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

20 August 2019

A medieval guide to predicting your future

How can you predict the future, interpret your dreams, and protect yourself against harm? Some of the manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project have the answer. Many medieval manuscripts include charms, which seek to influence events through the use of words and ritual actions, and prognostics, which predict what will happen. These were usually created and written down by people who knew the church liturgy well and had a deep understanding of the changes of the Moon and the seasons. You can read more about medieval knowledge of such natural phenomena in our article about medieval science.

Page from a medieval manuscript listing months followed by numbers
'On the bad days and which months they are from', Winchester, 3rd quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII, f. 9r

Some particularly intriguing Old English charms and prognostics appear in the opening leaves of an 11th-century Psalter (Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII). These include a list of ‘bad days’ in every month on which nothing you begin will be ended, which are calculated by counting how many days it has been since the last New Moon (the night on which the Moon is on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, making it invisible).

So in case you have any important projects coming up, the text reveals that in August these are the 8th and 13th nights of the Moon (counting the night of the New Moon as the first), in September they are the 5th and the 9th nights of the Moon, in October they are the 5th and the 15th nights, November the 7th and 9th nights, and in December the 3rd and 13th nights. So for the UK in 2019, these translate into the following calendar dates: 8th and 13th of August, 3rd and 7th of September, 2nd and 7th October, 3rd, 5th and 28th of November, and 8th December. Best not to start your projects on these days!

(You can calculate the unlucky dates for any place and year using an online Moon phases calendar).

A page from a medieval manuscript containing a charm
'On theft', from Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, Winchester, third decade of the 11th century: Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 79v

If one of your treasured belongs has gone astray, you might find this Latin charm from a collection of liturgical, scientific and prognostic texts useful (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI). The charm claims to reveal the identity of a thief: 'If you have lost something, write these letters on a blank sheet and place it under your head in the night when you sleep, and you will see him who has taken it from you'. Then it provides a group of letters and symbols for you to copy out.

But if you dream about something else, the prognostic on f. 9r-v might help. A dream which takes place on the 1st night of the New Moon pertains to joy, a dream on the 11th night will be without danger, and whatever you dream about on the 7th night will happen after a long time.

Prognostics could also foretell the course of a person’s life. A text on ff. 7v-8r claims to tell a person’s future based on how many days after the New Moon they were born. For example, we learn that whoever is born on the 21st night of the New Moon will be an ingenious robber, someone born on the 10th will travel around many places, but someone born on the 2nd will merely be 'mediocris' (average)!

A page from a medieval manuscript containing a charm
'Names to protect against a king or emperor', perhaps written in Bréziers, Southern France, 12th century: Egerton MS 821, f. 59v

Another manuscript in the collection is wholly composed of prognostics and charms (Egerton MS 821). One of these is a list of names that you should think through in your mind when in the presence of a king or emperor to work against his power: ‘in axbidino . henonia . adonay, sabaot iactriel. sa. adonai. eloym. hagai’.

If you wish to foretell the outcome of a fight, f. 40r instructs you to count the letters in the combatants' names, add five to whichever is the longer, and deduct ten. If the resulting numbers are equal, the one with the longer name will win; but if they are unequal, the one with the longer name will be beaten. It’s oddly reminiscent of the games that many of us used to play as children: by counting the number of letters in someone’s name, or by drawing a spiral and counting the number of lines in it, you can find out what your future is. Perhaps those fortune-telling games have been circulating for much longer than we think!

Kate Thomas

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18 August 2019

What is a bestiary?

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

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17 August 2019

In August, in a high season: the wondrous Pearl

You may be forgiven (especially if you're currently in London) that it's August, traditionally the time of the harvest and school summer holidays. This also happens to be the moment when Pearl, one of the masterpieces of Middle English literature, is set: 'in Augoste, in a hy seysone'.

The text of Pearl
The opening page of the Pearl poem (f. 43r)

Pearl was composed in the West Midlands region of England at the end of the 14th century. It survives in a single manuscript, held at the British Library, which also contains the unique copies of Patience, Cleanness and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Cotton MS Nero A X/2). You can view all four poems in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and you can also read about Pearl on Discovering Literature: Medieval.

Pearl is a moving work about grief and loss. The narrator, distraught at the loss of his ‘perle’, falls asleep and wakes in a garden with a jewelled stream. Looking across the stream he sees a beautiful maiden in white robes stitched with pearls. After a time, he realises that this woman is his dead two-year-old daughter. They engage in a discussion, as he attempts to reconcile his grief for her. The poem culminates in a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, derived from the Book of Revelation, in which the dreamer sees his daughter as a bride of Christ.

The dreamer
The dreamer in the garden by the stream (f. 41r)
The dreamer
The dreamer beside the stream (f. 41v)

One of the most distinctive features of the manuscript is its cycle of illustrations, which were added to pages which had previously been left blank. The quality of this imagery has often been the subject of adverse comment, since they are not the work of an outstanding artist. We often feel, however, that they lend the poems their own idiosyncratic character, since every person has the same facial features and hairstyle, and the same simple palette of red, green, blue, yellow and white is used throughout.

The dreamer and Pearl
The dreamer sees a vision of Pearl as a grown woman (f. 42r)
The dreamer and Pearl in the garden
The vision of the heavenly Jerusalem (f. 42v)

The Pearl-manuscript is undeniably one of the jewels in the Library's medieval collections. We'd like to think that you might wish to read and re-read it, gazing upon the original handwriting and images, while sitting in your garden, sipping a cool drink, or else (more likely) sheltering indoors from the August rain. A high season indeed!

A text page of Pearl
The second page of the poem (f. 43v)
The text of Pearl
'In Augoste, in a hy seysone' (f. 43v)

Pearl and the other poems are available on Digitised Manuscripts (Cotton MS Nero A X/2).

 

Julian Harrison

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16 August 2019

The longest papyrus

There are lots of fabulous things to see in our exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, ranging from an early homework book (on a wax tablet) to an entire manuscript written in Tironian notes. One of our star exhibits is also one of the largest, namely the Ravenna Papyrus, the longest intact papyrus held at the British Library.

Detail of the Ravenna Papyrus
Detail of the Ravenna Papyrus: Add MS 5412

Measuring 224 cm (long) by 20 cm (wide), the Ravenna Papyrus (Add MS 5412) records a sale of land in the 7th year of the reign of Justin II the Younger (AD 572) by Domninus, a hayward (agellarius) from Cesena, to a court officer named Deusdedit. Domninus agreed to sell five-twelfths of a small estate called Custinis and two-twelfths of a farmhouse called Bassianum, for the price of five gold solidi. Five witnesses signed the deed, that is, Pascalis, Eugenius, Moderatus, Andreas and Vitalis, while the notary (forensis) was named Flavius Iohannis. The document can be viewed in its glorious entirety on the Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

One significant feature of this papyrus, aside from its great length, is its handwriting. Flavius Iohannis, the notary, wrote a professional and rapid form of the script known as New Roman Cursive. This was the administrative script of Late Antiquity, first attested in the late 3rd century, and characterised by the introduction of lower-case forms and time-saving devices such as loops. The five witnesses also wrote in the same script: the handwriting of Pascalis and Moderatus is upright and slow in execution, while that of Eugenius is more rapid and rounded. Andreas’s hand is equally rapid but inclined to the right; Vitalis used a more rough form of this script.

The handwriting of the Ravenna Papyrus
The Ravenna Papyrus bears witness to the handwriting of several scribes, all of whom wrote differing forms of New Roman Cursive

In the Middle Ages this document was held in the archbishop’s archive at Ravenna. At the beginning of the 18th century it came into the hands of Giusto Fontanini of Rome (d. 1736), and after his death it passed to Ludovico Zucconi of Venice from whom it was bought for the Pinelli Library in Venice. On the occasion of the sale of the Pinelli library on 2 March 1789, it was acquired for the British Museum Library. We are delighted that so many visitors have been able to examine it in person this summer in Writing: Making Your Mark, and we hope that you also enjoy the opportunity to view it online.

 

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August 2019.

The Ravenna Papyrus (Add MS 5412) is available in full on Digitised Manuscripts.

12 August 2019

Note-worthy connections: antique shorthand in Carolingian books

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

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10 August 2019

Summer caption competition

Add comment Comments (17)

We hope you're all having a lovely summer, wherever you are. If you're in the mood to unwind and relax, why not take part in our (semi-)regular caption competition? This image is taken from the sensational Silos Apocalypse (Add MS 11695, f. 170r), dating from the turn of the 11th/12th century. You can view it in full and for free online here.

What is going on in this picture? There are no prizes, but you can send your suggestions as a comment at the foot of this post, or by Twitter to @BLMedieval. We always love readibg the witty ideas you come up with!

Add_ms_11695_f170r

07 August 2019

Holiday reading matter

Are you looking for something to read over the holiday season? Then look no further than some of the books which have accompanied our major exhibitions, ranging from Writing: Making Your Mark to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.

Writing

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August. The book, featuring contributions by the exhibition curators and other experts, is available from the Library shop (hardback £30). 

Leo

The exhibition book for Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, edited by guest curator Juliana Barone, is also available from our shop (£20), and is written by leading Leonardo scholars from across Italy, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Ask

The catalogue for our stupendous Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition (which ended earlier this year), edited by Claire Breay and Jo Story, is still available in paperback (£25).

Hpbook

Finally, if Harry Potter is your thing, why not indulge yourself in a copy of the book written especially for Harry Potter: A History of Magic? Published by Bloomsbury in association with the British Library, the version designed especially for younger audiences can be purchased here (£9.99).

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August 2019.

The run of Leonardo: A Mind in Motion extends until 8 September 2019.

 

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04 August 2019

The birds and the bees

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

 

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