or reflection.  The choice of which saints to include in one’s book could be a very personal one.  For example, the decoration in the magnificent Bedford Hours (Add MS 18850) was adapted following the marriage of John, duke of Bedford, to Anne of Burgundy. 

Prefacing the portion of the manuscript containing suffrages to the saints is a large miniature showing Anne of Burgundy kneeling in veneration before her namesake and patron, St Anne, who is accompanied by her daughter the Virgin Mary, and her grandson, Jesus Christ. 

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Miniature of Anne of Burgundy, venerating St Anne, St Mary and the Infant Jesus, from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-c.1430, Add MS 18850, f. 257v

The association of saint and book-owner is continued in the border, for example with Joachim and Clopas, each of whom is identified by different interpretations of the Bible as the father of St Anne.

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Miniatures of St Joachim and St Clopas, Add MS 18850, f. 257v

Saints could be depicted in a variety of contexts in manuscript miniatures.  On this page of the Bedford Hours, we see them thinking, reading, writing and discussing, enclosed in private alcoves or chambers that evoke the architecture of the medieval palace. 

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Miniatures of St ‘Salome’, St Alpheus and St ‘Maria Yaque’, and St Zebedee and St Mary Salome, Add MS 18850, f. 257v

By reflecting the reader’s own behaviour and environment as she studied her Book of Hours, these miniatures complemented the text by cultivating her identification with a saint’s life.  Enhancing the exemplary of these lives in this way further encouraged the reader to emulate a saint’s virtues or good works, to shape her behaviour according to the saintly mould she held before her.

First, though, a little taster of what is to come of our series of saints.  Certain objects or animals became associated with a saint as a consequence of the events of his or her life or the manner of his or her death.  These attributes made depictions of saints in stained glass, stone statuary or manuscript books readily identifiable to anyone familiar with their stories.

In Harley MS 2332, we see saints’ attributes being used as a visual shorthand for the dates of their feast days during the calendar year.  This physicians’ almanac has appeared a couple of times on this blog before: when we solicited help assigning a date of production on the basis of a series of pictograms and dates attached to them; and when the volvelle on f. 23v appeared in Guess the Manuscript

The book is small; measuring only 140mm x 100mm, it was designed to be portable.  It was made using a less expensive grade of dark and thick parchment, and was quite possibly written and even illustrated by the person who owned it.  It was produced perhaps around 1412.  It is of English origin, but the selection of certain saints for the calendar at the beginning of the book strongly suggests a connection or at least familiarity with eastern England: East Anglia and Lincolnshire (Sts Guthlac and Edmund), Yorkshire (Sts John of Beverley and William of York) or Northumberland (Sts Cuthbert, Oswald and Wilfrid).

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Calendar pages for February, with tinted pen-drawings of the Labour of the Month, zodiac symbol and religious feast days, from an illustrated physician’s almanac, E. England, c. 1411-12,
Harley MS 2332, ff. 2v-3r

Each month in this calendar occupies an opening, with the traditional activity of the month and the relevant zodiac symbol on the left.  Along the top, symbols provide a quick visual guide to significant dates within the month, with lines directing the reader to when these feasts should be celebrated. 

There are the well-known evangelist symbols:  Matthew (21st September, f. 10r), Mark (25th April, f. 5r, see below), Luke (18th October, f. 11r) and John (27th December, f. 13r). 

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Evangelist symbol of Mark,
Harley MS 2332, f. 5r

There are also symbols relating to saintly miracles or acts. 

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Three candles in a chalice, attributes of St Blaise,
Harley MS 2332, f. 2v.

St Blaise’s day (3rd February) is represented by candles used in the Blessing of the Throats ceremony, which commemorates his curing of a boy choking on a fishbone. 

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Hammer and horseshoe, attributes of St Eligius,
Harley MS 2332, f. 7r.

The hammer and horseshoe recall the legend that St Eligius (25th June) shod a skittish horse through the novel practice of first cutting off its leg, attaching the shoe, then miraculously reattaching the leg.

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St Edmund, king and martyr, holding a ring,
Harley MS 2332, f. 4r.

Here the creator of the tinted drawings has conflated two different St Edwards.  On the feast day of St. Edward, king and martyr (18th March), he has drawn Edward holding a ring.  This refers to a story from the life of St Edward the Confessor, whose feast day is 13th October.  A beggar requested alms from Edward the Confessor in the name of St John.  Having no money on his person, the king instead gave the beggar a ring from one of his fingers.  Certain legends have St John guiding some Englishmen to safety during their pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and handing them the ring to give to the king; others record the saint appearing before the king and returning the ring personally.

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Shoe and crozier, attributes of St. Botulph,
Harley MS 2332, f. 7r.

Other symbols evoke the subsequent patronage of saints.  For instance, St Botulph (17th June), patron saint of travellers, to whom churches at town gates were often dedicated, is represented by a shoe (the crozier poking out of it refers to the fact that he was sometimes referred to as ‘bishop’). 

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St Jacob/James, dressed as a pilgrim,
Harley MS 2332, f. 8r.

St Jacob/James, whose shrine at Compostela was and remains a major pilgrimage destination, is shown as a pilgrim with a walking staff and scallop badge (25th July). 

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A ship, attribute of St Simon,
Harley MS 2332, f. 11r.

St Simon, patron of sailors, and St Jude, patron of last causes, share a feast day (28th October) and are represented by a ship. 

And finally (what you’ve obviously been patiently waiting for), some symbols represent the ways in which particular saints were martyred. 

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Instruments of the martyrdom of St Vincent and St Paul,
Harley MS 2332, f. 2r.

St Vincent and St Paul (22nd and 25th January) each hold tools used to kill them: a saw, representing St Vincent’s torture; and a sword, representing the beheading of St Paul. 

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St Agatha being mutilated,
Harley MS 2332, f. 2v.

On the 5th of February, the gruesome mutilation of St Agatha is illustrated. 

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Instrument of the martyrdom of St Bartholomew,
Harley MS 2332, f. 9r.

St Bartholomew, who was flayed alive then crucified, is drawn holding a knife (24th August), alongside the decapitated head of John the Baptist (29th). 

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Instrument of the martyrdom of St Leodegar,
Harley MS 2332, f. 10v.

Leodegar had the misfortune to have his eyes put out with a drill, which instrument is shown next to his feast day on 1st October.

These are just a few examples; we’ll let you figure the rest out!  The manuscript is available in its entirety on Digitised Manuscripts.  There are still some unresolved puzzles in the manuscript: for instance, does anyone have idea what event was commemorated here? 

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Erasures and checkerboard pattern,
Harley MS 2332, f. 1v.

The title has been erased, and the connecting line to the calendar is heavily smudged – but what is the meaning of the checkerboard pattern, and what might its connection be to the 13th of January?

Keep your eyes out (sorry St Leodegar!) for future posts on saints…

- James Freeman

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

14 October 2013

Anglo-Saxon Medicine

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Do you suffer from asthma, warts or hiccups? Are you fed up with modern medical remedies? If so, we are pleased to tell you that How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies, by Julian Walker, has just been published by the British Library.

Here the author describes for us the state of Anglo-Saxon medicine ...

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Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Royal 12 D XVII, ff. 20v-21r).

Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England was a complex mix of charms, the remnants of classical theories and practice, pragmatic folklore, and faith-healing; despite a longstanding reputation for worthlessness, it was perhaps more based on observation than the reliance on astrology and the theory of humours that marked the medicine of the later medieval period. Sometimes the presence of an odd superstition colours the whole, for example in a fairly accurate account of foetal development, which ends by suggesting that a foetus unborn after the 10th month could be fatal to the mother, but mostly on a Monday night. But there are frequent records of practices which are eminently sensible and probably effective.

The oldest surviving medical documents in Old English are from the 9th century, but there is evidence that older texts were not all in Latin. Bald’s Leechbook, Leechbook III and Lacnunga are the most complete texts, all of them in the British Library. Bald’s Leechbook contains some of the best Mediterranean medicine from the 3rd to the 9th centuries, so the learning was by no means isolated. While some of the herbs mentioned in the texts were only available around the Mediterranean, there are directions for the use of materia medica traded from distant areas, frankincense, pepper, silk, ginger and myrrh.

500 years after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, medical practice relied less on the theories of Galen and Hippocrates, but there remained the process of diagnosis by urine-examination and the therapy of balancing the humours by bleeding. Bloodletting was widely used, sometimes causing infection itself, which was treated by herbal poultices; if the bleeding got out of control it could be stopped with horse-dung. A practical side to the control of infection is seen in the injunction not to let blood in summer, when infection would be most likely. There are warnings against taking too much blood, for example ‘if you let too much blood then there is no hope for his life’; presumably this happened on occasion. 

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Anglo-Saxon medical recipes corresponding to Book 2, chapter 59 of Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Harley 55, f. 1r).

There is little documentation of surgery, compared to other forms of healing, though the archaeological record indicates some successful trepanation, and later there are some gruesome images of how to treat haemorrhoids. The use of splints for broken limbs is mentioned only twice, texts offering salves and poultices as treatment for fractures. Wounds are to be sewn up with silk, which would gradually dissolve – there is even a description of surgery to correct a harelip. Poultices that had antiseptic effects were applied over sutured wounds, with herbs such as lesser centaury used to help healing.

The use of herbs, individually or together, was of great importance in medicine at this time; though there are difficulties in finding exactly corresponding names in the modern flora, many common native plants found some use in medicine. Imported plant matter was often added, so that a recipe in the Lacnunga for a wen salve includes pepper and ginger as well as radish, chervil, fennel, garlic and sage, in a list of 16 plants. Tested through the centuries, herbal remedies connect the past to the present – Bald’s Leechbook contains a recipe for a nettle-based ointment for muscular pain, similar ointments being commercially available now. Leechbook III contains a large number of remedies using only native ingredients; their names are not Anglicised Latin names, implying that this reflects a largely home-grown practice.

Materials other than herbs were also in use. One recipe, quoted in How to Cure the Plague, recommends eating buck’s liver for night vision loss, and indeed the Vitamin A in liver would help this condition. Unlike in Mediterranean medical practice, the use of animal faeces is recommended only rarely, but spittle, snails, urine, worms, weevils and ants are called for, as well as the less startling pigeon’s blood, lard and ale. On occasions the improbable and the feasible were combined, one recipe for a burn including silver filings, bear’s grease, thyme, rose petals and verbena.

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Detail of Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Royal 12 D XVII, f. 20v).

Though learning was largely connected to the church, not all physicians were clerics. Prayers and charms were both used, but possibly the charms were less likely to be adminstered by priests. No doubt many charms worked through assurance and faith. One area that has interested me for a long time is the process of healing by touch at a remove. Bede, writing in the 8th century, tells the story of the death in battle of the Christian king Oswald, whose body was mutilated and set on a stake; people took soil from the place, put it in water, and used this to relieve the sick. While raising questions about the nature of touch and its continuing relevance (the desire to touch celebrities, the fascination of the possessions of the famous), this also provides an exact mirror to germ theory, and a model for both contagion and healing.

In our world of healthcare systems in crisis and general reliance on prescription or non-prescription medicines and a variety of alternative therapies, we are not so far from the charms and prayers, the herbal folklore and amulets of the Anglo-Saxons. Their frequent use of the number nine in healing rituals (charms or prayers are directed to be repeated nine times) may have been a way of marking the period of time for a salve to take effect or a mixture to boil, or may have been a ritual. A shadow of the ritualistic element perhaps survives in directions for antibiotics to be taken ‘three times a day for seven days’.

How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies is available from the British Library Shop, priced £10 (ISBN 9780712357012).

Julian Walker

07 October 2013

Fancy Another Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks?

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As promised back in July, we have an updated list of digitised manuscripts to offer you, our loyal readers.  This master list contains details of everything that has so far been uploaded by the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts department, complete with hyperlinks to each individual record on our Digitised Manuscripts site.  You can download the Excel spreadsheet here:   Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 07.10.13

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Miniature of King Alfonso V praising our spreadsheet as Bishop Juan de Casanova looks on, from the Prayerbook of Alfonso V of Aragon - a new arrival to our list! produced in Spain (Valencia), 1436-1443, Add MS 28962, f. 14v

We should have another new list for you in 3 months - happy hyperlink clicking!

- Sarah J Biggs

Greek, Harley Science, Royal, and Medieval Manuscripts projects. - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/07/fancy-a-giant-list-of-digitised-manuscript-hyperlinks.html#sthash.zXn4I41e.dpuf
Greek, Harley Science, Royal, and Medieval Manuscripts projects. - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/07/fancy-a-giant-list-of-digitised-manuscript-hyperlinks.html#sthash.zXn4I41e.dpuf

04 July 2013

Fancy a Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks?

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One of the most common types of enquiry we in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts department receive is whether or not a particular manuscript has been uploaded to the Digitised Manuscripts site (second only in frequency to the question of how we have gotten to be so fabulous).  This latter mystery has no simple explanation, but hopefully in future it will be easier to answer the 'Is it digitised yet?' question.  We have put together a master list of all of the manuscripts that have been uploaded by our department, including hyperlinks to the digitised versions; you can download an Excel version of the file here:  Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 04.07.13

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Miniature of Jacob’s dream of the ladder, before Psalm 80, with a curtain above, and a bas-de-page image of cannibalistic grotesques pointing to our spreadsheet, from the Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925, f. 83v

A few notes - this list covers only material from the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts collections, mostly items digitised as part of the Greek, Harley Science, Royal, and Medieval Manuscripts projects.  The spreadsheet is currently sorted by shelfmark, although of course you can do what you like with it.  We will be updating this list every three months, and the newest versions will be posted on this blog.

Enjoy!

19 June 2013

New Acquisitions in Manuscript and Print

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On 5 June 2013, the British Library bought four lots in the Mendham Sale at Sotheby's, London. The Library's view was that the sale was regrettable, and Roly Keating (our Chief Executive) expressed his reservations as joint-signatory in a letter published in The Times on 11 May. However, once it became clear that the sale would go ahead, a decision was made to try to purchase certain lots, in order to preserve some of the Mendham books for the national collection and to maintain public access to them.

The new acquisitions comprise two Books of Hours, one in manuscript and the other printed, together with two incunabula. The dispersal of the collection involved the risk that books hitherto available for research in the United Kingdom would leave the country or disappear into private hands. The British Library already has outstanding collections of manuscripts and of early printed works, so adding these books to our collections guarantees their availability to a worldwide research community now and in the future. Moreover, Joseph Mendham’s collecting activities meant that he acquired many early printed books that were unlikely to attract the attention of the institutional libraries or bibliophilic collectors of his era.

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Image reproduced by permission of Sotheby's.

Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, with additions including Middle English verse by John Lydgate

Southern Netherlands, middle of the 15th century

This Book of Hours was probably made in Bruges for the English market. Early in its history the manuscript was adapted for use by a female patron, and a number of Middle English devotional pieces were added to it, among them a version of John Lydgate's Shorte tretis of the 15 joyes of Oure Lady. Not only is the context is which this manuscript was produced of great interest, but its various additions have immense research value; we are delighted that it will soon to available to researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room.

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Image reproduced by permission of Sotheby's.

Book of Hours, Use of Sarum

London: John King for John Walley, 1555. 8º.

This small Catholic liturgical book, produced during the reign of Queen Mary I (1553–1558), is beautifully printed in red and black, and is a unique survival in excellent condition. John King and John Walley were both early members of the Stationers' Company in London, and King's printing shop was next to that of the Royal Printer, John Cawood. Although the text was also produced on the Continent for the English market, fewer editions were produced in England. All editions now survive in small numbers, mainly because the books were heavily used and then discarded when new editions became available.

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Image reproduced by permission of Sotheby's.

Martinus Magistri (or de Magistris), Tractatus consequentiarum

Paris: Felix Baligault, 20 August 1494. 4º.

Bound with Johannes de Sacro Bosco, Tractatus de sphera

[Paris]: Felix Baligault, [1494]. 4º.

Martinus Magistri’s treatise on the theory of consequence was composed by one of the leading nominalist scholastic philosophers in late-medieval Paris. Having reached its height in the 14th century, a revival in the study of consequence took place after nominalist teaching was reintroduced at the University of Paris in the 1480s. Medieval theories of this kind have become of increasing interest to modern logicians, but the texts survive in few copies. Of the 7 known editions of Magistri’s work, only 2 could be found in United Kingdom libraries, and none was previously in the British Library’s collections.

The Tractatus is bound with Johannes de Sacro Bosco’s astronomical treatise, De sphera, one of the most widely-read introductions to astronomy in the Middle Ages, surviving in numerous manuscript copies and over 80 early printed editions, 14 of them from the 15th century. None is common; these were very much books to be read and used.

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Image reproduced by permission of Sotheby's.

Sixtus IV, Bulla extensionis indulgentiarum …

[Rome: Georg Lauer, after 1 September 1480].

Indulgences were widely sold as part of the fund-raising effort to support the Knights of Rhodes against the assaults of the Ottoman Empire. Only one other copy of this printing is known, held at Munich University.

These four new acquisitions will soon be available to researchers in the Manuscripts Reading Room and the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library.