Medieval manuscripts blog

13 posts from January 2013

30 January 2013

A Menagerie of Miracles: The Illustrated Life of St Cuthbert

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of a kneeling monk kissing the feet of St Cuthbert.

Miniature of a monk (Bede?) kissing the feet of St Cuthbert, from the preface to Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 1v

Last year the British Library was pleased to announce the acquisition of the 7th century St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000) following the largest public fundraising campaign in our history; read our blogposts 'Happy St Cuthbert's Day!''St Cuthbert Gospel Saved for the Nation' and 'St Cuthbert Gospel - Thank you!' for more.  Following the acquisition, the St Cuthbert Gospel was exhibited in our Treasures Gallery alongside another manuscript equally well known to lovers of all things Cuthbertian, Yates Thompson MS 26.

This 12th century manuscript is our latest addition to the Digitised Manuscripts website.  Yates Thompson MS 26 contains a number of texts about England's favourite hermit and bishop, most notably Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert (vita beati Cuthberti).  But it is probably most famous for its extensive programme of illumination, which documents almost every episode in St Cuthbert's holy life.  Key events depicted include the establishment of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert's ridding the wife of King Ecgfrith's prefect from the demons that beset her, the saint's much-mourned death and subsequent healings at his tomb.  These miniatures are beautifully interspersed with those of more 'mundane' miracles, like a crow bringing lard in atonement for stealing straw and Cuthbert curing a monk of diarrhoea.  Some of our other favourites are below:


An opening from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of St Cuthbert praying beside the river Tyne and two monks arriving at the monastery of Tynemouth.

Miniature of St Cuthbert praying to God to change the winds beside the river Tyne; miniature of two monks at the monastery of Tynemouth praying for the safety of those blown away in a gale, from Chapter 3 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, ff. 10v-11r

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of a young St Cuthbert kneeling in prayer.

Miniature of the young St Cuthbert kneeling in prayer, interrupted by his horse finding bread and cheese wrapped in linen hidden within a roof, from Chapter 5 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 14r


A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of St Cuthbert performing a miracle in the sea.

Miniature of (lower left) Cuthbert praying in the sea, and, after he has finished (lower right), otters coming to warm and dry his feet with their breath and fur, while (above), another monk secretly watches the miracle, from Chapter 10 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 24r


A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of St Cuthbert in a boat with two men.

Miniature of St Cuthbert in a boat at sea, with two other men, from Chapter 11 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 26r


A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of an eagle bringing a fish to St Cuthbert and his companion.

Miniature of an eagle bringing St Cuthbert and his companion a fish, which they then share with the eagle, from Chapter 12 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 28v


A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of St Cuthbert building a hermitage.

Miniature of St Cuthbert building his hermitage on the island of Farne, with the help of an angel, from Chapter 17 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 39r


A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of St Cuthbert discovering a roof beam for his church.

Miniature of St Cuthbert miraculously discovering a roof beam for his church in the waves of the ocean, from Chapter 21 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 45v


A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of one of St Cuthbert's visions.

Detail of a miniature of St Cuthbert's vision of the soul of a man, who was killed by falling from a tree, being carried to heaven, from Chapter 34 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 63v


A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of monks signalling with torches that St Cuthbert has died.

Miniature of monks at St Cuthbert's hermitage signalling with torches to the monks of Lindisfarne that Cuthbert is dead, from Chapter 40 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert, England (Durham), 4th quarter of the 12th century, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 74v


The Life of Cuthbert is the first British Library manuscript from the Yates Thompson collection to be made available on Digitised Manuscripts, but we can promise you that it will not be the last.  Much more information about the extraordinary collector Henry Yates Thompson and his eponymous collection can be found in our virtual exhibition appropriately titled Henry Yates Thompson's Illuminated Manuscripts

Sarah J Biggs

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28 January 2013

Celebrating an Anniversary in High Style: the Biblioteca Nacional de España and the British Library


Miniature of 'The Spanish Dance'; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547, BNE MS Res 285, ff. 2v-3r.

2012 was a milestone year for the Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE), the National Library of Spain: throughout the year, the library celebrated the 300th anniversary of its foundation in 1712, by King Felipe V.  In this initial incarnation it was the Biblioteca Pública de Palacio, the Palace Public Library, and in 1836 was transferred from ownership by the crown to the Ministerio de la Gobernación (Ministry of Governance).  Today, it is Spain's largest library, with collections stretching to 15 million printed books and tens of thousands of manuscripts.

In honour of these 300 years of history and letters, today's featured manuscript is not from the collections of the British Library, but from those of the BNE, as we are excited to contribute here our own 'virtual exhibition' to a series of joint exhibition projects that have been taking place throughout Spain.  Works from the BNE's collections -- including manuscripts, drawings, prints, paintings, maps, photographs, and books -- are being displayed in important museums and cultural institutions across Spain. They will thus reach new publics, be seen in fresh contexts, and inspire different viewpoints, as well as establish a dialogue with works from the collections of more than thirty Spanish institutions. The intention of the BNE and of Acción Cultural Española (AC/E) is to ensure that even those who cannot visit the Library in Madrid can still participate in an event that marks 300 years of a shared cultural history, and the British Library is eager to take part, bringing this cultural exchange to cyberspace!


Detail of a miniature of women 'in England'; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547, BNE MS Res 285, f. 34v.

The focus of today's 'exhibition' is a recently acquired mid-sixteenth-century manuscript, called a códice de trajes, or 'costume book', made in Germany by an anonymous artist.  This is an example of a type of book that – while it may seem strange to us today, in our culturally interconnected world – was quite popular in the sixteenth century.  It is a collection of pictures of clothing worn by people from different countries and different walks of life, celebrating the diversity of national costumes.  Books like these are extremely valuable to us today, allowing us to recreate the dress of people who are far removed from us, not by space, but by centuries of time.


Miniature of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, surrounded by seven of his principal electors; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547, BNE MS Res 285, ff. 35v-36r.

In addition to pictures of people, grouped together on an empty ground as a kind of pictorial fashion-show, the manuscript also has an interest in ceremonial, depicting some of the important events of the period, along with the people who took part and, most importantly, the clothing they wore.  We can see here, therefore, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, enthroned between seven of his electors, identified by coats of arms and carrying imperial regalia.  Charles V is depicted as an older man – as he would have been at the time of the manuscript's production in 1547.  His portrait, like the depictions of costumes throughout the manuscript, is copied from other sources rather than taken from life, but the images still provide a beautiful and detailed glimpse into the colour and pomp of the sixteenth century.


Miniature of Englishwomen, being (left to right) the wife of a citizen of London, the wife of a wealthy citizen of London, his young daughter, and 'a country-woman as they go nowadays'; from Lucas de Heere, A Description of England, Scotland, and Ireland, England, 1573-1575, Add. MS 28330, f. 33r.

One of the advantages of electronic media is the ability to bring together objects that, physically, may be very far apart.  It is wonderful, therefore, to be able to compare side-by-side the pictures from this BNE manuscript with illustrations from a book in the British Library's own collection.  A Description of England, Scotland, and Ireland, produced in Germany only a few decades later, contains beautiful coloured drawings by the painter Lucas de Heere, which clearly partake in the same tradition of descriptive portrayal of costume.  The group of Englishwomen shown above demonstrate the differences in city and country fashions, the three middle-class and wealthy Londoners on the left presenting a sharp contrast with the country-dweller on the right.  And perhaps the older among them might recognize in the Englishwomen of the BNE manuscript the fashions of their youth!


A shared interest in the appearance and costume of the monarch: detail of a miniature of Queen Elizabeth I, from Lucas de Heere, A Description of England, Scotland, and Ireland, England, 1573-1575, Add. MS 28330, f. 4r.

We have been delighted to produce this 'virtual exhibition' with the assistance of the Biblioteca Nacional de España, who have generously contributed images from their collection to appear in this post.  Happy Birthday, BNE!



25 January 2013

Puss in Books

Are you suffering from a deficiency of pictures of medieval cats? Fear not! Following our recent post Lolcats of the Middle Ages, we're pleased to tell you that British Library Publishing has published not one but two books on the subject, available from our online shop.


Medieval Cats by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (ISBN 9780712358187) presents a wealth of cat imagery from a variety of sources, and has wide appeal for cat (and animal) followers everywhere. The author completed her PhD at University College London on late-medieval pet keeping.


Puss in Books by Catherine Britton (ISBN 9780712358828) is a celebration of feline wit, intelligence and charm, from ancient Egypt to the present day. The examples are taken from literature, folklore and popular culture, and the book is illustrated in colour throughout.

Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval

24 January 2013

The Worth of a Butterfly


Machaon and Podalirius butterflies, from Butterfly and Moth Paintings by Elizabeth Dennis Denyer ('Drawings of Lepidopterous Insects'), England, 1800, Additional MS 6895, f. 8r

As the forthcoming panels at Leeds sponsored by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section will demonstrate, the reading room at the British Library is often the place where exciting discoveries are made (see here and here for our sessions at the 2013 Leeds International Medieval Congress).  These discoveries encompass a broad range of topics, from new scribal attributions and previously unknown historical events, to hidden words in illuminations.

It is a pleasure to announce that lepidopterology (the study of butterflies and moths) can now be added to this list.



Iris butterflies, from Butterfly and Moth Paintings by Elizabeth Dennis Denyer ('Drawings of Lepidopterous Insects'), England, 1800, Additional MS 6895, f. 34r

While conducting research last year on Elizabeth Denyer, an eighteenth-century restorer of medieval manuscripts and early printed books, I came across a book of butterfly paintings which she based on specimens in the collection of her Chelsea neighbour, the renowned entomologist William Jones. After contacting Dick Vane-Wright, I realised that this book has remained unknown since it was bequeathed to the British Museum by Elizabeth, and that further it has much to tell us about the early history of entomology.



Detail of a vignette of John Denyer and Martha Denyer (parents of the artist Elizabeth Denyer) in profile and in silhouette, made on a separate piece of paper and mounted on the page, from Butterfly and Moth Paintings by Elizabeth Dennis Denyer ('Drawings of Lepidopterous Insects'), England, 1800, Additional MS 6895, f. 54r


Our initial findings were recently published in Antenna: the Bulletin of the Royal Entomological Society, and we are delighted to be able to share them with the public. Click Download Antenna 36(4) 239-246 for a PDF of the article.

We are very grateful to the British Library, and our thanks to the Royal Entomological Society for permission to make our article freely available on the internet. (The text is copyright of the RES, Sonja Drimmer and R.I. Vane-Wright. Copyright of the images is noted against each image in the article.)

While lepidopterology only originated as a field of scientific enquiry in the 17th century, the beauty of butterflies was not lost on our medieval forebears. Previous posts on this blog have featured manuscript illuminations showing a monstrously large butterfly supervising (?) the plowing of a field, as well as an ape hunting a butterfly in the margins of a manuscript of the Estoire del Saint Graal.

Chaucer, however, seems to have held the multicolored insects in somewhat lower esteem. Disappointed with the depressing tales told by the Monk, the Canterbury Host exclaims, 'Youre tale anoyeth al this compaigne / Swich talkyng is nat worth a boterflye.'

We hope you find them worth a whole lot more!


Sonja Drimmer

Lecturer, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University


Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval

21 January 2013

Lolcats of the Middle Ages

A page from a 13th-century bestiary, showing illustrations of cats and mice.

Detail of miniatures of cats catching mice, mice stealing eucharistic wafers, and (below), an ancestor of Keyboard Cat: a later marginal doodle of a cat playing a stringed instrument; from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 30v.

The internet is considered by many to be a delivery-system for pictures of cats, and it should be no surprise, therefore, to learn the identity of today's bestiary animal.  As it is today, the enmity between the cat and the mouse was well-established in the medieval imagination.  Isidore of Seville even proposed an (incorrect) etymology for 'cat' (Latin catus) in the word captura, a form of a word meaning 'catch,' suggesting that this referred to the cat's catching of mice.  Or, he continues, 'capture' may refer to cats 'catching' large amounts of light with their eyes, to see in the dark.  Either way, cats were often shown in manuscript illumination with mice they have caught, and below, we can even see a Tom-and-Jerry style depiction of a mouse caught by a cat, caught in turn by a dog.  No word on the current disposition of the house that Jack built.

A detail from a 12th-century manuscript, showing a decorated initial and an illustration of a dog catching a cat catching mice.

Detail of an historiated initial 'O' (vi) of a dog catching a cat catching mice; from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, Germany (Arnstein), 2nd half of the 12th century, Harley MS 3053, f. 56v.

The mouse was not always the loser in these exchanges, however, especially in the imaginative realm of the marginal grotesque.  Sometimes you eat the mouse, the cat may have philosophized, and sometimes the mouse eats you.  The relationship between mice and cats, and the prospect of an organized mouse insurrection against the oppressor, was actively explored as a metaphor for human society.

A detail from a 14th-century Book of Hours, showing an illustration of mice besieging a castle defended by a cat.

Detail of a miniature of mice laying siege to a castle defended by a cat; from a Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320-c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, f. 72r.

The 14th-century poet William Langland adapted the familiar tale of mice belling the cat as a comment on relations between the powerful regent John of Gaunt and the Commons, with a council of mice deciding that, in addition to the obvious difficulty of finding a volunteer for the delicate task, there was some question as to whether the outcome would even be desirable.  While the mice remain inconspicuous, one council member advises, the cat 'coveiteth noght oure caroyne' ('does not desire our flesh'), but should they draw the cat's attention, then he would pursue them even more cruelly – a pointed satire indeed, in the political environment just before the 1381 uprising.

A detail from the Maastricht Hours, showing an illustration of a nun spinning and a cat playing with a spindle beside her.

Detail of a miniature of a nun spinning thread, as her pet cat plays with the spindle; from the Maastricht Hours, the Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 34r; for more on the Maastricht Hours, see our recent post on the manuscript.

Cats could be companion animals as well.  One guidebook on appropriate behaviour and conduct for anchoresses (female hermits), famously advises that, while the anchoress was forbidden most luxuries, she was allowed a pet cat.  And Alexander the Great, whose fictional explorations of the natural world were retold throughout the Middle Ages, included a cat, along with the cock and the dog, as his companions in a proto-submarine.  Here, the animal was not merely a pet, but a natural rebreather, purifying the air so Alexander would not stifle in the enclosed space.  The dog was more unfortunate, chosen as an emergency escape mechanism: water, medieval readers were assured, would expell the impurity of a dog's dead carcasse.  If Alexander encountered danger, he had only to kill the dog, which would be expelled to the surface, bringing Alexander with it.  As for the cock – everyone knows how valuable they are for telling time with their crows, a useful function underwater, out of sight of the sky.

A detail from a 15th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of Alexander exploring the ocean depths with a cat and a cockerel in a glass barrel.

Detail of a miniature of Alexander exploring the ocean in a glass barrel, accompanied by a cat and a cock; in this version of the story, his unfaithful wife tries to murder him by cutting the cord connecting him with the ship, and it is by killing the cat (not a dog) that he is able to rise to the surface; from Le livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, France (Paris), c. 1420, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 77v.

On the subject of cats, you may also like to see Kathleen Walker-Meikle's book, Medieval Cats, published by British Library Publications (£10, ISBN 9780712358187).

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

Nicole Eddy

18 January 2013

Digitising Manuscripts: The Condition Assessment

Digitisation is a great way to make unique and fragile manuscripts more available both for study and pleasure. The images can be accessed at any time of day and from anywhere in the world, without the risk of damage inherent in physically handling manuscripts. But before a British Library manuscript can go to the imaging studio to be photographed, it receives a condition assessment. A conservator looks at various aspects of the manuscript and its binding to decide if it can go straight to the imaging studio, or needs some minor repairs or preparation first, or should not be photographed at this time.

Harley MS 4051-4052  The textblock has split right down the spine – damage seen frequently in older bindings where the leather is adhered directly to the spinefolds.  Often the endbands also break, but here they have detached.  The book also has poor openings with much text hidden.  It will be listed for full conservation before digitisation.

Much of the time of a digitisation project conservator is spent on these condition assessments in order to answer one simple question: can this item be photographed safely? To make an informed decision, we look at each manuscript fully, recording its overall condition and specific damage - a process that may take an hour or more. We have standard risk assessments for activities such as taking a book from a shelf and delivering it to another location, but must estimate the likelihood of further damage during imaging for each item. Along the way, we record other useful information (such as size) and note any problems that need to be resolved.

R 16C V VI seals and sizes
Royal MSS 16 C V & VI.  Two textblocks of different sizes have been bound together making both vulnerable to edge damage and the entry of dirt.  Both manuscripts also have wax seals, which can leave pressure marks and abrasions on surrounding leaves and are themselves easily broken if the pressure on them is uneven.  Cleaning is needed before imaging, and extra care during it.

Damage is recorded systematically. Bindings are checked for split joints, loose sewing, degraded leather and suchlike, and the book’s normal opening angle is photographed. The textblock material is inspected: if paper, is it brittle or weak?; if parchment, is it gelatinised? Are there tears or missing areas, dirt, stains or mould-damage? We pay special attention to folds or pleats that hide text – opening them repeatedly risks damage at the creases. What about the inks and pigments? Are they corrosive or flaking? Are there signs that they are fugitive to light or water?

E2745 f164
Egerton MS 2745 f.164  Damp and mould have not only discoloured the parchment but made it weak and inflexible, resulting in splitting.  Many damaged folios of this manuscript were repaired and supported before it was last rebound, and it does not need further conservation before imaging, as the remaining weakness is unlikely to get worse.

If the assessment suggests the item cannot safely be imaged as it is, the conservator then notes mitigations. Simple preparatory work might include some surface cleaning of areas that are very grimy, to prevent dirt transferring from folio to folio as the book is handled. We generally indicate a maximum opening angle and may specify particular handling techniques, or allow the imaging technician extra time to set up heavy or over-sized items. The conservator can also request additional support from Collection Care during imaging. In extreme cases, conservators may do all the handling themselves.

E2787 loose gatherings
Egerton MS 2787  The sewing has broken and several gatherings are loose.  There is some risk that folios will be lost, but this kind of damage also makes it difficult to handle a bound manuscript properly during imaging without causing more harm.  Conservation is estimated at 2 hours.

Minor conservation treatment must sometimes be undertaken before digitisation. Often the binding is damaged: a board must be reattached or leather with red rot requires consolidation. Not all damage to the textblock needs intervention, but the project conservator will usually secure loose folios, repair tears that compromise the text, support areas affected by mould that might become more damaged by handling, and consolidate flaking pigments. An estimate of the time required for this work is made during the assessment.

E2808 typical opening
Egerton MS 2808 typical opening   Although the binding of this volume is undamaged, it does not open well enough to image all the text.  Removing the spine leather and linings requires an ethical judgement and is also time-consuming, especially since this is an oversized, heavy and very thick book which requires two people for safe handling.

Not every item we want to digitise is a bound book. Loose single sheets are easy to image flat, but unbound material is more easily damaged and may have torn and folded edges. When single sheets have fastenings to keep them in groups, these need to be removed before imaging and replaced after. The conservator assesses the time required to do this. Rolls can be imaged flat, but will be done in sections if they are long, and temporary cores must be provided for rolling/unrolling. Mounted objects can also be imaged flat, but require special handling, and thus take longer. Historically, some parchment and much papyrus has been mounted between glass, and there may be difficulties in getting good images without reflections.

R 1D II headcap
Royal MS 1 D II    Bound in vellum, which is extremely durable, but becomes inflexible as it ages. Here, repeated opening of the book has caused the joint to split, also damaging the endpapers.  The conservator will do minor repairs to prevent the board detaching or moving out of position.

The conservator’s role is to facilitate digitisation and make our manuscripts more accessible, so when would we decide a manuscript should not be digitised? Very occasionally, an item is just so large and/or heavy that it cannot be photographed safely with our existing equipment. In other cases, the scribe has given us a problem by writing text up to (and even around) the spine-fold. Even if the book opens well, parts of words will be missing in the photographs. The only way to access the complete text would be to disbind the book - something we rarely do, especially if it means altering an historic binding. (We understand that the physicality of a book, the materials used, the original binding technique, the stains and damage, also give important information to readers). Finally, an item that requires significant conservation may be excluded, because there is insufficient project time and funding to do the work.

A82957 f226 mould
Add. MS 82957, a 12th century Menologion damaged by water, mould and rodents.  The estimate for full conservation of the manuscript is 745 hours.  It was decided to spend just 58 hours on the most necessary repairs prior to digitisation.  The conservator will accompany the manuscript to the imaging studio and do all the handling. Issue of the manuscript will remain restricted until full conservation can be completed.

All the time that goes into condition assessments pays off. Up to 25% of items need some kind of intervention before photography, but most take just a few minutes to ensure that the manuscripts will not be further damaged during the imaging process. We are committed to making many more of our manuscripts available to researchers in this way, and to enrich the cultural life of the nation through these unique and beautiful artefacts.

Ann Tomalak, Conservator, Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project

16 January 2013

Monkeying Around with the Maastricht Hours


Detail of marginal grotesques of (below) monkeys blowing horns and (above) a winged man with animal legs playing a harp; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 61v.

It is a truism, although one that never ceases to surprise, that medieval art – especially manuscript illumination – celebrates the juxtaposition between the sacred and the profane.  The Maastricht Hours is an early 14th-century book of hours made in Liège, and is remarkable for the large number of vibrant illuminations that cover its pages – full-page miniatures, lavishly decorated initials, and countless marginal scenes and grotesques.  A full digital version of the Maastricht Hours has just been made available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, and every page has something new to discover.


Miniature of Sts Catherine (left) and Agnes (right); from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 13v.

A book of hours is a devotional text, containing copies of the various scriptural readings, psalms and prayers that were to be said at set times during the day (the 'monastic hours').  It was intended to be used during prayer and pious contemplation, and it is no surprise, therefore, that the most important images in the manuscript are all on religious themes: two series of full-page miniatures depict the Nativity story and Christ's Passion.  Other important miniatures depict female saints – it is probable that the manuscript's original owner was a wealthy woman, and she may have appreciated these tributes to exemplars of female piety.  And the pictures are extraordinarily lively.  Catherine with her sword and wheel and Agnes with her lamb (above) may stand in stylized architectural sconces, the traditional placement for the stone statues in a church, but their posture is far from sculptural.  And the male figures in the roundels seem to interact both with the female figures and with each other.


Disco fever!: detail of marginal figures dancing to bagpipe music; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 234r.

These religious miniatures are only part of the story, however.  While the major divisions in the manuscript are all introduced by full-page pictures, every page is bursting with small figures in the margins.  Strange hybrid creatures war with bows and arrows, dancers groove to the sound of bagpipe music, and monkeys abound.  We even encounter a pair of lovers, reclining in a garden, their minds surely on anything but the pious contemplation expected of the reader.  The falcon on the man's wrist advertises his aristocratic rank, and the songbird in its green tree evokes the refined garden setting traditional to courtly lyric and romance.


Detail of a miniature of lovers, conversing in a garden; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 59r.


Detail of a miniature of a woman in conversation with a monkey in the guise of a courtly nobleman; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 62r.

Only a few pages later, however, another image of lovers appears that seems to set the first one on its head.  This time the woman's suitor is no nobleman, but one of the manuscript's many mischievous monkeys, and the bird of prey on his wrist is no aristocratic hawk, but an owl.  Considering the frequently scatological behaviour of the manuscript's other monkeys (including, to name only one example, the pair appearing on the facing page, shown at the top of this post), the image may become a critique of its earlier companion, a moral satire on courtly love.  Or, perhaps, it merely celebrates a delight in the beautiful and the bizarre.


Detail of a marginal grotesque firing an arrow at, on the facing page (not shown), a monkey playing a rebec or similar stringed instrument; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 33r.


Detail of a miniature of a monkey riding an elephant and castle; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 36r.


Detail of a miniature of a friar playing an instrument while a nun dances; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 38r.

- Nicole Eddy

14 January 2013

Alfred the Great: Not a Domestic God, but No Slouch, Either!


Alfred the Great being scolded by a woman for letting bread burn, from James William Edmund Doyle's 'Alfred', in A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 - A.D. 1485 (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, 1864), via Wikipedia Commons

Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons from 871 to 899, was not just an early example of male incompetence in the kitchen (legend has it that while hiding in the marshes from the Viking invaders he sheltered in the hut of the local purveyor of cupcakes and found himself in big trouble for allowing her cakes to burn when he was left in charge of the oven. His excuse was that he was busy reading!).  Though he was more than a match for the Viking thugs, defeating them convincingly in 878, Alfred had brains as well as brawn, and a softer side, it seems. One of his greatest achievements was a revival of culture and learning in his kingdom; during his reign he organized and was probably involved in translating key religious works into Old English so that they could be understood by his people, whose knowledge of  Latin had declined during almost two hundred years of upheaval and warfare.



Zoomorphic initial (A)'E'(ft) with four heads and interlaced bodies at the beginning of Book III, Chapter I, from Orosius' Historum adversum paganos, England (Winchester?), between c. 892 and c. 925, Additional MS 47967, f. 31v


A British Library manuscript in Old English (Additional MS 47967), contains a translation of the Latin work by Orosius, Historia adversus paganos (History against the pagans). It was written at a time when the Roman Empire was threatened with destruction by pagan armies, a situation which must have seemed familiar to Alfred and the West Saxons. Orosius's aim was to show that although the situation was bad in Christian times, it had been worse before under the pagan gods, and the resulting work is a concise history of the world from Creation to 417 from the Christian viewpoint. Though not a work of great scholarship, it had become a popular source of world history and would have suited Alfred's educational purposes admirably.  The Old English version has been freely adapted from the Latin, with additional contemporary material, including an account of the voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, an important source for the geography of northern and central Europe in the ninth century.  The text states that the Norseman Ohthere delivered this account to King Alfred, his hlaford (lord), indicating a close connection to the Anglo-Saxon court. Orosius was listed by early historians among the translations undertaken by the king himself, but there is no further evidence that it is Alfred's work and the style differs from Alfred's other works, such as the translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care.


Add 47967 f. 2r c13097-06

Opening folio with list of chapters, from Orosius' Historum adversum paganos, England (Winchester?), between c. 892 and c. 925, Additional MS 47967, f. 2r


The British Library manuscript is the earliest surviving copy of the Old English work, having been produced between about 892 and 925 (in other words perhaps towards the end of Alfred's reign), perhaps in his scriptorium at Winchester.  It is written in a square Anglo-Saxon minuscule associated with Winchester, and was probably copied by the scribe who wrote the entries in the Parker manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 892 to 933. Distinctive features are the slight horns at the tops of vertical strokes, the letter 'a', formed like a 'u' with the top closed by a slanting stroke, and the tall 'e'.  Five decorated initials mark the beginnings of the first five books.  They contain outline zoomorphic drawings; three are of complete creatures, while two are merely of the animals' heads with interlacing leaves and acanthus. In the miniature below, the three conjoined creatures have tongues, claws, tails and horns whose extremities morph into leafy ornament.  While the foliage is adapted from Carolingian designs, the interlace is of insular origin.


Add 47967 f. 5v c13097-15

Zoomorphic initial 'U'(re) with 3 heads and interlaced bodies at the beginning of Book I, Chapter I, from Orosius' Historum adversum paganos, England (Winchester?), between c. 892 and c. 925, Additional MS 47967, f. 5v


The Orosius text is written in 'early West-Saxon', the dialect found in a very small number of manuscripts associated with King Alfred's literary circle, though it contains certain linguistic features such as the smoothing of ea to e before palatal and velar consonants and a preference for –ade over –ode in forming the past tense, which may indicate Anglian dialectal influence or a later stage of the language.   Nothing further is known of the origins or history of the manuscript before the seventeenth century, when it was catalogued in the library of the duke of Lauderdale.  It was bought by the British Museum in 1953 and is now in the British Library.  Along with the other Old English manuscripts in the Additional collection, it has recently been added to our online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (see here for the entry).

- Chantry Westwell