THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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729 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

12 May 2019

Homer in London

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Currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library are these two images of Hercules, one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. They are found in manuscripts of the Histoire Universelle, a medieval history in French of the ancient world from Genesis to the Romans. The Histoire also features the legends of Ulysses and the Trojan wars, which were very popular in the Middle Ages and were widely adapted, translated and illustrated for medieval audiences. (You can read more about this subject in our previous blogpost about the legend of Troy.)

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Meeting between Hercules and the Queen of the Amazons, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Naples, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 D I, f. 25v

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Battle between Hercules and Antaeus, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Acre, 1275–1291): Add MS 15268, f. 104v

Our Greek manuscripts website includes this video of Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Kings College London, talking about the importance of the Iliad and the Odyssey from Antiquity to the early modern era. The works of Homer are also the focus of two courses being held in London this July, one at the British Library and the other at University College London. Both courses will use digitised manuscripts of Homer’s works to explore how classical works were  transmitted during the Middle Ages.

Writing the Greek Classics at the British Library: 19 June, 26 June and 3 July, 10 July, 17 July (14.00–16.00)

This five-week course will examine the long-documented history of the Greek language and its writing systems, and of Greek classical texts including Homer, which have been part of the education and literary production of the West for centuries.

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A text page with marginal annotations, in the ‘Townley Homer’: Burney MS 86, f. 3r

The British Library has 11 manuscripts of the Iliad (see our previous blogpost, Hooray for Homer). They include the Townley Homer, an 11th-century copy of the Iliad with extensive marginal and interlinear notations or scholia, which show how earlier scholars studied and interpreted the text. The manuscript's former owner, Charles Townley (1737–1805), even had an engraving of a bust of Homer (as well as one of himself) inserted at the beginning of the manuscript.

 

UCL Summer School in Homer 2019: 22–26 July 2019

A palaeography course, introducing the history of Latin scripts from ancient Rome to the invention of printing, will be taught as one of the modules of the University College London’s summer school on Homeric language and literature. Classical texts, especially Homer and related works like Virgil’s Aeneid will be used for transcription.

The British Library has one of only 15 surviving manuscripts of the Ilias Latina, a short Latin summary of the Illiad, attributed to one Publius Baebius Italicus in the time of the emperor Nero. This work, which omits or elaborates many of the Homeric episodes, became part of the medieval school curriculum and had a significant impact on the history and transmission of the Trojan story.  

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A diagram of the Wheel of Fortune illustrating Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, in a collection of works from late Antiquity that includes the Ilias Latina: Add MS 15601, f. 49v 

This copy of the Ilias Latina, from the late 10th or early 11th century, is written in Caroline minuscule. It was owned in the 15th century by the wealthy and prestigious monastery of the Celestines in Avignon.

A much later Greek copy of the Odyssey, the 15th-century Harley MS 5673, has marginal translations and annotations in Latin on some of its pages. This manuscript was bought by Edward Harley, the Georgian collector, for his magnificent library, described by Samuel Johnson as ‘excelling any’, and it entered the British Library as part of the Harley manuscript collection.

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The Odyssey with marginal notes in Greek and Latin: Harley MS 5673, f. 8r

You may also like to know that a variety of ancient scripts, including manuscripts of the classical authors, Aristotle and Cicero, are on display in our new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, open throughout the summer, until 27 August, 2019.

 

                                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

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02 May 2019

Whale of a time

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The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project has created a new animation telling the story of the Whale, the terror of the seas, based on an account in an illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). You can watch it here. 

The bestiary was a type of manuscript that contained descriptions of over a hundred animals, detailing their characteristics and habits, as well as associated allegorical moral lessons. To explore more stories from the bestiary, check out this brilliant discussion on our website: ‘Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary’.

Illustrations of the whale in early medieval bestiaries vary greatly, but they often take the form of a type of enormous fish, with fins, a tail and a huge belly. According to one description in a manuscript made during the early 13th century (Harley MS 4751), the whale’s body is so large that unwary sailors mistake it for land and anchor their ships on its back. When they light fires, the creature feels the heat of the flames and dives beneath the waves, dragging the sailors to their deaths.  

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The whale is so huge that sailors could mistake it for an island, in a bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales's Topographia Hibernica (Salisbury, late 12th–early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 69r

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Sailors mistake a whale for an island and anchor their ship on its back, in Peraldus’ Theological Miscellany (England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3244, f. 60v 

To feed itself, the whale will open its mouth and let out a sweet scent, luring schools of small fish inside. Then it quickly snaps its jaws shut, so that the fish cannot escape, and swallows them whole. Because of these behaviours, the commentary in medieval bestiaries associated the whale with the Devil, who similarly deceives and lures sinners, dragging them down with him to the depths of Hell.

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A hungry whale opens its mouth and lets out a sweet scent to lure small fish, in a bestiary (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 3544, f. 42v

We would love you to explore more stories of birds and beasts from the bestiary. As well as Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, check out this animation of the life of the crane, also created for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. The Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website contains a wealth of other articles relating to the manuscript culture of this period, alongside collection items from the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France.

 

Calum Cockburn

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25 April 2019

Writing the story of writing: a new exhibition

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On 26 April a new landmark exhibition opens at the British Library. Its theme is broad but it is also personal and intimate: Writing: Making Your Mark traces the incredible story of how we write.

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Writing on a page: a portrait of St Luke the Evangelist from a 12th-century Byzantine gospel-book: Add MS 5112/1

Jotting notes, sending texts, typing emails — all are part of our daily lives. Writing surrounds us. It lets us communicate with people we don’t see and may never meet. It allows our great-grandparents to talk to us from the past through their handwritten letters and postcards. Through it, we can leave messages to future generations which they may or may not read. We take all this for granted without necessarily being aware that, with every single letter we put down, we are part of the 5000-year story of writing.

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Hieroglyphs from the back of a 2nd or 3rd-century Greek papyrus: Papyrus 2

Writing: Making your Mark is an opportunity to think about this amazing human invention and the incredible journey made by writing worldwide in the last 5 millennia. From ancient cuneiform tablets, carved hieroglyphs, long papyrus scrolls and gold-blazed parchment leaves to printed and typewritten pages or computer screens, we reflect on how writing has changed they ways we think, feel and see the world.

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One of the oldest attestations of an alphabetic system survives on the base of this sphinx, with the ancestors of our letter 'M' (as water on the right) and 'a' (as the ox-head) next to it (Sinai, 1800 BCE): British Museum EA 41748 (courtesy of the British Museum)

Writing: Making Your Mark is a remarkable opportunity to display some of our ancient and medieval treasures in a new light and in a global context, surrounded by examples from other periods and cultures.

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A Greek wax tablet with a child’s homework, written in Egypt in the 2nd century AD: Add MS 34186(1)

A 2,000-year old Greek homework-book illustrates the humble beginnings of a career in writing. A prosaic document, recording the sale of only a twelfth part of a land and house in Ravenna, is the longest intact papyrus in the British Library. Its script, written at times rather carelessly by a notary called John, shows letter-forms developed by the Roman imperial administration, which mark the beginnings of our lower-case letters and are direct predecessors of the characteristic insular script of early medieval England.

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Detail from the Ravenna Papyrus, AD 572, with the scribe recording his name ('scribsi ego Johannis') using the 'lower-case' letters of the New Roman cursive: Add MS 5412

One of the earliest examples of the new script developed in the court of Charlemagne in the late 8th century shows us the roots of the New Roman typeface, that went on to the printed page in the early 16th century and then on to our screens as Times New Roman.

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An example of Carolingian minuscule from a manuscript of Theodulf of Orléans, De Spiritu Sancto, made between 809 and 816: Harley MS 3024, f. 33r

The exhibition concludes by looking at the future of writing, asking how humankind will make its mark in the coming years. Come and join us on this amazing journey.

Writing: Making Your Mark will be open at the British Library from 26 April to 27 August 2019. Tickets can be purchased here.

 

Peter Toth

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15 April 2019

Cesare Franchi, Renaissance art in miniature

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We are very pleased to have loaned three miniatures from our collection to the National Gallery of Umbria, Perugia, for their exhibition of works by Cesare Franchi. You can visit the exhibition from 13 April until 9 June 2019.

Cesare Franchi (c. 1560–1598), nicknamed il Pollino, was a leading miniaturist from Perugia. He worked in Rome and Perugia, creating fine quality miniatures that resemble tiny versions of late Renaissance paintings. As well as his art, Franchi is also known for his dramatic death. He was condemned for killing a masked reveller who insulted him during the Carnival. His fellow artists petitioned the Pope for a reprieve, but without success, and he was executed for murder. The shortness of Franchi’s career only adds to the rarity of his artworks.

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The Adoration of the Name of Jesus: Add MS 46365 C-D, f. C 

This miniature attributed to Franchi shows the Adoration of the Name of Jesus. The sacred monogram ‘IHS’, an abbreviation of the name of Jesus in Greek, appears in a shimmering gold roundel in the sky. On either side, winged cherubs sitting on clouds are playing musical instruments. Below, nine putti dance in a circle. Putti is the name given to the naked toddlers that often feature in Renaissance and Baroque art. Here, they seem to represent heavenly beings who express joy inspired by the name of Jesus.

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The Adoration of the Name of the Virgin: Add MS 46365 C-D, f. D

While the male putti celebrate the name of Jesus, this group of girls dance in Adoration of the Name of the Virgin. The composition is the same, except here the sacred monogram reads ‘MAR’ for Maria. The two companion miniatures were probably cut out from a liturgical manuscript.

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The Adoration of the Shepherds: Add MS 54246

This tender miniature depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds, the scene when the shepherds came to visit the Holy Family after the Nativity of Christ. The baby Jesus lies on a cloth in the middle of the image. The shepherds, ox and ass gather reverently around him, along with Mary and Joseph who are identified by their haloes, on the left. Above, three cherubs bear a scroll inscribed Gloria in excelsis deo et in terra pax hominibus (‘Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth among men’, cf. Luke 2:14).

Although he was well-known in his time, just over a dozen miniatures attributed to Franchi survive today. We are very proud that our three examples can join his other outstanding works at this important exhibition. We strongly recommend that you visit them at the National Gallery of Umbria, Perugia, from 13 April – 9 June 2019.

 

Eleanor Jackson

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12 April 2019

Reunited at last: the Percy Hours and Percy Psalter

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It is always exciting to acquire a new manuscript for the collection. But to acquire a new manuscript and reunite it with its long-separated other half is no less than thrilling. The Percy Psalter (Add MS 70000) and the Percy Hours (Add MS 89379) were created as a single-volume Psalter-Hours in the late 13th century. They formed one manuscript for around 500 years, until a 19th-century book dealer split them in two and sold the halves into separate private collections. The British Library acquired the Percy Psalter from the New York collector Clark Stillman in 1990. We are delighted to announce that we have now purchased the Percy Hours from the estate of the London collector Stephen Keynes, bringing the two manuscript halves together for the first time in around 200 years.

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The Hours of the Virgin, with a historiated initial showing the Annunciation: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, f. 26r

This reunion is all the more satisfying because the Percy Psalter and Hours are historically important and stunningly beautiful. They were made in York towards the end of the 13th century as a prayer book for a branch of the aristocratic Percy family. Lord and Lady Percy are depicted on the opening page of the Psalter, proudly displaying their coats of arms.

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Psalm 1 with a historiated initial showing the Tree of Jesse; below, patron portraits and a stag hunt: the Percy Psalter, Add MS 70000, f. 16r

The manuscript was made at a moment of great change in book history. Devotional books were rapidly gaining popularity among wealthy laymen and women. At first these aristocratic patrons adopted the Psalter as their preferred book of personal devotion, inspired by monastic practices. Other essential texts were often included, such as a calendar for keeping track of different saints’ feast days, and the Office for the Dead for praying for the souls of departed loved ones. As the 13th century progressed, it became common to supplement the Psalter with the Hours of the Virgin, a series of prayers addressed to the Virgin Mary that were recited at set hours of the day and night. This resulted in the Psalter-Hours — a deluxe all-in-one collection of texts for personal devotion.

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The Hours of the Virgin, with a historiated initial showing the funeral procession of the Virgin Mary: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, f. 55r

The Percy Psalter-Hours is a rare and early example of this class of devotional book from northern England. The growing market for books in the 13th century led to professional workshops of scribes and illuminators appearing in cities around the country. The British Library has an outstanding collection of manuscripts made in regional workshops such as Oxford, London and East Anglia. But examples from the North are comparatively rare. The Percy Psalter-Hours was created by a well-organised team of scribes and artists, working in the latest styles. It reveals that northern book production was just as sophisticated as elsewhere in England.

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Calendar page for June showing the feast of St William of York: the Percy Psalter, Add MS 70000, f. 7v

The manuscript also displays some unique features of northern devotion. For example in the calendar, the feast days of former archbishops of York Sts Wilfrid (24 April and 12 October), John of Beverley (7 May) and William of York (8 June) are marked in glittering gold letters. Some of the feasts are so local that they do not appear in calendars anywhere else, such as the feasts of the Yorkshire abbess St Everild (9 July) and the York Feast of Relics (19 October). St William of York is also commemorated with a prayer in the Hours (f. 42v). Another important local feature is that the Hours of the Virgin follows a slightly different version (or ‘Use’) than elsewhere. It is thought that this manuscript preserves the earliest surviving example of the Hours of the Virgin of the Use of York.

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Prayer commemorating St William of York: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, f. 42v

Perhaps the most appealing feature of the manuscript is its artwork. In both the Psalter and Hours, each major text opens with a letter containing a miniature scene from a religious narrative. Graceful figures in jewel-like colours are set against backgrounds of shimmering gold. Some may give a clue to the religious affiliations of the original owners. For example, an image at the beginning of the Penitential Psalms shows a man confessing to a Dominican friar, identified by his black habit. This may suggest that the owners had a Dominican confessor.

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Penitential Psalms with a Dominican hearing confession and a priest blessing penitents: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, f. 62r

In contrast to the serene images in the initials, the margins of both the Psalter and Hours portions of the manuscript are inhabited by boisterous scenes of animals and hybrid monsters fighting, playing musical instruments, or simply wandering by. It’s hard not to smile when you open a page and are greeted with these lively creatures.

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Creatures in the margins: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, ff. 83r, 92r, 94r, 97v, 100r, 78v, 85r; the Percy Psalter, Add MS 70000, ff. 13v, 4r, 5r

We are very pleased to have acquired the Percy Hours and to have finally reunited it with the Percy Psalter in the national collection. You can view both of these manuscripts in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website, and we plan to display them in the Library’s Treasures Gallery later this year. We are extremely grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for generously supporting the acquisition of the Percy Hours.

This is the second of two exciting acquisitions from the estate of Stephen Keynes. For the first, see our earlier announcement on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

Eleanor Jackson

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09 April 2019

The languages of history in the Middle Ages

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Which languages were used to write history in medieval Europe? Who wrote history, for whom, and the history of what? Robert Bartlett will explore these questions in a lecture at the British Library in the Knowledge Centre on Friday 14 June, from 19:30 to 21:00. To find out more information and to book your tickets please visit this page.

Historical chronicles often recall and illustrate the account of the building of the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis to explain the origins of multilingualism. According to chapter 11, the sons of Adam decided to ‘make a city and a tower, the top whereof may reach to heaven’ in order that they would become famous. But God decided to put a stop to their plans, and ‘there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another's speech’. As a result, the place was called Babel (confusion), ‘because there the language of the whole Earth was confounded: and from thence the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of all countries.’

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The Tower of Babel, in Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar: Add MS 25884, f. 80v

The Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar is the earliest compilation of universal history written in French, initially dating from the first decades of the 13th century. At this time French was used in many areas outside France, such as Flanders, England and Italy, and across the Mediterranean (for more on the Histoire ancienne, see our previous blog posts here and here). In a 14th-century Parisian copy of the Histoire ancienne (Add MS 25884), the Tower of Babel is presented as a complex technological achievement. In the image, the tower is almost complete. Its incredible height and elegant form could be seen to celebrate the collective achievement of the community of builders, before the confusion of languages caused them to abandon the construction.

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Pyrrus's army with elephants, in Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar:  Add MS 15268, f. 266r

As Latin had long been the language of learning and textual authority, the choice of French prose for writing history suggests that lay aristocratic audiences were increasingly engaged in understanding the past. French language and culture reached all the way to the Holy Land, where it was imported by crusaders and merchants. One of our copies of the Histoire ancienne is from the city of Acre in the eastern Mediterranean (Add MS 15268), where French chronicles were read eagerly by the multicultural and multilingual communities brought together in this cosmopolitan port.

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The Tower of Babel, above, and Zoroaster with two demons, below, in Il Tesoro: Yates Thompson MS 28, f. 51r

Influenced by the flourishing tradition of 13th-century French historical narratives, the Italian notary Brunetto Latini included an historical section in his encyclopedic Livre dou Tresor. His chapter on the Tower of Babel is derived from the version found in the Histoire ancienne. In 1260, Brunetto was exiled in France, where he composed the Tresor in French in order to reach a wider public. This vast encyclopedia is formed of three books, covering a variety of disciplines including theology, physics, astronomy and ethics.

Brunetto’s Tresor was extremely successful, and copies circulated widely across the Mediterranean. By the 14th century, it was translated into other vernaculars, notably Catalan and Castilian. However, one of the earliest translations of the Tresor was made in Brunetto’s home city, Florence, where he returned in 1267. The Italian Tesoro dates back to the 13th century, when the French version was available widely in Italy. This translation illustrates how French works fed into the multilingual literary culture of Italy, in the city of Brunetto’s student Dante, where the language that will be eventually called ‘Italian’ was emerging. A 15th-century Florentine manuscript of the Tesoro (Yates Thompson 28) was copied in 1425 by the scribe Bartolomeo di Lorenzo of Fighine.

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Opening page of Guido delle Colonne, Historia destructionis Troiae: Harley MS 176, f. 1r

Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (‘History of the Destruction of Troy’) offers a different example of the movement of historical texts between languages. In 1287, the Sicilian judge and poet composed his Latin prose account of the Trojan War, which is a translation of the 12th-century French Roman de Troie, by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. The Historia Destructionis Troiae was enormously popular across Europe and demonstrates how vernacular culture revitalised contemporary Latin historical writing.

Over 90 copies of Guido’s Historia survive. The success of Guido’s translation also suggests a preference in some circles for Latin as opposed to local languages, even as the local language (in this instance Italian) emerges as a literary language. The work was even popular beyond Italy, as demonstrated in an English copy made around 1400 (Harley MS 176).

Around this time, John Lydgate translated the Historia into English verse. He completed his version in 1420 and gave it the title ‘Troy Book’. This 15th-century illuminated English manuscript contains a particularly fine copy of Lydgate’s Troy Book, compiled with other works by the same author.

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The Trojan Horse, in John Lydgate, Troy Book: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 75r

Professor Bartlett’s talk is presented in conjunction with the ‘Narrating History Across Languages in Medieval Europe’ conference at Kings College London, 14-15 June, organised by The Values of French, a research project funded by the European Research Council at King’s College London. The conference will cover a range of geographic and linguistic traditions, including Catalan, Castilian, French, German, Greek, Latin and Sicilian. To book tickets, please visit this site.

Robert Bartlett, 'The Languages of History in the Middle Ages', The British Library, Friday 14 June, 19:30–21:00.

Kathleen Doyle, Hannah Morcos and Maria Teresa Rachetta (King's College London)

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You can learn more about the use of French in the Middle Ages in The Polonsky Foundation England and France article on the subject, in partnership with

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04 April 2019

Jews, Money, Myth at the Jewish Museum

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Two of the British Library’s medieval charters are currently on loan to an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London. Jews, Money, Myth explores the role of money in Jewish life over the course of 2000 years. Drawing together art, film, literature, and artefacts from board games and cartoons to costumes and figurines, the exhibition follows the real and imagined stories of Jews — in finance, commerce and capitalism — up to the present day.

One of the loans (Add Ch 1251) is a Latin deed that records the partial repayment of the debt in November 1182 of Richard de Malbis (or Malebisse), a Norman landowner, to Aaron of Lincoln, one of the wealthiest men in England at the time. Malbis was later the principal instigator of mob violence against the Jewish community in York in 1190.

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Receipt for a payment of debt, written in Latin, England, 15 November 1182: Add Ch 1251

On the reverse of the deed, an informal Hebrew inscription by Solomon of Paris, an associate of Aaron of Lincoln, acknowledges the payment. Playing on the meaning of Malbis’ name in French (Mal Bete), Solomon states, ‘I have received £4 from Richard the evil beast … from his debt, the large one’.

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Acknowledgement of a payment of debt, written in Hebrew, England, 15 November 1182: Add Ch 1251, dorse

The second loan (Add Ch 71355) is a 13th-century legal document. A bilingual text written in Latin and Hebrew, it is a duplicate of a lost deed of lease of the land for the Jewish cemetery in Northampton, outside the town's north gate, and leased to the Northampton community by the local prior and the convent of St Andrew. The annual rent stated is half a mark, approximately £500 in today’s currency.

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Deed in Latin and Hebrew, recording the rent of a Jewish cemetery, England, c. 1270: Add Ch 71355

Jewish representatives of the community, named here as Samuel hazan ben Aaron, Benet ben Isaac, and Samson ben Samson, witnessed the legal document.

A nearby section of the exhibition examines Judas Iscariot, the disciple of Christ who betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-15). In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, the curators explain that, beginning in the 12th century, ‘Jews began to be presented in Christian iconography as inherently attached to money’. Several reproductions from illuminated manuscripts included in this section show Judas with a bag of money, or his death. 

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Judas leaves the High Priest and hangs himself, in a Psalter with the Hours of the Virgin, Oxford, 1st quarter of the 13th century: Arundel MS 157, f. 10r

One illustration is reproduced from a Psalter recently digitised as part of the England and France 700-1200 project funded by The Polonsky Foundation. It is one of 20 full-page illuminations that appear at the beginning of the manuscript, forming one of the most outstanding prefatory cycles to survive from the period around 1200. In this image, Judas is depicted with the infamous 30 pieces of silver, piled next to the High Priest. Judas then hangs himself from a tree, out of guilt at his betrayal of Christ. The scene is juxtaposed with a representation of Christ’s flagellation at the hands of the Romans in the panel below. 

You can read more about this Psalter in Kathleen Doyle & Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination, Manuscript Art in England and France, 700–1200 (London: British Library, no. 39. To explore other manuscripts included in the project, and learn about Hebrew in manuscripts digitised by the project, read this article on the Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website.

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Judas’ betrayal of Christ, in a Biblia pauperum, Northern Netherlands, c. 1395-1400: Kings MS 5, f. 11r

Also reproduced in the exhibition is an image from an opulent copy of the Biblia pauperum. The Biblia pauperum, or Bible of the poor, is a typological approach to the Christian Bible in which images illustrate how the Old Testament was seen to be both predictive of and more fully explained by the New Testament. The image featured in Jews, Money, Myth is a detail from the central image on this page, which compares the selling of Joseph to Potiphar to the selling of Christ by Judas. In the image, Judas holds a cloak with a large number of coins (although they are gold, rather than silver). The manuscript is described in more detail by Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames and Hudson, 2016), no. 38.

For a fascinating discussion of Judas as ‘The Wickedest Man’, we highly recommend that you listen to Janet Robson’s Radio 4 broadcast from 2005, available here. You may also be interested in her article, 'Fear of Falling: Depicting the Death of Judas in Late Medieval Italy', in Fear and its Representations in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. by Anne Scott and Cynthia Kosso, Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, 6 (Turnholt: Brepols, 2002), pp. 33–65.

 

Jews, Money, Myth is on show at the Jewish Museum, London, from 19 March until 7 July 2019. The exhibition catalogue is edited by Joanne Rosenthal and Marc Volovici (London: Jewish Museum, 2019).

 

Calum Cockburn and Kathleen Doyle

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29 March 2019

Saints, kings and a bonnacon at Longthorpe Tower

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In a previous blogpost, Snakes and Scrolls, we compared iconography in British Library manuscripts to medieval wall paintings in a little church in Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk. There are churches all over Britain containing hidden gems of medieval art, sometimes fragmentary, sometimes astonishingly fresh, and these treasure troves are lovingly cared for and nearly always kept open for visitors by the local communities. Many images recall the manuscript miniatures in our collections.

Not long ago, guidebooks in hand, I made an astonishing discovery down a suburban road in the outskirts of Peterborough: Longthorpe Tower. This is not a church building but a fortified ‘solar tower’ adjoining a manor house, containing the ‘finest collection of domestic wall-paintings’ in Britain, according to Rosewell.

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Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage

The Tower was part of a larger manor house built by the Thorpe family, peasants who purchased their freedom during the reign of King John (1199–1216) and increased their power and fortune by education and strategic marriages. Robert Thorpe, who rose to become lay steward of the powerful abbey of Peterborough and a knight of the realm, was able to add this prestigious status symbol to his manor house; he commissioned the wall paintings between 1320 and 1340.

Entering the painted room on the first floor is like walking into the Queen Mary Psalter or along the margins of the Taymouth Hours. The images are an eclectic mix of religious, allegorical, fantastical and heraldic imagery on a scale that is startling in comparison to the tiny, exquisite miniatures in manuscripts. The colours are faded, but many of the details and even some facial expressions are still visible.

One of the most recognizable images is a brooding representation of the Three Living and the Three Dead (for more on this popular medieval allegory, see our previous blog post). In this version of the scene, a crowned king is shown admonishing the three corpses (traces of a second king can be seen behind).

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Wall painting of the Three Living and the Three Dead: Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage (Image copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License).

The wall painting is similar to this image from the Taymouth Hours, in which a younger-looking man holds out his hand and the three dead wave back jauntily.

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Miniatures of the Three Living and the Three Dead, detail from the Taymouth Hours:
Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 179v–180r

Other familiar scenes are the labours of the months, depicted around an archway on one side of Longthorpe Tower. The clearest of these is on the lower left, a figure seated by the fire warming his hands (January).

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Wall paintings of the labours of the months and a scene from the life of St Anthony: Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage

This calendar image for January is found in many Psalters, including the Bohun Psalter and Hours, made not long after Longthorpe was built, for the de Bohun family of Essex.

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A figure warming his hands from the Calendar page for January, detail from the Bohun Psalter and Hours: Egerton MS 3277, f. 1r

In the upper part of the recess, below the labours of the months, is a scene from the life of St Anthony, the desert hermit. The saint is addressing a seated figure who is weaving, with birds and animals. Beneath are two standing figures, perhaps a pupil and teacher. The weaver probably represents the fact that Anthony was tempted by the devil with boredom, laziness and visions of women, which he overcame by the power of prayer. The weaver can be compared with this scene from the Luttrell Psalter, which shows women spinning and weaving.

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A spinner and a weaver, detail from the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 193r

The vault of the roof is covered with paintings that represent heaven along with musicians, including this very clear image of David playing his harp.

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Wall painting of King David: Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage

Beatus initials at the beginning of Psalter manuscripts often contain similar images. In this one from the Queen Mary Psalter, David’s facial expression and hands are very finely drawn, as they are in Longthorpe Tower.

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David playing his harp, detail from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 85r

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Wall painting of enthroned figures and a bonnacon: Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage

The south wall, next to the entrance, is painted with a trompe l’oeil cloth hanging that includes the Thorpe arms. Above it are two figures seated on thrones, identified by their arms as probably Edward III (left) and Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent, executed in 1330 (right). Beneath is perhaps the only surviving wall painting of the mythical beast, the bonnacon (just the rear survives), at which an archer is aiming an arrow (only his bow is now visible). This image from a 13th-century bestiary contains a better-preserved image of the bonnacon.

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Hunting a bonnacon, detail from a bestiary: Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

For those who have not seen previous blogposts on this popular subject, a bonnacon is a mythological beast that protected itself by emitting flaming excrement. It also features in our article, ‘Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary’, on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

There are many more wonderful scenes in Longthorpe Tower including the ages of man, a wheel of the senses, a spider's web, an ostrich, a monkey and many more. All of these subjects are illustrated in manuscripts in the British Library, and can be found by searching our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and Digitised Manuscripts website.  

These three books are my guides to medieval wall paintings and where to find them:

E Clive Rouse, Medieval Wall Paintings (Princes Risborough: Shire, 2010).

Roger Rosewell, Medieval Wall Paintings (Botley: Shire Publications, 2014).

Nick Mayhew Smith, Britain’s Holiest Places (Britain: Lifestyle Press Limited, 2011).

 

Chantry Westwell

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