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

30 July 2021

Chroniclers of History at St Albans Museum

During the medieval period, the monastery of St Albans was recognised throughout England for the quality of its chroniclers. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, monks from the foundation recorded the events of English history, especially those that affected the Abbey and its holdings in the surrounding area. They included such figures as Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), William Rishanger (b. 1250), Matthew Paris (d. 1259), Thomas Walsingham (d. c. 1422).

A new exhibition, Chroniclers of History, has opened at St Albans Museum, which explores the lives and works of these men and the importance of their monastery. The British Library is delighted to be one of the major lenders to the exhibition, and the following six books from our collections will all be on display at the museum’s Weston Gallery from 30 July - 31 Oct 2021.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a pen-and-ink drawing depicting the construction of St Albans Abbey.
The construction of St Albans.s Abbey, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 23v (detail)

The Benefactors’ Book

One of the highlights is a work known as the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D VII). In a previous blogpost, we described the manuscript as a who’s who of medieval England. It represents an invaluable source for our understanding of the history of the monastery and its influence throughout the country. Initially compiled by the Abbey’s precentor, Thomas Walsingham, the book is a register of all the people who made gifts to St Albans throughout the Middle Ages, as well as the abbots, monks and laypeople who made up its vibrant community. The manuscript preserves their names, details about their lives and occupations, and for many even their portraits, which might otherwise have been lost to us. The page on display shows the artist, Alan Strayler, who is responsible for these portraits. 

A page from the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans, showing three portraits of figures recorded in the manuscript.
Portraits of benefactors, including the artist Alan Strayer (the lowermost figure), from the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 108r

A St Albans Calendar

St Albans was responsible for the production of hundreds of manuscripts between its foundation and dissolution in the 16th century. This copy of the Latin work De Trinitate (On the Trinity) by St Augustine, for example, was made at the monastery during the second half of the 12th century (Egerton MS 3721). It is prefaced by a calendar, commemorating the feast days of important saints throughout the year. Feast days for local saints connected with the Abbey are also recorded here, most notably St Alban himself, as well as several of the monastery’s former abbots.

A page from a medieval manuscript of St Augustine’s De Trinitate, showing a calendar page for June, arranged in a table, with important feast days marked in red and green ink.
A calendar page for June, from a manuscript of St Augustine’s De Trinitate (On the Trinity), made at the monastery of St Albans: Egerton MS 3721, f. 4v

 

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing part of a calendar page for June, with feast days for saints marked.
Feast days for two abbots and St Alban recorded in the calendar: Egerton MS 3721, f. 4v (detail)

The Collectanea of John of Wallingford

Among the many chroniclers represented in the exhibition is the monk John of Wallingford (d. 1258). John was the infirmarer of St Albans (responsible for looking after the Abbey’s sick) and a friend and contemporary of Matthew Paris, another chronicler based at the Abbey. John is mostly known to us because of his Collectanea, surviving in a single manuscript, which comprises a huge variety of material, some written in his own hand (Cotton MS Julius D VII). Medical recipes in Middle English, copies of charters and documentary texts, John’s own chronicle of English history, and even a table for predicting the time of high tide at London Bridge, all appear in the collection. In addition to these works, the manuscript features a map of Britain and several drawings made by Matthew Paris, including a portrait of John of Wallingford himself, sitting before an open copy of the Book of Psalms. You can read more about the manuscript and Paris’ map in our previous blogpost, The Maps of Matthew Paris.

A page from the Collectanea of the chronicler and monk John of Wallingford, showing a portrait of him sat before an open book on a stand.
A portrait of the chronicler John of Wallingford, made by Matthew Paris, from a copy of Wallingford’s Collectanea: Cotton MS Julius D VII, f. 42v

Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum

Matthew Paris was renowned for his work as a chronicler, cartographer, artist, and scribe, both during his lifetime and for centuries after his death. Numerous surviving books show evidence of his hand and the influence of his distinctive style of drawing and painting, many of which are now housed at the British Library. His notable works include the Chronica Maiora, a universal history of the world, and Historia Anglorum, a history of England, both of which he copied and illuminated himself.

Paris’ Liber additamentorum (Book of Additions) is one of the manuscripts that can be found on display at the exhibition at St Albans Museum. The volume (now Cotton MS Nero D I) is a collection of original literary treatises and documents he assembled to support his research. Among the various texts, notes, tracts, and drawings it contains is his Gesta abbatum monasterii sancti Albani, a record of the lives and deeds of the abbots of St Albans. Paris drew a portrait of each of the subjects of his work, which appear as illustrations in the margins beside each of their respective entries. The page below, for example, features a portrait of Leofric, who served as abbot towards the end of the 10th century, and whom Paris identifies in an accompanying inscription in red ink, written in his own distinctive hand.

A page from Matthew Paris’ Books of Additions, showing his work on the deeds of the abbots of the monastery of St Albans, arranged in two columns, with marginal illustrations and a portrait of Abbot Leofric.
Matthew Paris’ Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani (Deeds of the Abbots of the Monastery of St Albans), with a marginal portrait of Abbot Leofric, also painted by Paris: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 32v

Ralph of Diceto’s Chronicles

Another of Paris’ contemporaries was Ralph of Diceto (d. c. 1200), a chronicler and dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Ralph was particularly known for a Latin chronicle, written and arranged in two parts. The first is called the Abbreviationes chronicorum (Abbreviations of chronicles) and it constitutes a summary of existing chronicles already circulating in England during the 12th century. It covers the history of the world from the birth of Christ to around 1147. The second part, meanwhile, is entitled the Imagines historiarum (Images of History) and records events that occurred during Ralph’s own lifetime .

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing the opening of a chronicle by Ralph of Diceto, arranged in three columns, with two large decorated initials in gold.
The opening of Ralph of Diceto’s chronicle Imagines historiarum (Images of History): Royal MS 13 E VI, f. 49r

One manuscript in the British Library (Royal MS 13 E VI), made between 1199 and 1209, contains copies of both these chronicles, complete with an innovative pictorial indexing system that Ralph invented. It has been suggested that this volume was made for the Abbey of St Albans and that it was copied from an original housed in St Paul’s, believed to have been Ralph’s personal copy of his works. Numerous additions related to St Albans have been inscribed in the margins of the text: a shelfmark identifying that it was part of the Abbey’s monastic library, marginal notes concerning important events in the Abbey’s history, the obits (or dates of death) of some of its abbots, and even notes and a drawing made by Paris himself.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a marginal illustration of King Lucius being baptised in a tub, identified by an inscription in red ink.
A marginal illustration of Lucius, a legendary King of the Britons, added into a manuscript of Ralph of Diceto’s chronicles, made by Matthew Paris: Royal MS 13 E VI, f. 11r (detail)

The Chronicles of England, printed by the Schoolmaster Printer

While the monastery of St Albans was known for its production of handwritten books and manuscripts, in the later medieval period the city also housed a printing press, notable for being one of the first to operate in England outside of Westminster and London. The name of the printer remains unknown, and many have speculated about his true identity. One of the only hints we have originates from the famous English printer Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1534), who once described him as a ‘Sometime schoolmaster’. Since then, he has typically been referred to as the ‘Schoolmaster Printer’.

This particular volume was made by the St Albans press around 1486 and contains the Chronicles of England, written in Middle English and one of the very first chronicles to be printed in the country (C.11.b.1*). It features a number of woodcut illustrations throughout the text, and on the final page, there appears a printer’s device (or emblem), bearing the arms of the Abbey and the town of St Albans, in red ink.

The final page of a printed copy of the Chronicles of England, made by the Schoolmaster Printer, showing a device in red ink, of a saltire cross on a shield.
The Chronicles of England, made by the ‘Schoolmaster Printer’, showing the printer’s device with the arms of the abbey and town of St Albans: C.11.b.1*, p. 575

The records of the chroniclers featured in this exhibition are the basis for much of our understanding of England during the Middle Ages, and without their work, our knowledge of early English history would be far poorer. Their texts and manuscripts provide an insight not only into the major events that affected the Church and the Crown in this period, but also how these events affected people at a local level.

You can visit Chroniclers of History at The Weston Gallery, St Albans Museum, from 30 July until 31 October 2021. The exhibition catalogue Chroniclers of History: The Medieval Monks of St Albans and their Books. An Exhibition is edited by James Clarke and published by St Albans Council.

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

26 July 2021

A letter of recommendation split between two continents

How many of us have ever needed a letter of recommendation to apply for university or to seek employment, to rent a flat or to consult a special manuscript in a reading room? Well, in using these letters we are following a practice that was already in use thousands of years ago.

Letters of recommendation are well attested in the Classical world. They feature as one of the twenty-one types of letters recorded in a letter-writing manual mistakenly attributed in the manuscript tradition to the 4th-century BC orator and statesman Demetrius of Phalerum. 

Page from a manuscript dating from 1712, containing the beginning of a letter-writing treatise attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum
Beginning of the treatise entitled ‘Epistolikoi Typoi’ (‘Types of Letters’) attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum, preserved in a manuscript of 1712: Add MS 39619, f. 116r

A passage from the sixth book of Homer’s Iliad testifies to a rather treacherous use of a letter of ‘recommendation’, quite the opposite of what is expected. King Proetus writes a letter for Bellerophon asking his father-in-law, the king of Lycia, to kill Bellerophon, who is bearing the folded tablet containing the message.

St Paul also mentions recommendation letters, commenting: ‘Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as some others, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, which is known and read by all men’ (2 Corinthians 3:1-2).

The Greek papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt offer several examples of recommendations, dating from the 3rd century BC onwards. The letters usually display a consistent format: the author greets the recipient and recommends the bearer of the message, asking the addressee to offer whatever help the recommended person may need. Sometimes letters request even more, asking for loans, job offers, and assistance with taxes or legal issues. The person recommended would usually be introduced as someone close to the writer, often a friend or relative, whose preferential treatment would be considered as a personal favour to the writer.

Among the British Library holdings is a letter of recommendation forming half of a papyrus sheet (Papyrus 2553).

Left-hand portion of a papyrus sheet
Left half of a letter of recommendation on papyrus: Papyrus 2553

Many details about this letter would have been unclear had the right-hand half of the papyrus not been identified in a fragment (P. Col. VIII 211) now held in the papyrus collection of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in New York. The two papyrus halves join perfectly, as Antonia Sarri recognised in an article published in 2014 in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies

The full letter, dated 16 February 6, concerns a dispute between Isidorus, a farmer from the village of Psophthis, in the Memphite district, and Tryphon, governor (strategus) of a different district, the Arsinoite. 

Two perfectly joining papyrus fragments preserve a full letter of 6 CE
Full papyrus sheet, consisting of the British Library fragment on the left and the Columbia fragment on the right

Isidorus appears to have been detained and compelled by the governor’s agents to swear that he would cultivate a plot of land located on the estate of the empress Livia, wife of Augustus, in the village of Philadelphia, in the Arsinoite district. However, because Isidorus was formally registered in another district, he shouldn’t have been obliged to perform this work. Several influential people took Isidorus’s side in this affair, one of whom is Proclus, author of another letter from the archive.

In this letter, Proclus instructs Asclepiades, a local official, to investigate the matter and cooperate with Isidorus, a member of his household. Moreover, Asclepiades is reminded not to forget in the future that Isidorus is recommended by Proclus. From the tone of the letter, it can be surmised that Proclus’s social standing was rather high.

In the postscript, Proclus adds ‘… do everything for Isidorus, for I am concerned about him.’

Conclusion of a letter on papyrus, containing the postscript in a different hand
Postscript in a second hand added at the end of the letter, after the date

Despite being thousands of miles apart, the two fragments can now be joined virtually thanks to the advanced technologies and the combined efforts of the curatorial teams at the British Library and Columbia University. The British Library fragment has now been displayed in the new IIIF Univeral Viewer, and the Columbia portion will made available on their current platform for IIIF, Columbia's Digital Library Collections (DLC), in the coming months. We’ll be sharing further examples of fragments that can be reunited in the coming weeks, so look out for further updates. 

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 July 2021

Miniature books

Medieval manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes: handy books for personal reading, mid-size volumes for the library or classroom, staggeringly huge tomes for the choir or lectern. But manuscripts that are extra tiny are especially rare and fascinating. Miniature books wow us with the skilfulness of their delicate script and puzzle us with the question of "why so small?". What motivated people to make books with pages so petite that they take all your dexterity to turn, and script so minute that you have to strain your eyes to read? Inspired by the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition, we thought we'd explore some of our teeny tomes.

A papyrus leaf, a frame containing nine parchment leaves, a book in a red binding, a book in a gold binding, and a walnut
A scale image of some of the manuscripts included in this blogpost next to a walnut: Papyrus 2556, Papyrus 120 (3), Add MS 58280, Stowe MS 956

Definitions vary, but books measuring under 3 or 4 inches (76 or 101 mm) on their longest side are generally considered miniature. The earliest books of these dimensions in the British Library are leaves which once formed part of miniature codices from Roman Egypt, written in Greek. A papyrus example, dating from the 3rd century and containing a fragment of the Psalms, measures 73 x 56 mm (Papyrus 2556). Discussing why miniature books appealed to Christian owners in the late Roman Empire, scholars have suggested that they might have been particularly useful for carrying on travels, or for wearing close to the body as religious amulets, or for discretely hiding in times of persecution.

A page from a papyrus miniature codex
A fragment of the Psalms from a miniature codex. Egypt, 3rd century. 73 x 56 mm. Papyrus 2556

Nine parchment leaves, each measuring about 68 x 45 mm, once formed a complete codex from 6th century-7th century Egypt (Papyrus 120 (3)). These diminutive pages of Greek writing contain a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Its small dimensions, short length and texts which were believed to have particular potency suggest that it may have been used as an amulet.

Nine parchment leaves from a miniature codex
Nine leaves from a miniature codex containing a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Egypt, 6th-7th century. 68 x 45 mm. Papyrus 120 (3)

Miniature books had a novelty value, prompting writers to comment on them as marvels. For example, Pliny the Elder, citing Cicero, reports in his Natural History (AD 77) that there was a copy of Homer's Iliad written on a piece of parchment so small that it could fit inside a walnut shell. Later scribes were inspired to try and match this ancient achievement, including the 16th-century English calligrapher Peter Bales. A note written in 1586/7 describes ‘A most strange and rare piece of worke brought passe by Peter Bales, an Englishman, a Clerke of the Chauncery of the proofe and demonstracioun of the Whole Bible to be written by hym everie word at length within an English Wallnut no bigger then a hennes egg’ (Harley MS 530, f. 14v). Sadly Bales’ tiny Bible doesn’t survive. None of our miniature books can rival these impressive walnut-sized feats (see the image at the top of this blogpost).

A note in a manuscript describing a miniature manuscript written by Peter Bales
A note describing a Bible manuscript that could fit inside a walnut written by Peter Bales. England, 1586/7. Harley MS 530, f. 14v.

Display of scribal skill might have motivated the creation of an illuminated 15th-century Book of Hours measuring only 54 x 40mm (Add MS 58280). Unusually, the scribe, Roger Pynchebek, signed his name at the end of the book: 'Scriptori merita mater pia redde Maria. Amen. Nunc finem feci. Da mihi quod merui. Quod Rogero Pynchebek þe writer of þis boke. In þe yere of our lorde MoCCCC.lxx iiiio' (Affectionate Mother Mary, give to the writer his just reward. Amen. Now I have made an end, give me what I deserve. That is, Roger Pynchebek the writer of this book. In the year of our Lord 1474). Perhaps with this tiny volume, Roger Pynchebek hoped to advertise his impressive scribal skills to prospective clients.

An inscription naming Roger Pynchebek as the scribe
Scribal note by Roger Pynchebek, in a Book of Hours. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, f. 373v
 

Miniature Book of Hours held open on an illuminated page
An opening from the Book of Hours written by Roger Pynchebek, with a miniature of Christ as Man of Sorrows. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, ff. 323v-324r

In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world. They are sometimes included in medieval portraits of the period, such as that of Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth.

Portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book by Hans Eworth
Hans Eworth, portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book, c. 1553. The Fitzwilliam Museum, PD.1-1963

A girdle book made in Paris around 1520 which belonged to a lady at the court of King Henry VIII of England measures a dainty 35 x 20 mm (Sloane MS 116). The book, which contains devotional texts, even includes tiny painted pictures the size of postage stamps, here showing St George slaying the dragon.

Girdle book held open on the page with a picture of St George slaying the dragon facing a prayer
St George and the Dragon, from a girdle book. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116, ff. 69v-70r
 
Girdle book shown closed with elaborate metal openwork cover over red velvet
Girdle book with elaborate metal openwork cover over velvet. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116

A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree that measures a diminutive 40 x 30 mm (Stowe MS 956). It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning. The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.

Girdle book held open on the page with Henry VIII's portrait
Portrait of Henry VIII, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r

 

Girdle book shown closed with gold filigree cover
Elaborate gold filigree covers, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956

The tradition of miniature books continued into the modern era and up to the present day. You can visit the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition for free in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The exhibition includes Sloane MS 116 described above, displayed alongside other miniature manuscripts and printed books from the Library’s historical collections, as well as books created especially for the project by contemporary children’s authors and illustrators, and miniature books submitted by children in response to the British Library's lockdown callout. You can also find out more in the British Library's online event The Magnificent World of Miniature Books (Thursday 22 July 2021, 19:30 - 20:30 BST).


Eleanor Jackson
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval