Medieval manuscripts blog

20 December 2011

Help Us Date and Localise This Manuscript


London, British Library, MS Harley 2332, f. 20v

Medieval manuscripts frequently contain no indication of when they were written. In order to assign them an approximate dating, we invariably have to make judgments based on their script and decoration, both of which change over the centuries.

Harley 2332, a physician's almanac in the British Library's collections, is an exception to this rule. On one of its pages is found a full-page illustration, featuring twelve pictograms, each of them annotated with the number of years to have passed until the time when the almanac was made. Based on this information, we can conclude that Harley 2332 was made in or around the year AD 1412.

Certain of these pictograms defy interpretation, however, so we'd like to solicit your help to identify and date them. Please feel free to send us your ideas in the comment box at the foot of this post. Here is a list of the twelve images (reproduced above), reading from top to bottom and starting with the left-hand column. As you will see, not all of our identifications match precisely.

(a) the world represented by a medieval T-O map/6804 = 6804 years since the Creation (5392 BC)

(b) a monster's mouth/4604 = 4604 years since Sodom and Gomorrah? (3192 BC)

(c) an archbishop/804 = 804 years since St Augustine of Canterbury (AD 608: Augustine arrived in England in 597 and died in 604)

(d) a shroud/63 = 63 years since the Black Death (AD 1349)

(e) a saint/932 = 932 years since St Patrick? (AD 480: Patrick lived in the 5th century, but his exact dates are open to question)

(f) a ship/4308 = 4308 years since Noah's Ark (2896 BC)

(g) an archibishop's mitre stabbed by 3 swords/233 = 233 years since the murder of Thomas Becket (AD 1179: Becket was actually murdered in 1170)

(h) a king/13 = 13 years since the death of King Richard II (AD 1399)

(i) a laywoman/705 = 705 years since ? (AD 707: someone associated with the place where this manuscript was made?)

(j) the Nativity/1412 = 1412 since the Nativity (AD 0)

(k) a man with a sword through his neck/84 = 84 years since the murder of King Edward II (AD 1328: Edward was murdered in 1327)

(l) 2 swords crossed/10 = 10 years since a battle (AD 1402: the battle of Shrewsbury was fought in 1403)

We know that this almanac was made in England. Perhaps someone can identify all the historical figures whose images are found on f. 20v.

Harley 2332 has recently been digitised in its entirety as part of our Harley Science Project. These images, together with an enhanced description, will be made available on Digitised Manuscripts in 2012.

Harley Logo3



The event of 13 years ago is surely the accession of Henry IV not the death of Richard II. Richard II was forced to abdicate in favour of Henry IV in 1399, and was murdered by Henry the following year (12 years before 1412), and it would have been a very dangerous thing to commemorate Richard II's demise during the reign of his successor. On the other hand, it would have been natural to mark the accession to the throne of the current monarch, i.e. Henry IV, 13 years previous, especially as Henry's victory at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 is also commemorated.

It has been suggested (see link below) that the man (e) and woman (i), who are oddly positioned between Creation and the Flood, may be Adam and Eve, and that the number 932 and 705 may refer to what was believed to be their age at death.

The object held by the man may indeed be a spade; see for example: Spade (e) and distaff (i) are conventional emblems of Adam and Eve.

The identification of the 2nd and 3rd pictures as Adam and Eve, and the numbers as their ages, seems certain, although Genesis 5 gives Adam's age as 930 and Eve is traditionally supposed to have lived to 940. However, according to Sarah M. Horrall in her notes to "The Southern Version of Cursor Mundi" (, Adam's age is given as 932 in the Latin "Legende" version of the story of the Cross Wood. On the same page she also notes the tradition that Adam spent 4,604 years in Hell after his death up until the Harrowing of Hell, which explains the number given in the fourth picture. The source linked to by Hunsdean above ( describes this image as the mouth of Hell, which seems very plausible.

The same source also identifies the 9th picture (84) as Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who was beheaded in 1322, although that is six years out.

Is it possible figure (i), rather than depicting a laywoman, may depict Domne Eafe/St. Eormenburga? She was a royal princess who became an abbess and was also the mother of more than one Saint. Owing to her somewhat blurry identity, her date of death is difficult to fix but was somewhere at the beginning of the 8th century. It's said her sister Eormengyth succeeded her as an Abbess in Kent in 705, which would probably put her death somewhere around there: not far off from the 707 target year.

Regardless of what sect or interpretation of the Bible is used, the destruction of the Cities of the Plain did NOT happen before the Flood. The monster's head is the most mysterious to me, but it must refer to something antediluvian---perhaps the murder of Abel (the first evil)?

Whoops, I'm an idiot. The number of years Adam spent in Hell seems awfully fitting, but I struggle to understand the significance in dating. Could the hellmouth icon represent the Fall itself?

The comments to this entry are closed.