Medieval manuscripts at Senate House Library

The opening of the Chronicle of the Black PrinceWe were very fortunate yesterday to host Professor Michelle P. Brown for a talk on the history of medieval manuscripts and in particular on some of the manuscripts, fragments and facsimiles held in Senate House Library. Michelle began by examining one of our manuscript treasures: an extremely rare account of the life of Edward the Black Prince, produced around 1385. The illuminated frontispiece sets the tone for the text, showing the knight Edward, in his armour, kneeling in devotion before the Holy Trinity. This visual narrative prepares the reader for the tales of the Prince’s martial valour and piety that follow. While the gold leaf illuminating the picture of the Trinity has remained gloriously bright, Michelle explained how the silver pigments used to paint the Prince’s armour and ostrich feather badges have tarnished over time to give a slightly smudged effect to the image as it survives today. Moving on to the layout of the text, Michelle explained how gold and coloured initial letters of varying sizes conveyed the relative significance of different passages, and – in an age when memorising a text was much more important and prevalent than today – helped readers to fix portions of the story in their minds for recall later.

Michelle then discussed eleven miniatures cut from a mid 13th-century Psalter (Book of Psalms) which came to the library in the 1960s bound up in tiny late 19th-century edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern. No larger than cigarette cards, the miniatures depict scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, including the nativity, the last supper and the crucifixion. The scenes, while depicted in the individual style of the artist, would have been immediately familiar to the medieval mind, both literate and illiterate, not only from books but from stained glass windows and statuary too.

Attendees were able to see some digital reproductions from these manuscripts on library iPads, enabling them to zoom into details hardly visible to the naked eye when viewing the originals. These reproductions can be seen here.

Michelle finished with some fascinating insights into the Lindisfarne Gospels and Luttrell Psalter of which the library owns high-quality facsimiles in its outstanding Palaeography Collection.

We hope to have Michelle back again before too long to treat us to further insights into the medieval book.

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