The religious order of monks and nuns known as the Carthusians were founded by St Bruno of Cologne (d. 1104) in 1084. Their name derives from the Chartreuse Mountains in the French Alps, where St Bruno built his first hermitage, a place where a hermit lives in seclusion. Carthusian monasteries are known as charterhouses (adapted from the French word Chartreuse). Nine of these communities were established in England before the end of the medieval period, though many were subsequently destroyed during the Reformation.
This illustrated miscellany was made in a charterhouse in Yorkshire or Lincolnshire in the latter half of the 15th century. Mostly written in a dialect of Northern Middle English, the manuscript contains a variety of devotional poems, prose chronicles, and religious treatises, concerning subjects such as the nature of Heaven and Hell, the wounds of Christ and his suffering on the Cross, and the Last Judgement. The manuscript also contains a summary of The Travels of Sir John Manderville, an extremely popular travel memoir that first circulated between 1357 and 1371.
Over 30 large tinted drawings accompany the texts, depicting the graphic torments of Hell and the Apocalypse, scenes of battles from the Old Testament, and macabre representations of demons and dead and decaying bodies. One half-page illustration prefaces a text called The Disputacione betwyx the Body and the Wormes (image no. 1). The image depicts a cadaver or ‘transi’ tomb (from the Latin transire ‘to pass over, to pass away’), which contains a colourful effigy of a richly dressed woman, juxtaposed with her decomposing corpse below, crawling with worms and toads. Death here is presented as the great leveller. The woman’s wealth and status in life mean nothing once she is dead.
Another image depicts the Crucified Christ (image no. 2), holding an unusual text known as The Charter of Human Redemption, which is sealed at the bottom with a bleeding heart. The text takes the form of a legal document, in which Christ grants humanity the joys of heaven, on the two conditions of love of one’s neighbour and love of God.