The Isabella Breviary

The Isabella Breviary (British Library, Add. MS. 18851) is a remarkable book. Within its pages lie some of the finest illuminations ever painted during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Produced by some of the most accomplished artists of their day, these miniature masterpieces bear vivid testimony to the high achievement of early Netherlandish art outside of the tradition of larger scale painting in oil made familiar to modern audiences through the work of such great masters as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Hugo van der Goes. Even within the distinguished tradition of Flemish illumination, the Isabella Breviary is arguably one of the most remarkable works ever produced. Yet, the Breviary is much more. It is also one of the most outstanding works of art associated with the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, and Queen Isabella of Castile in particular. It certainly offers a most vivid manifestation of the confidence, power, opulence and fervent Christian faith of the queen who, with her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, single-mindedly sought religious and nation unity in Spain, laid the foundations of Spain’s enrichment from the New World and established by inter-marriage with the Hapsburgs a dynasty whose power and wealth was second to none within Western Europe. Much later, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Breviary became one of the outstanding treasures of the British national collection of books and manuscripts. Within the British Library, it bears testimony to the significance of its vast collections for the preservation and understanding of the world’s cultural heritage.

February, f. 2r

isabella breviary 1

Pisces, the two fish; a landscape snow scene with men cutting down and pruning trees with an axe and sickle, whereas another is gathering sticks into bundles, and another is carrying a bundle away. The Aldenham Hours picture, by the same artist, has the same activities but with a very different iconographic composition, dominated by a large house in the foreground. Pruning, cutting down trees and gathering in wood, are common subjects for the February labour. This is particularly so in Flemish calendars of this period which sometimes also show the chopping up of the wood for firewood, or a group of people carrying bundles of branches back from the woods to their houses.

Apology of the coronation of Queen Isabella, f. 437r

isabella breviary 3

The crowning of Our Lady The image is the work of Gérard Horenbout. The most important aspect of this miniature is its symbolism because in addition to its appropriateness amongst the images of a breviary, Our Lady’s crowning is important as confirmation of the coronation of Isabella herself. When Isabella’s brother, Henry IV of Castile, died on December 11th 1474, she proclaimed herself queen that very day, setting her at loggerheads with her niece, Joanna the Beltraneja, in a civil war that was to last four years.

The painting shows the Holy Trinity crowning Our Lady. The Father and the Son, sharing the same throne and both with a sceptre, hold the crown. Between them, above the throne, is the Holy Ghost shown as a dove. Francisco de Rojas gives the queen the codex with the following words inscribed in gold upon the brown ground of the decorative border:

To Isabella the divine,
Queen of the Spains
and of Sicily, your
most Christian, powerful,
ever august and most clement
supreme lady,
I, Francisco de Rojas,
your humble servant
and creature of your majesty herself,
deserving of the very most,
do give you this breviary

The breviary was undeniably a splendid gift, the best possible, not only because of the first-rate technique and artistry of its images but also because of its political significance and because it is the best symbol of the culmination of a political project on a world scale. Miniatures like this one of the coronation demonstrate not only how important the events following the death of Henry IV were to Isabella (her efforts to obtain the crown and her yearning to be acknowledged by her subjects), but also the determined desire to unify the Iberian Peninsula that characterised her reign.

Coat of arms of the Catholic Monarchs and their children and children-in-law, f. 436v

isabella breviary 2

This impressive miniature features the coat of arms of the Catholic Monarchs upon a mauve ground. The imposing eagle of St John, the tetramorph eagle of the Apocalypse, is present not only because Isabella was crowned on this saint’s feast day but also because of her great devotion to St John the Evangelist. Whilst still an adolescent, Isabella said she wanted this eagle to be the support for her own coat of arms, as revealed by a drawing of hers dated May 15th 1473 (Madrid, RAH, Co. Salazar y Castro, K-37, f. 112v).

The fact that she called her only son John and her second daughter Joanna (the female version of John in Spanish) is also due to this devotion. In this miniature, the eagle’s head is flanked by two phylacteries inscribed with the words sub umbra alarum tuarum protege nos (in the shadow of your wings protect us). Undulating beneath the coat of arms are another three phylacteries with quotations from two psalms:

  • Pro patribus tuis nati sunt tibi filii. Constituisti eos principes super omnem terram – In the stead of your parents shall your children be born unto you, and you shall make them the princes of all the earth (Ps 44, 17)
  • Potens in terra erit semen eius: generatio rectorum benedicetur – Powerful is the lineage of this seed on the earth: blessed be the generation of the righteous (Ps III, 2)

Both quotations are particularly eloquent taking into account the Breviary’s enormous political significance. By marrying the children of Maximilian of Austria and Marie of Burgundy – at a time when America had just been discovered – these two children of the Catholic Monarchs did indeed become virtually “princes of all the earth”. In particular, this image of the coat of arms is a splendid tribute to the culmination of an extremely important political strategy achieved thanks to that double marriage.

The counter-quartered coats of arms underneath are those of the two pairs of spouses. The arms of the children of the Spanish monarchs are the same as those of their parents, and those of the Hapsburg dynasty are quartered with inescutcheon.

These were excerpts from the commentary volume of The Isabella Breviary, by Scot Mickendrick, Head of History and Classics at The British Library; Elisa Ruiz, Professor of Diplomacy and Paleography, Universidad Complutense de Madrid; and Nigel Morgan, Emeritus Honorary Professor of the History of Art, Cambridge University.

To learn more about the The Isabella Breviary and see more images from the manuscript, please visit


The Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado

The Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado

Preserved in Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, Lisbon (1571, Goa)

Commentary by João Carlos Garcia

Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado


This Atlas was made in 1571 by one of the finest Portuguese cartographers, Fernão Vaz Dourado (c. 1520-c. 1580). Vaz Dourado authored at least four different nautical atlases, each of them including 20 maps, painted between 1568 and 1580, which is to say at the pinnacle of Portuguese cartography.

The Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado, made in Goa (a small Portuguese protectorate located in the west cost of India) is the most famous of them. This sublime example of sumptuous cartography seems to owe more to the art of illumination than to cartography.

Fernão Vaz Dourardo was the son of a senior official and a native woman. He lived during the third period of the golden age of Portuguese cartography; hence, his vision of the world already lacks the Ptolemaic influence typical of previous periods.

Images by Vaz Dourado were soon found in the printed cartography of northern Europe such as, for example, the one in Linschoten’s work or the one that circulated in editions of Ortelius’s work. These images were used by everyone as the basis for new versions.

In the oldest existing description of the chart, Varnhagen stated: “The chart on the fifth folio provides key clarifications and due grounds for arriving at conclusions about the Portuguese discovery of and presence along the coasts of North America”. Portuguese historiography resorted to Vaz Dourado’s images to repeat the words of the aforesaid Brazilian researcher. In the late nineteenth century, Ernesto do Canto analyzed the list of toponyms along the coasts shown in the charts to yet again confirm that the Portuguese were the first to explore North America.

This chart depicts the modern day territories of Eastern Canada and North-Eastern USA, with a greater concentration of information around Newfoundland and the vast St. Lawrence river valley, the main means of penetrating the interior of the continent. Newfoundland had long been known to the Portuguese due to its importance as a cod fishing ground and hence the reference in the chart’s title to the “codfish coast”.

Although the Tordesillas meridian is not depicted, the chart is based on the principle that it would have dissected the space portrayed therein: the Spanish dominions to the west and Portuguese dominions to the east. This explains the presence of a shield with the coat of arms of Castile/Aragon, located approximately on the modern day state of Maine (USA) and another shield with the coat of arms of Portugal situated north of the St. Lawrence River, in the “Land of Labrador”. Finally, south of the St. Lawrence, the caption “Land of the Corte-Reais” recalls the arrival of the Corte-Real brothers in 1501. Flags with the cross of the Military Order of Christ can be seen on the Magdalen islands in the centre of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and on the southeast tip of Labrador. To the east the words “Ocean Sea” occupy a large portion of the chart.

Max Justo Guedes made the following comment with regard to this chart’s importance in the context of Vaz Dourado’s work: “The most interesting points of this vast work (…) are related to North America. In the northeast, Dourado followed the French-Portuguese prototype derived from the discoveries by Jacques Cartier which had first been presented by the anonymous author of the so-called Vallard Atlas, but he used the drawing by Diogo Ribeiro – and subsequent modifications – for the Atlantic contours.”

Map 11: West Indies, Central and South America, up to the Amazon River

Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado

West of the Tordesillas meridian extend exclusively Spanish territories in the central strip of the New World. Using the Equator as a base, the image encompasses all of the southern areas of North America, with a special emphasis on “Florida”, the Gulf of Mexico and the large region known today as Central America, “New Spain”, the Antilles and the ocean (“Mare oceanum”), along with the northern areas of South America, where the name “Peru” is placed close to Panama. The image repeats spaces that were well known to and controlled by Spanish cartographers from the late fifteenth century onwards.

 This was an excerpt from the commentary volume of the Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado by João Carlos Garcia (Faculdade de Letras, Universidade do Porto)

 To learn more about the Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado and see images from the manuscript, please visit 

715 year old copy of Magna Carta discovered

When Dr. Mark Bateson, Kent County Council’s Community History Officer, was asked to search for a copy of a thirteenth-century charter, he was able to find it in a Victorian scrapbook. Moroever, in that same scrapbook he made an amazing discovery – a copy of the Magna Carta issued in the year 1300.

Kent County

The document, which is heavily damaged, could still be worth as much as £10 million. It was one of only 24 editions of the Magna Carta in known existence around the world, and was sent by King Edward I to town of Sandwich, which during the Middle Ages was an important English port.

The document seems to have been forgotten over the centuries, and was part of a collection of papers sent from the Town of Sandwich to the Kent County Archive in 1954.

After the discovery in December, the document was sent to Professor Nicholas Vincent, of the University of East Anglia, who is a member of the Magna Carta Project. He was able to authenticate as a genuine copy, and commented that “It is a fantastic discovery which comes in the week that the four other known versions were brought together at the Houses of Parliament. It is a fantastic piece of news for Sandwich which puts it in a small category of towns and institutions that own a 1300 issue.”

He added, “it must have been much more widely distributed than previously thought because if Sandwich had one… the chances are it went out to a lot of other towns. And it is very likely that there are one or two out there somewhere that no one has spotted yet.”

The other thirteenth-century document found in the Victorian scrapbook was a 1271 copy of The Charter of the Forest, which is a companion document to the Magna Carta. Issued just two years after the Magna Carta, it re-established rights of access to royal forests for free men, which allowed people to collect firewood and have their animals graze in these woods without being arrested by the king’s authorities.

The Mayor of Sandwich, Paul Graeme, issued a statement about the discovery: “On behalf of Sandwich Town Council, I would like to say that we are absolutely delighted to discover that an original Magna Carta and original Charter of the Forest, previously unknown, are in our ownership. To own one of these documents, let alone both, is an immense privilege given their international importance.

“Perhaps it is fitting that they belong to a town where Tom Paine lived, who proposed in his pamphlet Common Sense a Continental Charter for what were then the American colonies, “answering to what is called the Magna Carta of England… securing freedom and property to all men, and… the free exercise of religion…”. Through the American Declaration of Independence, continuing in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Magna Carta still underpins individual liberties worldwide. To own such a document – and the Charter of the Forest – is an honour and a great responsibility.”

The Auchinleck Manuscript: A Study in Manuscript Production, Scribal Innovation, and Literary Value in the Early 14th Century

The Auchinleck Manuscript: A Study in Manuscript Production, Scribal Innovation, and Literary Value in the Early 14th Century

By Tricia Kelly George

PhD Dissertation, University of Tennessee – Knoxville, 2014

Auchinleck Manuscript

Abstract: The Auchinleck Manuscript (National Library of Scotland Advocates 19.2.1) was written in London by six scribes and contains 44 extant texts. This manuscript is an early 14th century English manuscript (c. 1331) best known for its many unique and first versions of texts, such as the first version of the Breton lay Sir Orfeo, a Breton adaptation of the Orpheus legend. It is also the first literary manuscript we have that is written almost entirely in English after the Norman Conquest. My research provides answers to some of the perennial questions raised by scholars concerning this manuscript: the identities of the master artist, the patron, and the scribes as well as the date and provenance. I have identified that the master artist for the Auchinleck was the Subsidiary Queen Mary Artist although his contribution is mostly indirect, that the wealthy patron commissioning the manuscript was tied to the Warwick title and most likely was Thomas de Beauchamp, and that the scribes were Chancery clerks who created this manuscript in London c. 1331. I demonstrate that the physical evidence, the mise-en-page, the work of the artists, the scribal agency in decision-making, and the unique content of the texts establish that the scribes and artists were working collaboratively to create this important literary English manuscript and were very likely conscious of its political impact. My analysis also demonstrates for the first time that there were two different scribal teams, a senior team and a junior team, with the senior scribes having agency and supervision over the junior scribes. My new presentation of their scribal collaboration helps not only to further clarify the identity of these scribes but also to make sense of many decisions made in the mise-en-page. Lastly, I also discuss the impact the contents of the Auchinleck literature appears to have had on its powerful patron, Thomas de Beauchamp, as he, his brother John, and their friend King Edward III prepared their countrymen for the Hundred Years War.

The Auchinleck Manuscript (National Library of Scotland Advocates MS. 19.2.1) has presented tantalizing mysteries for scholars for several centuries because the 334 extant folios of the Auchinleck Manuscript have not left solid evidence as to its provenance, date, scribes, master artist, or patron. In fact, this manuscript has left individuals since at least Sir Walter Scott puzzling over such identifications. Furthermore, although I argue that the manuscript can now be reliably dated to c.1331, the Auchinleck Manuscript still does not easily fit in the milieu of the early 14th century. For example, the 44 extant poems are composed almost entirely in Middle English at a time when Middle English was just starting to emerge as a literary language. In addition, the poems in the Auchinleck Manuscript are often regarded as the first extant versions or unique versions of the texts, so their sources cannot easily be determined. Furthermore, the fact that the manuscript contains five extant miniatures and two illustrated initials (and evidence for at least thirteen more miniatures) causes this manuscript to stand out from most of the early 14th century codices because illustrations were generally too expensive to add to manuscripts, particularly vernacular manuscripts. And yet, the illustrations themselves are too few and of too poor a quality to have drawn much notice from art historians. Indeed, many fundamental questions still exist about this extraordinary manuscript. Where was it written, by whom, and what patron was wealthy enough to finance its production? And for what end? The only evidence we have to answer such questions is the manuscript itself. Therefore, my dissertation presents a methodology (or a set of related methodologies) for ascertaining these identifications as well as the answers I propose to these long unsolved and tantalizing questions.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Tennessee

Digging into the Secrets of Medieval Manuscripts

By Marguerite Rigoglioso

Most people don’t realize that medieval manuscripts carry in them not only the words of people centuries ago, but also a history in blood, sweat and tears – quite literally.

Breviary of Renaud de Bar. France (Verdun), c.1303

Take the 13th-century British tome that did double duty as an impromptu shield for a hapless monk when the Vikings attacked his monastery. Bloodstains that can still be found on its interior pages bespeak of the gruesome encounter. Or witness the telltale signs of devotional weeping – blurry ink and puckered vellum – that pepper descriptions of the suffering of Christ in numerous illuminated prayer books once pored over by the faithful throughout Europe.

Texts of the Middle Ages may be something of an open book, but, says Stanford University medievalist Elaine Treharne, it takes a trained eye to recognize the numerous and nuanced historical details in the manuscripts that once served paupers, priests and princes. But help is on the way, in the way of a Stanford Online course.

Where the first European manuscripts were made, how they were constructed, what they were about and what they reveal about European culture are among the topics Treharne covers in the free course, Digging Deeper: Making Manuscripts.

In over three decades of research, teaching and writing, Treharne, the Roberta Bowman Denning Professor at Stanford, has cast her eyes on thousands of codices, scrolls, diplomata and books, from the most gilded and bejeweled to the most simple and modest. She has published dozens of articles and 26 books on Old and Middle English, manuscript studies and, more recently, early text technologies.

“Medieval manuscripts provide us with a real point of access to the Middle Ages. They put us in direct contact with ancestors in a way that helps us understand the past and make connections with the present,” she says.

This online manuscript training course brings rarely seen volumes – generally guarded with great care at Stanford and Cambridge universities – to computer screens worldwide. With a click of a mouse, amateurs and experts can thumb through texts of epic poems, books of psalms, romances, musical scores, classical manuscripts and more. The works appear in Latin as well as the older varieties of English, French and other European languages. Through video portraiture, course participants can view the manuscripts close up, and can virtually enter the rarefied space of the manuscript repositories and witness how manuscripts are handled.

The hallmark of the course is that it provides the “codes” to the codices. “We help people understand things like how the books are put together,” says Treharne. “Until the 13th and 14th centuries, they were made from various kinds of animal skins, so the pages have a smooth side and a hair side, and analyzing all this is important for learning about the manuscript’s origin.”

Moreover, while it may be fine to glance at a page of vintage Chaucer, unless you’ve been schooled in medieval calligraphy (and Middle English) you might find it difficult to read a word. “Scribes wrote in particular styles of script that can be difficult or impossible to decipher unless you have some instruction,” she says. “This is part of how we help people dig deeper into the works.”

“Each medieval manuscript is made entirely by hand and is therefore completely unique. You never know what you’re going to find when you open one. I’m passionate about them,” says the British-born scholar, who reports finding a particularly delightful treasure on the inner pages of one recently explored tome: a doodle of a sea-monster.

Treharne admits to having an obsession with old texts and their relationship to medieval history since she was young. “From the earliest age I used to write in notebooks and diaries with locks on them,” she said. “I’ve always been really nosy and like to read what others have written in years gone by. That led to a fascination with the fact that before the printing press, people would go through so much trouble just to produce one book.”

A Digital Renaissance

The course – and the expansion of the entire field of medieval manuscript studies – has been made much easier by the presence of the Internet. “Over the last 10 years we’ve seen a large increase in the number of manuscripts now available,” said Treharne, who directs Stanford Text Technologies, a large interdisciplinary project that explores how texts from cuneiform tablets to contemporary books are made.

Currently completing the Oxford Very Short Introduction to Medieval Literature and The Phenomenal Book, 600 to 1200, Treharne also manages a project through the National Endowment for the Humanities called “Global Currents: Cultures of Literary Networks, 1050-1900.” In that project, she says, “We’re analyzing how manuscripts have been constructed all over the world, and we’re training computers how to ‘read’ medieval manuscripts.”

“I’ve had the vision for a course like this for quite some time, but it’s only Stanford’s incredible team of programmers, film producers and digital project managers that has made it come to life,” Treharne says.

The course, which began online on January 20th, has attracted thousands of course participants from all over the world – and is still open for enrollment. The course modules are hosted on the Stanford OpenEdEx platform and include filmed sequences of experts with manuscripts, reading assignments, a short transcription and self-testing quizzes. Participants who successfully complete the course can earn a statement of accomplishment.

A second online course, Interpreting Manuscripts, is scheduled for April. “We’ll be looking at the finer business of understanding a manuscript,” Treharne says.

With the advent of the digital age, medieval textual studies will only continue to grow. “There are thousands of manuscripts located all over the world that have never been studied,” she says. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s available.

“It’s an exciting moment in this field. I love it, and I love talking about it. It allows us a window onto the past and gives us insights about who we are as human beings.”

You can also follow Elaine Treharne on Twitter @ETreharne

Source: Stanford University

This Week in Medieval Manuscript Images

From a Lobster Knight to the murder of Charles the Good – here are nearly 50 medieval manuscript images we found on Twitter this week:

Click here to take a look at more images from previous weeks.

woman in dragon

The Great Canterbury Psalter

The Great Canterbury Psalter 

(Anglo-Catalan Psalter) Canterbury 13th Century – Barcelona 14th Century

(Lat. 8846) Preserved in Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

The following article is an excerpt from the commentary volume of The Great Canterbury Psalter by Rosa Alcoy (Professor of Art History at the University of Barcelona).

Canterbury, around the year 1200

Henry II is king of England and following his marriage to Leonor of Aquitaine his dominions encompass part of France too. In 1170, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, has returned from his exile in France with a series of splendid manuscripts illuminated on the continent, which were to influence the style of the Christ Church scriptorium, one of the most important centres making illuminated codices in England.

At that time this workshop was a hive of activity thanks to a fascinating and ambitious project: a triple Psalter featuring the Latin, Hebrew and Gallican versions of the Psalms in addition to glosses in Anglo-Norman, a dialect stemming from the French spoken in England for three centuries following the Norman conquest, and considered to be an educated language and the one preferred by the court, the upper classes and the State.

The Canterbury workshop, in keeping with Carolingian tradition, designed a codex that combined texts and images in such an ingenious composition that it constituted, in the words of Professor Klaus Reinhardt Ph.D., a peerless masterpiece. The English artists organised the spaces allocated to text and specified the position and size of the miniatures. They copied virtually the whole text in impeccable script, there being no sign of any mistakes or corrections, and illuminated the first part of the codex.

The English masters decided to begin the psalter with daring paintings intended for an erudite audience. They created four full-page, illuminated folios that could not fail to impress the patron or anyone else privileged enough to see them. The Canterbury artists created a dazzling prologue providing a detailed summary of the history of humanity according to the scriptures in fabulous images.

The spectacular nature of the project, the splendour of the manuscript and the lavish use of gold suggest it may have been a psalter for a king: Henry II himself, Louis VII of France or even Philip Augustus in the early years of his reign. Another candidate of noble birth could be Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony.

The English artists created a universe brimming with unusual scenes whose singularity and complex symbolism made them difficult to interpret. The almost dream-like portrayal of nature, with unreal, imaginary forms, is stunning. The painters endowed the animals with a personality of their own, depicting them with such expressive faces that they sometimes seem to be speaking to each other. The wealth of colours and lavish use of gold make this manuscript a veritable gem.

However, the English miniaturists’ painstaking task was mysteriously interrupted. Something happened to the workshop or the codex that prevented the Canterbury masters from completing the meticulous illumination work they had undertaken.

Great Canterbury Psalter1

Barcelona, more than a century later

Pedro the Ceremonious was crowned king of Aragón and Catalonia in 1336. The painter and miniaturist, Ferrer Bassa, had already returned from his journey acquiring knowledge in Tuscany where he had been in contact with the most fertile and creative painting in the Italian Trecento.

Bassa produced several works commissioned by the king in his Barcelona workshop. A splendid psalter of English origin came into his hands, but, for some unknown reason, it was unfinished. The English masters had, however, left sketches for seven miniatures and allocated blank spaces for the rest. It is highly likely that Pedro the Ceremonious insisted on Ferrer Bassa completing this spectacular psalter for him whilst respecting its sumptuous lavishness. Modern-day researchers have found many clues linking its completion to the king himself.

The seven paintings drawn by the Canterbury masters and painted by Ferrer Bassa a century later are the result of a truly unique combination of the Anglo-Byzantine culture close to the 1200 and the pictorial forms of the 1300 Italianate Gothic. They constitute a remarkable fusion of cultures, a hybrid art in which no boundaries of space, time or culture exist.

In the second part of the manuscript, Ferrer Bassa’s brushstrokes reinterpret the Byzantine dimension of English painting with greater artistic license, revealing a thorough knowledge of trecentist pictorial resources. Bassa’s images convey new ways of structuring space along with more naturalist landscapes.

Ferrer Bassa, considered to be the finest painter in the Crown of Aragón in the 14th century, developed a personality of his own, clearly marked by the Tuscan styles of the Trecento, particularly those of Florence and Siena with which he was so familiar. A painter making a delicate, elegant and refined use of colour.

Bassa was the painter of the Catalan-Aragonese royal household and the preferred artist of Alfonso el Benigno (the kind) and Pedro the Ceremonious, who both commissioned him to produce several works for their residences and chapels royal. Most of them were apparently portraits, now missing.

great canterbury psalter2

The Anglo-Catalan Psalter: a brilliant example of the internationalization of culture

Two periods, two places, two artistic style and two workshops for a single manuscript: the Anglo-Catalan Psalter.

Around the year 1200, English art experienced one of its most brilliant periods, a time when the last Romanesque stage, a marked influence of Byzantine art and the beginnings of a new style known as Gothic all came together. This rich, artistic amalgam was to merge, more than a century later, with the finest, Italianate Gothic introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by Bassa Ferrer. The result is a perfect symbiosis between the most splendid English painting of the late 12th century and the most innovative and interesting Catalan painting of the 14th century.

This convergence of the two different figurative cultures of England and Catalonia, more than one hundred years apart, is one of the most important features of the codex, a facet that makes it unique in the history of art. The Anglo-Catalan Psalter is an essential manuscript for an understanding of medieval European painting.

This lavish psalter captivated the leading figures of western history and occupied a place of honour in their libraries. It belonged to the exquisite Jean, duque de Berry and the first female bibliophile in history, Margaret of Austria, who bequeathed it to Mary of Hungary, emperor Charles V’s sister. Napoleon Bonaparte removed it from the Bourgogne library in Brussels and took it to Paris in 1796. In 1809, it received the binding featuring Napoleon I’s coat of arms that it has retained to the present day.

great canterbury psalter 3


To learn more about the Great Canterbury Psalter, and see more images, please visit 

Thirteenth-century Papal Bull repaired and digitized

By Glenn Drexhage

An extraordinary Papal document that’s nearly 800 years old has become a valuable teaching and research tool at University of British Columbia, thanks to a history instructor’s passion and the university library’s restoration efforts.

Detail of the Papal bull, which consists of sheepskin or calfskin parchment. Credit: Don Erhardt

The medieval gem, called a Papal bull, was written in 1245. A legal decree issued in Latin by Pope Innocent IV to the Italian convent of San Michele in Trento, it features the signatures of the Pope and 13 cardinals, including the future pope Nicholas III.

Now housed in the University of British Columbia (UBC) Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections the document also been digitized. “UBC has acquired something really exceptional,” says Richard Pollard, an early European specialist and instructor in UBC’s Department of History. “It’s very useful as a representation of medieval documents generally.”

The Papal bull was purchased by the university for approximately $15,000 last May from Bernard Quaritch Ltd., an antiquarian book and manuscript seller in London, England. The bull arrived at UBC Library two months later in good shape, although there were some concerns. Among those was the fact that the document, which consists of sheepskin or calfskin parchment, had been stored in a folded fashion for centuries. As a result, it featured numerous thick creases that caused small gaps and tears.

Anne Lama, conservator at the library, previously spent a decade working at the National Archives in Paris. To address the creases, she placed the document in a humidification chamber, a rectangular structure with a Plexiglas lid that regulates moisture in order to “relax” the bull and soften its stubborn creases. “The document is like a patient,” explains Lama. “Restoration is like medicine.”

She also undertook other efforts, which included dusting, gap-filling, and drying and flattening the bull. The result is a gorgeous, golden-hued specimen. “I’m completely happy,” says Lama. “Now we can read the document without damaging it.”

It’s good news for medieval scholars such as Pollard, who has featured it in his history course focused on the European early Middle Ages. The bull would also appeal to students of classics, literature, law, theology and art history, he says.

“It’s very useful in and of itself as a historical document. From the student perspective, though, it’s the direct connection that matters,” says Pollard. “It’s all very abstract to them until they see this. This is the stuff of history. Everything we know about the 13th century comes to us through such documents.”

Arlen Bourque, a UBC history major and one of Pollard’s students, agrees. “When I saw the Papal bull for the first time, I was absolutely captivated,” he says. “The degree of sophistication used by our ancestors is simply astounding.”

UBC’s Katherine Kalsbeek and Richard Pollard admire the Papal bull acquired by UBC Library. The medieval document, written in 1245, is likely the oldest of its kind in Canada. Credit: Don Erhardt

UBC’s Katherine Kalsbeek and Richard Pollard admire the Papal bull acquired by UBC Library. The medieval document, written in 1245, is likely the oldest of its kind in Canada. Credit: Don Erhardt

Indeed, the bull – which measures about 2 ft by 1.8 ft (62 cm by 56 cm) – is an enthralling medieval document. Highlights include the first line, which boasts elongated letters referred to as litterae elongatae. Meanwhile, a circular Papal monogram called a rota (Latin for “wheel”) features a cross ­­– likely penned by the Pope himself. Every sentence ends in a particular rhythmical cadence called cursus, similar in effect to a poem. “They wrote far more carefully than we do in the Middle Ages,” notes Pollard. “They paid much more attention to what things actually sounded like.”

In addition, a leaden seal features images of St. Paul and St. Peter and a flowing tail of a blue ribbon and red and yellow silk. This seal is actually the part of the document that is formally referred to as the “bull”; it’s pierced through the parchment and acts as an authenticator.

“By bringing documents such as this to UBC Library, we help bring history to life,” says Katherine Kalsbeek, Acting Head of Rare Books and Special Collections. “It’s a new area of collecting for us, and the student response has been incredible. It’s very inspiring for them.”

Click here to access the Digital Copy of the Papal Bull

Papal monogram  rota

Gift Giving in the Middle Ages – new exhibition at The Getty

More than the pretty wrapping paper and ribbon we use today, gift exchange in the Middle Ages was the social interaction that defined and manifested relationships between family and friends, acquaintances and strangers, and God and the church. Just in time for the holidays, Give and Ye Shall Receive: Gift Giving in the Middle Ages, is now on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It examines the culture of gift giving in the Middle Ages as depicted in illuminated manuscripts.

gift giving middle ages - Cutting from a choir book, 1470s - Photo courtesy

Bringing together 20 works, both from the Museum’s extraordinary manuscripts collection and several major loans from other museums and private collections, the exhibition explores models of giving that appear in devotional texts, philanthropic and strategic giving in medieval society, and the commissioning of luxury manuscripts as gifts. The medieval book itself was a particularly powerful present, an object filled with words and striking images meant to edify and flatter the recipient, as well as to solidify political and social relationships.

“Modern-day customs of gift giving have their origin in practices that flourished from the early Middle Ages through the Renaissance,” explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “As well as being valuable and prestigious gifts themselves, illuminated manuscripts also depict famous instances of gift giving throughout the arc of history from antiquity and biblical times to the contemporary medieval figures who commissioned and owned these lavish productions.”

“Just as today, the giving of these beautiful, valuable and coveted items in medieval times was an expected part of forging alliances, the tokens of honor for secular and religious leaders, and the ultimate way to celebrate a family milestone. Half a millennium later, they have lost none of their allure and preciousness.”

Models for Giving

Giving freely to those who are less fortunate is one of the central tenets of medieval and modern-day Christianity. Medieval texts and images presented many models of generosity for Christians to follow. Manuscript images depicting monetary donations as well as food and clothing given to the poor and the infirm provided a visual guide for proper Christian behavior. In Initial H: Saint Martin Dividing His Cloak (about 1260-70), the artist shows Saint Martin, a soldier in the Roman army, diving his red, ermine-lined cloak with his sword and giving half of it to a beggar freezing in the winter cold. This story directly parallels Christ’s statement to his apostles, “I was naked and you clothed me” (Matthew 25:36). Later accounts of this famous story from the saint’s life state that the cloak belonged to the army and therefore was not Martin’s to give in full, which explains his seemingly less-than-generous gift of only half a cloak.

Bishop Engilmar Celebrating Mass - 11th  century - Getty MuseumThe Culture of Giving

Gift giving permeated all aspects of medieval life, including the economy, politics, spirituality, and even the act of bookmaking itself. In part, our understanding of this culture is informed by the images of donation and patronage found in medieval manuscripts. Scenes of well-off individuals giving to charity, political leaders currying favor through a well-considered gift, and books presented to royal or ecclesiastical patrons all demonstrate the often-complex dynamic between the gift giver and the recipient in the medieval world. In Alchandreus Presents His Work to a King (about 1405) by the Virgil Master, the philosopher Alchandreus kneels in his green robe and presents a copy of his text on astronomy to a king, perhaps meant to be Alexander the Great. The luxuriously clothed courtiers who fill the reception hall are an accurate representation of the wealthy patrons who commissioned manuscripts in fifteenth-century France, where this book was made.

“This image demonstrates the integral relationship between the patron who sponsors the book’s creation, the author who writes the text, and the presentation of the final product—namely the actual volume that the reader holds in his or her hands as Alchandreus does,” says Christine Sciacca, curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum and curator of the exhibition.

Patrons and Their Books

While in the present day the role of the artist is regarded as paramount in the inception and creation of a work of art, in the Middle Ages the patron of an illuminated book or other work of art was often by far the most instrumental factor in shaping its appearance and content. Subsequently, owners sometimes had their books personalized with their portraits, their coats of arms, their mottos, or symbols standing in for them that endured for generations as the book was passed down within a family. Included in this section is a heavily illustrated copy of Rudolf von Ems’s World Chronicle in which the book’s multiple owners added portraits, coats of arms, and other details in order to mark the manuscript with their personal identities.

The Book as Gift

Expensive to purchase, infinitely customizable, and highly portable, illuminated manuscripts were ideally suited to become gifts in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. These precious treasures were frequently offered by patrons to churches and monasteries, presented from one secular ruler to another, and given between husband and wife or from parent to child. A charming example of the book as gift is a 15th-century English psalter shown in the exhibition. While the original owner is not known, on a page at the beginning of the manuscript is a note written in the twentieth century from book collector Philip Hofer to his wife, Frances: “Bunnie, darling. Your engagement ‘ring’ remember? P.H.” This idea of the book as an engagement gift is analogous to the medieval practice of commissioning manuscripts on the occasion of a marriage.

Give and Ye Shall Receive: Gift Giving in the Middle Ages will be on view until March 15, 2015 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center. Please visit for more details

Domiciling the Evangelists in Anglo-Saxon England: a Fresh Reading of Aldred’s colophon in the Lindisfarne Gospels

Domiciling the Evangelists in Anglo-Saxon England: a Fresh Reading of Aldred’s colophon in the Lindisfarne Gospels

By Francis Newton, Francis Newton Jr. and Chris Scheirer

Anglo-Saxon England Vol.41 (2012)

Aldred's colophon

Abstract: The Codex ‘Lindisfarnensis’ (London, British Library, Cotton Nero D. iv, early eighth-century) was glossed in Old English by the tenth-century priest Aldred. Aldred’s colophon purports to give information about the eighth-century makers of the manuscript at Lindisfarne. What is actually reliable about this highly literary colophon is Aldred’s purpose in writing the gloss: to give the Evangelists a voice to address ‘all the brothers’ − particularly the Latinless. We propose new interpretations of three OE words (gihamadi, inlad, ora) misunderstood before. Aldred was learned; his sources extend from Ovid through the Fathers to contemporary texts

Introduction: Some two centuries or more after its creation, that is, around 950, the priest Aldred, at Chester-le-Street (between Newcastle-upon-Tyne to the north and Durham to the south) glossed the entire text of the manuscript interlinearly in Old English – the earliest Old English version of all four gospels that survives. Aldred tells us that he did this in the colophon he added in his own hand in Old English and in Latin at the end (259rb). The book is triply precious, for the history of book-making, for the text of the Latin Gospels and for the history of the English language. But Aldred’s long colophon says a great deal more: he asserts that the book was written (by this he must understand the decoration also) by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne, who died in the year 721, bound by Æthelwald, his successor as bishop there, and decorated with gold and gems by Billfrith the anchorite. This information has been generally accepted by historians of art and palaeographers – scholars such as E. A. Lowe and, recently, Michelle Brown. Through most of the history of discussion of the magnificent manuscript, those who studied it have drawn data piece by piece from Aldred’s colophon, taking at face value, for the most part, and literally the separate bits of information so obtained.

It was only in 2003, in an article in Speculum, that Lawrence Nees looked at the colophon as a whole; he called attention to its artistic symmetries, such as the play upon the number four: the invocation of the triune God (3 + 1), the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and, of course, the four churchmen who are said to have worked on the gospel book: Eadfrith, Æthelwald, Billfrith and Aldred himself. Nees has also called for an investigation of Aldred’s sources. This present study traces a background of inspiration that includes, in the classical period the elegiac poet Ovid and, from the same century as Ovid, the Gospel writers, in the patristic period the father Jerome, and later Cassiodorus and Bede, in the Carolingian era the poets Alcuin and Theodulf, and in Aldred’s own day the law codes and charters of late Anglo-Saxon England. The result, we hope, is a clearer understanding of Aldred’s colophon as a literary creation.

Click here to read this article from

Latin Grammar in the Cathedral School: Fulbert of Chartres, Bonipert of Pécs, and the Way of a Lost Priscian Manuscript

Priscian, or the Grammar, relief from the bell tower of Florence by Luca della Robbia

Priscian, or the Grammar, relief from the bell tower of Florence by Luca della Robbia

Latin Grammar in the Cathedral School: Fulbert of Chartres, Bonipert of Pécs, and the Way of a Lost Priscian Manuscript

Elöd Nemerkényi (Erasmus Institute, Notre Dame)

Quidditas: Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, Volume 22 (2001)


The starting point of the classical tradition in medieval Hungary is marked by a letter written by Bishop Fulbert of Chartres in Northern France to Bishop Bonipert of Pécs in Southern Hungary. In this letter, dated by its editor to 1023, Fulbert assured his colleague, Bonipert that he was going to send him one of his copies of Priscian: “Our son and your faithful servant Hilduin has told us of your gestures of charity toward us and dutifully stated that you would like one of our copies of Priscian. We are happy to send this by him, and whatever else you should ask of us we shall be most delighted to send you if we can; and if you should need and want us to, and if we are able, we ourselves shall most obediently attend you in person.” The otherwise unspecified Priscian manuscript mentioned in Fulbert’s letter is now lost. Departing from this evidence, however, it is possible to explore the implications of teaching and learning Latin in a recently Christianized country.

First of all, it is necessary to give an overview about the persons involved in this correspondence. A former disciple of Gerbert of Aurillac in the cathedral school of Reims, Fulbert was one of the greatest intellectuals of his time. He was bishop of Chartres between 1007 and 1029. Recalling his memories, one of the alumni of the cathedral school of Chartres, Adelman of Liège, called Fulbert Socrates in a letter to Berengar of Tours: “in the academy of Chartres under our venerable Socrates.” Fulbert of Chartres had close connection with Abbot Odilo of Cluny who was in correspondence with King Stephen of Hungary in the late 1030s about relics to be sent to the altars of Hungarian churches.

Click here to read this article from Quidditas

The Lindisfarne Gospels: A Living Manuscript

The Lindisfarne Gospels: A Living Manuscript

By Margaret Walker

FORUM: University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Special Issue 3 (2014)

Lindisfarne Gospels

Abstract: This article questions how current and previous owners have marked the Lindisfarne Gospels, created 1,300 years ago. Their edits, which would be frowned upon today, are useful for historians to understand how the Gospels have been valued by previous owners and thus why they are so treasured today.

Introduction: The Lindisfarne Gospels are on display in the treasures gallery of the British Library. The eighth-century Insular manuscript is opened and accompanied by a short caption with information about the work. i It is presented as a 1,300-year-old masterpiece, which has survived to the present day against the odds of time. The average visitor will overlook even the most pervasive changes that can be observed in the manuscript. With modern science and ever improving conservation technologies, we are quick to judge those who “desecrate” items from the past, but we are far less critical if that physical change was made two centuries ago. The display of the Lindisfarne Gospels should prompt viewers to question how what they see today is not the original but rather a manuscript that has lived among many communities and bears marks from them. It is difficult to criticise edits made long ago, though, especially when they harm only the aesthetics of the book. The changes made to the Lindisfarne Gospels have only affected how the manuscript is viewed; it remains a book of the Holy Scriptures. When studied with historical empathy, the edits are beneficial for enabling an understanding of this book as a sacred text, a work of art, and a window into British curatorial practices.

Physical changes to the Lindisfarne Gospels denote how their symbolic significance has changed over time. The book was created within a monastic community and kept by the church until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. In this capacity, it was both a sacred text and a relic of St. Columba. However, the seventeenth-century collector of manuscripts, Sir Robert Cotton, likely bought the book because he recognised its scholarly value and artistic richness. Once the Gospels came into the national collection at the British Library they became a link to the past and a relic of Britain’s national identity. Yet all of the book’s curators have left a mark, whether within the text or as an addition to the original manuscript. These marks take many forms, internal and external, but almost all were motivated by recognition that this was an uncommonly beautiful and historically significant manuscript.

Click here to read this article from the University of Edinburgh 

‘Archaic Mark’: A Remarkable Manuscript Treasure or a Modern-Day Counterfeit?

‘Archaic Mark’: A Remarkable Manuscript Treasure or a Modern-Day Counterfeit?

Lecture by Margaret Mitchell

Given at the University of Chicago on November 7, 2012

The Library Society presents Divinity School Dean Margaret Mitchell explaining the remarkable story of “Archaic Mark,” one of the biblical manuscripts in the University of Chicago’s Goodspeed Manuscript Collection, and the team efforts required to determine once and for all whether this miniature codex is a valuable fourteenth-century manuscript of the Gospel According to Mark—or a clever modern counterfeit.

Archiac Mark

See also: Archaic Mark is a modern forgery, not a medieval manuscript

See also: More Images from the Archaic Mark

The Book of Felicity

By Mónica Miró

In the latter half of the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire was the largest and most powerful in the world. Its domains, stretching from Budapest to Baghdad, from Oman and Tunis to Mecca and Medina near the Red Sea, encompassed cities as great as Damascus, Alexandria and Cairo. The Turks were at the gates of Vienna and controlled the Silk Route, the Black Sea and the eastern half of the Mediterranean. The sultan governed the empire from Constantinople, where architects, painters, calligraphers, jewellers, ceramists, poets, etc, were at his service with his court and harem. Learned, sybarite sultans, such as Süleyman the Magnificent and his grandson Murad III, became great patrons of the arts and were responsible for the spectacular growth of the workshops in the Seraglio that gave birth to an original Ottoman artform that shook off the Persian influence still lingering in the 15th century.

The 16th and early 17th centuries were the most fertile period of Turkish-Ottoman painting, with the reign of Murad III (1574-1595) being particularly prolific in beautiful works of art, such as the Matali’ al-saadet or Book of Felicity by Muhammad ibn Amir Hasan al-Su’udi.

The Book of Felicity – which the sultan himself, whose portrait appears on folio 7v, commissioned especially for his daughter Fatima – features descriptions of the twelve signs of the zodiac accompanied by splendid miniatures; a series of paintings showing how human circumstances are influenced by the planets; astrological and astronomical tables; and an enigmatic treatise on fortune telling.

book of felicity

The oriental world unfolds before our very eyes in each miniature: mysterious characters in peculiar poses, exotic, brightly coloured garments, luxurious mansions and sumptuous palaces, muezzins in the minarets of mosques calling the faithful to prayer, elegant horsemen riding their stylised horses with lavishly embellished trappings. Countless exotic animals fill the pages of this manuscript: exuberant peacocks, extraordinary sea serpents, giant fish, eagles and other birds of prey, swallows, storks and other birds drawn in an elegant, stylised manner revealing considerable influence by Japanese painting. There is also an entire chapter on the monsters appearing in medieval, Turkish imagery, brimming with menacing demons and imaginary beasts.

All the paintings seem to be by the same workshop under the guidance of the famous master Ustad ‘Osman, undoubtedly the artist of the opening series of paintings dedicated to the signs of the zodiac. ‘Osman, active between around 1559 and 1596, directed the artists in the Seraglio workshop from 1570 onwards and created a style, adopted by other painters at the court, characterised by accurate portraits and a magnificent treatment of illustration.

To learn more about The Book of Felicity, and see more images, please visit 

Moleiro_banner (4)

Early copy of the Qur’an discovered

Researchers in Germany have discovered that a manuscript of Qur’an written between 20 and 40 years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, making it one of the earliest copies of the Islamic holy book known to be in existence.

early copy of quran

Taking a sample from the manuscript for dating. Photo: Dr. Wilfried Lagler/Universitätsbibliothek Tübingen

Scholars at the Coranica Project, part of the University of Tübingen, examined a manuscript written in Kufic script, one of the oldest forms of Arabic writing. Using carbon-14 dating on three samples of the manuscript parchment, the researchers concluded that it was more than 95 percent likely to have originated in the period 649-675 AD.

The manuscript is one of more than 20 fragments of Kufic script held by the Tübingen University Library. This particular item was donated to the university in the 19th century.

The entire manuscript has already been digitized and can be viewed here.

The Coranica project, a collaboration between the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Paris and the Berlin-Brandenburgischen Academy of the Sciences and Humanities, sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and France’s Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR). The project investigates the Quran in the context of its historical background using documents such as manuscripts and information derived from archaeological excavations. Click here to visit their website.

See also:

Was a Woman the first editor of the Qur’an?


Healthy Eating in the Middle Ages: the Tacuinum Sanitatis

chestnutsBy Mónica Miró

In the late Middle Ages, princes and the powerful learnt the health and hygiene rules of rational medicine from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a treatise on well-being and health widely disseminated in the 14th and 15th centuries. The treatise, originally known as Taqwin al-sihha, was written in Arabic by Ububchasym de Baldach, or Ibn Butlân as he was also known, a Christian physician born in Baghdad and who died in 1068.

The author sets forth the “six things that are necessary for each individual to preserve health in everyday life or [if need be], to restore it and apply a treatment” (… de sex rebus que sunt necessarie cuilibet homini ad cotidianam conseruationem sanitatis siue rectificationibus et operationibus …). The things said to be necessary are described in medieval tradition as “sex res non naturales”, i.e. six non-natural things, which are as follows:

  • the air surrounding us;
  • food and drink;
  • the movement of the body and rest;
  • excess or, on the contrary, lack of sleep;
  • the retention and elimination of humours, i.e. the liquids identified in ancient and medieval medicine as the physiological constituents of the body;
  • food and drink;
  • joy, fear and anxiety.

In short, everything that contributes to a person’s physical and emotional well-being and which, when well balanced, ensures health and when imbalanced, illness.

Ibn Butlân’s “tables of health” were translated into Latin in Palermo, at the court of Manfred, king of Sicily from 1258 to 1266, under the title of Tacuinum Sanitatis. In the late fourteenth century, in Lombardy, a highly developed series of illustrations was incorporated into this treatise, the starting point for a series of copies that spread beyond Italian frontiers. Every page is illuminated with a miniature and a legend stating the nature of the element depicted the characteristics of what is deemed best for human health, its benefits, any harm it may cause and the remedy for such harm.

Chestnuts. Nature: hot in the first degree, dry in the second. Optimum: whole and very ripe. Benefit: for the chest and urine problems, they whet the appetite and cure nausea and vomiting. Harm: they damage the brain and stomach with flatulence. Remedy for harm: if roasted and eaten with salt and good, light wine. Effects: reasonably good food. Advisable for hot temperaments, young people and children, in winter and in cold regions.

Not only do we find these elements in their natural environment, but we can also see them once they have been picked and presented for sale. At the confectioner’s, full of colored vessels and shining glass jars, are delicious pine nuts with a spiced sugar coating, one of the sweets most popular in the Middle Ages. Also on sale are dried fruit and nuts, figs and raisins, particularly the “large raisins from Gerasa” that Ibn Butlân recommended old people eat in winter since “they are effective against intestinal pain, strengthen the liver and the stomach, and if they burn the blood, this can be remedied with lemon” (f. 54).


Click here to continue reading and see more images about pears, cherries, cabbages and more medieval foods 

The Bible in the Middle Ages

Twenty images from medieval manuscripts showing famous scenes from the Bible, including Adam and Eve, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and the Last Supper.

You can see many of these images through the British Library’s Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and the Morgan Library and Museum. See also:

Images of the Medieval Apocalypse

Images of the Medieval City

Top 10 Strangest Miracles of the Middle Ages

The Bible in the Middle Ages

The Bible of St. Louis: An Introduction

Bible of st louisBy  Ramón Gonzálvez
Archivist, Toledo Cathedral

Excerpt from Bible of St. Louis

The complex questions arising from the extant manuscript books of the Middle Ages often make it very difficult for readers to grasp their meaning. Although some of the books copied in that period are, in certain respects, relatively easy for cultured persons to understand, others are very complicated on many counts – making the assistance of one or more experts in different fields necessary. Such difficulties may be due to objective factors arising from the nature of the book itself or subjective factors concerning the education of the user. When dealing with manuscript books, it is wise not to jump to firm conclusions until after conducting thorough, in-depth analyses. The great secrets of some such books can only be unlocked by painstaking research and sometimes, even after great efforts, one cannot be sure that they have been deciphered. The obstacles may stem from the persons involved with the manuscript, the methods employed in its manufacture and the historical vicissitudes affecting its present-day condition. Over the centuries, manuscript books have also gradually become archaeological items, silent witnesses of a distant civilization in decline whose sources of inspiration are totally unrelated to our own mental horizons. The magnitude of the obstacles we encounter increases in direct proportion to the gulf between the culture they originated in and our present-day culture.

Few works in the history of books are as hermetic as the Bible of Saint Louis in some specific aspects. The fact that the last quire of volume III – containing the large, closing miniature that identifies the royal members – was split up at an early date, prevented the work from being correctly attributed to its original addressee for many centuries. This is the most obvious reason for the documented fact that the Toledo cathedral chapter, to whose artistic heritage the Bible has belonged for over 700 years, had no precise information, until well into the 20th century, about these three splendid volumes of the Bible. Furthermore, although progress has continued to be made after conducting research, we must admit that not all problems have been solved, for some of its mysteries, such as the heraldry on its clasps, refuse to yield their secrets to those who have had the opportunity of studying this Bible.

In order to facilitate the understanding of the Bible of Saint Louis, M. Moleiro decided to accompany its facsimile edition by complementary volumes providing readers with answers to some of the main questions posed, to the extent permitted by the present-day state of research. Not satisfied with merely disseminating the knowledge already available about the Bible, he chose the more difficult path of sponsoring new research with a view to furthering scientific knowledge in this field and sharing the results with general readers and academics. It was within this framework that he chose to commission certain experts to produce new studies, update the conclusions of their research and conduct an overview of the most noteworthy problems.

The large selection of contributions aims at covering a great number of subjects related to this Bible, but it is not exhaustive and is basically of an isagogic nature insofar as it intends to provide the facts essential for a better understanding and appreciation of the core of this work. Some essays aim to break new ground whilst others concentrate on aspects deserving a closer look.

The group of studies opens with three contributions aimed at clarifying the lavish and fascinating external history of the Bible from the early days of its existence in the Chapel Royal of France, its time in the possession of King Alfonso X “the Wise” of Castile and its final, extended stay in the treasury of Toledo Cathedral, where it still remains. These three contributions are in response to the need to gather as much historical information about this Bible as possible, not only because the history of a book is an integral part of the book itself but also because much of this information may be decisive in orienting our overall understanding of the Bible or clarifying specific aspects of great importance. One of the most noteworthy and earliest historical facts is the description of the Bible given by the king of Castile in his codicil dated 1284, the only, albeit succinct but priceless, mention that has survived from the entire 13th century.

Professor John Lowden (Courtauld Institute of Art, London)provides two contributions. The first one explains the position of the Bible of Saint Louis within a group of similar books (known as Bible moralisées), all made to be used by members of royalty, and the characteristic traits of the typology that defines them. This study reveals that the Bible was conceived of in such grandiose terms that it outstripped everything produced previously by copyists’ ateliers. Consequently, its manufacture breached many of the usual norms of such ateliers, resulting in a Bible which was, from this viewpoint, an utterly singular and exceptional book. In his second contribution, Prof. Lowden addresses the artists who participated in producing the historiae or illuminated scenes painted in the three volumes – which total the enormous number of 4,887. These medallions depict the entire medieval world – the characters, daily life, ideas, morals and beliefs of the persons involved in making this Bible – in incredibly lavish images. Prof. Yves Christe, on the other hand, offers a comparative analysis of the themes depicted in the Bible of Saint Louis and those in the stained-glass windows of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris: two masterpieces of Gothic art that are virtually contemporary and feature considerable stylistic similitudes.

Toledo Cathedral and its primatial chapter are proud to have helped disseminating the knowledge of a Bible that plays an outstanding role in the history of universal art. Those of us who have contributed in any way to this venture know that our efforts will be well rewarded if this encourages further research on the Bible of Saint Louis and enables the countless admirers of this peerless gem around the world to find, in their reading and contemplation, moments of repose and cultural enrichment.

Click here to see more images and learn more about the Bible of St. Louis

Moleiro_banner (2)

What is the Splendor Solis?

What is the Splendor Solis?

By Jörg Völlnagel
Art historian, research associate at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

An Introduction to the Splendor Solis

Splendor Solis

The British Library manuscript Harley 3469 – “Splendor Solis or the Sun’s Radiance…” – is the most beautiful and well known illuminated alchemical manuscript in the world. Its illustrations can be found in many different places. Decorating publications on alchemy, esoteric self-help books and fantasy novels, they have also been known to appear on the labels of aphrodisiac party drinks or record covers. Though they may or may not have been aware of it, many readers will no doubt have come across an illustration from this manuscript at one point or another. In view of such decontextualised appearances, one might well ask what these pictures are all about: what is their subject matter, and what are the concerns of the text? When was the famous manuscript produced and who was behind it? Thus the main question we face with the Splendor Solis is: what kind of book do we have in our hands?

The Splendor Solis is by no means a laboratory manual, a kind of recipe book for alchemists. Indeed, it is hardly a list of instructions for whipping up a little alchemical soup in the hope of finding a nugget of artificial gold in the pot at the end. Rather, the Splendor Solis sets forth the philosophy of alchemy, a world view according to which the human being (the alchemist) exists and acts in harmony with nature, respecting divine creation and at the same time intervening in the processes underlying that creation, all the while supporting its growth with the help of alchemy. Comprised of seven treatises and 22 opulent illustrations, the manuscript revolves around this complex of philosophical concerns, while the business of chemistry itself is accorded a more subordinate role.

Be that as it may, both the author and illustrator of the Splendor Solis no doubt found the right tone, for in the course of the centuries to have elapsed meanwhile the Splendor Solis has become a – or rather the – prime example of an illuminated alchemical manuscript. Many people, including such literary greats as William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Umberto Eco, have dealt with the manuscript in one way or another. Yet up until now there has never been a monograph specifically dedicated to the Harley MS. 3469. The publication of the facsimile edition by M. Moleiro addresses this longstanding desideratum.

Splendor Solis pageThe five contributions assembled in the companion volume of commentaries provide an indispensable basis for dealing with the Splendor Solis, bearing in mind that most contemporary readers would have considerable difficulty understanding much of the content:

“The Alchemy of the Splendor Solis” by Thomas Hofmeier offers an overview of the intellectual and spiritual environment in which the Splendor Solis emerged, thus providing important criteria for the intellectual classification of the codex. What is alchemy in the first place, what is its aim, how did it come about, what is its history? These are the questions Thomas Hofmeier treats in his essay. Introducing alchemy as a bibliographical science (with pictures), he also sheds light on the production of manuscripts and the advent of book printing during the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era. Naturally he directs much of his attention to the Splendor Solis. Alongside his close reading of the text, he elucidates the various sources drawn upon by the manuscript, culminating in a genealogical tree.

My own contribution to the volume, “The Origins of the Splendor Solis”, addresses the fact that the origins of the manuscript Harley 3469, which is dated 1582, can actually be traced back a further fifty years to the southern German town of Augsburg. Neither the author nor the commissioner of the Splendor Solis is known to us. Nevertheless, there is much that can be said about the conditions surrounding the production of the illuminated manuscript: we know of numerous sources that were drawn upon by both the text and the illustrations, which were to have a lasting effect on the Splendor Solis. In looking carefully at the iconography of both the illustrations and their respective sources we gain a closer insight into the origins of the Splendor Solis which in turn leads us to an attribution of the original miniatures supported by reliable evidence. The other sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century illuminated copies of the manuscript to have survived besides the Harley MS. 3469 are introduced in brief, followed by a discussion – perhaps most importantly – of the concept underlying the Splendor Solis, which aspired from the very beginning to become the most beautiful of all illuminated alchemical manuscripts. Indeed, to return for a moment to the praise lauded upon the Splendor Solis at the outset, it was a concept realised, it is fair to state, with enduring success!

Peter Kidd examines “The Provenance of the Harley Splendor Solis”. While up until now the only thing that could be said with any certainty about the provenance of the manuscript was that, being part of the Harley Collection, it was among the original inventory of the British Library, further clues can be found in notes made in pencil by Edward Harley on the manuscript’s flyleaf. Kidd investigates the historical plausibility of these markings, the source of which is not revealed by Harley, thus paving the way for the first critical analysis of the provenance of this famous manuscript.

The same can also be said of an entry in the diary of John Evelyn. The note documents Evelyn’s encounter with an alchemical manuscript in the Royal Library at Whitehall whose description matches the Splendor Solis and which has been linked in the literature with the Harley MS. 3469 – a highly improbable conjecture, as Kidd shows.

Admittedly, it is not easy to let go of the notion that alchemy’s most beautiful illuminated manuscript was not part of the Royal British Library. Indeed, it would only have been fitting for the “Royal Art” of alchemy to have acquired an altogether new significance in this way. Yet even this necessary historiographical disillusionment can be regarded among the merits of the present publication.

My “Commentaries on the the twenty-two paintings” introduce the twenty-two full-page illustrations of the manuscript, describing the key pictorial elements crucial for an interpretation of the work, while also offering clues as to a possible interpretation of the enigmatic imagery of the Splendor Solis.

And finally, Joscelyn Godwin presents us with the first reliable English translation of the Early New High German original text of the Harley 3469 manuscript. Godwin’s translation is of particular historical importance, for right back in the early seventeenth century, there were a number of early translations in circulation that were based not on the original text of the German manuscripts, but rather on a highly distorted and corrupt French version of the text. While it does include black-and-white reproductions of the illustrations in the Harley 3469 manuscript, even Julius Kohn’s famous text edition, published in 1920 by Kegan Paul in London with numerous reprints in the meantime, suffers from an English translation bearing marked deviations from the original. Godwin’s new translation redresses this unfortunate circumstance – all of which is thanks to the publishing initiative of Moleiro –, allowing what may well be the most beautiful illuminated alchemical manuscript to extend its splendour beyond the British Library to a further 987 public and private libraries.

Click here to see more images and details about the Splendor Solis

Moleiro banner


This Week in Medieval Manuscript Images

Over 40 medieval manuscript images found on Twitter this week – including some to inspire you to get spooky for Halloween, try a maze, or build Noah’s Ark!

Click here to take a look at more images from previous weeks.

‘I know not what it is’: Illustrating Plants in Medieval Manuscripts

Tractatus-de-herbis‘I know not what it is’: Illustrating Plants in Medieval Manuscripts

By Alain Touwaide

Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions and Smithsonian Institution

Excerpt from Tractatus de herbis

“I know not what it is.” These words from the Clavis sanationis are significant. Written during the last quarter of the 13th century by the Italian physician Simon of Genoa, this medical language dictionary wanted to enable its readers to possess the “key”, as its title indicates, to understanding the medical terminology of the age. This dictionary would decipher the seemingly esoteric terms that had crept into the medical literature of the late Middle Ages; and yet, even as great a lexicographer as Simon was, he confessed to being lost and conceded to not knowing all the terms he came across. On more than one occasion, he denied having a complete understanding even after having spent thirty years digging through libraries looking for rare medical books and reading a great number of them.

Undertaking this task was crucial because it dealt mainly with plant names prescribed by doctors to their patients for their illnesses. If a medical literary expert such as Simon could not always identify the plants mentioned in the literature, where would that leave physicians who probably had little time to devote to inquiries as deeply and tenaciously as Simon? And this does not include healers of all sorts, who were neither formally trained nor even literate, or midwives working in country cottages, who would help women avoid unwanted pregnancies or deliver their babies when contraceptive potions were ineffective. And what of the charlatans who promised quick relief at exorbitant prices for ineffective remedies some of which, due possibly to ignorance, or even deliberately, were downright poisonous?

If all the complaints regarding the ignorance of pharmacists, as they are called today, are true, it would be like a scandalous refrain resounding through the history of medicine. Did not Pliny, the ancient Roman encyclopedist, lament the lack of knowledge of medicinal plants by his contemporary herbalists who would have been specialists? Then one looks to unexpected developments of plant names affecting the known lexicology during the long passage of the Middle Ages – the ten centuries from the founding to the fall of Constantinople (324 AD to 1453 AD) – when different populations made their entrances on the European scene and, in particular, the Mediterranean basin. All these groups would have brought with them their vernacular languages, their customs and practices, their faiths and rites as well as their illnesses and the plants to cure them. Whereas Latin, Ancient Greek, and Arabic were the international languages that unified populations or a portion therein, either briefly or not, there were nonetheless many other languages, contributing to a sort of Tower of Babel in communication and misunderstanding engendered by linguistic particularities. Then as now, there was much borrowing from one language to the next to facilitate understanding, particularly along borders. But even with such osmosis, certain terms were impervious to change and are still today.

The plants used to treat illnesses by different groups were one of those material elements in culture that resisted assimilation – the more so because the plants not only had medicinal properties but also possessed a quasi magical sacredness due to their effect in alleviating ills. It is no wonder then that they were made the object of an infinite number of verbal creations, such as reference to what they treated, the projection of feelings they might inspire, their association with visual images, comparisons with animals, not to mention the antonomasia which might transform maleficent herbs into beneficial ones be it only in word. As the population was mostly rural, people who were born and lived in the countryside knew plants by a panoply of traditional names rather than by their scientific ones. Even when local names at times reflected a cultural mix that resulted from extensive contact with various populations, there were other instances when deeply rooted cultural traditions prevented mutual understanding.

In the meantime it was necessary to agree on names as plants were part of everyday life and not only maintained health and nutrition in daily repasts, but served many other uses: from wool carding and dyeing to religious ceremonies and the consecration of different phases of life such as birth, baptism, marriage and death. The doctores and physici who were given charge of their patients could probably have written multilingual dictionaries. But their compiled lists would have been difficult to handle and clumsy to use and they would have been inaccessible to the majority of people who were not literate.

A better solution emerged: to illustrate the plants and accompany these illustrations with all their various names whether in different languages or just one, so long as all their variations were included. This new approach using a visual reference would allow for correct identification and greater understanding as well as provide a common denominator for the entire gamut of lexical production for plants. From their interpretive role as illustrated works deprived of text, these works probably changed function and became collections which transformed botanical literature. It was no longer necessary to illustrate volumes written about plants and their uses as these albums of illustrations would be available independently and could be consulted and used by readers of any language provided they contained the names of the plants in all the languages.

Such is the British Library manuscript, Sloane 4016, which is customarily referred to as Tractatus de herbis, a book with no text other than the captions for its illustrations. It is a (universal) book that could be used in its time by readers of all languages, all origins, a book which connected the people of the Middle Ages regardless of their erudition, their education or work activities, thanks to its visual nature. This book, based solely on the image, promoted understanding that transcended the many differences of the time and revealed the Middle Ages to be, far from its too common ignominious reputation, perfectly capable of mastering the technique of visual communication and with an element of modernity that we previously could not have imagined.

This article is an excerpt from Tractatus de herbis. Click here to learn more about this book from 

This Week in Medieval Manuscript Images

Wild women, big fish and scary faces are among the nearly 40 medieval manuscript images collected from Twitter in the last week.

Click here to see previous weeks of manuscript images

medieval manuscript images contortionist

This Week in Medieval Manuscript Images

In this week’s edition, we bring you over 20 images found on Twitter, including how babies are born, illustrations of the moon, and St. Michael hard at work slaying evil!

Click here to see last week’s images.

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with SD Sykes about Plague Land

SD Sykes at the Plague Land launch

SD Sykes at the Plague Land launch

You mention on your blog that the Black Death made a significant social and economic impact on Europe; why do you think the Black Death makes a good background for a murder mystery?

The years following the Black Death did indeed cause a massive upheaval in English society, with an estimated halving in the size of the population. I do like the idea – often used in drama – of heaping chaos on top of chaos. So placing an inexperienced young man into a role for which he was unprepared; giving him a depleted workforce and a dysfunctional family to cope with; and then asking him to solve a murder, was just too tempting. The Black Death also sets a wonderfully macabre tone for the book – with its pall of death and despair. I love gothic fiction – so the horrors of boils and buboes, plague pits and then the aftermath of a ghostly, deserted world, was totally irresistible.

Are any of the characters based on real people from primary sources? How did you go about your research for this period?

Primary sources that reveal character in the 14th century are rather few and far between, so for this aspect of my research I mostly relied upon Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – with his large cast of ordinary people making their pilgrimage to the cathedral. It was written some thirty years after Plague Land is set, but illuminates ordinary life and ordinary opinions better than any other contemporary source. Other books I studied were The Travels of Sir John Mandeville – a description of this man’s journey across Europe and into Asia in the 1340s – a journey which he may, or may not have fully undertaken himself. It’s a text full of the most curious and fantastical descriptions – such as the land where people live purely on the smell of apples; or the island where men and women have the heads of dogs. But then, sometimes, a spike of truth works its way through his writing – such as the ‘great barns of Joseph’, that Mandeville describes in Cairo – edifices that could only have been the pyramids. Two other texts I should mention here are Piers the Ploughman by the cleric William Langland – in which he satirizes and condemns corruption in the Catholic church. The other is a book often heralded as the first ever autobiography ever – The Book of Margery Kempe – which recounts Margery’s life as a Christian mystic. This book proved to be a fascinating insight into the religious fervor of the age – as Margery saw it as her mission to forsake her old life as a wife and mother, dedicate her life to Christ and then to wail and preach her way through Europe. But it was also a frustrating text, from a researcher’s point of view anyway. Margery, who refers to herself as ‘this creature,’ will often tell you that she has travelled to a city, and just as you are willing her to describe and illustrate something of the world about her, she reverts to telling you about the wailing.

None of my characters are based upon real people. I’ve imagined them, based partly on the books mentioned above, and partly on conjecture. The only character who is, perhaps, a fish out of 14th century water is Oswald himself. His sensibilities are sometimes more 21st century – but this is deliberate. I wanted my protagonist to look at the fearful, superstitious world of the middle ages through more rational eyes – so that he could scrutinize, question and sometimes overturn their beliefs and dogmas.

Burial of plague victims - The Black Death

Burial of plague victims – The Black Death

Can you tell us a bit about Oswald in your follow up book, The Butcher Bird, and if you’re planning on a longer series with his character?

The Butcher Bird takes place only nine months after Plague Land – so Oswald is still coping with the trials of a post-plague world. He is only slightly older and only slightly wiser than he is in the first novel, but he has lost his reticence about stepping into his role as Lord Somershill. I would say this lack of reticence verges, at times, on over-confidence. He is reluctant to listen to advice, and lacks the maturity to change his mind – under the mistaken belief that this would somehow constitute a loss of face. In short, he still has a lot to learn.

I am indeed planning a longer series, as I would love to follow Oswald as he matures into a young man in the fascinating period of history that leads up to the Peasants Revolt of 1381. His growing reputation as an investigator will bring him into contact with a whole string of murders and murderers!

Plague mask

Plague mask

Did anything surprise you about medieval life during this period when you sat down to write Plague Land? What surprised you about the plague?

I am constantly surprised by the images in the margins of illuminated manuscripts… they are often so bizarre, irreverent or even just plain crude – not at all what you’d expect from such a supposedly devout age. I’m starting to wonder – and I do need to read more about this – if marginal art was a form of subterfuge, I might even say graffiti, or even defacement? Often the most sacred texts are surrounded by images that seem completely unrelated to the religious context – grotesque drolleries, monkeys spanking each other’s bottoms, rabbits fighting with bows and arrows, people exposing their buttocks. Could it be that these very expressive illustrations are a response to such a repressive society?

With regards to your question about the Plague, I was surprised by recent research which looked into the causes of such a high death toll across Europe. As a school child, I was taught the version of history that had black rats swarming through the streets, whilst boil-covered sufferers died in the thousands. But it has become increasingly clear that the black rat and their fleas alone could not have killed so many people, in so few months. For a start, the black rat was not established in the mid 14th century in England, and could not have travelled such distances, at such speed. In addition, the bubonic form of the Plague is not highly contagious. Research is now indicating that it was the pneumonic form of the same bacterial infection, Yersinia Pestis, that is likely to have caused the scale of the pandemic. Pneumonic plague infects the lungs rather than the lymphatic system (as the bubonic form does). Pneumonic plague was easily transmitted person to person by close contact and coughing; it could continue to infect during the winter months (when fleas were inactive due to lower temperatures;) and it was always fatal.

What other projects are you working on? 

My life! I’m not being flippant – but writing two novels in three years has been an all-consuming affair. When I’m not researching, writing or promoting my first novel – I try to relax, read other people’s books and just be a normal human being.

~Sandra Alvarez 

Click here to read our review of Plague Land

For more information about Plague Land and SD Sykes, please visit her website:

Follow SD Sykes on Twitter: @SD_Sykes 

Follow us on Twitter: @medievalists

Like us on Facebook:

This Week in Medieval Manuscript Images

This week we can share over 30 beautiful medieval manuscript images that we found on Twitter, including Greek Fire in action, and a map of 16th century Cairo.

Click here to see last week’s manuscript images