Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

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

11 August 2020

Jewels make the Virgin Queen

Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) amassed an extraordinary collection of objects made from and decorated with gold, silver and precious stones, as demonstrated by two inventories that were drawn up during her lifetime. Aside from the regalia that she inherited from her predecessors — such as the imperial crown, sceptre and orb — she received many personalised jewels from her courtiers at the customary presentation of gifts to the queen on New Year’s Day. Very few of these precious objects survive today: her successors James I and Charles I sold or donated her jewels, while the regalia were destroyed after the abolition of the monarchy in 1649.

Luckily, the inventories (Stowe MS 555 and Stowe MS 556) give us detailed descriptions of the more than 1.500 items that were kept in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. These suggest that Elizabeth surrounded herself with objects and imagery that celebrated female leadership and virtue, supporting her unusual position of being only England’s second ruling queen and the first who chose to remain unmarried: a controversial choice since queens were expected to marry in order to create political allegiances, to acquire a husband to handle military affairs, and to produce offspring.

A portrait of a woman, representing Queen Elizabeth I, wearing a yellow dress, and a golden crown and necklace with gemstones in different colours

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I wearing various jewels (northern England, 2nd half of the 16th century): Egerton MS 2572, f. 11r

One of the very few items from the inventories that survives today is the so-called ‘Royal Gold Cup’. The cup is covered in gold, adorned with pearls, and enamelled with scenes from the life of St Agnes, an early Christian who was martyred during the Roman persecution. It was made for the French royal family at the end of the 14th century, but was in the possession of the Tudor monarchy by 1521. As a Protestant, Elizabeth opposed the cult of saints, but the life of St Agnes may have resonated with her on a secular level: like Elizabeth, Agnes rejected a range of suitors and committed herself to a life of virginity.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

The Royal Gold Cup described in the Inventory of Jewels [‘a cuppe of golde with Imagerye’] (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 10r

A view of the cover of the Royal Gold Cup showing St Agnes in a red dress, accompanied by her foster-sister Saint Emerentiana in a blue dress, being offered a casket of jewels by her suitor Procopius in blue and red clothes

St Agnes, accompanied by her foster-sister St Emerentiana, rejecting a casket of jewels from her suitor Procopius on the cover of the Royal Gold Cup (London, British Museum)

Elizabeth may have used jewels made from the horn of the unicorn (in reality, narwhal tusk or walrus ivory) to celebrate her unmarried status. The popular belief that the mythical creature could only be captured by a virgin may have made its horn a particularly useful symbol for Elizabeth to reinforce her status as ‘Virgin Queen’. We recently mentioned that she owned a drinking cup made from unicorn’s horn, but our inventories show that she possessed much greater quantities of it. They itemize an unadorned piece of unicorn’s horn (‘pece of unicornes horne not garnished’), a staff from unicorn’s horn featuring a silver-gilt cross with a round crystal (‘Staffe of unycornes horne with a Crosse garnished with silver guylte and a rounde Chyrstall’), and another staff that was made from unicorn’s horn (or bone), adorned with silver, and featuring Elizabeth’s coat of arms.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

A unicorn staff [‘one verge of bone or unycorne [...] with the Quenes Armes’] in the Inventory of Jewels (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 33v

Elizabeth’s jewels suggest that she associated herself with Lucretia, a noblewoman from ancient Rome who committed suicide after she had been raped by an Etruscan prince. During the Middle Ages, Lucretia was cited as a paragon of female virtue by authors such as Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) in his De claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women), Cristine de Pizan (1364– c.1430) in her Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), and Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400) in his Legend of Good Women. Elizabeth owned a ewer engraved with an image of ‘Lucrece kylling herself’, two gilt cups with her image, and a wooden cup which may have depicted her suicide, since it is described as having ‘a woman holding a dagger two edged in her handes’.

Two panels showing scenes from the life of Lucretia. On the left, Lucretia lies in bed while her arm is being held by an Etruscan prince who raises a sword at her. On the right, Lucretia commits suicide with a sword in front of her husband and father

The rape and suicide of Lucretia (? Paris, 1473–c. 1480): Harley MS 4374/4, f. 210r

Other jewels supported Elizabeth’s status as England’s sole leader through images of virgin goddesses from Classical mythology. For example, the inventories describe a salt vessel (‘Saulte’) that was shaped like a golden globe and was held up by two figures representing the Roman god Jupiter and his daughter Minerva. Elizabeth received it on New Year's Day 1583/4 from Francis Drake (1540–1596), who presented her with many gifts he had raided from Spanish and Portuguese ships. While the globe symbolises England’s imperial aspirations, Minerva, Roman virgin goddess of warfare and defender of the state, was strongly associated with Elizabeth, who was likened by her contemporaries  to a ‘new Minerva’.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

Francis Drake’s ‘Saulte of golde like a Globe standinge uppon [...] Jupiter and Pallas’, in the inventory of Elizabeth’s jewels (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 23r

Among the inventories, we find one jewel that seems to reflect on Elizabeth’s leadership in a bold and humorous way. It is a dish described as having an engraving of a ‘woman syttinge uppon a man holdinge a whippe in her righte hande and holdinge his heade in her lefte hande’. This unmistakably represents the late medieval tale of Phyllis and Aristotle. The story tells that after Alexander the Great took Phyllis as his wife, he became distracted from state affairs. His mind was turned back to his kingdom and away from his wife when the Greek philosopher Aristotle remonstrated with him. When Phyllis learned the cause of her husband’s changed attitude, she decided to take revenge: she seduced Aristotle and, after he begged her to requite his love, she agreed to do so on condition that he first allowed her to ride upon his back like a horse. The story of Phyllis and Aristotle was part of a ‘Power of Women’ trope in late medieval and early modern art and literature that reflected anxieties over women’s dominance over men. But for Elizabeth it may have been an example of succesful female governance and therefore fitted in well with the rest of her collection.

A woman (Phyllis) in a red robe using a whip with her left hand and pulling reins with her right hand to control the movements of a bearded man in a grey robe and with a green hat, on whose back she is sitting

Phyllis sitting on Aristotle’s back (Metz, 1302–1303): Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 187r

Elizabeth’s jewels played an important role in how she represented herself to the outside world and was perceived by others. Our inventories suggest that her courtiers were aware of their function and carefully selected jewels or had ones made that emphasised her identification with illustrious women and virgin goddesses. These strategically designed jewels were powerful symbols that helped Elizabeth promote the idea of single leadership in England by an unmarried woman.

From golden toothpicks to drinking vessels made from griffin’s eggs, you can now study the newly digitised versions of Stowe MS 555 and Stowe MS 556 on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

08 August 2020

Ludicrous figures in the margin

‘Hours of the Virgin, decorated with shields of arms, and ludicrous figures in the margin’, was the description of Harley MS 6563 provided in the 1808 catalogue of the Harley Collection. Our catalogue records have come on a long way since then, but the lively marginal antics in this little Book of Hours still stand out. Already popular with viewers on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, they can now be appreciated in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Harley MS 6563 was made around 1320-1330 in Southern England, perhaps London, probably for a woman owner. Originally the manuscript must have been extensively illuminated, but sadly all the pages containing decorated initials or miniatures were removed in the early modern period. Yet almost all of its remaining pages feature drawings from the topsy-turvy world of medieval marginalia. In honour of its digitisation, let’s dive down the parchment rabbit hole to explore some of its marginal subjects and their possible meanings.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit running into a hole and emerging the other side.
A rabbit runs into a hole on one side of the page and emerges on the other side: Harley MS 6563, f. 33r-v

While endlessly inventive, this kind of playful marginalia found in manuscripts of the 13th-14th centuries tended to draw on certain reccurring themes which were common to medieval art of other media such as stained-glass windows, wall paintings, misericords and stone carvings, as well as popular literature of the time. The meanings of these themes are much debated and there are no definite answers, but this uncertainty makes marginalia all the more fun to puzzle over.

Crafty foxes

One much-loved character who makes a prominent appearance in the margins of this Book of Hours is the crafty fox, trickster and master of disguise, who was well-known to medieval audiences from the Renard the Fox stories and other animal fables. Two double-page scenes in the manuscript show a fox preaching to a flock of birds. The fox leans on a pilgrim’s staff and gestures emphatically while the birds gaze on in gullible wonder. Later in the manuscript we see the conclusion of the tale: a fox running away with an unlucky member of the congregation in his jaws.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox preaching to a flock of birds.
A fox preaching to a flock of birds: Harley MS 6563, ff. 54v-55r
A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox running with a bird in its mouth.
A fox runs away with a bird: Harley MS 6563, f. 6v

In another double-page scene the fox appears as a schoolmaster, birch and rod in hand, teaching a dog pupil who holds a book up to his face as though attempting to read. As with his preacher guise, the fox once again assumes a position of authority to misguide the ignorant and unwary.

Such scenes might be understood as social satires commenting on the corruption and folly of the human world. There may be a lesson to be learned here, as the Nun’s Priest concludes his retelling of a Renard the Fox story in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘Taketh the moralite, goode men’ (take up the moral, good men)—although he is conveniently vague about what the moral actually is.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox teaching a dog.
A fox teacher instructs a dog pupil: Harley MS 6563, ff. 22v-23r

Animal musicians

One particularly well-represented subject in this Book of Hours is animal musicians. A whole musical troupe of cats, pigs, dogs and rabbits is shown in concert over a series of five leaves in the Penitential Psalms, and others also appear throughout the manuscript.

The animal musicians probably belong to the popular theme in medieval marginalia of ‘the world turned upside down’. The idea that animals are unable to appreciate music was commonplace in the Middle Ages. A proverb inherited from classical antiquity via Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy referred to someone who fails to understand something as ‘the ass which cannot hear the lyre’. Similarly, a Middle English poem listing impossibilities includes, ‘whan swyn be conyng in al poyntes of musyke’ (when swine are knowledgeable in all points of music), as we might say ‘when pigs might fly’. The animal musicians might therefore represent the impossible becoming reality.

Details of animals playing musical instruments from the marginalia of Harley MS 6563
A cat playing a fiddle (f. 40r), a cat playing bagpipes (f. 40v), a boar playing a portative organ (f. 41r), a boar playing a harp (f. 41v), a dog playing a hurdy gurdy (f. 43r), a cat playing a psaltery (f. 43v), a rabbit playing a drum (f. 44r), a rabbit playing a trumpet (f. 44v): Harley MS 6563

Fighting snails

Another example of the inversion of reality is the ever-popular subject of figures fighting snails. In medieval marginalia, snails are notoriously hostile, as we see in this Book of Hours where a man attempts to fend off a large advancing snail with a club. On the following page, another man has cast down his sword and shield and begs for mercy before a ferocious mollusc.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man with a club fending off a snail.
A man with a club fends off a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 61v-62r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of an armed man surrendering to a snail.
An armed man surrenders to a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 62v-63r

Warrior women

But if anyone is able to triumph over such a formidable adversary, it is probably this naked woman warrior who is shown charging with a lance towards a snail. As part of the reversal of the social order in medieval margins, women, who were often expected to be subservient in medieval society, are sometimes shown as powerful militants and victors. Similarly, on another page a man surrenders to an armed woman.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a naked woman fighting a snail.
A naked woman warrior vs a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 86v-87r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man surrendering to an armed woman.
A man surrenders to an armed woman: Harley MS 6563, ff. 63v-64r

Battle of the cats and mice

Role reversal is also the theme of the series of images for which this manuscript is best known: the battle of the cats and the mice. Over an eight-page narrative sequence, an epic war unfolds. First the mice besiege the cats’ castle, hurling rocks from a trebuchet and attempting to scale its walls. Then the cats attack the mouse castle, one firing a crossbow and another being crushed by a falling rock from the battlements. Next, a cat archer and a mouse lancer go head-to-head, and finally the mouse succeeds in impaling the unfortunate cat.

This triumph of the mice over the cats may also be understood as social commentary. In Boccaccio's Decameron, the artist and trickster Bruno paints a fresco of a battle of cats and mice in the house of the foolish doctor Simone. The doctor considers it a very fine piece, little knowing that Bruno and his friend Buffalmacco are actually swindling him. In the story, the cat’s defeat by the mice may reflect the wealthy doctor’s humiliation by the artists.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of mice besieging a cat in a castle.
Mice besiege cat castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 71v-72r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a crossbow attacking mice in a castle.
Cats besiege mouse castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 72v-73r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a bow and a mouse lancer taking aim at each other.
Cat archer and mouse lancer take aim at one another: Harley MS 6563, ff. 73v-74r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat impaled by a mouse lancer, begging for mercy.
Mouse warrior has impaled the cat who begs for mercy: Harley MS 6563, ff. 74v-75r

Rabbit huntsmen

The idea of the hunted becoming the hunter also underlies the manuscript’s images of a rabbit huntsman, who in one instance takes aim at a very sorry-looking spotty dog. The same theme of killer rabbits taking revenge on the hounds is found in the margins of the Smithfield Decretals.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit setting out and returning from a hunt.
A rabbit hunter sets out with a full quiver of arrows and returns with his quarry: Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit hunter aiming at a dog with a bow and arrow.
A rabbit archer takes aim at a spotty dog: Harley MS 6563, ff. 96v-97r

The rich man and Lazarus

Yet there is also religious imagery with serious moral messages, such as scenes of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar from the Gospel of Luke (16:19–31). First we see three fashionably dressed diners at a feast shooing away a beggar on the facing page while dogs lick the sores on his legs. On the following pages, the rich man is shown on his deathbed accompanied by a devil, while the beggar is shown dying outdoors with an angel at his side.

This parable is also an instance of role reversal in that the rich man suffers torments in death, whereas the beggar is received into comfort, yet here the message is clearly sincere. That at least one of the manuscript’s owners found it disturbingly real is suggested by the way in which they attempted to rub out the figures of the devil and angel.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the rich man's banquet and the beggar Lazarus.
The rich man’s banquet and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 10v-11r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the death of the rich man and Lazarus.
The death of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 11v-12r

To us it may seem strange to place scenes of cartoon violence alongside religious imagery with such urgent moral messages. But for medieval audiences, perhaps this was all part of a visual culture in which the sacred and profane, the entertaining and didactic, and the ludicrous and meaningful were more intricately intertwined than today.

Eleanor Jackson

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03 August 2020

Treasures on Tour: an Armagh gospel-book on display in Belfast

Last year we announced the digitisation of two of the Library's most important medieval Irish manuscripts, the Harley Irish Gospels. This year we're loaning one of them, the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), to the Ulster Museum in Belfast as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme.

Medieval manuscript miniature of an ox surrounded by a patterned border
The ox symbol of the evangelist St Luke, Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

As we discussed in the previous blog post, the manuscript has a number of  fascinating features. Its detailed colophons reveal that it was made by a 28-year-old scribe named Máel Brigte, working in Armagh in 1138. Máel Brigte also mentioned contemporary events in his colophons, including a great storm that happened two years earlier and the killing of King Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, which he called 'a great crime'.

Medieval manuscript miniature of a lion surrounded by a patterned border
The lion symbol of the evangelist St Mark, Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

The main texts of the manuscript are the Gospels, which are splendidly illustrated with evangelist symbols and decorated initial letters painted in vibrant colours. Unusually, the animal symbols of the evangelists are depicted sideways, as though standing on a vertical ground. Perhaps this was designed to make the figures fill the space, or to remind the viewer to mentally reorient themselves before beginning to read the Gospel text.

Medieval manuscript page containing a poem
Irish poem on the Three Magi, Harley MS 1802, f. 5v

In addition to the Gospels, the pages of the manuscript are filled with other rare and interesting texts, including commentaries, poems and exegesis. A particularly intriguing example is an Irish poem on the names and descriptions of the Three Magi (f. 5v), which seems to be one of the earliest texts that describe one of the magi as being black. According to the poem, Melcho was the elder magus, who had grey hair, wore a yellow mantle, a green tunic and speckled sandals, and presented gold; Caspar was youthful and beardless, wore a purple mantle, yellow tunic and green sandals, and presented Frankincense; while Patifarsat was a dark-skinned man (fer odor) who wore a white-spotted mantle and yellow sandals, and presented myrrh.

On f. 9v another Irish poem describes the appearance of Christ and the Apostles, stating that Christ had brown hair and a long red beard.

Medieval manuscript page with a decorated XPI initial
Chi-rho initial, Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

The Gospels of Máel Brigte is now on display in the Saints and Scholars gallery at Ulster Museum for the next three months. The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries across the UK to share our collections with thousands of people every day, and the Library will be announcing additional loans as part of Treasures on Tour over the coming months.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval