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Treasures known and unknown in the British Library

Knowns and unknowns Passio of St Margaret Kissing Images Textiles and Books Tall Narrow Books Egerton 1900 Journey of Unknowing

Tall Narrow Books


BL MS Harley 5431

Harley 5431, f. 7

Harley 5431, f. 7


Scrolling through images of manuscripts in the new Catalogue, some books draw attention to themselves for what might at first seem trivial reasons. One such is Harley 5431, a copy of the Rule of St Benedict (and other texts), made around the year 1000, or shortly before, at St Augustine’s, Canterbury. This book has very odd narrow proportions: it now measures 230 x 85 mm overall (a ratio of height to width of 2.7 to 1). Because the pages of the book have undoubtedly been trimmed in rebinding, but we do not know by how much, the ruling pattern of the text block could be a better guide to the book’s original proportions. In this case the measurements are even more extreme: 160 x 50 mm, or a proportion of 3.2 : 1. Why make a book this shape? Most medieval books correspond in page shape roughly to the proportions of the diagonal of a square to its side, or approximately 1.4 : 1 (the familiar proportions of metric paper, such as A4) . Late antique books, by way of contrast, were more often squareish in format


Harley 5431, f. 65

Harley 5431, f. 65


The explanation for the tall narrow format of Harley 4531, I am sure some of you will have guessed, is that in all probability the book was made to fit a recycled late antique or carolingian ivory plaque, in which proportions of height to width of 3 or more to 1 are commonly found. The ivory would have been used as decoration on the book’s cover (or covers).

This raises a further point. Ivory covers are often said to be used on the liturgically most significant manuscripts, such as gospel books or gospel lectionaries and this is a reasonable hypothesis. But how many such books have these striking proportions? Cambridge, Pembroke College 302, a Gospel Lectionary with proportions of 2.2:1 can be cited, as it was recently on exhibition. But the vast majority of Gospel manuscripts have what might be termed normal proportions.


Ivory to Enamel

If we approach the problem from the other direction and ask what types of books were made to a tall narrow format the answer is a surprising variety. Some, for example, are chant books, such as the cantatoria at St Gallen.19 Were such books intended to stand upright like diptychs on the altar when not in use? Returning to Harley 5431 we can deduce that the Canterbury Rule of St Benedict was a book of special importance to the community at St Augustine’s around the year 1000 (at an earlier date they had used the rule of St Augustine), and that this copy was made to fit a pre-existing ivory. The ivory in question might itself have been removed from an earlier copy of Benedict’s rule (or even a copy of Augustine’s rule). It is a pity it does not seem to have survived.

When the supply of ivory for use or reuse as bookcovers dwindled in the twelfth century it appears that Limoges enamel plaques came to take their place. The argument for this is the strikingly tall narrow proportions of the images of Christ in Majesty and the Crucifixion, which were the panels most frequently used to form bookcovers (one such, BL MS 27926, is on display in the Ritblat Gallery of the BL, so it can hardly be considered unknown, but unfortunately the BL Images Online version of it is of too poor quality to include here). (See also an enamel in the Courtauld Gallery) The suggestion on the basis of their proportions that such enamels were intended to replace ivories, which I thought was an original insight when it occurred to me recently, was in fact first made forty years ago by Marie-Madeleine Gauthier. 20 Be that as it may, I still think it would be useful to make a survey of all tall narrow manuscript books.




Normal proportions, Painted covers: BL MS Egerton 809

Egerton 809, f. 33v

Egerton 809, f. 33v




If Harley 4531 represents a book specially made to fit a possibly much older cover, most bindings represent the opposite: they are new covers for old books, like the Opus anglicanum of Sloane 2400. Perhaps the most surprising binding in the BL is the painted cover of Egerton 809, a German Gospel Lectionary of the early twelfth century in superb condition.


Egerton 809, upper cover

Egerton 809, upper cover


The front cover of Egerton 809 includes a painted panel of the late 15th century, perhaps made in Bruges (here I gratefully adopt the suggestion of Susie Nash and Stephanie Buck) with an image of St Agnes, flanked by St Blaise and St Anthony. (A show of hands at the conference confirmed that no-one in the audience–––BL staff excluded––knew this cover.) As I suspected, this cover is a little-known known, for scholars of late medieval panel painting had no reason to chance across it until it was included in the on-line catalogue, and scholars of late Ottonian manuscript illumination found it contributed little to their enquiries. I have searched, so far in vain, for a geographical or functional context in which these three saints might be expected to be gathered together and invoked in this icon-like arrangement. But once more I am hopeful that amongst the audience for this tour will be found answers to the questions that the cover poses.




Normal proportions: Evidence from Heraldry in BL MS Harley 1310

Harley 1310, f. 1

Harley 1310, f. 1


Although I have tried thus far to pursue a few of the questions that the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts opens up in a wide context, for most of the Catalogue’s users it will be those small but exciting moments of insight, those ‘petites perceptions’, which will be the main product of consulting such a resource––‘perceptions’ which will then require much further research if they are to yield more than a meager harvest. I present just one ‘petite perception’ here, in large part because it allows me to pay tribute to the remarkably generous and useful website provided by Anna Korteweg’s work at the Dutch Royal Library at The Hague. 21

I was initially interested in the Fall of the Rebel Angels frontispiece in Harley 1310, a copy of Jacques Legrand’s Livre des bonnes moeurs for its possible connection to the late manuscripts of the Bibles moralisees, such as MS fr. 897 in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (unfortunately the BN Mandragore online site has not got as far as this book).22 But with the help of the Hague site it was the work of a moment to recognize the hitherto undeciphered and sadly deteriorated heraldry in Harley 1310 for what it was. The arms of Cleves are clearly visible at the left, and Cleves impaled with a version of Burgundy at the right. An email to Hanno Wijsman at Leiden University confirmed that the BL manuscript was, until that moment, unknown in the context of a Cleves patron, although the precise identification of the heraldry is still problematic. Dr Wijsman will undoubtedly pursue the matter in due course.

My second ‘petite perception’ is very different in character. It is to register the gratitude which every user of the new Catalogue will feel in being able to access photographs of BL manuscripts arranged by shelfmark, rather than following the perfectly logical but perfectly infuriating system of arranging a single set of the existing photographs of manuscripts by their accession date (that is to say by the date on which the photograph was taken), as in the reference volumes in the Students Room. Those coming to the new Catalogue for the first time (except perhaps historians of photography) will find it well nigh unthinkable that the basic arrangement of the images could be anything other than what it is.



Knowns and unknowns Passio of St Margaret Kissing Images Textiles and Books Tall Narrow Books Egerton 1900 Journey of Unknowing

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