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Category: Medieval manuscripts
Medieval manuscripts are written by hand; in Western Europe, they are usually written on the prepared skins of cows, goats, or sheep. Earlier Romans like the Egyptians used papyrus. First, manuscripts were rolled and are referred to as scrolls. Later, most Medieval manuscripts were produced on roughly rectangular pieces of prepared animal skins that were then stacked and bound on one side, much like the familiar printed book. This kind of binding is referred to as a codex.
By the first century BC there existed at Rome notebooks made of leaves of parchment, used for rough copy, first drafts, and notes. By the first century AD such manuals were used for commercial copies of classical literature. The Christians adopted this parchment manual format for the Scriptures used in their liturgy because a codex is easier to handle than a scroll and because one can write on both sides of a parchment but on only one side of a papyrus scroll. By the early second century all Scripture was reproduced in codex form. In traditional Christian iconography, therefore, the Hebrew prophets are represented holding scrolls and the Evangelists holding codices (AHDs.v. codex).
Manuscripts may be subdivided into various classes or kinds. There are illuminated manuscripts, carefully illustrated with drawings and colored ink embellishments, including gold leaf. There are large, ornate display Gospels, containing the first four books of the New Testament like The Book of Lindisfarne and The Books of Kells. There are also elaborate personal prayer books known as Books of Hours, and many other kinds of manuscripts.
Knight vs. Snail Goreleston Psalter” credit=”British Library
Recently in the British Library’s excellent Medieval Manuscripts blog a curator mentioned a post medieval colleague noticing a marginal illustration showing a knight engaging in combat with a snail. This is not a rare motif in medieval mss. The Medieval Manuscripts post covers the bibliography regarding the motif, including a blog post by Carl Pyrdum on What’s So Funny about Knights and Snails?
Various reasons for the popularity are proposed, but none are really convincing. I am therefore willing to propose another reason: Psalm 58. Here’s Psalm 58 in the Wycliffe translation. This is a psalm about divine vengeance, and the section I’m most interested in is this bit in verses 6–7:
6 God shall all-break the teeth of them in their mouth; the Lord shall break (al)together the great teeth of lions. (O God, break all the teeth in their mouths; O Lord, break all in pieces the great teeth of these lions.) 7 They shall come to nought, as water running away; he bent his bow, till they be made sick. (They shall come to nothing, like water running forth; and when they go to bend their bows, they shall be made feeble, or weak.) 8 As wax that floateth away, they shall be taken away; fire fell above, and they saw not the sun. (Like a snail that melteth away into slime, they shall be taken away; like a dead-born child, they shall not see the sun.)
I think the armored snail fighting the armored knight is a reminder of the inevitability of death; the knight, like the snail, will ultimately “melteth away into slime.”
6 The teeth O Lord, which fast are set
in their mouth round about,
The lions’ teeth that are so great,
do thou, O Lord, break out.
7 Let them consume away and waste,
as water runs forth right;
The shafts that they do shoot in haste,
let them be broke in flight:8 As snails do waste within the shell,
and unto slime do run,
As one before his time that fell,
and never saw the sun.
These are high-resolution, reproduction-quality images with embedded metadata, some over 100 megabytes in size. You can browse the images, or look for individual “download” links on the Getty Museum’s collection pages. Before the download actually begins, the Getty site asks simple questions about how you plan to use the images.
The Getty released images of many of its most famous works, including paintings like Vincent van Gogh’s Irises, but I’m especially excited by the medieval manuscripts (The Getty purchased the Ludwig collection, a huge collection of manuscripts rich in psalters and books of hours several years ago, and already had a solid collection, and they’ve added mss. since).
Here’s an image from a Book of Hours illuminated by Jean Poyer; the Hours of Henry VIII/The Prayer Book of Ann de Bretagne, from the collections of The Morgan Library. This is the calendar page for May, otherwise known as f. 3. The image below is from the top part of the folio, above the calendar proper.
Notice that it appears to be a courtship scene, entirely appropriate for May, and May day (they tend to favor courting and hawking scenes, often accompanied by greenery). They look as if they’ve been out “bringing in the May,” or “getting some green,” in the wee hours of May 1.
While we know the work is that of Jean Poyer, and that it was once owned by Ann de Bretagne, there’s an unproven eighteenth-century tradition that claims King Henry of England once owned this book of hours.
Mostly, I just like the Maying reference, and the little dog.
Detail of a Seder table from BL Additional 14761 f.-28v
The British Library began the digital catalog in 1997. Currently the catalog provides a digital record of 4,231 different manuscript, and includes 35,661 images those manuscripts, with a searchable database. The images were scanned following the best digital practices, and include provenance, metadata, and in many cases, detailed images.
Technically these works are still in copyright in the UK until 2040, but given that they are anonymous and many centuries old, the Library has decided to provide the images on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts under a Public Domain Mark and treat them as public domain works, as would be the case in many other countries.
For more information, please see the library’s use and reuse policy for CIM. We ask that you maintain the library’s Public Domain tag, and provide a link or other credit back to the image’s source on the British Library’s site – help us share these riches even more widely with the world.
I’m absolutely delighted by this news. The British Library and its staff have made it extraordinarily simple to search for a particular MS. by name or shelf number. You can also search by Keyword or perform advanced searches related to specific characteristics of the manuscript or its illumination including MSS. or images from a given region or time period, or even of a particular subject matter.
Please respect the creators – ensure traditional cultural expressions and all ethical concerns in the use of the material are considered, and any information relating to the creator is clear and accurate. Please note, any adaptations made to an item should not be attributed to the original creator and should not be derogatory to the originating cultures or communities.
Please credit the source of the material—providing a link back to the image on the British Library’s website will encourage others to explore and use the collections.
Please share knowledge where possible—please annotate, tag and share derivative works with others as well as the Library wherever possible.
Support the Public Domain – users of public domain works are asked to support the efforts of the Library to care for, preserve, digitise and make public domain works available. This support could include monetary contributions or work in kind, particularly when the work is being used for commercial or other for-profit purposes.
Please preserve all public domain marks and notices attached to the works – this will notify other users that the images are free from copyright restrictions and encourage greater use of the collection.
This is a fabulous resource and a great way to learn all sorts of things. I’ll be taking full advantage!
Thanks to a spectacular 9 million pounds fund-raising effort (the most successful in its history) the British Library has successfully acquired BL Additional MS 89000, better known as the St. Cuthbert Gospel.
Previously part of the library of Durham Cathedral, he Gospel is a copy of the Gospel of St John, and the earliest complete European book. St. Cuthbert’s Gospel created in the late 7th century in the north-east of England and placed in St Cuthbert’s coffin, c. 698. When the coffin was opened in Durham Cathedral in 1104 in order to remove Cuthbert’s body and install it to in new shrine, the manuscript was removed and kept in the cathedral library.
St Cuthbert Gospel Late 7th century binding
The beautiful maroon leather binding featuring twining branches and fruit is the original late seventh-century binding over boards, with flax thread.
“It’s a great piece of luck, ma’am,” said Mrs Belfield, “that you should happen to come here, of a holiday! If my son had not been at home, I should have been ready to cry for a week: and you might come any day the year through but a Sunday, and not meet with him any more than if he had never a home to come to.” “If Mr Belfield’s home-visits are so periodical,” said Cecilia, “it must be rather less, than more, difficult to meet with him.” “Why you know, ma’am,” answered Mrs Belfield, “to-day is a red-letter day, so that’s the reason of it.” “A red-letter day?” “Good lack, madam, why have not you heard that my son is turned book- keeper?”
Fanny Burney. Cecilia: Or, Memoirs of an Heiress.
“Red-letter day” is one of those expressions we use quite frequently without really thinking about its ancestry. Everyone knows that a “red letter day” is one that stands out as important, or “Memorably happy,” as the AHD puts it. Behind the idiom lies an actual medieval calendar tradition.
In the middle ages, the wealthy had expensive and often luxuriously illustrated prayer books known as books of hours. These personal prayer boks provided prayers and readings tied to the various times of days, and to particular feast days in the Catholic ecclesiastic calendar. The book of hours associated the feasts days, saint’s days, and other religious days in the church calendar with specific images, and prayers. Each month of the year was represented, with a list of the important dates, and, typically, an image of a seasonal agricultural or aristocratic practice (hawking in May, for instance, or harvesting nuts in November) and an illustration showing the zodiac sign for that month, for instance Gemini in May and Scorpio in November.
The illustration was either accompanied by or incorporated into a list of dates for the particular month. This list or calendar used color-coding to indicate the really important dates from the less important dates. The major religious feast days like Easter were in gold leaf; while the lesser but still important dates were in red— hence “red letter day.”
To the left of this paragraph I’ve linked to an image of a calendar page (click the image to enlarge it) from a book of hours in the Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department. This particular Book of Hours manuscript is known as the Glasgow Hours and was made in North-East France in about 1460. You can click the image for a larger version. The “red letter” days displayed on the calendar are the feasts of Saint Nicholas (December 6), the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 8) and the feast of Saint Nicasius (December 14). The particular saints and feasts recorded on a calendar in a book of hours often help indicate where the manuscript was produced, and when, since there were particular saints favored more or less in different areas and times. The phrase “red-letter day” is first noted by the OED in 1704; the quotation from Burney’s novel in the opening of this post was published in 1782. In the context of the passage, I suspec that “red-letter day” is meant to suggest that not only is it “special,” but that it is special in particular for Mr. Belfield, who works as a book-keeper, because the day in question is a bank holiday, and thus a holiday for him.
January saint’s days include the Feast of the Circumcision on the first, the Epiphany on the sixth, Saint Agnes on the twenty-first, and the Conversion of Saint Paul on the twenty-fifth, among other feats. Typically the calendar page will show the sign of Aquarius, the water-bearer in a border (at the top of the full size page of this folio) and/or of Janus, the two-faced deity associated with doors, and beginnings and endings of years. Books of Hours for January are very fond of feasting images, like this one from the Trés Riches Heures:
Trés Riches Heures Musée Condé MS. 65 f.91v
This particular feasting image might be set at New Years or the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. The seated gentleman on the right with the fancy hat and the blue and gold robe is the Duke himself. Behind him is a very large fireplace. Above the fireplace the red and blue banner features Jean de Berry’s heraldic devices—the swan and the fleur de lys. At the very top edge of the banner are two bears—a reference to the Duke’s beloved Ursula. Behind the dining scene is a large, expensive tapestry that seems to be showing a scene from the Trojan wars. The damask tablecloth and the large, ornate salt cellar in the shape of a ship are items that are listed in inventories of the Duke’s household possessions.
The two richly dressed in grey and green young men on the opposite site of the table appear to be his cupbearer and carver, respectively; these are squires or young courtiers, rather than servants. Notice the dog, a white hunting hound, begging (and receiving) food from a courtier. At the far right on the table, just at the edge, two kittens appear to be playing. In the back new guests are just entering, stretching their hands towards the fire, while they look at the guests.
Art historians have attempted to identify some of the figures besides the Duke. For instance, the gentleman to the Due’s right, with the tonsure and the reddish-purple robe is possibly the Duke’s close friend Martin Gouge, the Bishop of Chartres. In the crowd of people entering on the left, behind the table, is a fellow with a white or gray floppy cap. He’s behind a figure dressed in green with a large red hat. The person is the white hat is possibly the artist Paul de Limbourg. The same person is also featured in images in two other mss. that the Limbourgs created, the Petites Heures (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and the Belles Heures (The Cloisters, New York).
Thanks to the lovely film The Secret of Kells, large numbers of people who have never taken an art history class or studied paleography now know about The Book Of Kells. For those who haven’t seen the film, go now and watch it.
The Book of Kells is a medieval manuscript created by monastics in the ninth century, and presently resides in Trinity College Library, in Dublin. It’s a beautifully illuminated version of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) with the customary additions like the canon tables.
The real point of the Book of Kells is not so much the text, as it is the art work, and the embellishments applied to the calligraphic text. The most famous of the pages in Kells is the one at the top of this post; F. 34R (click it for a larger version). The page in the Book of Kells known as F.34R is based on the verse from Matthew 1:18 that in English in the 1611 version begins “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” This passage is often referred to as the second beginning of Matthew. The Latin text, the one used most often in medieval manuscripts, begins “XPI autem generatio . . .”
F. 34R is referred to as the Chi Rho page because it features the Greek letters Chi, Rho and Iota. The letters that look like XPI that form the primary page elements are respectively, the Chi, the Rho, and the Iota. These three letters are used as the abbreviated form of Christ’s name in Greek, and open that passage from Matthew in Latin. If you look closely at the image, you’ll see some of the “hidden” images that Kells is so famous for. There’s a cat with rats that seems to be playing with (or eating) a mass wafer. There are moths (symbols of rebirth and rejuvenation) and several winged figures. My favorite is the otter holding a fish (the otter is lying on his back; look for the fish he holds). If you look at the image of F. 34R, you can see the generatio at the bottom right.
Here’s another example of a Chi-Rho page, to the right. This one is from the Book of Lindisfarne, produced in England sometime between c. 715 and 720. The Book of Lindisfarne is in the British library now. It’s the beginning of the same verse in Matthew as the Kells Chi-Rho page. You can still see the Chi and the Rho, very clearly. You can click the image for a larger view, or see the entire incredible manuscript in a digital facsimile here; it uses the Silverlight plugin form Microsoft. There’s a collection of high quality images here.
O then bespoke Mary,
so meek and so mild:
“Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
for I am with child.”
O then bespoke Joseph,
with words most unkind:
“Let him pluck thee a cherry
that brought thee with child.”
Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Miniature of Virgin and Child [Flight into Egypt?], large initial on gold, linefiller, full border design. 1440–1460. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-e494-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
The Cherry-tree Carol appears to have first been collected in Britain in the seventeenth century. Francis James Child printed three versions, calling the song “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” and publishing it as Child Ballad 54. It was collected previously, and subsequently, in versions from all over the British isles, and from America’s Appalachia region, where Jean Ritchie popularized the Cherry-tree Carol, in a version memorialized by Joan Baez and others.
In 1992 the editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols (after James Child) described the Cherry-tree carol as one of several “doubting Joseph” carols, including The Cherry Tree Carols, Joseph Being An Aged Man, Joseph Being An Old Man Truly, and Joseph Was An Old Man (Keyte and Parrott, eds. The New Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Carol #129, pp. 446-8).
The basic motifs include the context of the “flight into Egypt,” when Joseph and Mary fleeing Herod’s “massacre of the innocents” after an angel warns Joseph via a dream that Herod intends to kill all first born male children (Matthew 2:13), fruit miraculously appearing and offering itself to Mary, and Joseph’s repentance for casting doubt on Mary’s chastity (Joseph’s jealousy is referenced in Matthew 1:18 1:25).
The story is an old one, appearing in Chapter 20 of the Apocryphal Pseudo Matthew, written sometime in the ninth century, wherein the fleeing Joseph and Mary are in the Egyptian dessert, and Mary, hungry and thirsty, wishes she might consume some of the unreachable dates on the date palm.
And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast.
And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her: I wonder that thou sayest this, when thou seest how high the palm tree is; and that thou thinkest of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle.
Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who bad commanded it to stoop.
Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God.
Sometime in the fifteenth century in slightly revised form of the story appears in the anonymous cycle drama known as either Ludus Coventriae, or the N-Town Plays, depending on the edition and editor. Here, in Play 15, the Nativity, the Egyptian date has been transformed to the much more English fruit, the cherry, unseasonably bearing fruit in Winter. The cherry tree, at Mary’s request, bows down that she might pick and eat of its fruit.
MARIA A, my swete husbond, wolde ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle? JOSEPH Forsothe, Mary, it is clepyd a chery tre.
In tyme of yere, ye myght fede yow theron youre fylle. MARIA Turne ageyn, husbond, and beholde yon tre,
How that it blomyght now so swetly! JOSEPH Cum on, Mary, that we worn at yon cyte,
Or ellys we may be blamyd, I telle yow lythly. MARIA Now, my spowse, I pray yow to behold
How the cheryes growyn upon yon tre,
For to have therof ryght fayn I wold!
And it plesyd yow to labore so mech for me. JOSEPH Youre desyre to fulfylle I shal assay, sekyrly.
Ow! To plucke yow of these cheries—it is a werk wylde
For the tre is so hygh, it wol not be lyghtly!
Therfore, lete hym pluk yow cheryes begatt yow with childe. MARIA Now, good Lord I pray thee, graunt me this boun,
To have of these cheries and it be youre wylle.
Now I thank it, God—this tre bowyth to me down!
I may now gaderyn anowe and etyn my fylle. JOSEPH Ow! I know weyl I have offendyd my God in Trinyte,
Spekyng to my spowse these unkynde wurdys,
For now I beleve wel it may non other be
But that my spowse beryght the Kyngys Son of Blys!
He help us now at oure nede.
Of the kynrede of Jesse, worthely were ye bore:
Kyngys and patryarkys gow beffore.
All these wurthy of youre kynred wore,
As clerkys in story rede.
There’s a strong association of miraculous cherries and the nativity in medieval English drama. In another of the cycle dramas, the Secunda Pastorum or Second Shepherd’s Play of the Wakefield master, the poor shepherds each provide a gift to the infant Christ. Coll, the eldest of the shepherds, brings the miraculously unseasonable fruit as his gift.
Hayll, yong child!
Hayll, maker, as I meyne,
Of a madyn so mylde!
Thou has waryd, I weyne
The warlo so wylde:
1030 The fals gyler of teyn,
Now goys he begylde.
Lo, he merys,
Lo, he laghys, my swetyng!
A wel fare metyng!
1035 I haue holden my hetyng;
Haue a bob of cherys.
Other shepherds offer the babe holly and a ball, instead of the myrrh, frankincense and gold of the Bible.
Last of all, we see the story of The Cherry-tree Carol transformed to the bare motifs of the miraculous fruit in the Middle English romance of Sir Cleges, seen here from Oxford MS Bodleian 6922 (Ashmole 61). Fols. 67b-73a, in ms. from the fifteenth century featuring a northeast midland dialect.1)The same ms. also contains one of the versions of Sir Orfeo. This late Arthurian romance has nothing to do with Chretien de Troye’s Cliges, at all; it is rather the story of a knight whose generosity and lavish public feasts, especially at Christmas, have paupered him. Cleges is presented with a miraculous cherry tree, bearing fruit out of season in his garden, when he kneels and prays. His wife suggests that Cleges and his son take the cherries as a Christmastide gift to King Uther in Cardiff.
As he knelyd onne hys kne
Underneth a chery tre
Makyng hys praere,
He rawght a bowghe in hys hond
To ryse therby and upstond;
No lenger knelyd he ther.
When the bowghe was in hys hond,
Gren levys theron he fond
And ronde beryes in fere.
He seyd, “Dere God in Trinyte!
What maner beryes may this be
That grow this tyme of yere?
“I have not se this tyme of yere
That treys any fruyt schuld bere,
Als ferre as I have sought.”
He thought to tayst it yff he couthe:
One of them he put in hys mouthe;
Spare wold he nought.
After a chery it relesyd clene,
The best that ever he had sene
Seth he was man wrought.
A lytell bow he gan of slyfe,
And thought he wold schew it hys wyfe;
In hys hond he it brought.
“Lo, dame, here is a newylte:
In our garthyn upon a tre
I found it, sykerly.
I ame aferd it is tokenyng,
Because of our grete plenyng,
That more grevans is ny.”
His wyfe seyd, “It is tokenyng
Of more godnes that is comyng:
We schall have more plente.
Have we les or have we more,
Allwey thanke we God therfore;
It is the best, treulye.”
The lady seyd with gode cher,
“Late us fyll a panyer
Of the frute that God hath sente.
Tomorow when the dey do spryng
Ye schall to Cardyff to the Kyng,
Full feyre hym to presente.
Sych a gyft ye may hafe ther
That we schall the beter fare,
I tell you, verament.”
Syre Clegys grantyd sone therto:
“Tomorow to Cardyff I wyll go,
After your entent.”
Uther, having recognized Cleges as a knight he thought long dead, rewards Cleges and the knight”s son, thus ending their poverty.
You can, if you wish, find numerous versions of the Cherry-tree carol online, including versions from Jean Ritchie, Joan Baez, Sting, and the Anonymous 4. Here’s one of the many versions in full:
The Cherry-tree Carol
Joseph and Mary walked
through an orchard green,
Where was berries and cherries,
as thick as might be seen.
O then bespoke Mary,
so meek and so mild:
“Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
for I am with child.”
O then bespoke Joseph,
with words most unkind:
“Let him pluck thee a cherry
that brought thee with child.”
O then bespoke the babe,
within his mother’s womb:
”Bow down then the tallest tree,
for my mother to have some.”
Then bowed down the highest tree
unto his mother’s hand;
Then she cried, See, Joseph,
I have cherries at command.
O then bespake Joseph:
”I have done Mary wrong;
But cheer up, my dearest,
and be not cast down.”
I’ve written before about an 8th century Irish psalter on vellum found in an Irish peat bog near Riverstown in north Co Tipperary, in July of 2006. The psalter, both damaged and preserved by the tannic stew of the bog, Conservators, principally John Gillis, on loan to Ireland’s National Museum from Trinity College Library, have been working diligently to discover the best methods of conserving, preserving, and documenting the psalter for the last four years. In 2011, the psalter will be placed on permanent display in the National Museum of Ireland. In the meantime, you can read the preliminary report here, and some background here. In the process of conserving the ms. pieces of papyrus with coptic lettering were discovered in the psalter’s binding, a revolutionary and historic piece of evidence in terms of the connections between the early Irish church, the Coptic church of the Middle East.