Stephan Batman and Art of Limning

Stephan Batman (c.1542 – 1584) was a published author and translator who, for much of his career, was the rector of St Mary’s, Newington (Newington Butts). His works include A Christall Glasse of Christian Reformation (1569), The Doome Warning All Men to the Judgemente (1581) and his best-known, Batman uppon Bartholome (1582) based on the medieval encyclopedia of Bartolomaeus Anglicanus. Batman was also a member of Archbishop Parker’s household and was involved in collecting books on the Archbishop’s behalf, many of which were given to the library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. He also read, annotated and collected medieval manuscripts for himself, some of which are now in the Wren Library (B.1.38, B.2.7, B.14.15, B.14.19, and B.15.33).

Batman was also a talented limner. Originally limners were illuminators of manuscripts though towards the end of the sixteenth century limnery could also refer to painting (often portraits) on paper. These works were usually made with fine pigments and bound together with a water-soluble resin called gum Arabic. Today they would be known as watercolours. Batman may himself have written about limning in a work which is now lost.

The illumination pasted onto the flyleaf of manuscript B.14.15 is an example of Batman’s work as a limner.


It is a three-quarter length depiction of a black child wearing a band around her head. She holds pink flowers which would also have had a symbolic significance. The two intertwined bands at the bottom of the image calls to mind the wreath of a heraldic crest although these usually show just six twists. Black people are sometimes depicted on family crests such as those for Blackman, Blackmore, Heyman and Andrewes. In the past few years historians have begun to examine the place of black people in sixteenth century society. While Africans are known to have been at the Tudor court from the beginning of the sixteenth century, for major cities including Plymouth and London, there is also evidence of black communities living, working and intermarrying. For example, the parish records of St Botolph’s without Aldgate (close to Newington Butts) have a number of black people recorded in them. They were often working, like their white counterparts, as domestic servants.

Manuscript B.14.15 is a 15th century translation of Gerard of Liège’s De Doctrina Cordis. It was bequeathed to the Augustinian Priory of Holy Trinity at Aldgate in London in 1455 by Dame Christine Saint Nicholas. This text was one of several that circulated in an around this community in the fifteenth century and was typical of the kind of devotional material that was being translated from Latin into the vernacular for female audiences. Batman acquired the manuscript in 1575 and the dates at the bottom of the illustration refer, therefore, to the provenance of the text. Devotional texts in Middle English were Batman’s particular interest and M. B. Parkes has suggested that his especial regard for this text is evinced by his annotations and the inclusion of the fine illustration. It does not appear, however, that this apparent crest has any link to the name Batman. Please contact us if you have any thoughts …


Parkes, M. B., ‘Stephan Batman’s Manuscripts’, Medieval Heritage: Essays in Honour of Tadahiro Ikegami (Tokyo, 1997)

Katherine Coombs, “‘A Kind of Gentle Painting’: Limning in 16th-Century England”

Fairbairn, J., Fairbairn’s Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland, compiled from the best authority by J. Fairbairn and revised by L. Butters (Edinburgh and London)

Trinity Lends Battle Song to Agincourt Exhibition

The Wren Library’s most famous music manuscript has been loaned to the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, as part of a major exhibition commemorating the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

Carol Roll on display
The Trinity Carol Roll (O.3.58) on display in Paris

The two-metre-long Trinity Carol Roll is a collection of songs and carols including the famous Agincourt Carol.

The English defeated the French army on the Feast of St Crispin, 25 October 1415, with the help of their superior longbows, firing a hail of arrows so devastating that 6000 French soldiers were killed in a day. The exhibition in Paris places this catastrophic defeat at the start of a period of renewal and development of military capability, which would lead a century later to a French victory over Swiss pikemen at the Battle of Marignan in 1515.

Trinity regularly lends treasures from its collections to exhibitions around the UK and abroad: other loans this year have included the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition, the Fitzwilliam Museum’s ‘Treasured Possessions’ show, and displays at Lincoln Cathedral and Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s house in the Lake District. The Carol Roll is exceptionally fragile and valuable, so the Library’s conservator constructed a special box for it to be safely transported. Sub-Librarian Sandy Paul delivered the manuscript to the museum and oversaw its installation.

The Trinity Carol Roll was probably compiled shortly after the victory at Agincourt: its neat English script is characteristic of the early decades of the fifteenth century, and some of the spellings suggest a Norfolk origin. Seven of the thirteen carols written on the roll are for Christmas, the rest for other times of the year. The Agincourt carol consists of a narrative account of Henry V’s victory in English, interspersed with the Latin refrain ‘Deo gracias anglia, redde pro victoria’ (‘England, give thanks to God for victory!’). The carol became widely known after being published in Victorian times, and was used in William Walton’s classic score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V.

Deo Gracias Anglia, O.3.58

The roll consists of three parchment membranes sewn together to make a single long scroll. Musical rolls of this format were commonplace in the late Middle Ages, to judge from the numerous depictions of singers holding them, but only a very few have survived: they were inevitably more vulnerable to wear-and-tear than the more permanent format of the bound volume. This roll was presented to Trinity College in 1838 by H. O. Roe, but nothing is known of its earlier history. It made a brief excursion to the Fitzwilliam Museum for an exhibition in 1982, but this is the first time it has travelled abroad.

See the Trinity Carol Roll at the exhibition ‘Chevaliers et Bombardes’, Musée de l’Armée, Les Invalides, Paris until 24 January 2016

Trinity Admissions

At the start of term all freshers sign the Admission Book. This is a requirement set down in the college ordinances (regulations). At the same time students complete matriculation forms for the University. This is the formal process of enrolment.

No admission books of any kind survive before 1560 and records of admissions to the college only survive from 1635. The oldest extant book records the admission of Master, Fellows, Scholars, Officers and preachers for most of the period 1560-1759. This includes the admission of one of Trinity’s most famous alumnus, Isaac Newton in 1667. This year’s freshers have had the opportunity to see this signature when they have come into the Wren Library to sign the current Admission Book.


Labours of the Month: October

A man in a red hood sows seeds in a freshly furrowed field. (Trin MS B.11.31)
A man in a red hood sows seeds in a freshly furrowed field. (Trin MS B.11.31)

Sowing was the beginning and end of the agricultural season and was an important charge for the workers responsible. After the soil was loosened with a harrow and subdivided into furrows with a plow, the process of sowing was as follows:

“The field to be sown was measured, and the seed was measured into open sacks that were set out at each end of an open furrow. The sower then walked smoothly and steadily down the furrow, counting his steps and keeping them even for the length of the field, guiding his feet down two adjacent plow lines. He then reckoned how many steps he must take to each handful of grain he would cast. […] 

“Once the rhythm that determined how many handfuls of seed would be matched to the number of steps needed to cover the ground was established, it remained constant for the whole field. However, a skilled worker might be asked to sow more thinly or thickly in different parts of the field, which might be drier or damper in one place than another. He did this not by changing the rhythm, but by taking a little larger or smaller handful of grain.” (Larkin 2009)

If this was not done accurately the following harvest would be a disappointment and food shortages were a distinct possibility. Therefore sowing was a skilled and responsible undertaking.

A man beats a tree while three little pigs await a meal below. (Trin MS B.11.4, f.v verso)
A swineherd beats a tree while three little pigs await a meal below. (Trin MS B.11.4, f.v verso)

This month our two primary texts have a disagreement (not for the first time) about what one should do in October. For this month B.11.4, the 13th century English Psalter, shows a swineherd knocking down acorns for his pigs to eat.  Next month we will look more at pigs and pannage – the right of tenants to bring their swine into the woodland belonging to their landlord to forage – as this is the more common scheme for labours of the month cycles. However, it is intriguing to wonder why this manuscript is a month ahead of the usual scheme. Could it be an error in production, or evidence of a cooler climate that led to an earlier arrival of Autumn and the pannage season than in southern Europe? Could it be evidence of the onset of the Little Ice Age of the 14th-18th centuries or just a local idiosyncrasy?

A rather cuddly and benign-looking Scorpio. (Trin MS B.11.4)
A rather benign-looking Scorpio. (Trin MS B.11.4)

Scorpio is the astrological sign beginning in October and it is derived from the sun travelling through the constellation Scorpius, a long chain of stars that curved in a way that ancient people likened to the curve of a scorpion’s tail. Perhaps the connection with the stinging arachnid was reinforced by the fiery red Magnitude 1 star Antares (“rival of Mars”), located near the “head” of the Scorpion. Legends about Scorpio vary but they usually pit the scorpion against Orion, the hunter. In these legends the scorpion was usually sent to kill Orion and after a fierce battle conquered and killed the hunter. However, both were hung in the heavens as constellations, either as a warning against mortal pride or because Orion managed to flatter the Goddess Artemis before his untimely end according to two of the legends. So, while Orion “hunts” in the sky through the winter, he flees as the constellation Scorpius surmounts the horizon.

Paris' patron saint, Saint Denis, has his feast day on 9 October, shown in gold in this French manuscript. (Trin MS B.11.31)
Paris’ patron saint, Saint Denis, written in gold in this French manuscript. (Trin MS B.11.31)

If our North American readers are looking for something more creepy than crawly in this month’s post in preparation for Halloween, look no further than the feast day of the patron Saint of Paris, St. Denis, on 9 October, marked in gold in the French Hours. St. Denis was martyred c. 250 AD by decapitation. However, that was not enough to stop the Bishop of Paris. He reputedly picked up his own severed head and carried it 10 kilometers, preaching repentance the whole way.

So will your October be more sows or sowing? More cephalophores or scorpions? Whichever you choose we hope there’s no sting in the tail!

Happy October!

Scorpio with a needle-like sting. (Trin MS B.11.7, f.5v)
Scorpio with a needle-like sting. (Trin MS B.11.7, f.5v)


Larkin (2009) “Sowing Broadcast“, The Medieval Garden Enclosed: The Cloisters Museum and Garden.