Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


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

12 August 2017

Guess the song 2

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After last week's fantastic effort from our readers, the Guess the Song Competition™ is back! The rules are simple: can you guess the song from the medieval manuscript images below?

So how does it work? These manuscript illuminations make up the lyrics to a classic song. If you're in the mood, try to guess the artist and song title. We'd love you to send us your answers via Twitter (did we ever mention we're on Twitter?) or using the comments page below this post. We’ll endeavour to retweet and publish the best answers, especially the ones that most amuse us.

Update (21 August): the answer is given below, but don't cheat!

Image 1_sloane_ms_981_f068r

Image 1, from a medical miscellany, last quarter of the 14th or first quarter of the 15th century, Sloane MS 981, f. 68r


Image 2_add_ms_47682_f033v

Image 2, from the Holkham Bible Picture Book, c. 1327–1335, Add MS 47682, f. 33v


Image 3_royal_ms_12_c_xix_f045r

Image 3, from a bestiary with theological tracts, c. 1200–c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 45r


Add MS 42130 f. 160r detail

Image 4, from the Luttrell Psalter, 1325–1340, Add MS 42130, f. 160r


Image 4_sloane_ms_4016_f096r

Image 5, from a herbal, c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 96r



1. Eye  2. Shroud  3.  Bee  4. Slow  5. Lucky  = 'I Should Be So Lucky' by Kylie Minogue (corny, we know!

10 August 2017

Pouncing beasts

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You are turning the pages of an ancient and beautiful manuscript. It is about the size of a modern A4 volume, although wholly different in smell (parchment has the kind of ineffable musk that makes fans of history swoon), appearance (it is bound in leather with handwritten text on its parchment pages), and weight (all that wood and animal skin adds up).

In almost every direction there are pen drawings of animals. The pictures are lively, sometimes with whole scenes showing creatures performing seemingly bizarre acts: a self-castrating beaver; a colourful tiger staring at a disk. What is more, nearly all these images are outlined with little pin holes. The book is an important member of an entertaining category of medieval illuminated manuscript: the bestiary. Those pin holes are also crucial, since they indicate that at some stage someone may have copied the images in this book.

Add ms 11283 f.22v 023r

Close scribal and artistic collaboration would have been necessary to produce pages like this double-spread showing images of birds: Add MS 11283, ff. 22v–23r

Bestiary texts offer animal-lore as a source of allegorical lessons for moral spiritual guidance. The earliest bestiary manuscripts date to the beginning of the 12th century. They were made throughout North-Western Europe, but the genre flourished most in England, eventually declining in popularity in the late 13th and 14th centuries. It may not surprise you to learn that bestiary images of animals were not drawn from nature, but from established artistic conventions.

This particular book has 102 images, drawn in pen and occasionally coloured. They would have been inserted after the text was written, so the scribe left gaps for the artist to fill.

Add ms 11283 f.4v detail

A beaver self-castrates to escape a hunter, Add MS 11283, f. 4v

Here we can see a beaver fleeing a hunter. It has removed and dropped its testicles — valued for their medicinal properties — in order to save its own life. This alarming depiction provided an allegorical model for the moral lesson that humans should cast away their vices to give the Devil no cause to pursue them.

Add ms 11283 f.2r

A colourful tiger nurses its own reflection, believing it has found its stolen cub, Add MS 11283, f. 2r

On another page we see the sad plight of the tiger. It is coloured with blue, green and red circles and stripes, pawing a disk decorated with the same colours. A man on horseback rides away, carrying a colourful cub in his arms. The text explains that if someone steals the cub of a tiger and they are chased by its mother, she will be distracted if a circle of glass or mirror is thrown before her, mistaking her own reflection for the lost cub in order to nurse it.


If you are fond of wordplay, you may think it apt that as well as the prowling, prancing, crawling and flapping subjects of this manuscript, it also bears the marks of having been used for ‘pouncing’. Pouncing was a post-medieval way of copying of images. Lines of holes would be made around the picture into a sheet below. This would then be removed, held over the surface intended to receive the copy and dusted with powder such as chalk or charcoal. The outline of the first image would be quickly and effectively transferred onto the new surface.

Add MS 11283 f.11v pricking

This image of a group of hoofed animals may have been outlined with pin holes in order for it to be copied via a technique known as pouncing: Add MS 11283, f.11v

Just as medieval scribes could copy texts from ‘exemplars’ (another manuscript used as a model), so later artists could copy their images. At some point, the images of this bestiary were outlined with pin holes, probably to allow them to be copied. We do not know when these holes were made in this particular manuscript, but they typically date to the post-medieval period. It is poignant to think that these holes were left by someone who admired the images as much as us. 

Amy Jeffs

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Dans le nord-ouest de l’Europe, entre les XIIe et XIVe siècles, les bestiaires étaient un genre de manuscrits très populaire. Comme tous les bestiaires, Add MS 11283 décrit des animaux pour en tirer des leçons morales. Ce manuscrit est rempli d’illustrations amusantes : beaucoup d'images sont contourées avec des trous d'épingle, ce qui permettait de les transposer à l'aide d’un marquage au pochoir.

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08 August 2017

Illuminated manuscripts for polyglots

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Here at the British Library we have just completed our latest digitisation project, with over 100 manuscripts added to our website between January 2016 and July this year. The project, funded by a private donor, has focused on collection items in French and other European vernacular languages that are notable either for their illuminations or for texts of particular interest. A list of the manuscripts digitised in this project is available at online: Download French and Vernacular Illuminated project digitisation list. Here are examples of some of the most remarkable items from our collections newly available on Digitised Manuscripts.

God with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, surrounded by angels and cherubim, a winged woman with a crown addressing a council of the Church, the four Evangelists and scenes from the Old and New Testament in roundels, from the Bible Historiale, France, Central (Paris), c.1420, Add MS 18856, f. 3r

Manuscripts in French

Among the numerous French manuscripts digitised are the Library’s remaining copies of the Roman de la Rose, a popular French allegorical poem beginning with a dream-vision of love, and developed by a second author into a discussion of the philosophical and scientific knowledge of the day. There are now 14 copies of this very popular text on Digitised Manuscripts. For details of the Rose manuscripts in our collections, see our blogpost, ‘Everything’s coming up Roses’.

The Lover’s dream, from Roman de la Rose, France, Central? (Paris?), c. 1380, Add MS 31840, f. 3r

Some of the most beautifully-illuminated manuscripts in French tell familiar stories from the Bible and the classical past, allowing for imaginative depictions of well-known episodes and characters like Alexander the Great. The first image in this post is of a Bible Historiale, an illustrated collection of Bible stories and commentary. The Roman d’Alexandre is another example.


The coronation of Alexander and the wedding banquet of King Philip and Cleopatra, from the Roman d’Alexandre, Low Countries, 1st quarter of the 14th century. Harley MS 4979, f. 17v

Anglo-Norman is the version of French that evolved in England after the Norman Conquest, and in the 14th century it was still being used alongside Middle English and Latin. This volume is a compilation in all three languages, believed to have been produced in the Hereford area around 1320–1340, with an assortment of religious, mathematical, legal and astrological texts. This book is copied in an everyday cursive script with only minor decoration, but it is of great importance for the unique texts it contains, including the only known manuscript copy of the Romance of Fulk le Fitz-Warin, recipes in Anglo-Norman French and macaronic verses (with alternating lines in French, Latin and English).

Macaronic satirical verses from a prose and verse miscellany, England, Central (Hereford), 1st half of the 14th century, Royal MS 12 C XII, f. 7r

Manuscripts in Middle English

Manuscripts containing key Middle English texts have also been included in this project: we have digitised 8 of these, including works by Chaucer, Lydgate and Gower.

Detail of a miniature of the discovery of Edmund's head with a scroll with gold inscription 'heer heer herr', with a wolf guarding it, and a man blowing a horn, from John Lydgate's Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, between 1461 and c. 1475, England, S. E. (Bury St Edmunds?), Yates Thompson MS 47, f. 54r

A Carthusian anthology of theological works in English includes works on contemplation by Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle, 
'The myrroure of symple saules' a Middle English translation of a French text by Marguerite Porète, from the ‘Amherst Manuscript’, England, mid-15th century, Add MS 37790, f. 137r

Among the manuscripts digitised is a copy of the Canterbury Tales, with the spurious ‘Tale of Gamelyn’, not written by Chaucer, but of particular interest for the themes it shares with the contemporary Ballad of Robin Hood.

Prologue and opening lines of the Squire’s Tale from the Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, England; 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 1758, f. 68r


Manuscripts in other European vernacular languages featuring in the project include:

Middle Dutch

This version of the Medea legend in Middle Dutch has some extremely graphic images of Medea’s horrific actions and is followed by a work on the game of chess.

Jason, Creusa and her father, the King of Corinth are seated at the wedding table; Medea enters with four dragons and tears her son to pieces in front of them, from Medea and Dat Scaecspel (Chess Book) in Dutch, Add MS 10290, f. 138r 

Jacob van Maerlant’s Middle Dutch work, Der naturen bloeme (The Flower of Nature) is a natural encyclopaedia and bestiary in verse, written around 1270 at the request of the nobleman Nicolaas van Cats to contain all available knowledge about the natural world. Almost every page is illustrated, with some creatures more easily identifiable than others. This manuscript seems to have been a lending copy, and it is also notable for its book curse.

A page from Der Naturen Bloeme  featuring a steer, a mole and other creatures, c 1300–c 1325, Netherlands, Add MS 11390, f. 25v


Occitan (Langue d’Oc) and Catalan

The Breviari d’Amor, composed by Matfre Ermengaud in 1288–1292 in Occitan (or Langue d’Oc, the dialect of Southern France), is a poem containing a compendium of contemporary knowledge under the umbrella of faith, and seen as a manifestation of God’s love. Ermengaud describes himself as a senher en leys e d’amor sers, in other words a master or doctor of law but also a poet who serves the ideal of love.

The Tree of Love or 'Arbre d'Amor', with the figure of 'Amors Generals' at the centre, from the Breviari d’Amor in Occitan, early 14th century, France, S. (Toulouse?), Royal MS 19 C I, f. 11v

The work was adapted into Catalan prose. This magnificent copy comes from the collection of illuminated manuscripts formerly belonging to Henry Yates Thompson.  

The Offices of the Angels from the Breviari d’Amor in Catalan prose, Spain, E. (Catalonia, Gerona?); last quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 39v

Two other Yates Thompson manuscripts, MS 47 (see above) and MS 21, a copy of the Roman de la Rose have also now been digitised. For information on this collection, see the virtual exhibition in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.   

Mantuan dialect of Italian

The extremely influential scientific work, De proprietatibus rerum, was compiled in the 1240s by a Franciscan, Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman), for the instruction of his fellow Franciscans. This copy was translated from Latin into Mantuan for Guido dei Bonacolsi (d. 1309).

Map of the world, supported by Christ, with the Continents depicted as different buildings, from De proprietatibus rerum, Italy, N. (Manua), c 1300–1309, Add MS 8785, f. 315r

A home-grown alphabetical encyclopaedia in Latin

Encyclopaedias have been a theme running through this project: to the De nature and the Breviari above, we can add the Omne Bonum, a huge alphabetical reference work compiled in the 14th century by the Englishman James le Palmer, who was clerk of the Exchequer under Edward III. Most of the entries are illustrated.

‘Ebrietas’ (Drunkenness), from the Omne Bonum, England, S. E. (London), c. 1360–c. 1375,  Royal MS 6 E VII/1, f. 1r

For further details, see our recent blogpost that accompanied the digitisation of these manuscripts. 

lluminated Apocalypse Manuscripts

And last but not least, the Apocalypse (the biblical book of Revelation with a commentary) was among the most popular works of the medieval period, and numerous illustrated copies were produced in England. 11 manuscripts in Latin, French or Middle English, and some in dual-language versions, have been digitised in this project, so that all 20 illuminated copies of the Apocalypse in our collections are now online. See our recent blogpost ‘The End of the World as we know it’ for the complete list.

This copy is in three languages, with the main text in Latin, a verse translation and prose commentary in Anglo-Norman French and an added paraphrase in Middle English prose.

The dragon attacks the mother and child, from the Apocalypse in three languages, England, 2nd half of the 13th century, Add MS 18633, f. 22v

Chantry Westwell

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05 August 2017

Guess the song competition!

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Here at the British Library we are dedicated to coming up with silly entertaining highly educational competitions to entertain our readers, and today is no different! The rules are simple: can you guess the song from the images below?

The following manuscript illuminations make up the lyrics to a classic song, and we want you to get on your thinking caps (and dancing shoes) to guess the artist and song title. Answers via Twitter please or through the comments page below this post. We’ll retweet and publish correct (or the most amusing) answers.

Update: thank you to everyone who took part: the answers are below (no peaking).


Image 1

Image 1, from John Lydgate’s Troy Book and Siege of Thebes, 1457–c. 1530, Royal MS 18 D II, f. 30v


Image 2

Image 2, from the Coldingham Breviary, c. 1270-1280, Harley MS 4664, f. 125v


Image 3

Image 3, from the Chroniques of Jean Froissart (the ‘Harley Froissart’), c. 1470–1472, Harley MS 4380, f. 1r


Image 4

Image 4, from a devotional miscellany, first half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 745, f. 68v


Did you have fun figuring out the answer to our guess-the-song competition? Find the solution below, well done everyone for taking part and stay tuned to our Blog for more quizzes!

Image 1 Lyric: That big wheel keep on turning

Image 2 Lyric: Proud Mary

Image 3 Lyric: Keep on burning

Image 4 Lyric: Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river

Song and Artist: Proud Mary, by Creedence Clearwater Revival / Ike & Tina Turner


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03 August 2017

The beautiful Bosworth Psalter

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Have you ever wondered how medieval manuscripts get their modern names? Did you know, for instance, that the so-called 'Bosworth Psalter' (British Library Add MS 37517) isn't named after the Battle of Bosworth Field (give yourself an extra bonus point if you knew that took place on 22 August 1485) but is instead so known because it may once have been kept in the library at Bosworth Hall in Leicestershire?

The beautiful Bosworth Psalter has recently been digitised as part of The Polonsky England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. We're delighted that you can now explore it in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, where you can drool over its sublime decoration and sumptuous script. You can also learn more about Psalters and Psalter commentaries in the  'Glossed Psalters' article on the Polonsky Medieval England and France website.

The Beatus-initial (Beatus vir), which begins the book of Psalms. Add MS 37517, f. 4r. Possibly from Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 10th century.

The Bosworth Psalter is written in Latin, in one of the translations traditionally ascribed to St Jerome (d. 420). Over a period of nearly twenty-five years, St Jerome worked on translations of biblical texts from Greek and Hebrew into the Latin vernacular; he completed three versions or revisions of the Psalms. The first was made from the Greek Septuagint version, and is now commonly known as the Roman or Romanum Psalter because it was adopted by the church in Rome. One reason the Bosworth Psalter is so special is the purity of its text of St Jerome’s Roman version of the Psalms.

Beginning of Psalm 51 (52), Quid gloriaris. Add MS 37517, f. 33r.

The Psalter’s large initials together with multi-coloured script divide the text in three parts at Psalms 1, 51 and 101, in a division of the so-called ‘three fifties’ that is found in English, but not most Continental manuscripts. The scribe used initials with interlace decoration, some zoomorphic elements and capital letters of varying size and colour to enhance the importance of these pages. At the beginning of Psalm 101, the first letter ‘D’'(omine) (Lord) is enhanced by delicate foliate forms.

The beginning of Psalm 101 (102), Domine exaudi. Add MS 37517, f. 64v.

In addition to this threefold division, the other major divisions of a Psalter are also marked by large decorated initials, as in this initial for the beginning of Psalm 109, which in Benedictine monasteries is the Psalm sung at Vespers on Sundays.

The Bosworth Psalter was designed for use of a community following the Rule of St Benedict. In fact, it's the oldest English manuscript that includes all of the important texts of the Benedictine Office (Psalter, canticles, hymns and monastic canticles). 

Beginning of Psalm 109 (110), Dixit Dominus. Add MS 37517, f. 74r.

It is the earliest surviving manuscript of the 'New Hymnal' from England. This hymnal was developed on the Continent in the 9th century, and expanded the number of hymns used in monastic services. The greater diversification of hymns meant that monks were able to avoid daily repetition of same hymns. The practice of singing a much expanded variety of hymns spread to England with the English Benedictine Reform movement in the second half of the 10th century. Because of this inclusion, it is generally thought that the Bosworth Psalter was made in and for one of the monastic houses in Canterbury during the archiepiscopate of St Dunstan (r. 959–988), a prominent proponent of monastic reform in Anglo-Saxon England.

Beginning of the Hymnal. Add MS 37517, f. 105r.

The manuscript acquired different layers of additions: some pages are covered with Latin commentaries spreading from margin to margin.

Some pages are filled with commentaries in Latin. Add MS 37517, f. 52v

Another remarkable feature is that parts of the Psalter and some of the canticles were glossed with Old English words, written above the Latin text, in the early 11th century.

Beginning of Psalm 86 (85) Inclina domine aurem tuam ad me, with interlinear Old English gloss: onhyld drihten eare þin to me. Add MS 37517, f. 54v

We're sure you'd agree that the Bosworth Psalter is another superb addition to our Digitised Manuscripts collection. The magnificent artistry in the initials, and the importance of its text and annotations, make this a very special manuscript. Do go and explore this unique historical book online!

Tuija Ainonen

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01 August 2017

A Calendar Page for August 2017

It’s now August (!), which means we’re back with the fun figures of Additional MS 36684 to celebrate the start of the 8th month. If you’d like to know more about the manuscript as a whole, check out January’s post, and for more on the traditional form and function of medieval calendars, please see our calendar post from 2011.

Add_ms_36684_f009r Add_ms_36684_f009r

Calendar pages for August, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Thérouanne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 8v–9r

August begins with an intriguing pair of hybrid figures stationed at the top of the page: a two-legged creature with a long, birdlike bill perches on the back of a woman with an extended neck/torso atop green legs, ending in a long tail. The birdlike creature pecks the woman’s neat hairnet; she does not look amused.

Hybrid creatures, Add MS 36684, f. 8v

August’s labour of the month appears below the feast days for the first half of the month, and depicts the traditional summer harvesting of wheat. Dressed in a short tunic and a rather elaborate orange-trimmed cap, the peasant within the niche clutches a curved sickle, bending over as he cuts the long grain. He will most likely tie up in the wheat in bundles, known as sheaths, and use them to feed his animals in the winter.

Add_ms_36684_f008v labour
Labour of the month for August, Add MS 36684, f. 8v

Interestingly, the traditional zodiac symbol for August, Virgo, usually represented as a single woman, is here replaced with the unmistakable sign for Libra, holding scales:

Libra, Add MS 36684, f. 9r

Libra is normally depicted in September calendars, as the zodiac period ranges from late September–late October, while Virgo goes from late August–late September. It is unclear why the artist of Additional MS 36684 skipped poor Virgo and went ahead to Libra – was it a simple mistake, or something done deliberately? In any case, our artist gets himself into trouble come December, when he has run out of zodiac signs, and leaves us with one of his clever hybrid creatures instead, as we will see in a few months.

Let us know what you think – did our artist make a mistake or did he skip Virgo on purpose? You can have a look for yourself at all of Additional MS 36684, fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Until next time – sorry, Virgos!

Taylor McCall
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28 July 2017

Summer illuminations at the British Library

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There is no need for fireworks this summer – the best illuminations are on the British Library website , in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts! And they will still be around to light up the winter months too. A new upload to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts has just gone live, with 25 new manuscript masterpieces and almost 400 new images online.  

Some of the most stunning new images, including the image of a summer boat ride below, come from the Hastings Hours. This Book of Hours is believed to have been made for King Edward IV and later owned by one of his most loyal courtiers and Lord Chamberlain, William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings. Although Hastings was executed for treason by Richard III after Edward’s death, the manuscript's vivid colors and lively artwork survives.

Lovers or musicians in a barge, with a city and tower behind, from the ‘Hastings Hours’, c. 1480, Low Countries (Ghent?), Add MS 54782, f. 54r

Another outstanding masterpiece of medieval illumination,  the Gorleston Psalter, has dazzling displays on every page. It was made in East Anglia in the second decade of the 14th century.

Doeg and the priests, with a full border incorporating hybrid creatures, coats of arms and a monkey at the beginning of Psalm 51, from the Gorleston Psalter, between 1310 and 1324, England, East Anglia, Add MS 49622, f. 68v  

A number of Spanish manuscripts have also been added in the recent uploads, including  a late 15th-century Book of Hours, believed to be from Toledo, with vibrant images and crowded borders. In the margins of f. 70v and f. 71r are profile portraits of a man and a woman, perhaps the original owners.

Add MS 50004  f. 70v
Mary holding Christ before the Cross and a full border with a diamond-shaped medallion with a man's head in profile, from a Book of Hours, 4th quarter of the 15th century, Spain, Central (?Toledo), Add MS 50004, f. 70v

Another Spanish manuscript is the Poncii Bible, made in Catalonia, includes mnemonic verses and a version of the Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl. See our blogpost on this text for more information. It is named after its scribe, Johannes Poncii (Juan Ponce). 

Additional 50003   f. 93v
Detail of A historiated initial 'F'(it) of Hannah praying to God in the clouds, with a dog above and hybrid creatures below, from the Poncii Bible, 1273, Catalonia,
Add MS 50003, f. 93v

After so many pious images, some may prefer vice. The diagram below from the ‘Peter of Poitiers roll’  provides a handy guide to the vices available, with all the possible pitfalls. It follows a series of images from the life of Christ in the Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi, a text on the genealogy of Christ. 

Diagram of the Vices: Luxuria, Gula, Avaricia, Accidia, Invidia, Ira, Inanis gloria, and descriptions of their attributes, from the ‘Peter of Poitiers roll’, England, S., approximately 1250-60, Add MS 60628/1, image 10

Meanwhile, the vice of drunkenness is illustrated in a description of the properties of the vine in Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum (On the properties of things).

Three figures at a vineyard, one of whom has fallen to the ground, presumably in drunkenness; the women on either side hold containers of red and white wine; from Book 17, ‘On herbs and plants’, De proprietatibus rerum, Italy, N. (Mantua), before 1309, Add MS 8785, f. 257r

Some important textual manuscripts have been added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts as well. These include the Ceolfrith Bible leaves, an early copy of a work by Julian of Norwich,  and copies of texts by Roger Bacon. The new additions are listed in full at the end of this post.

Some of these manuscripts are fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts website. The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, by contrast, contains a selection of images and allows for searching according to date, place of production, scribe and even image descriptions.  For example, a search for the subject ‘mermaid’ in the 'Image description' field of the 'Advanced Search' page, produces an amazing variety of mermaids of all shapes and sizes, such as this one from the margins of the Office of Vespers in a Book of Hours that has just been uploaded.

Additional 50005   f. 67
A mermaid and an elephant from a Book of Hours, c. 1420, Netherlands, N. (Utrecht or Guelders), Add MS 50005, f. 67r

Another is from the ‘Alphonso Psalter’, commissioned in London, probably to celebrate the marriage of Alphonso (b. 1273, d. 1284), son of King Edward I, to Margaret, daughter of Florent V, Count of Holland.  Sadly, the marriage did not take place as Alphonso died in August 1284 at only 11 years old; but luckily the manuscript survives, containing a veritable feast of marginalia.

Bas-de-page scene of a mermaid suckling her child and an acrobatic monkey on her tail , the ‘Alphonso Psalter’, London (Westminster), c.1284 to c. 1316, the Alfonso Psalter, Add MS 24686, f. 13r

In addition, all the images in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts can be downloaded for research purposes. For guidance on the use of these images in the public domain, please see These include glorious images of from the Holkham Bible Picture Book and the Secretum Secretorum and many others.

Here is the full is a list of the manuscripts published this week in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

Add MS 8785                        De proprietatibus rerum

Add MS 11662                     Chronicle of St Martin des Champs

Add MS 17739                     Jumièges Gospels

Add MS 20787                     Alfonso X Law code

Add MS 21247                     Livre des Quatre Dames

Add MS 24686                     ‘Alphonso Psalter’

Add MS 27926                     Gospels of Luke and John (Halberstadt)

Add MS 35318                     Book of Hours (Paris)

Add MS 35321                     Boccaccio, Des cas de nobles hommes et femmes

Additional 35254 Cuttings from the Hours of Louis XII

Add MS 37777                     ‘Ceolfrith Bible’ fragment

Add MS 37790                     The ‘Amherst manuscript’, works by Richard of Rolle, Julian of Norwich etc.

Add MS 47680                     Secretum Secretorum

Add MS 47682                     ‘Holkham Bible Picture Book’

Add MS 49622                     ‘Gorleston Psalter’

Add MS 50001                     ‘Hours of Elizabeth the Queen’

Add MS 50002                     ‘Mirandola Hours’

Add MS 50003                     ‘Poncii Bible’

Add MS 50004                     Book of Hours (Spain) 

Add MS 50005                     Book of Hours (Netherlands)   

Add MS 60628/1                 ‘Peter of Poitiers Roll’   

Add MS 71118                     Leaves from a Book of Hours

Royal MS 7 F vii                    Works of Roger Bacon

Royal MS 7 F viii   Works of Roger Bacon

 Royal MS 18 A vi Medical treatises and recipes

                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

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26 July 2017

King David: life and soul of the Psalter

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In a recent Twitter poll by @BLMedieval, 989 voters resoundingly agreed that, out of a choice of four medieval saints, the best to invite to a summer party would be King David (his knack for the harp being stuff of legend). In tribute to this endearing decision — which spurned St Lawrence and his griddle, St John the Baptist and his lamb, and St Catherine with her wheel (for the pyrotechnics) — we thought it would be interesting to look at images of David and his harp in the decorated initial ‘B’ of medieval Psalters. Sometimes it demands great concentration to decipher letters decorated with scenes (historiated initials) but some have such delicately crafted meanings that the rewards are well worth it. They can be visual puzzles, with a message.

Harley MS 48041 f004r 12th

A decorated initial for Psalm 1 with an image of King David and his harp: Harley MS 4804/1, f. 4r (detail). Chartres, 1st half of the 12th century.

Psalm 1 in the Vulgate Bible opens Beatus Vir, ‘Blessed is the man’. The text proceeds, ‘who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence.’ The Psalms, widely believed to have been composed by King David himself, were recited by monks each day in religious services and the words were absorbed in the memory; they could have fallen out of diligent monastic mouths without a second thought. Psalters (books of the Psalms with prayers and other texts) were produced as stand-alone volumes, so the first words of Psalm 1 also mark the beginning of the heart of the book. Decorated initials at the start of major divisions helped the reader to navigate the manuscript and inspired a meditative spirit, reminding the reader to contemplate the familiar text.

In England and France, from the mid-11th century, initials were often inhabited by the author of the Psalms, namely our coveted dinner party guest, King David.  

Arundel MS 60 f.13r 11th-12thc

A decorated initial containing an image of King David and his harp beneath a male figure representing the subject of the Psalm: Arundel MS 60, f. 13r (detail). Winchester, 4th quarter of the 11th century

In a Psalter from late 11th-century Winchester, the initial ‘B’ shows two figures suspended in and inhabiting ornate vegetal scrolls. The lower figure holds a harp on his lap and wears a crown. He looks across to the words of the Psalm. Here is David. The figure above perhaps represents the blessed man discussed by the Psalm.

Decorated initials could contain even more complex meanings. Look closely at an astonishing initial in a 12th-century English Psalter. The annotated interactive version below explains how its artists used the ‘B’ initial to frame a subtly wrought cosmic drama expressing Christ’s victory over Satan. This is all the more astonishing since this ‘B’ is no bigger than the palm of your hand.

Hold your mouse over the image to reveal interactive annotations and explore the

decorated initial of Add MS 17392, f. 1r. Western England, 3rd quarter of the 12th century.

The life of Christ is held by Christians to fulfil the prophecies made in Old Testament Scripture, which includes the Psalms. Thus, inside the upper register is an image that may be Christ in Judgement before a crowd of the Blessed with the book of life, or perhaps preaching to his followers. David is beneath, at his harp, seated beside another male figure, perhaps again the blessed man of the Psalm. Both David and the man point up at Christ. The figures express Christ’s fulfilment of the words composed by David, his ancestor. At the same time (medieval artworks can often be interpreted in a variety of ways), it may be a reference to verse 1 and the blessed man whose delight is in the law of the Lord, on which he meditates day and night.

The plot thickens if we observe how, to David’s left, forming the curved bow of the lower half of the ‘B’, a human soul is being pulled up towards Christ by an angel and hell-wards, feet-first, by a devil. But the devil’s feet are in the mouth of a lion, which is, in turn, being trodden on by David. The possible meaning of this will become clear.

A male figure emerges from behind the lion, passing a scroll up the spine of the initial. It almost touches the end of another scroll, which is being held by a second depiction of Christ. Identifiable by his halo with a cross, Christ is holding a cross-staff, adorned with a flag; the attribute he is often given in images of his Resurrection. So here may be another reference to the New Testament fulfilment of the Old.

At first glance, this initial may just look whimsical interplay of human figures, beasts and plant scrolls. Never underestimate medieval art, because the web of meanings does not end here. If you look just below the crowd of souls in the upper register, you will see that the resurrected Christ’s staff is stabbing a serpent or basilisk and the image of Christ is trampling a dragon. The serpent, asp, basilisk, lion and dragon could be read as symbols of evil, which is the influence of the devil. Psalm 91 reads, 'Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon.' In the initial, all of these creatures are shown being vanquished. Thus the male figure next to David, probably the man with whom the Psalm is concerned, is a role-model; ‘blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly’. His feet, too, rest on the back of the devil in the lower border, the one wrestling a soul from the grip of an angel. In this way, the initial could be a powerful call-to-action, telling the reader to follow the example of the blessed man and, in so doing, to hope to overcome the malevolent forces described in the text.

In short, good call for keeping David on the guest-list (and not just because of his untold skills on the harp).


Amy Jeffs

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La première lettre du texte des psautiers médiévaux latins est un ‘B’ car le premier psaume de la Vulgate commence ‘Beatus Vir’ (‘Bienheureux l'homme’). Dans la période romane, cette initiale est souvent fortement décorée avec des motifs végétaux, des bêtes et des figures. Une figure qu’on trouve est le Roi David, avec sa harpe, regardant les mots qui suivent.

On croit généralement que David a composé les psaumes, donc l’image est un portrait d’auteur. Mais la formule est développée pour inclure des scènes théologiques complexes. L’initiale décorée d’un psautier anglais du douzième siècle (Add MS 17392) affiche un drame cosmologique à l'intérieur de la lettre. Si on scrute l’image, on voit des connections subtiles, proclamant la victoire du Christ contre le diable.


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