Medieval manuscripts blog

38 posts categorized "Science"

08 August 2016

True Colours

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Our friends at the Fitzwilliam Museum have recently opened a spectacular new exhibition, called Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. This exhibition showcases some of the Fitzwilliam's greatest manuscript treasures, integrated with scientific and art historical research into medieval painting materials and techniques.

The British Library is delighted to have been able to loan four of our own manuscripts to this show, which is open until 30 December 2016. We highly recommend that you make a special journey to Cambridge to view the exhibition, and to take in all these manuscripts in their breath-taking glory.


Add MS 5112, f. 134r: St John the Evangelist, from a gospel book (Byzantium, late 12th century)

This astonishingly beautiful miniature depicts St John the Evangelist, about to sharpen his quill with a knife while a blank codex rests on his lap. This is a particularly fine example of painting with gold leaf; the vermilion red and ultramarine blue of the drapery make a sharp contrast with the gold leaf, and help to distinguish between the gold background and the yellow building in the lower half of the portrait. The miniature itself was not created for the volume in which it was found, and the high quality of the materials and the painting technique strongly suggests a Constantinopolitan origin.


St John the Evangelist, from a gospel book (Byzantium, late 12th century): Add MS 5112, f. 134r


Harley MS 3915: Theophilus, De diversis artibus (NW Germany?, late 12th or early 13th century)

This medieval craft treatise contains instructions for painting, glassmaking and metalworking, as well as pigment recipes and painting instructions for manuscript illumination. The pages shown below describe the manufacture of 'salt green' followed by 'Spanish green', both of which are types of verdigris; next come the production methods for lead white (cerosa) and red lead (minium). Harley 3915 is the most complete and one of the oldest surviving copies of this treatise, the script and ornament of which suggest that it was made somewhere in North-West Germany. We had it digitised a few years ago as part of our Harley Science Project.

Harley_ms_3915_f018v   Harley_ms_3915_f019r

Making green, white and red pigments, in Theophilus, De diversis artibus (NW Germany?, late 12th or early 13th century): Harley MS 3915, ff. 18v–19r 


Sloane MS 1975: A medical and herbal collection (France or England, late 12th century)

This medical treatise concludes with a series of illustrations of medical procedures. The spots represent cautery points, showing doctors where to apply hot irons to treat patients suffering from ailments such as toothache, fever and kidney disease. On the second page shown here, not for the squeamish, are operations to excise haemorrhoids, a nasal growth and cataracts. This manuscript belonged to the Cistercian monastery of Ourscamp in the 14th century, and it later entered the collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753).

Sloane_ms_1975_f092v   Sloane_ms_1975_f093r
Cautery points, in a medical collection (France or England, late 12th century): Sloane MS 1975, ff. 92v–93r)


Harley MS 4336: Boethius, De consolatio philosophiae (Bourges, 1476)

Produced in Bourges in 1476, this manuscript of Boethius's famous treatise, De consolatio philosophiae, is displayed open with this allegorical figure of Fortune, identifiable by the gold letters f emblazoned on her garment. The figures that surround her may represent two different families, one blessed and one cursed by Fortune, or a once prosperous household that has fallen on hard times.

Harley MS 4336 f. 1v

Personification of Fortune, in Boethius, De consolatio philosophiae (Bourges, 1476): Harley MS 4336, f. 1v

Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts is on at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 30 December 2016.


25 July 2016

Star Item: An Anglo-Saxon Sketch of the Solar System

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When people living over a 1000 years ago looked into the sky, how did they interpret what they saw? Helen Sharman and Tim Peake may be the first two Britons to actually go to outer space, but people living in the British Isles and Europe have been picturing the galaxy for a very long time. We have an idea of how some medieval people thought of the galaxy thanks to a recently digitised 10th-century manuscript that contains an early diagram of the solar system.

Diagram of the planets’ orbits, from Isidore of Seville’s De Natura Rerum, England (St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury?), Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23v

The accompanying text explains that this diagram represents the ‘position of the seven wandering stars … called planets by the Greeks.’ These are the moon, which orbits closest to Earth; Mercury; Lucifer, ‘which is also called Venus’; the Sun; Vesper, which is also associated with Mars; Foeton, 'which they call Jupiter'; and ‘cold’ Saturn. 

Detail of a diagram of the planets' orbits, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23r

The diagram and text come from a 10th-century copy of On the Nature of Things (De Natura Rerum) by Isidore of Seville (d. 636). De Natura Rerum is a natural history of the material world. Isidore was inspired by classical writers such as Lucretius (d. c. 55 BC), who sought to combat superstition by offering explanations for natural phenomena.

Phases of the moon, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 20r

Isidore updated his classical models by adding a Christian framework and a series of diagrams to illustrate his text. Manuscripts of De Natura Rerum such as Cotton MS Domitian A I contain so many of these diagrams, which are often circular, that Isidore’s work was often referred to as ‘The Book of Wheels’ (Liber Rotarum).

Diagram of the four elements: earth, air, water and fire, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 13r

Beyond the solar system, the copy of De Natura Rerum in Cotton MS Domitian A I includes diagrams to explain everything from rainbows to latitudes to the humours.

A circular diagram showing the winds linked to the months, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 31r

Many of these diagrams link various natural phenomena. One diagram connects different winds to different months. Another groups each of the four elements with a season, a temperature and one of the four humours: choler (yellow bile), melancholy (black bile), blood, and phlegm.

Diagram of the four humours, elements, and seasons, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f.14r

While concepts such as the humours now seem alien to us, other diagrams in Isidore’s work represent concepts that are still familiar. One wheel depicts five temperate zones by latitude, noting that the poles were colder, uninhabitable regions, and temperatures became warmer as one travelled towards the centre of the map. These diagrams even employ terms which we use today, including ‘Arctic’ and ‘Antarctic’.

Diagrams of the five temperature zones and of latitudes, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 12v

Isidore’s works were widely studied in early medieval Europe. This particular manuscript was made in 10th-century England, but Isidore’s works were known there much earlier. The 8th-century Northumbrian monk Bede even wrote his own version of De Natura Rerum

A diagram representing a rainbow, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 28v

This particular manuscript was probably owned, and possibly made for, a man called Æthelstan, whose collection of books is listed on f. 55v. ‘De Natura Rerum’ is the first book in the list. Æthelstan also owned several works by the 4th-century grammarian Donatus, various treatises on grammar and the art of poetry, and one ‘gerim’, which was possibly a calendar or a text on calculation, ‘which was the priest Ælfwold’s.’ Æthelstan's precise identity is unknown, since this was a common name in late 10th-century England, when this book and list were copied. He probably was not the early 10th-century king called Æthelstan, since the manuscript and its booklist were probably written after King Æthelstan's death in 939. Nevertheless, the Æthelstan of the book list was evidently a man of some wealth: all manuscripts were expensive, and this copy of De Natura Rerum has colour diagrams and a little gold, for highlighting the stars in the solar system. Judging from his booklist, he was also highly educated, with a particular interest in grammar and language.

Booklist, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 55v

As an educated Latinist, Æthelstan would have fitted into some of the most influential circles in 10th-century England. This was a time of great manuscript production and learning, thanks to the encouragement and book collecting of cosmopolitan rulers such as King Æthelstan (d. 939) and of monastic reformers, who sought to increase standards of learning in English religious houses. Æthelstan the Grammarian’s manuscript of De Natura Rerum seems to be related to those developments because it uses the Caroline minuscule script closely associated with the reformed monasteries. However, Æthelstan may not have been a monastic reformer himself: his book list shows he had private property, which was technically forbidden to monastic reformers. Admittedly, this need not disqualify him from having been a reformer: even the notably strict reforming bishop Æthelwold was personally associated with a particular service book.

In the late medieval period, the manuscript was kept in the library of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, where it may have been used by members of that institution.

Isidore’s T-O map of Asia, Africa, Europe, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 37r

Once the deluxe possession of a well educated man, then part of an institutional library, this copy of De Natura Rerum is now available in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Modern people may use it differently, but some of its topics and diagrams — particularly the striking diagram of the solar system — remind us that we are not so very different from early medieval people in the questions we ask about the world around us. 

Drawing of the sun, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 17r

Alison Hudson


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26 May 2016

Bede: The Greatest Hits

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On this day in AD 735 the Venerable Bede died in his monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Bede is most famous for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and is often affectionately known as the father of English history. However, this text was written at the end of a long career, in which Bede wrote many works on hagiography, natural science and theology. When another monk of Wearmouth-Jarrow wrote an account of Bede’s death, he described how Bede continued with his scholarly pursuits right up until his final moments. On the anniversary of Bede’s death, it seems fitting to explore some of Bede’s greatest hits, which can be found within the British Library’s manuscript collections.

Beginning of the second book from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 775-825, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People survives in a number of copies here at the British Library. Our earliest copy of the text can be dated to the late 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century, having been made in the decades after Bede’s death. Although this manuscript was damaged in the Ashburnham House fire in 1731, it is still possible to see ornate features such as the decorated initials above which begin book 2 of the History.

Opening page of Bede’s Eccesiastical History, England (Southumbria), c. 800-850, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

Bede’s work was widely copied within a few years of his death and for centuries thereafter. The British Library has a lavishly illuminated, early 9th-century manuscript of the Ecclesiastical History from Southumbria (Cotton MS Tiberius C II), which will soon be available in full on Digitised Manuscripts. We have also recently uploaded a 10th-century copy of the Ecclesiastical History to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 13 C V).

Page from an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England, late 9th or early 10th century, Cotton MS Domitian A IX, f.11r

The British Library also holds several fragments of an Old English translation of the Ecclesiastical History written in the late 9th or early 10th century, including the recently digitised fragment in Cotton MS Domitian A IX. It is not known exactly when the Ecclesiastical History was first translated into Old English, although it is thought to have been part of King Alfred of Wessex’s programme to provide the ‘books most needful for men to know’ in English in the late 9th century.

St Cuthbert greeting King Ecgfrith, from Bede’s Prose Life of Cuthbert, England (Durham), c. 1175-1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 51r

Bede is also well known for writing biblical commentaries, hagiographies, and poems on religious subjects (such as the recently digitised Add MS 11034). These include both a prose and a verse Life of St Cuthbert. A number of manuscripts of Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert were recently uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts, including a 12th-century manuscript which contains a number of well-known illustrations to the text (Yates Thompson MS 26).

Image of a scribe, perhaps Bede, from Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r

In this same manuscript, the preface to the prose Life of St Cuthbert includes a miniature of a scribe writing at a desk. As it accompanies the preface, the figure within this drawing is often thought to be Bede himself.

Page from Bede, De natura rerum, England, c. 975-1025, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 2r

Bede’s scholarly interests were not limited to history, hagiography and theology; he also wrote a number of works describing the natural world. He was the first European to note the relationship between the moon and the tides and he was skilled in very complex forms of mathematics. One of these works was entitled On the Nature of Things, and includes chapters on the creation of the world, and descriptions of astronomical and metrological features. The page above is taken from a 10th-century fragment of this text.

Egerton 3088   f. 16v
Page from Bede’s De temporibus illustrated with zodiac symbols, England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088, f. 16v

Bede wrote a brief introduction to the subject of computus, which was designed to give its readers basic knowledge of the methods of calculating the date of Easter. This was a tricky subject in Bede’s day, and in this work he used simple Latin and short sentences in order to make the text accessible to a beginner. Pictured above is a 13th-century English copy of the text, and is accompanied by an illustration of four zodiac figures; Aries, Gemini, Taurus, and Cancer.

Egerton 3088   f. 17v
Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v

In addition to these other works, Bede wrote a number of letters throughout his life. The letter on the page below is a 12th-century copy of a letter written by Bede to Bishop Ecgberht of York only a few months before Bede’s death in May 735. In this letter, Bede is heavily critical of the current state of the Northumbrian Church and outlines various ways in which it could be reformed. Within this letter, Bede explains to Ecgberht that he is writing a letter because he is physically unable to travel to York in order to speak to Ecgberht in person. This gives some sense of Bede’s declining health in the months before his death.

Harley 4688 f89
Beginning of Bede's letter to Ecgberht, England (Durham), c. 1100-1150, Harley MS 4688, f. 89r

Cuthbert, a monk from Wearmouth-Jarrow, wrote an account of Bede’s death in the form of a letter. This letter can often be found in manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History such as Harley MS 3680, copied in the 12th century. In his account of Bede’s death Cuthbert included a short poem, which he claimed was composed by Bede in Old English upon his deathbed. The poem translates as:

Facing that enforced journey, no man can be

More prudent than he has good call to be,

If he consider, before his going hence,

What for his spirit of good hap or of evil

After his day of death shall be determined.

Trans. J. McClure and R. Collins (eds), The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1994), p. 301

Arundel ms 74 f2v
Image of Bede from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (East Anglia?), c. 1375- 1406, Arundel MS 74, f.2v

Cuthbert described how, upon hearing this poem, he and his fellow monks shared in Bede’s sorrow. He claims that they ‘read and wept by turns’ or wept continually as they read. Their reaction demonstrates that Bede was heavily valued as a scholar and a teacher at Wearmouth-Jarrow. Perhaps there are also a few modern readers of this blog who will shed a little tear on this anniversary of Bede’s death.

~Becky Lawton

22 April 2015

Ointments and Potions

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We have recently published to Digitised Manuscripts Sloane MS 345, a Dutch scientific manuscript of the early 16th century containing a cornucopia of scientific texts, from prescriptions for ointments and suppositories, to a treatise on varnishes for the conservation of paintings, to a recipe for brandy or aqua vitae. Some of the texts are in Latin and others in Middle Dutch.

The format is of a plain, workaday text, a collection that was probably compiled for a physician and was in fact in the collection of Francis Bernard (d. 1698), apothecary and physician to King James II of England in the seventeenth century.

Page of recipes with the rubrics ‘Gebrande wyn te maken’ and ‘de aq[ua] viva’ in the margin, from a Dutch scientific compendium, the Netherlands, c. 1500, Sloane MS 345, f. 50v

One of the key texts is the ‘Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum’, a collection of didactic verse on health, diet and medicine, put together for oral transmission by doctors at the School of Salerno, Italy, and assembled in written form in the 13th century by Arnoldus de Villa Nova (b. c. 1240, d. 1311), professor of medicine. He is credited with coining the label ‘aqua vitae’, which he described as ‘a water of immortality….that clears away ill-humours, revives the heart and maintains youth’. It is interesting to note that in this manuscript, ‘aqua vitae’ or ‘gebrande wyn’ in Middle Dutch, is found in a collection of culinary recipes rather than among the medicinal waters, suggesting that it was starting to be seen as more of a lifestyle choice than a medicine in the early 16th century.

Arnoldus de Villa Nova, 'T[ra]ctat[us] de laudibus virtutib[us] querci', a letter to Richard, Bishop of Canterbury, from a Dutch scientific compendium, Netherlands, c. 1500, Sloane MS 345, f 15r

A further contribution by Arnoldus de Villa Nova is a letter to Richard, Bishop of Canterbury, on the medicinal properties of the oak tree. Oak bark was used to treat infections, burns and cuts.

There are several collections of recipes for medicinal waters and herbal remedies. Here is an image from another manuscripts showing the apparatus used for alchemical processes and to prepare alcohol for medicinal uses and for the infusion of herbs, from Sloane MS 3548, a 15th-century English manuscript.

Scientific apparatus from John Arderne, Medical Miscellany, England, 15th century, Sloane MS 3548, f. 25r

A work on the treatment of wounds is attributed in Sloane MS 345 to the young Lanfranc of Milan and a treatise, ‘De signis mortis’, gives examples of skin conditions and pustules indicating impending death. This treatise includes the Hippocratic facies, the description of a countenance often present at the verge of death, still used in medical prognosis today.

This image is from Sloane MS 6, another manuscript of John Arderne’s medical works. It shows Hippocrates (or Galen) holding up what is perhaps a urine glass to the sun on the lower left page.

Drawings of medical practitioners at work and medical diagrams from John Arderne, Medical treatise, England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Sloane MS 6, ff. 175v-176r

Sloane MS 345 also contains medical works such as Chirurgia Parva (ff 118r-127v) and Liber de matrice mulieris et impugnatione (ff 128r-130r),attributed to Johannes de Ketham, a German physician living in Italy at the end of the 15th century. His Fasciculus medicinae, published in Venice in 1491, was the first printed book to contain anatomical illustrations.

De Ketham’s treatise on the conservation of easel paintings, De diversis coloribus picturis et tincturis contains recipes for pigments, oils, painting and guilding, provides insights into the techniques or materials used by Dutch artists in the early 16th century.

St Luke at his easel painting the Virgin, Gospels of Luke and John, England, S.E. , 1st quarter of the 16th century, Royal 1 E V, f. 3r

Sloane 345 is a treasure trove of information on medical practices and remedies, but so as not to disappoint our readers who would like to see more graphic representations of medieval medical practices, here are two examples from other medical manuscripts in our collections.

Harley MS 1585 is another Dutch manuscript, this time from the southern Netherlands in the 12th century, a medical miscellany with a pharmacopeial compilation, including a herbal and bestiary. The full online version is available on Digitised Manuscripts.

Miniature of medical and surgical procedures, inscribed 'a podagric is incised and burned thus', Netherlands, S. (Mosan region), or England? Harley MS 1585, f. 9r

Sloane MS 1977 is a collection of medical texts including Roger of Parma’s Chirurgia , translated into French, with full-page illustrations. It was in the Royal library in the 16th century, but later became part of the scientific collection of Sir Hans Sloane. It is partially digitised in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

An operation to repair a compound fracture of the skull, France, N. (Amiens), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Sloane 1977, f. 2r

-          Chantry Westwell

26 August 2014

Bugs in Books

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Even the most cursory glance over the pages of medieval manuscripts will reveal a plethora of insects.  Bugs are everywhere – although we hasten to add that we are extremely vigilant about avoiding the presence of any actual living insects within the pages of our books.  But there has been little comprehensive scholarship about the appearance of such creatures in medieval manuscripts.  Insects usually live literally in the margins, often not even appearing in catalogue entries despite their profusion. 

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Detail of a border including flowers, moths, and flies, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 64v

Whilst undertaking this very short exploration of the subject, therefore, we would do well to remember the words of one of the earliest writers about these minute creatures.  As Pliny the Elder reminds us in the introduction to his book about insects:  â€˜Nature is nowhere to be seen in greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works.  For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.’

Add MS 28841 f. 6r detail
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with marginal spiders and a praying mantis, Italy (Genoa), c. 1330 – c. 1340, Additional MS 28841, f. 6r

We’ll begin, as we almost always do, with the bestiary, that essential book of medieval beasts.  The early medieval bestiary includes amongst its pages only two species of what we would consider insects today – ants and bees.

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Detail of a miniature of ants in their anthill, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 32r

The humble ant is given quite extensive treatment in the bestiary.  Echoing Isidore of Seville’s somewhat fanciful etymology, the text tells us that the ant is called ‘formica’ because it carries pieces of grain (‘ferat micas’).   It goes on to describe much recognisable ant behaviour, detailing how ants walk in lines to gather food, store it for the winter, carry loads far in excess of their own size, and work together for the good of the group. 

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Detail of a miniature of ants on their anthill, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 50r

A parallel tradition to that of the bestiary is the Physiologus, one of the precursors to the Marvels of the East.  In the Physiologus, a subspecies of ant, as large as dogs, is said to live in Ethiopia and to be adept at digging up gold.  Such skill can be exploited by human beings, but only very carefully, as these ants will try to chase down and kill anyone who attempts to steal from them. 

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Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a camel, while a man loads another camel with gold and escapes, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101r

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 96r dog-size ants G70031-02a
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a group of men who have come to steal their gold, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 96r

The concept of insects as a distinct class of animals was one that didn’t exist in this period.  Bees, for example, are characterised as the ‘smallest of birds’, and accordingly, often come at the end of the bestiary's section on winged animals.  They are described as industrious creatures, living in community under a chosen king.  Born in the decaying bodies of oxen or slaughtered calves, it is said, bees build their homes with ‘indescribable skill’, make honey, and then guard it fiercely against all potential invaders.  Much like ants, bees were praised over the centuries by various authors who considered them humble and loyal animals, ‘wonderfully noble', and worthy of emulation by human beings.

Harley MS 3448 f. 10v bees c13744-42a
Detail of a miniature of bees guarding their hives against a marauding bear, from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), Italy (Padua?), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3448, f. 10v

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 45r bees F60101-62a
Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar and returning to their hive, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 45v

That said, bees could sometimes be used as weapons.  A mid-13th century copy of William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer contains a miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch who was bound to a tower and smeared with honey in a gruesome attempt to end his life.

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Miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch being attacked by bees, from
William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer, France (Picardy?), 1232-1261, Yates Thompson MS 12, f. 120r

It is not clear why the early bestiaries omitted so many of the species of insects that people must surely have been familiar with – in many cases, perhaps, far too familiar. Flies, spiders, moths, and butterflies do not put in appearances in texts until later.  The British Library is lucky enough, however, to possess a mid-16th century Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate which includes a cicada (f. 13r), a locust-like insect (f. 19r), and three species of spider – two of which are poisonous (and one of which is apparently six-legged).

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Detail of a painting of three spiders, including a malmignatte, from a Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate, 2nd – 3rd quarter of the 16th century, Burney MS 97, f. 29r

Six-legged spiders are not unusual to find in medieval art, and neither are their ten-legged cousins, as the examples below will show:

Sloane MS 4016 f. 6r c13578-09b
Detail of a six-legged spider in its web, from an herbal, Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 6r

Royal MS 13 B VIII f. 11v E124037
Detail of a marginal ten-legged spider, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographic Hiberniae, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 – 1223, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 11r

Most insects in medieval art, however, were not designed to illustrate any accompanying text, or at least, not literally. This is particularly the case for manuscripts from the later medieval era.  The vast majority of insect examples we have found are decorative ones, taking their place amongst the flowers, fruit, and jewels that adorn these pages.  Some are occasionally used for humorous purposes, or may have been intended to underscore the message of the text.   An extremely small selection of these sorts of images is below; if we have omitted any gems, please do let us know in the comments or on Twitter: @BLMedieval.  Happy bug hunting!

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Detail of a marginal painting of flies surrounding a dog, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 48r

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Detail of a marginal dragonfly and dragon, from the Lovell Lectionary, England (probably Glastonbury), c. 1400 – c. 1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 13r

Add MS 35254 K N and P F60002-30
Selection of cuttings of border illuminations, featuring flowers, birds, moths, butterflies, and other insects, Italy (Rome), c. 1572 – c. 1585, Additional  MS 35254, f. N

Add MS 28841 f.7v
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with a caterpillar and a spider catching a fly, Additional MS 28841, f. 7v

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Detail of a grasshopper, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Additional MS 18851, f. 30r

Add_ms_18852_f017r detail
Detail of a butterfly alighting on a flower, Additional MS 18851, f. 17r

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Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar, and a beekeeper (rotated 180°), from the Exultet Roll, Italy (Monte Cassino), c. 1075 - c. 1080, Add MS 30337, membrane 10

Add_ms_35313_f029r detail
Miniature of the Crucifixion, with a gold border including flowers, moths, a fly, and a caterpillar, Additional MS 35313, f. 29r

Add_ms_35313_f071v detail
Detail of a border including a monkey and a fly, Additional MS 35313, f. 71v

Burney MS 132 f. 2r C0192-06b
Detail of a border including a dragonfly and helmets, from De bello gallico, Italy, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Burney MS 132, f. 2r

- Sarah J Biggs

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. 

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. 

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.’ 

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.  

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. 

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. 

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. 

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! 

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. 

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.

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
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. 

Mayerne monument
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.  

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. 

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. 

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). 

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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