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Lighting the Spark: The Medieval Itty-Bitty Book Light

Detail from Hans Memling Annunciatior showing a "book light"
Detail from Hans Memling Annunciatior showing a "book light"
Metropolitan Museum of Art

At the request of Janice Safran and Heather Blatt I’m posting this small detail from the Annunciation of 1465-75 produced by the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels, Belgium — possibly by Hans Memling— and in the collections of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sifran and Blatt are interested in hearing from anyone who’s seen a similar object in other images or heard one described in writing. They are presenting a paper on “Lighting the Spark: The Medieval Itty-Bitty Book Light” and are in hopes of locating similar images. They have already explored The Annunciation from the left wing of the Dijon Altarpiece (1393-99) by Melchior Broederlam in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, France; the Annunciation of 1482 by Hans Memling in Brugge, Belgium, also in the collections of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

June

Most calendars in Books of Hours show either sheep shearing or haying for the labor of June. Some June pages instead depict the crab for Cancer and a scene from scripture. The June image from the Buchanan e. 3 ms. from the Bodleian, is a Book of Hours, Use of Rouen, in Latin and French; France, Rouen; c. 1500 for June is a typical June image.

Calendar page for June showing the June labor of mowing
June from MS Buchanan e. 3, fol. 4v France, Rouen; c. 1500 Image: Bodleian Library, Oxford

 

 

There’s a man with a scythe on the top left, with the symbol for Cancer (though here the crab is more like a crayfish) on the bottom left. In the middle is the actual calendar, with the dates of various Saint’s days and other feasts that take place in June, localized for Rouen. The dates in blue are particularly important; traditionally these would be in red, in a rubric, giving use the phrase “red letter day.”

The Bibliotheque National NF, Lat 18104, fol. 3v, John of Berry’s Petites Heures, France, Paris 14th Century, for the month of June Shows Saint Paul preaching to the Philippians, the Church personified, and at the top, the symbol for Cancer, this time very clearly a crab.

The Manuscripts, the Thief, and his Secret

Metafilter points to this story in the Guardian about Mont Sainte-Odile

an ancient convent perched atop a 2,500ft peak in eastern France, a locked library containing a priceless collection of early printed books and illuminated manuscripts, a secret passage – and a series of spectacular and inexplicable thefts.

Yes, there is New Medieval Celtic Literature

Bewnans Ke opening page
NLW MS. 23849D f.1r

Thanks to a newly discovered medieval Cornish manuscript fragment Beunans Ke (The Life Of St Ke)
the amount of Medieval Cornish literature has increased by about twenty percent. The fragment was discovered among the papers of the recently deceased Celticist, J. E. Caerwyn Williams, whose papers were donated to the National Library of Wales.

The manuscript, NLW MS 23849D, consists of ten pairs of leaves (20 folios), foliated, 7, [8, 9], 10-13, 16-19, 22-9.

As you can see, there are a number of missing pages. It is written in a secretary hand of the mid sixteenth century, by a professional scribe, copying an earlier manuscript which he refers to as containing five torn leaves. It contains two previously unknown Middle Cornish play fragments. The first play, Beunans Ke (The Life Of St Ke) is about the life of Saint Kea, a Celtic saint favored in Cornwall and in Brittany, and whose life is described in medieval Breton texts.

The second play is possibly even more important, since it is Arthurian in nature, derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannice (Books ix.15; x.1-13; xi.1-2). It refers to King Arthur’s quarrel with the fictive Roman emperor, Lucius Hiberius, about British tribute to Rome. It ends with Arthur’s victory and the emperor’s death in battle, and it also alludes to the clandestine relationship of Arthur’s nephew, Modred, with Queen Guenevere (yes, that is one of the Arthurian variants).

I am not aware of any other extant medieval play about Arthur; this discovery is a Big Deal. Neither text is complete, and both are currently being edited by Graham C. G. Thomas and published by the National Library of Wales where he is a Senior Assistant Archivist in the Department of Manuscripts.

Even if you aren’t a medievalist or Celticist, this really is a piece of good news. There isn’t a lot of medieval Cornish literature left; much of it was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. The last native speaker of Cornish died in the late eighteenth century. There are currently several different forms of Cornish that have been carefully reconstructed as part of a language revival, but no native speakers in the usual sense. Of the extant medieval literature, there are two short pieces, one of them a poem on the Passion, the Pascon Agan Arluth, another a fragment on the back of a charter, offers a somewhat sardonic view of marriage and is the earliest known extant Cornish. The bulk of extant medieval Cornish literature is in the form of miracle and mystery plays from the fifteenth century, specifically a play about the Cornish saint, Saint Meriasek in Peniarth MS. 105. L 430, and parts of a mystery cycle, the Cornish Ordinalia, MS. Bodleian 791. The manuscript contains plays on the Creation, Passion of Christ and Resurrection, in Cornish verse, with Latin stage directions and diagrams. There are also bits of Middle English in the plays, typically in the lines of the devils and other villains.