THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

16 January 2019

The Southwark Hours: a new acquisition

The British Library is pleased to announce its recent acquisition of an illuminated medieval manuscript, the Southwark Hours, now Add MS 89309. It is now fully digitised and is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery for all to admire.

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Christ in Majesty with the Evangelist symbols: Add MS 89309, f. 94r

The manuscript is a Book of Hours, made in Paris in the last quarter of the 14th century. Books of Hours contained sets of prayers for reading at different ‘hours’ of the day and night. Spanning the divides of gender, age and status, they were the most popular books owned by laypeople in the late Middle Ages. The Southwark Hours is a particularly fine example. Its pages are festooned with ivy-leaf borders glittering with gold, and its major prayers are headed with delicate illuminations attributed to the ‘Ravenelle Master’. For its patron, most likely a French noblewoman, it would have been an invaluable aid to piety as well as a beautiful book.

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The Entombment: Add MS 89309, f. 215v

We can catch a glimpse of this mystery patroness within the manuscript’s pages. The prayer for the final hour of the day (Compline) in the set of prayers known as the Hours of the Passion is accompanied by an image of the Entombment of Christ. In the image, Christ’s dead body is laid out on his tomb by two pall-bearers, while the Virgin Mary, St John, St Mary Magdalene and two other holy women gather in mourning. The woman who kneels praying in the foreground is almost certainly a portrait of the manuscript’s original owner. Her insertion into the Passion scene evokes the intimate and emotional experience that she hoped to achieve through her prayers.

The head and shoulders of the same woman also appear within a decorated initial at the opening of the Penitential Psalms, beneath a miniature of Christ in Majesty (f. 94r), pictured above. She gazes at the words from Psalm 6: ‘Domine ne in furore tuo arguas me neque in ira tua corripias me’ (O Lord, rebuke me not in thy indignation, nor chastise me in thy wrath), while the illuminated figure of Christ looks down at her.

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The Annunciation: Add MS 89309, f. 20r

The most impressive page in a Book of Hours is usually the opening prayer for the first hour of the day (Matins) in the Hours of the Virgin — a series of prayers addressed to the Virgin Mary that were central to any Book of Hours. True to tradition, the Southwark Hours opens this prayer with an exquisite illumination of the Annunciation.

It is apparent that before the arrival of the angel, the Virgin Mary had been reading studiously. Looking closely, we can read her open book, ‘Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium’ (Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son; Isaiah 7:14), and so discover that she is studying the Old Testament text that prophesies about her own important role in salvation history. She kneels on a sumptuous blue cloth patterned with golden stars, recalling her epithet as ‘Stella Maris’ (star of the sea). The vase of lilies in front of her symbolises virginity.

In contrast with the Virgin Mary’s serene stillness, the angel Gabriel makes a dramatic entrance from the upper left. One foot trails out of frame and one peacock-feather wing projects in front of the frame, giving the impression of immediacy and movement. Gabriel’s gracefully looping scroll bears the prayer ‘Ave Maria’ (Hail Mary; based on Luke 1:28 and 42). Meanwhile, God the Father presides in the upper corner and the dove of the Holy Spirit descends. The scroll of musical notation carried by the three angels in the upper border encourages us to imagine divine music accompanying the scene, while the scroll-bearing prophets in the lower margin prefigure this momentous event.

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The Deposition: Add MS 89309, f. 210v

The manuscript formerly was on long-term loan from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark (Loan MS 85/4). Mgr Matthew Dickens, the Vicar General & Chancellor & Trustee of the Archdiocese of Southwark, commented: ‘We are delighted that the British Library has been able to acquire for its permanent collection the Southwark Book of Hours. This is a particularly fine example of illuminated manuscripts of this period and it is right and proper that it should be held in a major national collection, to be enjoyed by the public and to be available for scholarly research. I should like to thank the British Library staff and donors who have made this acquisition possible.’

Dr Kathleen Doyle, the British Library’s Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, said: ‘I am delighted that the Southwark Hours is joining the Library's remarkable collection of illuminated manuscripts, including treasures of French illumination and Books of Hours from across Europe.  The manuscript is an important witness of the Ravenelle Painter’s work, and one of only two that indicates that the he worked for aristocratic female patrons.’ We are grateful to the Friends of the British Library for their assistance in funding this acquisition.

The manuscript is now on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library, together with another manuscript (Add MS 35215) and two printed Books of Hours, to allow visitors to compare the similarities and differences between the same text in different media.

 

Eleanor Jackson

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15 January 2019

Gorgeous manuscripts galore

One of our favourite online resources is the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. It has recently been updated to include fifteen new manuscripts and lots more images.

The Stavelot Missal

You can already view the enormous 11th-century Stavelot Bible on our Digitised Manuscripts website (Add MS 28106 and Add MS 28107). Two more manuscripts from the Benedictine abbey of Stavelot, in the diocese of Liège, have now been added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

This 13th-century missal is bound in two volumes (Add MS 18031 and Add MS 18032). The litany of saints includes St Remaclus, patron of the abbey, and a notice of the dedication of the monastery ('Dedicatio Stabulensis ecclesie') on the calendar page for June. The manuscript's 14th- or 15th-century additions include a mass for St Poppo of Stavelot and the feast of Thomas Becket, inserted in  the calendar (f. 13v).

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The Crucifixion with Mary and John, from the ‘Stavelot Missal’, volume I: Add MS 18031, f. 18v. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here, together with the second volume.

 

A Psalter from Stavelot

This early Psalter with a Latin commentary is one of a group of manuscripts produced at Stavelot around the year 1000 and illuminated in the distinct Mosan style.

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David and Goliath in the Stavelot Psalter: Add MS 18043, f. 64v. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

The Gospels from Tours

Tours was an important centre of Carolingian manuscript production in the 9th century. The style of decoration of this gospel-book is Franco-Saxon, combining elements of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon decoration, including a distinctive combination of orange-red and gold. This framed incipit page includes display capitals in gold on purple grounds.

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Incipit page of the Gospel of Mark: Add MS 11849, f. 72r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

Isidore’s Etymologies

This manuscript of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies was made at Neuvelle-lès-la-Charité in eastern France in the 4th quarter of the 12th century. The decorated page below contains a consanguinity diagram, showing which family members were deemed to be too closely-related to marry by the medieval Church. The entwined foliage with the tendrils held by human figures represents the blood ties between family members, and there are strange hybrid creatures at the three points of the triangle.

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Consanguinity diagram from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies: Add MS 15603, f. 93r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

Cicero

This 12th-century manuscript, made in the southern Netherlands or northern France, contains Marcus Tullius Cicero’s De inventione, a handbook on how to be a good public speaker. It is followed by the Rhetorica ad Herennium, the most popular work on rhetoric throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. These two texts were often copied together and were used to teach rhetoric in a structured and disciplined way.

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Cicero seated holding a scroll reading 'Marci Tulii liber primus incipit': Add MS 16984, f. 3r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

The Sherborne Cartulary

This collection of royal, papal and episcopal charters contains a number of letters written by Anglo-Saxon kings (Edgar, Æthelred and Cnut). The volume also contains a series of liturgical texts including accounts of the Passion of Christ, with portraits of St Mark and St John.

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St John the Evangelist, from the Sherborne Cartulary: Add MS 46487, f. 52v. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

These two Psalters, both produced in the latter part of the 12th century, have a similar layout. The text of the Psalms in the central column is surrounded by a gloss or commentary, and there are large decorated initials marking the beginning of the major Psalms. However, the style of illumination points to different areas of origin: the first in England or northern France, and the second in southern Germany or eastern France.

An English or French Psalter

This elegant Psalter was made in the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century. It begins with a large, illuminated initial that includes pictures of David and of Christ preaching to a group of men.  

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Beatus initial from a Psalter: Add MS 17392, f. 1r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

A glossed Psalter

The gloss in this 12th-century Psalter is attributed to the circle of Anselm of Laon (d. 1117). Added on the last leaf, in contemporary script, is a tract on curing haemorrhoids (f. 196r).

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Decorated initial from a Psalter: Add MS 18298, f. 143v. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

A Psalter of the Use of York

This late 12th- or early 13th-century Psalter was possibly made for the Augustinian abbey of Bourne in the diocese of Lincoln, since additions in the calendar include Abbot Henry of Bourne and Hugh of Lincoln. It seems to have been owned later by a Cistercian monastery, because 15th-century additions to the calendar include the feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux and other saints venerated by that Order. It has large gold and coloured initials at the beginning of major Psalms, many of them with animal heads and bodies entwined in the foliage.

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Zoomorphic initial from a Psalter: Add MS 38819, f. 70r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

The Percy Psalter

The 13th-century Percy Psalter is thought to originate from York. It has beautiful illuminated initials, while the borders contain mythical beasts and graphic hunting scenes. Unicorns were believed to be symbols of purity and grace, which only a virgin could capture; in order to hunt one successfully, it first had to be tamed by a young girl before being killed, as shown here. At the top of this page is the pelican biting its breast to revive its young. The initial depicts David pointing to his mouth, showing that he will avoid 'sinning with the tongue' (Psalm 38).

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The beginning of Psalm 38, from the Percy Psalter: Add MS 70000, f. 55r.

 

Old Testament from Genesis to Ruth

This is the first volume of another large Bible (in five volumes), produced in the Meuse valley around 1430. It belonged to the Benedictine abbey of St James, Liège, whose coat of arms and motto (‘CONSTANTER AD ASTRA’) is pasted on the spine. The opening page for Genesis has roundels of the seven days of Creation, marginal figures of angels with scrolls containing quotes from Augustine, and paired pagan and Christian philosophers These include Augustine with his attribute of a heart, Albertus Magnus in discussion with Averroes, and Old Testament figures including Melchisedek.

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The beginning of the Old Testament: Add MS 15254, f. 13r.

 

A religious miscellany

This miscellany of religious tracts, offices, prayers and meditations was compiled between the 13th century and the 15th century. Some of its texts are connected with Ely Priory, such as a metrical epitaph for Alan of Walsingham, prior of Ely (d. c. 1364). It also includes a story of the Virgin teaching a new Latin prayer, Missus est angelus, to a canon named Arnaud. The large puzzle initial below marks the beginning of a prayer to the patron saint of a church.

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Puzzle initial in a miscellany: Add MS 33381, f. 128r.

 

Chantry Westwell

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11 January 2019

Audio description tour of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

On 17 January, the British Library is hosting an audio description tour of our landmark Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. This tour is designed specifically for blind and partially sighted visitors, and it will be delivered and audio-described by a member of the Medieval Manuscripts team who contributed to the preparation of the exhibition. 

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Among the items we will be introducing to our visitors are Spong Man, Codex Amiatinus, the Stockholm Codex Aureus, the Judith of Flanders Gospels and Domesday Book. The exhibition has received rave reviews and is already one of the most successful shows ever mounted by the British Library.

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Spong Man, on loan to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms from Norfolk Museums Service

 

One free ticket for a companion is available per visitor. Guide and assistance dogs are welcome. If you require any other support, or have other access requirements for this tour, please contact learning@bl.uk or phone +44 (0)20 7412 7797. The tour is free with an exhibition ticket.

 

Audio description tour of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

The British Library

17 January

18:00–19:00

 

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