THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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

20 March 2019

What's the language?

Bonjour à tous!

International Francophonie Day highlights the global spread of French language and culture. It is the perfect day to celebrate our great collaboration with our French colleagues in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.  

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An animation inspired by the Sirius constellation (Canis major) in British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

As part of our ambitious collaborative project, we’ve digitised 800 medieval manuscripts from the two national libraries. In November 2018 we launched not one but two new project websites. One allows users to search and view all 800 project manuscripts through an innovative new viewer. We applied the International Image Interoperabitility Framework (or IIIF, as it is commonly known) standards to our images and descriptions. As a result, it is now possible to share, annotate, manipulate and download images from our 800 project manuscripts. You can also compare manuscripts side-by-side (up to four at a time!).

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Two manuscripts from each institution, presented side-by-side

We are happy to offer our readers this massive list of manuscript identifiers, or shelfmarks, titles and URL links to the IIIF images on the new website. All of these manuscripts can be viewed in their full glory on the project website hosted by the BnF.

Excel spreadsheet of the 800 project manuscripts

PDF of the 800 project manuscripts

 

What is new with the project and the curated website?

On a website hosted by the British Library, we are offering our readers articles, descriptions, films and more interpreting these manuscripts: Medieval England and France, 700–1200. Everything is available in two languages, English and French – just choose your preferred language at any point of the visit.

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LandingPageFrench

There are six broad themes covering art, history, science, religion, making manuscripts and the medieval manuscript collections today. We chose a selection of manuscripts to explore through various articles in each theme. Since the initial launch in November 2018 with 24 articles, we have added six new articles, 33 new collection items, and created new pages with biographies and maps. Did we mention the animation of the crane, inspired by a tale in an illustrated bestiary? Medieval manuscripts offer us the greatest collection of surviving medieval artwork in any media. Often, the colours are still as vibrant and the gold as glittering as at the time they were made, over 800 years ago. These books offer us wonderful glimpses of medieval culture, ideas and even individual people.

There are famous thinkers and authors, like Alcuin or Anselm, who exemplify the movement of people, texts and ideas across Europe in the early Middle Ages. For example, Queen Emma’s achievements are celebrated in a work that is the earliest surviving account dedicated to a female political figure from England (excluding saints’ Lives).

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A seal of Anselm of Canterbury, containing one of the earliest surviving representations of the archbishop, attached to the charter British Library, LFC Ch VII 5

For anyone interested in medieval manuscript culture in the Middle Ages, this site is a treasure-trove. It is easy to spend hours wondering around, or you can dip in for 5 minutes at a time. With 30 articles on various aspects on manuscript culture, over 140 highlighted collection items, 10 people pages and 10 short videos, you will be sure to find something intriguing.

 

French language, modern and medieval

It was clear from the start of the project that whatever we were to do, it would all be available in both English and French.  The medieval world was multilingual. Latin was the main written language, but it was by no means the only one. Old English and different variants of written French, like Anglo-Norman or Old Occitan, were also written down.  

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The beginning of St John’s Gospel, Chapter 13 in Old Occitan, preceded by a Latin rubric: British Library, Harley MS 2928, f. 187v

To mark today’s theme, International Francophonie Day, we took a closer look at a copy of a poem by the earliest known French poet, Philippe de Thaon (active during the first half of the 12th century). One of his works called Comput is a verse explanation of the metrics of the medieval calendar and gives instructions about how to calculate the date of Easter. In the poem’s opening lines, Philippe tells the reader he has decided to compose his text in Anglo-Norman French: Ne nest griu ne latins (it isn't Greek or Latin), but the language De la nostre cuntree (of our country), so that the users Ben poënt retenir (are able to remember well).

… Në est pas juglerie,

Ne nest griu ne latins,

Ne ne nest angevins,

Ainz est raisun mustree

De la nostre cuntree:

Ben poënt retenir

Çoe dum ges voil garner

Së il volent entendre

E bone garde prendre.

 

('… [It] is not entertainment,

nor is it Greek, Latin,

or the Angevin dialect.

Rather [it] is the spoken discourse of our country:

[in it they] are able to remember well

what I want to teach them,

if they want to listen

and pay good attention.')

 

(translation by Dr Hannah Morcos, King’s College London)

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Philippe de Thaon explains why he has chosen Anglo-Norman French to write his poem Comput: British Library, Cotton MS Nero A V, f. 2r

 

To find out more about languages present in medieval manuscripts, visit the History and Learning section of Medieval England and France, 700-1200.

 

Tuija Ainonen and Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval, #PolonskyPre1200

 

 

In collaboration with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

19 March 2019

Let sleeping cranes lie

The RSPB has reported that the crane is coming back to Britain, with a record number of new birds reported in recent years. We have similarly found many cranes hidden in the British Library’s medieval bestiaries, manuscripts full of fantastic stories about all manner of birds and beasts.

A bird with great wings and long thin legs, the crane’s Latin name — grus — was thought to derive from the hoarse cry of her voice. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project has created an animation that tells the story of the life of the bird and her flock, based on an account in an illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). You can watch it here.

Cranes are not solitary creatures. They fly together as a flock, arranging themselves with military discipline high up in the air. According to this medieval bestiary, the birds swallow sand before they take off. Watch the animation to find out why.

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A crane guards the rest of her flock, holding a rock in her claws, in a bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica (Salisbury, late 12th century–early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 39r

At night, the cranes are known for keeping a careful watch, guarding their camp and looking over the rest of the flock as they sleep. Other birds act as sentries, looking out for any enemies who might attack them. When there is cause for alarm, the cranes call out, to wake the rest and make sure they are safe.

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A pair of cranes alongside a Latin description of the bird in an early illustrated bestiary (England, 4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 11283, f. 17r

On duty, the crane has a particularly surprising way of keeping awake: she holds a stone in her claws. If she falls asleep, the stone will fall to the ground, make a noise and wake her up. Representations of this behaviour were common in early medieval bestiaries, and the crane’s vigilance and loyalty to her flock were regarded as particularly admirable traits.

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Sleeping cranes in an illustrated bestiary (England, c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 40r

We would love you to explore more stories of birds and beasts from the bestiary. Check out this brilliant discussion on our website, entitled Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval, #PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In collaboration with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

17 March 2019

Why we love the Harley Irish Gospels

How better to celebrate St Patrick’s Day than to announce the digitisation of two important Irish manuscripts from the British Library's collections? Harley MS 1023 and Harley MS 1802 were both made in the 12th century in Armagh, St Patrick’s foundation and medieval cult centre. Here are 5 reasons why we love these manuscripts:

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The lion symbol of St Mark: Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

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The lion symbol of St Mark: Harley MS 1023, f. 10v

1) Because Irish Gospel-books are stunning. Irish scribes and artists played an important role in the development of Gospel-book design, and their manuscripts are renowned for their beauty and brilliance. In the Harley Gospel-books, each Gospel text begins with a lively picture of an animal, the ‘evangelist symbol’ for that particular Gospel-writer. Harley 1802 contains a brightly coloured lion of St Mark and equally vivid ox of St Luke. The lion is especially endearing, with its tongue lolling and its hind legs entangled in its tail. Harley 1023 contains a particularly springy lion of St Mark and a rather plump eagle of St John, this time depicted in bold line drawing. Decorated initials open each Gospel text, made up of sinuous beasts playfully contorted into marvellous shapes. Harley 1802 also includes an equally serpentine Chi-rho initial, the Greek monogram of Christ that appears at Matthew 1:18 in Irish and Irish-influenced Gospel books.

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The ox symbol of St Luke: Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

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The eagle symbol of St John: Harley MS 1023, f. 64v

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Chi-rho initial: Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

2) Because 12th-century Irish manuscripts are underrated. People often think of the period from the 7th to 8th centuries as the high point of Irish book art, exemplified by masterpieces such as the Book of Kells (c. 800). Far fewer people realise that the 12th century was also a period of artistic renewal and vibrancy in Ireland. Around 100 manuscripts survive from this period containing a wide variety of works. The two Harleys are among the most richly illuminated, as well as a third surviving Gospel-book (Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 122) and the stunning Psalter of Cormac (Add MS 36929). These 12th-century manuscripts are especially poignant because they represent a last flowering for the tradition of Irish illumination. Evangelist symbol pages and Chi-rho pages disappear from book art after the Anglo-Norman invasion beginning in 1167, meaning that these examples are the last of their kind.   

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Beatus page in the Psalter of Cormac: Add MS 36929, f. 2r

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Decorated initial ‘Q’ at the opening of the Gospel of St Luke: Harley MS 1802, f. 87r

3) Because no one can resist Viking style. At the time these manuscripts were made, Ireland was home to both a native Irish and a Scandinavian-Irish population. The Vikings first settled in Ireland in the 9th century and remained a culturally distinct group, based in large trading cities such as Dublin. Art from the 12th century often reveals Viking and Irish styles fusing together. This is especially clear in the interlaced beasts that make up the decorated initials of Harley 1802 (see the Luke initial, f. 87v, and the Chi-rho initial, f. 10r). Beasts and interlace were important features of both Irish and Viking art, but the styles were noticeably different. With their large round eyes and snub-noses, the beasts of Harley 1802 resemble those that had prowled the pages of Irish manuscripts since the 7th century. But the interlace that entangles them has a distinctively Viking feel. A strand of interlace sometimes swells in width and then bursts into several new strands. At ends or sharp bends, the interlace sometimes forms a rather leafy-looking lobe shape tapering into a curl. These vegetal features don’t appear in Irish interlace from earlier periods, but they do appear in Viking artworks such as the Runestone of Harald Bluetooth.

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The Runestone of Harald Bluetooth, Jelling, Denmark, 10th century

4) Because Mael Brigte Ua Maeluanaig, the scribe of Harley 1802, was such a chatterbox. We don’t know who made most medieval manuscripts. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the scribe will record their name, and occasionally other morsels of information. In contrast, Mael Brigte wrote a colophon (a closing inscription) for each of the Gospel texts, telling us not only his name but also that he was 28 years old, working in Armagh in 1138. He refers twice to the murder of king-bishop Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, describing it as a ‘great crime’. He mentions a terrible storm that happened two years earlier. He tells us that Donnchad Ua Cerbaill was High King and gives a list of the many petty kings of his time. Such an insight into the life and personality of a non-famous 12th-century individual, including even their disgruntled commentary on contemporary politics, is rare. It’s hard not to take a liking to this chatty, opinionated, scholarly scribe.

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The end of the Gospel of St John and Mael Brigte’s longest colophon: Harley MS 1802, f. 156v

5) Because they can teach you a thing or two. Besides the Gospels, these manuscripts are fascinating for the wide variety of other texts that share their pages. The detailed glosses that crowd the margins of Harley 1802 reveal Irish scholars’ meticulous study of the Gospels, drawing on a Hiberno-Latin commentary tradition dating back to at least the 8th century. Other texts suggest an interest in gathering obscure knowledge. For example, Harley 1023 contains a list of Pharaohs of Egypt, and a list of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (a group of Christians who slept in a cave for 300 years while hiding from persecution). Harley 1802 contains poems describing the personal appearances of the Three Magi and the Apostles, paying special attention to the colour and style of their hair and beards. These texts reveal the breadth of Irish learning and give an insight into how information was carefully collected and treasured by enquiring scholars.

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The end of the Gospel of St Luke, with added biblical questions and answers and a list of Pharaohs of Egypt: Harley MS 1023, f. 63v

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Irish poem on Christ and the Apostles: Harley MS 1802, f. 9v

Have we convinced you? Happy St Patrick’s Day everyone!

 

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval