Archive for the ‘Illuminated Manuscripts’ Category

Just as we are getting over the excesses of Pancake Day- or it’s related Shrove Tuesday counterparts- seems as good a time as any to reflect upon the manuscript evidence of the early practices of Lent, the Christian season of penance and self-reflection, which begins with Ash Wednesday.

Ashes have a number of symbolic applications in Biblical accounts, both in the Old and New Testaments. It is likely that the use of ashes became a major part of the English penitential mass at the beginning of Lent around the 8th century. The great Anglo-Saxon homilists Ælfric and Wulfstan both describe the practice of putting ashes on the heads of penitents, which reminds them of God’s words to Adam: that they were created from ashes, and would return to ashes.

While there are prayers and homilies for Ash Wednesday in several earlier manuscripts, the first datable liturgy (or ordo) for the application of ashes is found in the Parker Library’s MS 163, which contains a Pontifical of the Romano-Germanic type. Although likely descended from a Cologne manuscript, CCCC MS 163 was written after 1050, probably at Worcester, although the Old Minster and the Nunnaminster at Winchester have both been suggested. It gives instructions for the entire liturgy, with the relevant responses.

MS 163, p. 82

MS 163

However, the medieval process of penance on Ash Wednesday included certain elaborate and public aspects. Everyone was expected to absolve themselves and receive the ashes, but those who were guilty of ‘high sins’ were publicly driven out of the church, in a symbolic re-enactment of Adam and Eve being driven out of Eden for their sins. Wulfstan (d. 1023) describes this in his homilies.

CCCC MS 190 contains a collection of writing that is known as ‘Archbishop Wulfstan’s handbook’, a selection of texts that were likely compiled by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, for use in his own writing. The handbook itself is in Latin, and contains a Latin version of an Ash Wednesday homily. However, later in the manuscript a translation of the same homily appears in Anglo-Saxon. This homily is one of three extant vernacular sermons which explicitly describe public penance.

MS 190, p. 351

A homily for Ash Wednesday. MS 190, p. 351.


The sinners could only return to church on Maundy Thursday, having atoned for their sins for the past 40 days. The public practice continued for hundreds of years. CCCC MS 79, which dates from the first decades of the 15th century and was made in London, is an elaborate decorated Pontifical. The text of a Pontifical contains the church services particular to bishops, and MS 79 contains a specifically English version. Shown here is a miniature depicting the casting out of the sinners, which is included in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday.

MS 79, f. 98r

Casting out the penitents on Ash Wednesday. MS 79, f. 98r

The rhythm of the liturgical year was vitally important in medieval life, as the faithful symbolically acted out the Biblical text. This rhythm was coupled with the natural world- Ælfric says in his Lives of Saints that just as the sinners are cast away during Lent but welcomed back at Easter, so too do ‘ealle treowa cuciað æfre on lenctenes timan’ or ‘all trees always quicken in Lenten time’ (Skeat’s translation) The people can look forward to spring and celebration after duly accepting their penance.


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February image (MS 53, f. 1v)

MS 53, f. 1v

The Peterborough Psalter was illuminated in East Anglia, c.1310-20, perhaps for Oliver de Wisset. By the mid-fourteenth century it was in the possession of the prior of Peterborough Abbey. The Calendar page for February includes the saints and feast days appropriate for that month, and little roundels showing a man seated by the fire cooking winter soup and the zodiac symbol of the two fish, Pisces, for  February-March.


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Fight with the dragon, three devils on his back.

Fight with the dragon, three devils on his back.

It’s nearly Halloween, and accompanying days of All Saints and All Souls, so in many parts of the world people have been gearing up for the night by watching horror films, procuring masks and makeup, and generally revelling in the monstrous and terrifying. However, the thrill of pondering pure terror is nothing new, and medieval manuscript illustrations can be filled with grotesque images which accompany one of the most durable sources of horror in the Western heritage: the end of the world. While today we have zombies, plagues, or nuclear winter, which are directly caused by human folly, our medieval predecessors had acts of God visited upon the world in response to human sin.

The locusts and their leader, Abaddon, a huge demon.

The locusts and their leader, Abaddon, a huge demon.

The Book of Revelation and the Vision of St. Paul are contained in CCCC MS 20, a richly illustrated apocalypse from the early 14th century, with 106 pictures interspersed throughout the Anglo-Norman and Latin text. The content and style of the Anglo-Norman illustrated apocalypse developed in the 13th century, when theologians were concerned with the nature of eternity and history, and how they were related to the Bible. If the universe and the Bible were both authored by God, then understanding one meant a better understanding of the other, and a trend arose of attempting to match current events with Biblical ones. With the Apocalypse so prominent in people’s minds, stand-alone, heavily illustrated copies of the visions of the end of the world became popular in England. The illustrations shown here are just a tiny portion of the art in MS 20, all of which can be seen on Parker on the Web.

Hell-mouth and men hung on fiery tree.

Hell-mouth and men hung on fiery tree.

All images are the property of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Unauthorised use is prohibited.

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June ImageThis is a late thirteenth-century French manuscript of the Chronique de Reims, an adventurous history of the third crusade. It belonged to the poet John Skelton (c1460-1529), who used it for instructing the young Prince Henry, whose tutor he was from c1495 until about 1502. In that year, Henry’s elder brother Prince Arthur died, and Henry himself unexpectedly became heir to the throne, to which he eventually succeeded as Henry VIII in 1509. Skelton afterwards gave the manuscript to the new king in the unsuccessful hope of reinstatement in the court. Henry VIII was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Sunday 24 June 1509. [MS 432, folio 32r]

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MS 66, p. 069Richard Fahey, a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame, just wrote a blog post about the mythological treatment of Woden in Anglo-Saxon genealogies, using CCCC MS 66, p. 69 to illustrate. Click through and compare MS 66’s illustration with that of the British Library’s Cotton Caligula A.viii.

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Dr. Paola Ricciardi demonstrates spectroscopy

Today the Parker Library hosted some much more modern equipment than the usual cutting-edge medieval book technology that we tend to handle!

A team from the Miniare project at the Fitzwilliam Museum came to analyse the pigments in volume two of the Dover Bible (MS 4) using spectroscopy- a method of bouncing light off of pigments to determine their chemical makeup. This requires surrounding darkness and a small point of light that goes into the infrared and ultraviolet range, which is then reflected off of whatever pigment, ink, or other surface that is being studied.

The Dover Bible is an aptly-named ‘giant Bible’ from the 12th century, measuring a massive 532 x 360mm and containing multiple illuminated and historiated initials. MSS 3 and 4 form the two-volume bible that was made for Dover Priory, a dependency of Christ Church Cathedral Priory, in Canterbury. It was a truly high-spec production, not only in the unusual size of the books, but in the quality of the bright colours created by rare minerals that were carefully sourced, processed, and applied. The goal of the spectroscopy study is to determine which pigments were used in its production and how the materials used to make the pigments- lapis, vermillion, copper, ultramarine, minium, azurite, lead, organics, etc.-  correspond to known art historical trends.

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The 2014 Panizzi Lectures were given by Donnelley Fellow Librarian, Dr Christopher de Hamel. The first, on Monday 27th October looked principally at the Bury Bible, now in the Parker Library.



There are more details about the lectures, which take place at the British Library, here.





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