THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

757 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

02 September 2019

King Arthur: fable, fact and fiction

Add comment

King Arthur is one of our most popular heroes: noble yet flawed, a great leader (but perhaps not such a great judge of character), a brave soldier who died fighting for a noble yet hopeless cause. There are tantalising fragments of evidence that the legendary figure may be based on a real king who fought to defend Britain against Anglo-Saxon invaders around the 5th-6th centuries. But was he a Celt, a Roman, a Briton or an Anglo-Saxon, and did he really take on the Anglo-Saxons?

If King Arthur existed at all, we will probably never know the truth about what he was really like. The sources that describe him were written centuries later, when his life had already turned to legend. You can read more about them in an article about King Arthur on the Polonsky Project website. But what endures about King Arthur are the many stories that people crafted about him thoughout the Middle Ages. Here we explore some of the manuscripts that contributed to the growth of Arthur’s legend.

Medeival manuscript showing a picture of King Arthur as a knight, wearing chainmail with a sword, shield and lance
Miniature of King Arthur, holding a spear and a shield emblazoned with the Virgin and Child from a historical collection including Langtoft’s chronicles: Northern England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 a ii, f. 4r

Two of the earliest accounts of King Arthur were by William of Malmesbury (b. c. 1090, d. c. 1142) and Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1154/55), Anglo-Norman clerics who wrote historical chronicles in Latin in the first half of the 12th century. Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain portrayed Arthur at the outset as a brave and fearsome young warrior, who dons his battle regalia (as in the image above, from Royal MS 20 a ii, which is of a later date) and defeats multiple enemies single-handedly. He established Arthur’s reputation as a powerful Christian monarch who embodies the qualities of generosity and culture, qualities demonstrated in the earliest surviving image of Arthur in a manuscript, where he is shown as a tall, venerable figure with a beard and a long robe (BnF lat. 8501A, below).

Medieval manuscript with a picture of a King Arthur with a long beard and robe
A portrait of Arthur at the beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae: Mont Saint-Michel, second half of the 12th century, BnF, lat. 8501A, f. 108v

As many medieval chroniclers did, Geoffrey introduced elements from legend. For him Arthur belonged to an idealised past, peopled with dragons and the chivalrous knights and virtuous maidens of the magnificent Camelot. In contrast, William of Malmesbury was critical of the ‘fond fables which the Britons were wont to tell’, and for him Arthur was merely a ‘praiseworthy’ and ‘warlike’ leader. His Deeds of the English Kings begins with the Anglo-Saxon invasions in 449 and tells of Arthur’s single-handed defeat of 900 invaders. This copy of his work from Saint Alban’s Abbey, is decorated with initials containing a dragon, a lion and other creatures, perhaps referencing Arthur’s magical associations (BnF lat. 6047, below).

A page of text in a medieval manuscript, including a decorated initial containing a bird
An initial containing a bird, in William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum: St Alban’s abbey, last quarter of the 12th century, BnF, lat. 6047, f. 93v

Later in the 12th century, authors on both sides of the channel, including Wace, Layamon and most notably Chretien de Troyes, adapted the Arthurian legend, embellishing it with tales of Arthur’s early education by Merlin, his chivalrous exploits with Lancelot, Gawain and the knights of the Round Table, and his doomed romance with Guinevere.

The illustrations in this 14th-century English manuscript of Wace’s Roman de brut, a history of England from the time of Brutus, depict Arthur as a warrior king (Egerton MS 3028, below). Here he is shown leading the conquest of Gaul. Red-bearded and in full armour, with a fierce grimace on his face, he splits in two the head of Frollo, tribune of Gaul, with his sword.

Medieval manuscript with a picture of Arthur, dressed in chainmail, slicing open the head of a knight with his sword
Arthur killing Frollo, Roman de Brut: England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 41r

Wace introduced the Round Table in his Roman de Brut, completed in 1155, and his words ‘Arthur .. bore himself so rich and noble…[and the] Round Table was ordained ….At this table sat Britons, Frenchmen, Normans, Angevins, Flemings, Burgundians and Loherins’. Here Wace brings Europe’s leaders to his table, portraying Arthur as not only an inspiring and fair ruler, but an international statesman of note.

Three women lead Percival by the hand to King Arthur, who is seated at a table
Perceval is brought to Arthur at the Round Table (although the rubric specifies ‘table roonde’ the artist has depicted the table as long and narrow), from the Lancelot-Grail: Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 376r

But there is a dark side to Arthur in de Boron’s Roman du Graal, as illustrated in a manuscript of this work (Add MS 38117, below). Wanting to rid his kingdom of the evil Mordred, his son conceived by incest, Arthur finds all the children born on the same day and sets them adrift in a boat, sending them to a certain death by drowning.

Medieval manuscript with a picture of King Arthur and a group of people watching as a boat full of small children drifts out to sea
King Arthur setting infants adrift in a boat from Robert de Boron, Suite de Merlin: Northern France (Arras?), 1310, Add MS 38117, f. 97v

All the stories about King Arthur and his court were brought together in the early 13th century in the monumental prose version known as the Vulgate Cycle. It was a medieval literary phenomenon, surviving in around eighty manuscripts from the 13th to the 15th century. This illuminated manuscript of the work shows Arthur as a humble young squire, drawing the sword from the stone (Add MS 10292, below).

Medieval manuscript showing a group of people gathered outside a church, with Arthur pulling the sword from the stone
Arthur draws the sword from the stone, from the Lancelot-Grail Vulgate Cycle: Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 99r
Medieval manuscript showing a group of nobles feasting
Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere at Camelot in Lancelot du Lac England, S. (Pleshey castle): c. 1360- c. 1380, Royal 20 D IV, f. 1r

The doomed love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot leads to the king’s ultimate downfall and he is seen as gullible, though not blameless in the situation that develops. In the image above, set at Camelot, he is the gracious and dutiful king (on the right), seated beside Guinevere, their arms entwined, and in another episode from the story (on the left), Lancelot and Guinevere conduct their intrigues behind his back (Royal MS 20 D IV).

Lydgate’s 15th-century work, The Fall of Princes, based on a work by Boccaccio, includes Arthur as an example of how the mighty fall. This manuscript shows Arthur, victorious, slaughtering his enemies on one page, and on the next is an image of his tomb at Avalon (Harley MS 1766, below).

Medieval manuscript with a picture of King Arthur and his followers over a pile of dead bodies
King Arthur slaying heathens, from The Fall of Princes: South-east England, 1450-1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 218r
Medieval mauscript with a picture of a pink carved tomb inside a church
King Arthur's tomb, from The Fall of Princes: South-east England, 1450-1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 219r

Although we will never know who Arthur really was, the adaptability of his legend allowed him to remain relevant throughout the Middle Ages and to continue to capture people’s imagination to this day.

A number of manuscripts featuring King Arthur from the collections of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, including three of those pictured above, have recently been digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, and early accounts of Arthur’s reign are highlighted in an article about the legend of King Arthur on the project website.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

#PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project                                           

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

31 August 2019

5 million page-views and counting

Add comment Comments (1)

We once declared privately that we would never again begin a blogpost with the words, 'We are delighted to announce'. But today we have to break that rule: we are extremely delighted to announce that our Medieval Manuscripts Blog recently received its 5 MILLIONTH page-view. We have been blogging about the British Library's marvellous manuscripts since 2010, telling you all about our exhibitions, events and digitisation projects. We hope you have enjoyed reading this Blog as much as we have enjoyed writing it.

To celebrate, and for one day only, we are going to give the Blog over to you, our loyal readers. You keep us on our toes, and your kind and incisive comments help us to know what you're interested in. Earlier this summer, we asked you to tell us which British Library manuscripts inspire you? Here is some of the wonderful feedback we received: what 'delighted' us most was the range of people who responded, from art historians to nuns to calligraphers to fans of tattoos to historic sites, and from across the world. We received so many comments that we're listing them here in alphabetical order. Thank you all again.

PS this is one of the easiest blogposts we've ever had to write, as you've done it for us!

PPS we'd also like to thank the Blog's many contributors over the years (you know who you are); you'll be hearing from some of them over the coming days.

PPPS we'd finally like to thank the funders of our many digitisation initiatives, including The Polonsky Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, without whom it would not have been possible to make so many of our manuscripts available online.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

A knight fighting a snail

 

I started delving into medieval manuscripts and images because I was doing research that included herbals, alchemy, and early medicine. That got me hooked on many other types of medieval images. I can't possibly pick a favorite. So many are divine or informative.

 

Nuria Bono

Nuria M. Bono tweet: 'I'm here for the cats'

Kaleb Borromeo

Kaleb Borromeo tweet: 'they have inspired me to learn the original languages'

The Brooklyn Art Historian

Brooklyn Art Historiam tweet: 'Seyssel's translation of Xenophon's Anabasis, gifted to Henry VII'

The Anabasis manuscript presented to Henry VII

Miniature of Henry VII receiving the book from the translator, Claude de Seyssel: Royal MS 19 C VI, f. 17r

 

Marianne Lee Burdi

Marianne Lee Burdi tweet: 'I always love your snails'

Nancy Ewart

Nancy Ewart tweet: 'You put a banquet in front of me & tell me I can only have one? ONE of the manuscripts I love is the Spanish Beatus'

One copy of the commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana can be found here: Add MS 11695

 

Göktug and Lilac Sunday

Goktug tweet: 'Beowulf is my favourite'; Lilac Sunday: 'Beowulf, I became hooked after the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition'

The Beowulf manuscript can be found online here: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV

 

Brandon Hawk

Brandon Hawk tweet: 'So many British Library manuscripts made it into my book, Preaching the Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England'

Presenting the Rule to St Benedict

A miniature of monks presenting a copy of the Rule of St Benedict to St Benedict: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 117v

 

My research is on the way memory systems work in non-literate and early literate cultures. I read Mary Curruthers "The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture" and started looking at medieval manuscripts for the way they were designed and annotated to aid memory during my PhD research. I already loved the artistry, but add in the incredible mnemonic aids - drolleries and glosses and the layout and lettering - and I fell even more deeply in love with them. I have written about medieval manuscripts and what they can teach us about the memory arts in my most recent book.

I have spent way too many hours browsing your glorious database and choosing a favourite is impossible. But if I have to, the Smithfield Decretals win my vote.

For example, I love this image:

The Smithfield Decretals

A bas-de-page scene of a centaur fighting dragons, in the Smithfield Decretals: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 173r

Catherine Leglu

I discovered BL Egerton MS 1500 in 2005 because I was exploring the Occitan manuscripts. I was amazed by the rows of tiny heads, some of them topped by gold crowns, and by the maps. Nobody I asked at the time seemed to be sure what the text was. In 2011 I obtained funding from the Leverhulme Trust, which included digitising the manuscript. Our project's first three articles about Egerton 1500 came out in the eBLJ in late 2013. One of the exciting discoveries was that the columns of kings, popes, doges and emperors included borrowings from some illuminated rolls depicting kings of England, some of them also in the British Library. Since then, I have published several articles on this Occitan version of Paolino Veneto's illustrated history of the world until 1313, and more are to come.

The Occitan illustrated chronicle

Scenes from the First Crusade, in Abreviamen de las Estorias: Egerton MS 1500, f. 46r

Sjoerd Levelt tweet: 'I wrote a whole book about Cotton MSS Vitellius F XV and Tiberius C IV
 
Lewes Castle
Lewes Castle tweet: 'So many, but it has to be the Beowulf manuscript'
 
Linda

I'm a newbie calligrapher, and was transfixed by the carpet pages I've seen in the gallery. So much so that I've actually just spent sixty or seventy hours creating my own, painstakingly painting knots and swirls and even attempting a bit of gold leaf! A brilliant experience for me, though I confess a certain amount of 'Anglo-Saxon' was muttered over the fiddly bits!

Fell into the manuscript rabbit hole whilst researching cats in art...and found a treasure trove. Since then have "spread the words" by posting the occasional video and giving introductory presentations on the story of Med MSS and its artwork at any institution interested... Do I have a favorite? Think the Rutland for its superb dragons and marginalia, Lindisfarne & St Cuthberts of course, the Talbot Shrewsbury, Lisbon Bible...too many favorites to list.

The Rutland Psalter

Historiated initial of a king and queen kneeling before an altar, with Christ above with a sword in his mouth, at the beginning of Psalm 101, in the Rutland Psalter: Add MS 62925, f. 99v

 

Melibeus

Melibeus tweet: 'Seriously? I have to choose a favourite manuscript? That is so cruel. Here we go: the Maastricht Hours'

The Maastricht Hours can be found online here: Stowe MS 17

 

It is incredibly difficult to single out individual items in such an awe-inspiring and magisterial collection of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts as that held by the British Library.

On a personal level, the first manuscript I consulted for my thesis will always stand out. The humble Additional 10289 is a miscellaneous 13th-century book copied at the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, containing a history of the abbey in Old French. I remember feeling privileged to be handling the book in the reading room, contemplating the production of its parts and the strange addition of the crude tale Jouglet on the final folios (in which the advice of a mischievous jongleur leads to an unfortunate toilet incident on a young couple’s wedding night…)

I’m currently consulting on a daily basis the Library’s digital images of three important illuminated manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, the earliest universal chronicle in French composed at the beginning of the 13th century. Thanks to the Digitised Manuscripts website, our team has been able to transcribe collaboratively the complete text of the significant Angevin manuscript, Royal MS 20 D I. In addition, we’ve recorded the contents of two substantial 13th-century manuscripts in our digital Alignment tool, which offer insights into the early dissemination of this text in the Holy Land (Additional MS 15268) and northern France (Additional MS 19669).

The ‘Medieval manuscripts blog’ has been an amazing resource for discovering more about the incredible items in the collection, from the illuminations on calendar pages to medieval lolcats, knights vs snails, the mindboggling marginalia in the Maastricht Hours (Stowe MS 17, my personal favourite) and of course, who could forget the unicorn cookbook!

The histoire ancienne

The minotaur, in the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 22r

 

Claudine Moulin

Claudine Moulin tweet: 'Harley 3034: merci for giving us so much'

Claudine's 9th-century manuscript can be found online here: Harley MS 3034

 

Rachel

Rachel tweet: 'Any of the ones with animals on. I even have one tattooed on my arm!'

A good opportunity to tell you I don't have a single favorite. The joy of your blog is exactly that I am surprised by the variation and richness of our heritage. The comments and the wealth of background information is of help, but it is the images on my screen so rich in color and meaning that offer me great moments. Thanks for that.

 

Lucy Freeman Sandler

By a rough count I've written 3 books and about 30 articles either mentioning or solely focused on British Library manuscripts. Not one of these publications could have appeared without 1) access to the manuscripts; 2) the knowledge, assistance and interest of the BL staff; 3) the reference facilities of the BL; 4) the BL Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts; 5) most recently, and most wonderfully, the digitization of an increasing number of BL manuscripts; and 6) the BL Manuscripts Blog, which provides delight and discovery to specialists and amateurs alike. Bravo!

I have written about several manuscripts that have been featured in this blog, including the Neville of Hornby Hours (Egerton 2781), the subject of my dissertation and several articles as well as a key work in my first book; the Taymouth Hours (Yates Thompson 13), the subject of my second book; and the Queen Mary Psalter (Royal 2 B VII), about which I have written two articles. Multispectral imaging by The British Library's Christina Duffy enriched the research for my second article on the Psalter, published earlier this year. Most of my publications mention other BL manuscripts. My research as a whole has benefitted enormously from the BL's digitization initiatives as well as from access to the manuscripts, for which I am extremely grateful. I require students in my "Illuminated Book" course to subscribe to the blog and to use other of the BL's online resources: they and the blog are wonderful resources for teaching.

The Taymouth Hours

Miniature of Christ feeding the 5,000, in the Taymouth Hours: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 102r

 

Sister Walburga

Sister Walburga tweet: 'Harley MS 3908 is mostly about St Mildred, our second abbess here at Minster Abbey. As it was digitalised I could access it from our monastery. Fantastic!'

Mass for St Mildred

A mass for the feast of St Mildred: Harley MS 3908, f. 42r

18 August 2019

What is a bestiary?

Add comment

As the Getty's wonderful Book of Beasts exhibition draws to close, it's an apt moment to reflect on the medieval manuscripts we know as 'bestiaries'. Elizabeth Morrison, one of the curators of Book of Beasts, has described the bestiary as 'one of the most appealing types of illuminated manuscripts, due to the liveliness and vibrancy of its imagery ... All of us can find something to relate to in the bestiary and its animals' ('Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary').

Lions resuscitating their cubs
The lion bringing its cubs to life (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 6r)

Function and origins

We might regard bestiaries as a kind of medieval encyclopedia relating to natural history, with one notable distinction: each creature was described in terms of its place within the Christian worldview, rather than as a purely scientific phenomenon. The animals were interpreted as evidence of God’s divine plan for the world. This is particularly true of the first animal typically described in the bestiary, namely the lion. One famous bestiary story is that of the birth of lions. Lion cubs were said to be born dead, until on the third day their father breathed upon them, bringing them to life, a reflection of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. 

A page from a bestiary, illustrating a lion
The opening page of a medieval bestiary (Add MS 11283, f. 1r)

The origins of the bestiary can be traced to the Physiologus, a Greek text devoted to natural history from late Antiquity. Around the 11th century, material was added from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, a popular early medieval encyclopedia. Bestiaries themselves became popular in England from the 12th century onwards, but they did not all contain the same descriptions or illustrations, leading to them being divided into different families by modern scholars. As Elizabeth Morrison has pointed out, 'the bestiary was not a single text, but a series of changeable texts that could be reconfigured in numerous ways. The number of animals could vary quite significantly, as well as their order.'

MedievalBestiary4-cats-mice-f36v
Cats and mice in a bestiary (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 36v)

Real and imagined

Bestiaries offer an enticing insight into the medieval mind. Some of the creatures they describe would have been very familiar to their original audience, such as cats, donkeys and owls. Others were more exotic, such as crocodiles and elephants, and this is often a source of amusement for modern readers; normally, the artists were relying upon the text and their own imaginations when depicting such beasts, rather than working from first-hand experience.

An elephant from a bestiary
Men mounted on an elephant (Harley MS 3244, f. 39r)

Likewise, bestiaries contain accounts of animals that we would now identify as mythical, such as phoenixes and unicorns. These fantastic beasts inhabited a special place in the medieval imagination, and beyond. You may recognise the illustration of the phoenix, below, from an English bestiary, as one of the stars of the British Library exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.

A phoenix rising from the flames
A phoenix in a medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751, f. 45r)

Bestiary folklore

Bestiaries abound with tales of fantastic and fabulous proportions. The story of the whale is a case in point. In bestiary tradition, the whale was so large that it could rest on the surface of the water until greenery grew on its back. Passing sailors, mistaking the animal for an island, would set camp on its back and unsuspectingly light a fire. The whale would then dive back into the ocean, dragging its victims with it.

Whale2
Sailors making camp on the back of a whale (Harley MS 4751, f. 69r)

We have reproduced the tale of the whale in this animation, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. You could say, we 'had a whale of a time'.

Surviving manuscripts

Illuminated Latin bestiaries survive in significant numbers. The Getty's exhibition catalogue lists a total of 62 examples, now dispersed across collections in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and the USA. No fewer than 8 are held at the British Library (and we loaned 6 manuscripts in total to Book of Beasts).

Illustration of a dragon
A dragon from an English bestiary (Harley MS 3244, f. 59r)

Here is a list of the illuminated Latin bestiaries in the British Library's collections:

Add MS 11283: England, 4th quarter of the 12th century

Cotton MS Vitellius D I: England, 2nd half of the 13th century

Harley MS 3244: England, after 1236

Harley MS 4751: England, early 13th century

Royal MS 12 C XIX: England, early 13th century

Royal MS 12 F XIII: Rochester, c. 1230

Sloane MS 3544: England, mid-13th century

Stowe MS 1067: England, 1st half of the 12th century

Medieval sheep
Sheep in a bestiary (Sloane MS 3544, f. 16r)
 
A manticore wearing a jaunty hat
A manticore (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 29v)

You can read more about bestiaries in Elizabeth Morrison's article, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

12 August 2019

Note-worthy connections: antique shorthand in Carolingian books

Add comment

How do you find connections between contemporaneous manuscripts produced in different places? Sometimes the distinctive hand of a particular scribe is found in more than one manuscript, or the illustrations are likely to have been made by the same artist. At other times the makers of the manuscripts are unlikely to have been the same individuals, and yet their overall aspects and layout are strikingly similar—so similar that they are likely to be copies of the same exemplar. A connection of this last type between two 9th-century manuscripts – one in the British Library and one in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany – has recently been highlighted as a result of their digitisation.

A page from a medieval manuscript showing decorated symbols
Opening of the Commentaries on Tironian notes (Paris, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, 1st quarter of the 9th century): British Library, Add MS 37518, f. 1r

 

A page from a medieval manuscript showing decorated symbols
Opening of the Commentaries on Tironian notes (Saint-Amand, first half of the 9th century): Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug.4°, f. 1r

Both manuscripts are copies of the late antique text Commentarii notarum tironianarum (Commentaries on Tironian notes). Tironian notes were an ancient Roman system of shorthand which get their name from their attribution to Tiro (b. 94, d. 4 BC), the slave and personal secretary of Cicero (b. 106, d. 43 BC). They are called notes after the Latin nota, but like the shorthand systems still in use today, they consist of abstract symbols which stand for words and syllables.

The British Library’s early-9th-century copy of this text (Add MS 37518) is one of the 800 manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. As increasing numbers of manuscripts become available online, it is easier than ever to compare their pages side by side. This is what happened when Joanna Story (Professor of Early Medieval History at University of Leicester and collaborator on the Library’s recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms-exhibition) recently researched this manuscript. She recognised the layout of its opening page from elsewhere, namely the near-contemporary manuscript, Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug. 4°.

Two pages from medieval manuscripts side by side, showing the same layout of symbols
Comparison of the opening pages of the Commentaries: British Library, Add MS 37518, f. 1r, and Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug.4°, f. 1r

In the opening pages of both manuscripts, the decorated Tironian symbols and their abbreviations are arranged in the same positions in relation to one another. This makes it clear that they follow the same layout, despite the opening page of Add MS 37518 being left unfinished with only the dagger-shaped symbol for ab heavily outlined in black. At least 20 other early medieval guides to Tironian notes survive, but they rarely have this striking arrangement of the first three symbols. An example of a copy of this text with a different layout, included in a recent blogpost on writing systems, has also recently been digitised (Add MS 21164).

A page from a medieval manuscript showing Tironian symbols
'Purpura' section of the Tironian lexicon: Add MS 37518, f. 27r
A page from a medieval manuscript, showing Tironian symbols
'Purpura' section of the Tironian lexicon: Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug.4°, f. 28r


The commentaries contain a lexicon, or list of symbols and their meanings. This part of the text divides the symbols according to either topic or shape. The divisions are signalled by the writing of the first word of a group in capital script. These different groupings tend to begin in almost the same place in both the British Library and Herzog August Library copies (which are of a similar size), which further strengthens the impression that they were copied from a common, or very similar, exemplar.

Despite their roots in Classical antiquity, no antique manuscript examples of the commentaries on Tironian notes or of texts written in Tironian notes survive. Instead, the vast majority of evidence is found in Carolingian manuscripts. The Carolingian dynasty ruled over the territories of the Franks (roughly modern-day France, Belgium, Netherlands and Western Germany) from the mid-8th century, but gradually lost control over these territories throughout the late 9th and 10th centuries.

A winged man holding an open book inscribed with symbols
The Evangelist symbol for St Matthew, holding his Gospel text written in Tironian notes, detail from the Apocalypse miniature in the Moutier-Grandval Bible (Tours, c.830-840): Add MS 10546, f. 499r

The Carolingian interest in shorthand was part and parcel of the revival of learning, art, and book production often known as the Carolingian Renaissance. In the Admonitio generalis (General admonition), an important collection of legislation issued in 789, the most famous Carolingian ruler, Charlemagne (r. 768-814), implored that schools be established for the learning of not only the Psalms, chant, and grammar, but also notae, or ‘written signs’.

Based on the surviving manuscript evidence, certain Carolingian monastic schools took a particular interest in Tironian notes. The scriptorium at Tours seems to have been one of the earliest centres to master this shorthand system, even including it in its famous illustrated pandect Bibles, such as the Moutier-Grandval Bible. Occasionally an entire book might be written in Tironian notes, such as this late 9th-century copy of the Psalms (Add MS 9046), which you can see in the British Library’s current exhibition, Writing: Making your Mark.

A page from a medieval manuscript filled with Tironian notes
Psalm 103 in a Psalter written in Tironian notes (Northeastern France, 4th quarter of the 9th century): Add MS 9046, f. 60v

The schools that produced our two connected manuscripts – Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, and Saint-Amand, in north-eastern France – are c. 200 km apart. That they nonetheless seem to share a common exemplar demonstrates how closely connected Carolingian scholarly communities were.         

Emilia Henderson, with thanks to Joanna Story

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

04 August 2019

The birds and the bees

Add comment

As many of our readers are aware, medieval manuscripts are an invaluable source for illustrations of cats and dogs and knights fighting snails. Some of our favourite images are of elephants, while western European attempts to accurately depict crocodiles and camels always make us smile. In this blogpost, we thought we would delight you with a selection of the charming pictures of birds and bees found in manuscripts in the British Library's collections.

Osprey

The margins of this late 12th or early 13th-century of the Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales are adorned with a number of illustrations, including the dive-bombing osprey (shown above, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 9r) and the kingfishers and stork featured below (f. 9v). An equally famous image in the same book is that of St Kevin, who kept so still that a blackbird nested in the palm of his hand (f. 20r).

King

Kevin

In a much later manuscript, known as the Hours of Dionora of Urbino (Yates Thompson MS 7), is found this border at the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin, containing this rather realistic blue tit and bullfinch separated by a roundel of John the Baptist (f. 14r).

Bull

Another manuscript we often look to for inspiration is Burney MS 97, made in Paris in the 1550s or 1560s. We are particularly fond of the heron (f. 4r), the pelican striking her breast to feed her young with the blood (f. 6r), and this rather fetching pair of owls (f. 10r).

Burney_ms_97_f004r

Pelican

Owls

Talking of owls, this rather important looking specimen is found in the border of the Hours of the Earls of Ormond (Harley MS 2887, f. 29r), at the beginning of the Annunciation. If you look carefully at the same border, you can also see a rather splendid peacock and a bear playing the bagpipes!

Owl

Peacock 2

Peacock

We couldn't resist showing you another peacock, this time alongside other birds, among them a hoopoe and a jay, in a cutting from a gospel lectionary of Pope Gregory XIII (Add MS 21412, f. 110r).

Border

Finally for our birds, how about a little swan-upmanship? This first swan with its noble beak is found in a 13th-century English bestiary (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 39v), and would have surely won the prize were it not for the magnificent illustration of the constellation 'Cygnus', made in 9th-century France (Harley MS 647, f. 5v).

Swan

647

When it comes to bees, we are also spoilt for choice. How about the beehives in an Italian herbal (Sloane MS 4016, f. 57v), with a duck in an English bestiary (Harley MS 3244, f. 57v), or with the bear looking suspiciously like a medieval Winnie the Pooh (Harley MS 3448, f. 10v)?

Hive

Hive1

3448

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

25 July 2019

Marvellous monsters

Add comment

Medieval writers typically relied on Classical texts for their knowledge of the world beyond Europe. The Roman and Greek sources which they consulted informed them that legendary people inhabited distant regions. One of the most influential works was the Natural History of the Roman author Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79). Pliny described people with the heads of dogs (Cynamolgi) and four feet (Artabatiae) in Ethiopia, and with horses’ hooves as feet (Hippopodes) in the Baltic.

Image 1 - Pliny  Naturalis Historia

A hybrid figure in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century): Arundel MS 98, f. 85v

The Classical 'monstrous' people also feature in the Etymologies of the Spanish author Isidore of Seville (570–636). Isidore, who considered such strange beings to be signs of God, claimed that Libya was home to the Blemmyae, a headless people who had their mouths and eyes in their chest, and the Antipodes (‘opposite-footed’), a people whose feet pointed upward. In India, Isidore located the dog-headed people called Cynocephali (‘dog-headed’) and the Cyclopes (‘round-eyed’), a people with one eye in the middle of their foreheads. Ethiopia was supposedly inhabited by the Sciapodes ('shade-footed'), having a single leg with a large foot which they used to shade under during extreme heat.

Image 2 - Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville depicted at the opening of the Etymologiae (France, 4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 15603, f. 1r

Tales of marvellous inhabitants were often included in descriptions of the regions outside Europe. For example, the early 8th-century Cosmography, a fictitious travelogue of a certain ‘Aethicus Ister’, reported that a dog-headed people lived on a northern island above Britain. In Scythia, female warriors known as Amazons reared the cubs of minotaurs (half-man, half-bull) and centaurs (half-man, half-horse) and trained them to fight in war.

Image 3 - Minotaur Cubs in the Cosmographia

‘In solitudinibus catulos minotauros invenisse’ (‘[The Amazons] discovered minotaur cubs in deserted places’, trans. by Michael W. Herren, Cosmography (2011), p. 157), in the Cosmographia (France or England, early 12th century): Harley MS 3859, f. 273r

Testament to the popularity of these tales is a 12th-century Bible from Arnstein Abbey in Germany (Harley MS 2799). On a page that was originally left blank have been drawn seventeen legendary people, including the Cynocephali, Cyclopes, Blemmyae (first row), and Sciapods (third row).

Image 4 - Monstrous Races in the Arnstein Bible

Legendary people added to the Arnstein Bible (Germany, c. 1172): Harley MS 2799, f. 243r

The existence of strange peoples became a popular theme in medieval accounts of Christian conversion. These works signalled that, if even 'monsters' could be taught Christianity, there should be no reason why the entire world could not be converted as well. The so-called Letter of Prester John is an example of this: it purports to be a letter from a priest named John addressed to Manuel of Constantinople and Frederick Barbarossa in 1163. The priest claims to govern a powerful kingdom in India, filled with gold and jewels, and inhabited by strange creatures that have converted to Christianity. The letter claims that the kingdom has:

‘sagitarii, homines agrestes, homines cornuti, fauni, satiri et mulieres eiusdem generis, pigmei, cenocephali, gygantes, quorum altitudo est quadraginta cubitorum, monoculi, cyclopes et a vis, quae vocactur fenix, et fere omne genus animailum, quae sub caelo sunt’.

(‘archers [i.e. centaurs], savage men, horned men, fauns, satyrs and women of the same race, pygmies, dog-headed men, giants whose height is 40 cubits, one-eyed men, cyclopses and a bird which is called ‘phoenix’, and almost every kind of animal which is under heaven’, trans. by Keagan Brewer, Prester John (2015), p. 69)

Image 5 - Monstrous Races in the Letter of Prester John

Unusual races listed in the Letter of Prester John (London, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Add MS 14252, f. 92v

The association between monstrous people and conversion to Christianity perhaps explains why the artist of an early 13th-century English Psalter (Arundel MS 157) chose to paint a figure that looks like a Sciapod at the opening line of Psalm 84:5: ‘Converte nos, Deus salutaris noster’ (‘Convert us, God our saviour’). However, the Sciapod — who appears to be lying upside down in order to find shade under his foot — could also be a pun on the Psalm verse, since the Latin word convertere can be translated both as ‘convert’ and ‘turn upside-down’.

Image 6 - Sciapod in Arundel MS 157

A ‘converted’ Sciapod (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Arundel MS 157, f. 182v

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

 

21 July 2019

The first man on the Moon

Add comment

This weekend, the world is remembering Apollo 11, the first Moon landing, and the two astronauts who first stepped unto the lunar surface on 21 July 1969. Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to walk on another astronomical body, in what was to become one of the most earth-shaking events of the 20th century.

While Armstrong and Aldrin were the first humans on the Moon, there is a figure in medieval literature who may have got there first, around Easter 1300.* In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri describes his fantastical journey down into the nine circles of Hell, upwards on the Mount of Purgatory, and away through the spheres of Heaven: from Inferno to Purgatorio and into Paradiso. Written in Italian in the early 14th century, Dante’s Comedy is one of the most influential poems of all time, a synthesis of medieval culture, science, philosophy, theology, scholarship and political science.

[* Nor should we forget Chang'e 嫦娥, the Chinese goddess of the Moon, who, according to legend, has been living there for some 4,000 years.]

In the Comedy, Dante-the-pilgrim travels through the afterworlds in search of self-knowledge and truth, driven by the desire for union with the divine. Passing through Hell and Purgatory, he is ready to ascend to the stars in Heaven, guided and instructed by the fascinating figure of Beatrice. Dante’s complex Heaven is made out of concentric spheres, each corresponding to a heavenly body in the cosmological system inherited from classical antiquity and modified by Christian thought. Outside the seven planetary spheres (including the Sun in this geocentric model), there is the sphere of the fixed stars, the first mover and the Empyrean, enclosing all the others but lying beyond time and space. To arrive there, the pilgrim must first pass through the sphere of the Moon, located closest to Earth.

Figure1

This diagram shows the structure of the Universe according to the Ptolemaic geocentric model. Earth is surrounded by the nine heavenly circles: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Fixed Stars and First Mover: Harley MS 3647, f. 22v

Dante’s launch from the Earth’s atmosphere opens Paradiso, the third and last section of the Divine Comedy. Comparing his journey upwards to sailing a little ship into the unknown, he explains in classicizing language that he is the first on this kind of mission. In Allen Mandelbaum’s translation:

The waves I take were never sailed before;
Minerva breathes, Apollo pilots me,
and the nine Muses show to me the Bears.
(Paradiso, 2.7–9)

Figure2

Fly me to the Moon: Dante and Beatrice launch towards the Moon in this Tuscan manuscript of the Divine Comedy from around 1444: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 131r

Dante is on his own Apollo mission to the stars. Illustrated manuscripts of the Divine Comedy typically depict his journey as a flight upwards. The Moon is usually identified by its colour and partial phase, to distinguish it from other celestial bodies. In a manuscript painted in Florence in the 1440s (Yates Thompson MS 36), Dante’s lunar mission is remarkably faithful to the poetic text quoted above: the illustration depicts the boat sailing away from familiar, agricultural shores, while Minerva blows from a cloud. The pilgrim is being led by the figure of Apollo, as the chorus-like group of Muses point towards a star (presumably the Northern Star).

Dante’s first stop on the Moon is a giant leap of imagination, but a small step in the traveller’s consciousness, as he instantanously makes a landing:

Beatrice gazed upward. I watched her.
But in a span perhaps no longer than
an arrow takes to strike, to fly, to leave

the bow, I reached a place where I could see
that something wonderful drew me; and she
from whom my need could not be hidden, turned

to me (her gladness matched her loveliness):
“Direct your mind to God in gratefulness,”
she said; “He has brought us to the first star.” (Paradiso 2.22–30)

Propelled by love, Dante’s imaginative mind-capsule lands on the surface of the Moon, whereupon he starts inquiring about the nature of the ‘dark spots’ on the lunar surface. In his own, inquisitive way, Dante-the-traveller is collecting information about the Moon. Armstrong and Aldrin brought 21kg of lunar material back to Earth. Dante gathered information which he took with him to Mercury, his next stop.

Figure3

Beatrice teaches Dante about moonspots; the landscape looks strangely lunar: Egerton MS 943, f. 131r

Figure4

Burning with the desire to know more, Dante reaches the Moon, where the blessed can answer his questions: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 132r

The year before Apollo 11, three astronauts travelled to the Moon, orbited it, and returned safely to Earth. One of them, William Anders, took a famous photograph of the Earth from the lunar orbit known as Earthrise. Dante took no photographs on his interstellar voyage, but he left us a poetic description of Earth from the heaven of the fixed stars, outside the planetary spheres:

And all the seven heavens showed to me
their magnitudes, their speeds, the distances
of each from each. The little threshing floor

that so incites our savagery was all —
from hills to river mouths — revealed to me
while I wheeled with eternal Gemini. (Paradiso 21.148–153)

‘The little threshing floor’, the insignificant dot in the immensity of the cosmos, evokes in the reader of the Divine Comedy the same thoughts as Anders’ Earthrise photograph. The onward and upward quest of discovery and knowledge, whether medieval or modern, concludes with a gaze on ourselves and with an affirmation of responsibility for the future.

 

Cristian Ispir

20 July 2019

Art and science in Renaissance Italy

Add comment

Here at the British Library we’re big fans of Renaissance art and science. It’s the subject of our current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), and we also have a display about it in our permanent free exhibition space, The Treasures Gallery. Here’s a sneak peek of some of the beauties you can see in the Treasures display.

Early Renaissance Italy witnessed a remarkable flowering of the arts and sciences. Humanist scholars looked to medieval libraries to discover works from the past, which they copied, studied and developed in new ways. They were particularly interested in discovering classical works of ancient Greek and Roman culture, building on the movement to recover classical texts that had been taking place since the 12th century. But they were also stimulated by works of medieval science, both from the Latin and Arabic traditions.

medieval manuscript with pictures of brightly coloured plants and annotations.
Codex Bellunensis, North-East Italy, early 15th century: Add MS 41623, ff. 35v–36r

 

The increased study of plants during the Renaissance lead towards the development of the modern field of botany. In medieval Europe, knowledge about plants and their medicinal properties was transmitted in illustrated manuscripts known as herbals. They were based on ancient Latin and Greek sources, compiled and updated by medieval scholars. In the Renaissance, people started to revise herbals based on first-hand examinations of plants. This manuscript, known as the Codex Bellunensis, is largely an adaptation of the ancient work on medicinal plants, De Materia Medica by the Greek physician Dioscorides. But it also includes observations of local flora, in this case from the lower Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy. On the left is the earliest known representation of the plant edelweiss, shown alongside eupatorium, agrimony and valerian.

A medieval manuscript showing a text page with geometric diagrams in the lower margin.
De aspectibus, a Latin translation of Ibn al-Haytham’s Kitāb al-Manāẓir, Italy, late 14th century: Royal MS 12 G VII, ff. 36v–37r

Renaissance scholars also looked to the Arabic world as a source of knowledge. This manuscript contains De aspectibus, a Latin translation of Kitāb al-Manāẓir (Book of Optics) by the 11th-century Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, known in Latin as Alhazen. This work was the first to systematically demonstrate that vision is the result of light reflecting off objects and entering the eye. The book also includes ‘Alhazen's problem’, a mathematical problem concerning the reflection of light from spherical mirrors that was not solved algebraically until 1965. Translated into Latin around 1200, the work was carefully studied by western thinkers such as Roger Bacon (c.1219/20–c.1292) and Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519). The pages shown here examine the subject of binocular vision, with the diagrams illustrating how the visual axes of the two eyes, labelled ‘a’ and ‘g’, intersect.

 

Medieval manuscript showing a text page with a picture of two bears on either side of a snake, with dots of gold representing stars
Aratea, a Latin translation by Germanicus of Aratus’ Phaenomena, Florence, 1465–1475: Add MS 15819, ff. 5v–6r

The Aratea is a poem about the ancient constellations and their mythological origins. It was originally written in Greek by the ancient poet Aratus in the 3rd century BC. This particular Latin translation was made in around AD 14–19 by the Roman general Germanicus, who was the nephew of the emperor Tiberius, the father of Caligula and the grandfather of Nero, no less. The poem was an important source for the study of astronomy throughout the Middle Ages, but the humanist interest in rediscovering authentic classical texts led to a surge in its popularity in 15th-century Italy. This copy belonged to Francesco Sassetti of Florence (1421–90), a prominent banker for the Medici family. The pages on display describe and illustrate the constellations closest to the north celestial pole, Ursa Major (the Great Bear), Ursa Minor (the Lesser Bear), and Draco.

To see these manuscripts in person, come and visit the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. To learn even more about Renaissance achievements in art and science, don’t miss our current exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion at the British Library from 7 June until 8 September 2019.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval