Evangelia IV. Glosata.

Historiated initial from Trin. MS B.5.3, f.4.
L is for Liber: inhabited initial from Trin. MS B.5.3, f.4. Marking the beginning of the Gospel of St. Matthew, the seated figure preparing to write is St. Matthew, with the other three Evangelist symbols connected to his head.

Tucked away in one of the locked bays in the Wren Library is Trin MS B.5.3, a huge and “exceptionally splendid”* 13th century manuscript produced at the Benedictine abbey in St. Albans, Hertfordshire. The St. Albans scriptorium was a hub of illuminated manuscript production, perhaps best known for the St. Albans Psalter and for Matthew Paris, a monk, artist and chronicler at the abbey from 1217 until his death in 1259.

Evangelist symbols in roundels. B.5.3, f.187v
Evangelist symbols within the initial “I”. B.5.3, f.187v

This book is an Evangelia, the Biblical Gospels, written in Latin and produced c.1200 in the early Gothic style. This version is glossed, meaning that the text is accompanied by interpretations and commentary from religious scholars. At this time, the entire Bible had been commented upon in this way, but the glossed material was usually broken up into different parts, separated for example into the narrative histories, books of praise and sections referring to future events. According to Morgan and Stocks, “a complete library of glossed books [from the Bible] would be approximately twenty-one volumes.” (2008, p.22)

Morgan and Stocks observe that this manuscript was likely “derived from textual exemplars imported from Paris, probably from the schools of St. Victor, which had intimate links with St. Albans.” The manuscript opens with Canon tables, reference tables comparing the contents of the four Gospels (shown below), which is unusual in glossed versions.

The illumination and painting in B.5.3 are particularly fine. To the left you will see the letter “I” for “Incipio” inhabited by the evangelist symbols. This is one of the few inhabited initials in the manuscript, though there are beautifully illuminated initials throughout featuring geometric and floral design motifs. Though the script and illustration are in the early Gothic style, Romanesque influences may still be seen, particularly in the rendering of faces.

This manuscript was given to the library by Thomas Nevile, Master of Trinity College from 1593 until his death in 1615. As a clergyman and Dean of Peterborough (1591–1597) and Canterbury (1597–1615), Nevile had the opportunity to acquire a substantial collection of medieval manuscripts, the greater part of which were produced at Christchurch, Canterbury, another of medieval England’s great producers of manuscripts.

B.5.3 and a growing library of over 300 other medieval manuscripts are available to view in full online for free on the James Catalogue as a part of the Wren Digital Library.

Further Reading

* Morgan, N and B. Stocks, ed. (2008) The Medieval Imagination : Illuminated Manuscripts from Cambridge, Australia and New Zealand. South Yarra, Victoria: Macmillan Art Publishing.

Canon tables. Trin MS B.5.3, f.1v.
The canon tables, unusual for glossed Gospels. Trin MS B.5.3, f.1v.

A Love Letter

Manuscript R.4.20 comprises two texts bound together: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and John Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes. Hidden between these two texts, someone has made use of the blank folios for handwriting practice and there are pen trials in the margins.

R.4.20, ff. 97v-88r

The lines chosen appear to be from a love letter:

Alas swet hart I am yowre pore

servant wherfore I beseche yow

yf that yt pleasith yow to gyve

awdyens vnto my wordes of a

thynge whych I shall tell you

alas swete hart knowe the bew

ty of yor person and the pleasant

fygure formyde and composyd

above natures operacyon

hath ravyshyde my sprytes and

enbrasyd my hert in such wise

that nyght and daye I thinke

on none other thyng save onlye

on yor love and that wors is I lose rest meat and

drinke maners and cowntenans what I think

upon your grey eyen and resplendishing

visage so I requyre of god that he will gyve

me you volent and corage for to receve

me for yor trew lover for if so be ye refuse me

for yor trew lover ther is nothing so nere me

as to envoke the deth alas alas swete

hart yow that are amyable and cortays

be not cavse to dymynyshe my

lyfe but gyve me holy yor love by

such a covenant that I shall in love

ye more then ever it was

B.11.3, f. 277r: Initial O with Bride and Bridegroom








Happy Valentine’s Day!




Hamsa i Jami

Hamsa i Jami (‘Five Poems by Jami’). Persian, transcribed by Abdullah ul Hardy, 1531. Trin MS R.13.8

Illuminated title and illustration for the first poem in the collection, Tuhfah ul Ahrar, "The Gift of the Noble".
Illuminated title and illustration for the first poem in the collection, Tuhfah ul Ahrar, “The Gift of the Noble”.

Abdul-Rahman Jami (1414-1492), known simply as Jami, was one of Iran’s most prolific and best known poets of the 15th century. His works feature scholarship, theology and religious allegory in the Sufi tradition, a form of Islamic mysticism that valued an internal, personal, often ecstatic relationship to God. The five poems collected in this beautifully illuminated 16th century manuscript are among Jami’s most famous. The poems are:

  • Tuhfah al Ahrar (‘Gift of the Noble’)
  • Subhah ul Asrar (‘Rosary of the Pious’)
  • Layli u Majnun (Layli and Majnun’)
  • Yusuf u Zulaiha  (‘Joseph and Zulaika’)
  • Hird-nama i Iskandari (‘The Wisdom of Alexander’)
Two pantings from Layli and Majnun
Two paintings from ‘Layli and Majnun’.

The paintings above depict two scenes from the popular romance and spiritual allegory Layli u Majnun (‘Layli and Majnun’), about two ill-fated lovers from different clans. In the image on the right, Majnun approaches Layli’s encampment hoping to catch sight of her. When he realises he can never marry his beloved, Majnun forsakes society and wanders the wilderness composing love poetry, as depicted in the scene on the left.

Jami’s Yusuf u Zulaiha is the most famous version of that poem. It expands on a story that is told in the Quran, the Torah and the Bible. Yusuf is the patriarch Joseph and Zulaikha is Potiphar’s wife, who is not named in the Bible. The story tells of Zulaikha’s passionate but unrequited love for Yusuf and has been adapted into many different forms in many different languages. Both this and the previous romance by Jami are allegories for the soul’s longing for God, a focal point of Sufism.

Pages from 'The Wisdom of Alexander'.
Pages from ‘The Wisdom of Alexander’.

The final poem in the collection, ‘The Wisdom of Alexander’, is a versified collection of sayings attributed to Greek sages at the court of Alexander the Great and an account of his doings up until his death. Alexander III of Macedon (356–323 BC) is presented as a legendary figure in Persian literature; he is a model leader and a hero that vanquished Zoroastrianism, paving the way for the expansion of Islam in the region. In Jami’s poem, Alexander’s military exploits are overshadowed by his love and patronage of philosophy, making him a link between Islamic scholars and the Ancient Greek philosophers they studied. Though this poem is part of the Haft Awrang (‘Seven Thrones’) collection of seven of Jami’s most famous poems, it is not usually found in collections of five works. Normally the last poem would be one of the other two from the Haft Awrang: Silsilah ul Dahab (‘The Chain of Gold’) or Salaman u Absal (‘The Loves of Salaman and Absal’).

The manuscript is beautifully written in the nasta’liq font, which developed in Iran in the 8th-9th century. Calligraphy was an art form deployed most spectacularly for sacred texts and commentaries, poetry and so forth, turning the written word into an object of beauty. Even the binding of this manuscript is intricately painted, showing the care that went into Islamic religious books. The manuscript is read from right to left, so the inside cover shown below is the back cover.

RS29636_R.13.8_front cover[1]-hpr
Front cover.
Painted binding.
Painted inside back cover.

This manuscript and several others from our non-Western manuscripts collections are now on display as part of our newly reconfigured ongoing exhibition in the Wren Library. Visitors are welcome on weekdays from 12-2 and on Saturdays during term time from 10:30-12:30. Entrance to the Wren Library is free.

The non-Western manuscripts are catalogued separately from the James Catalogue manuscripts in the following volumes:

Note: The spelling of the poem titles is taken from Palmer et al., which does not always fit with current conventions for transliteration. However, diacritical marks have been left off for compatibility.

RS29604_R.13.8_f165v-f166r-hpr  RS29466_R.13.8_f026v-f028r[2]-hpr

Labours of the Month: February

Detail of an illuminated manuscript
A man warming his foot by the fire from a 13th century English Psalter. Trin MS B.11.4, f.i verso.

After the feasting and relaxing by the fire in January and another cold, dark month stretching before us, February may call for more indoor pursuits. Indeed, in one common scheme for the labours of the months, February’s labour is to sit by the fire, as the gentleman in B.11.4 is doing above. On the manuscript page below, the miniature shows a church scene for the labour of the month, with a priest sprinkling worshipers with an aspergil. While not particularly cosy, at least spending time in church would keep you out of February’s icy winds.

Illuminated book of hours
February from Trin MS B.11.22, f.1v

However, according to the illustration in B.11.31, February’s labour should be planting.

Painted miniature from a book of hours - a man digging and another planting seeds
February’s labour of the month, presumably made more laborious by the fact that the ground is still frozen. From Trin MS B.11.31, f.2r

While this may seem like bad advice to us in Britain, anticipating more frost and snow, this book is French in origin and this illustration may be the product of the warmer, more southern climate. Indeed, Books of Hours can often be generally located by agricultural clues such as when in the year planting and harvesting are said occur, and by how prominently wine production features in the list of labours. So, while the owners of the manuscripts above may have huddled into church in February, further south where the 15th century French book was produced, peasants may have been starting to sow seeds already.

Two pages of an illuminated book of hours
Trin MS B.11.31, ff.1v/2r.

In addition to February’s most famous Feast Day, that of St. Valentine, there are many other February Feast Days listed in medieval calendars. For example, 2nd February was an important religious festival called Candlemas, also known as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Feast of the Purification of Mary or, as it is noted in this manuscript, La notre dame chandeleur. 

So, welcome to February and happy birthday, Pisces! Now get out your shovels out.

Painting of two fish
Pisces from Trin MS B.11.31, f.2r