An early Valentine?

Trinity manuscript R.2.70 is a parchment fragment which has a Middle English love lyric written onto one side.  While at some point in its history the parchment formed part of a binding, its original function is unclear. It is within the bounds of possibility, though, that this decorated poem was composed and copied out as a missive for delivery. It may thus constitute a very early example of a Valentine’s day message.

The verse is written in a late fifteenth-/early sixteenth-century hand and is addressed to a woman named ‘Susane’, asking for merciful treatment and offering compliments of a mostly conventional kind. Late medieval poems were sometimes addressed to named individuals and it is tempting to believe that ‘Susane’ was a real woman. Ballades such as this were often designed as lovers’ petitions with the envoy (the concluding lines) offering the opportunity for the lover to sign off in some way. The two couplets at the end of this lyric apparently identify the writer in the form of a cryptic puzzle: “By him that in forestes walkethe wyde/Where noone may passe with out his gyd/Nor kene may in dale nor doune/But that he is other blake or broune”. This may be a hidden message to the recipient hinting perhaps at the name Darkwood, Greenwood or Whitewood. This address to a named person and final cryptic signing off are still recognizable today as characteristic features of a Valentine.

Furthermore, the verse is carefully decorated and embellished with calligraphic initials, some containing profile faces.

At the bottom a bleeding heart is pierced crosswise by two arrows, above which is a small four-leafed clover that contains words which are now indecipherable but which may include ‘true’ and ‘ I love’.

In the late medieval period these symbols – the pierced heart and the quatrefoil – would have been familiar in devotional contexts, but also in secular ones. Occasional poems were written for St Valentine during the fifteenth century and although this poem does not explicitly refer to the saint, its allusions to frosty weather (line 9) and to summer as a season expected in the future (line 11) allow for the possibility that it was composed at the end of winter and conceived as a Valentine’s day gesture.

Medieval Valentine poems are now mostly preserved within longer works. However they were presumably also sometimes passed from person to person on single sheets of parchment or paper in a similar way to the exchange of other love tokens such as rings. It is tempting to suppose then that this carefully composed and decorated poem may have been sent to the woman who was its subject, in much the same way that Valentines are exchanged today.






Advent Calendar: 24 images from the Wren Digital Library




Day 1: B.11.4; Day 2: B.11.5; Day 3: B.10.24: Day 4: R.14.23; Day 5: R.14.9; Day 6: B.11.7; Day 7: Crewe_Athena; Day 8: O.7.46: Day 9: B.11.19; Day 10: Crewe_Kaladlit: Day 11 R.15.21; Day 12: B.11.11; Day 13: O.3.58: Day 14: R.17.22: Day 15: Crewe_1.4: Day 16: R.16.2: Day 17: B.11.31: Day 18: O.2.48: Day 19: B.10.2: Day 20: B.11.22: Day 21: R.15.18; Day 22: B.1.46; Day 23: B.11.32: Day 24: Sraffa

Hockney’s Bigger Book – and a smaller one.


This morning we took delivery of A Bigger Book, David Hockney’s retrospective collection of more than 450 works from throughout his career. Measuring 70 x 50 cm, it is a spectacular survey of more than 60 years of Hockney’s work, from his teenage days at the Bradford School of Art, Los Angeles swimming pools in the 1970s, and more recent portraits, iPad drawings and Yorkshire landscapes.

A Bigger Book comes with its own bookstand, designed by Marc Newson, and provides a colourful centrepiece to the Wren Library, where it will be on display next week, 9–13 Jan 2017 (the Library is open to the public Monday to Friday, 12–2).

This copy, no. 2101 from the limited edition signed by the artist, was presented to the College by Nicholas Kessler, whose remarkable collection of livres d’artistes is one of the newer highlights of the Wren’s holdings. Another recent addition to the Kessler collection is a group of twenty Hockney posters from the collection of the late Jonathan Silver, the Bradford entrepreneur who established Salt’s Mill and 1853 Gallery in Saltaire, which is home to one of the largest collections of David Hockney’s art.


As well as Hockney’s Bigger Book, the Kessler collection includes what is probably Hockney’s smallest book, a miniature edition of Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm with 39 etchings by Hockney, printed by the Petersburg Press in 1970. This page shows Rapunzel letting down her hair.

Click here for a video interview with David Hockney on the making of A Bigger Book.


Discovering Newton

Roubiliac Bust of Isaac Newton

Earlier this week we welcomed members of the Worshipful Company of Scientific Instrument Makers to the Library. Their visit was part of a symposium to mark the 350th anniversary of Newton’s argument that the Earth’s gravity influenced the moon, counter-balancing its centrifugal force.

Among the items on display were personal effects which belonged to Newton including his compass and ruler, the page from the admissions book recording his entry to the college, his notebook and his own annotated copy of Principia Mathematica.


Roubiliac in the Wren Library

Portrait of Roubiliac by A. Soldi
Roubiliac by A. Soldi
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Wren Library houses a magnificent series of portrait busts by Louis François Roubiliac, the leading sculptor in England in the mid-18th century.

By Wren’s time, there was a well-established tradition of furnishing libraries with painted and sculptural portraits. The subjects of these portraits would often be ancient and modern authors, great men worthy of emulation and providers of inspiration. This can be seen in the Wren in the series of plaster and wood busts placed on top of the bookcases on either side, one side ancient, one side modern. Together with representations of authors, portrait busts were also made of illustrious former members of College as a means of honouring them as well as helping to construct a sense of the College’s institutional history. It is in the series of busts which line either side of the Wren at floor level, each on a plinth, that we find the glorious workings of Roubiliac.

Wren Library interior
Interior of the Wren Library showing the busts at floor level on wooden plinths

While figurative sculpture for the interior of the Library had been envisaged by Wren, this was not realised to any scale until the middle of the eighteenth century when it became part of a wider project to ‘define and articulate Trinity’s intellectual affiliations and identity’ [1]. Enter Roubiliac.

By the 1750s he had established his reputation as one of the best sculptors in England. He was appreciated not only for his mimetic skills but also for his inventiveness, the latter which enabled him to stand out from rivals like John Michael Rysbrack and Peter Scheemakers. Probably the first thing that impresses as you gaze upon one of Roubiliac’s busts [in the Wren Library] is a delightful synesthesia conjured up in the immediacy of encountering the subject of the bust as if in person, a person who emerges from marble that, far from being cold and static, seems to flow around the contours of the face, hair and upper torso, and is suffused with warmth. There is a pleasing symmetry to the busts, from the head out to the shoulders and in again to the socle at the base. As Malcolm Baker expresses it in his invaluable chapter on the portrait sculpture in the Wren, they are created to be viewed as works of art in their own right and not merely as sculptures with a public function.

It is thus not surprising that it is to Roubiliac that the Master, Robert Smith, and Fellows of Trinity turned when they were embarking on a programme to develop the College’s iconography. This programme was guided by Smith’s own interests, particularly in the sciences, and was by no means confined only to the Library, or only to works of sculpture, but encompassed various forms of portraiture arranged throughout the College. There is no evidence to suggest a coherent plan, however. In the Library, the busts were either donated or commissioned by former members or friends of College, at the instigation of Smith; the combination of busts that resulted was down, in the end, to who he succeeded in persuading.

The busts in the Wren Library comprise:

10 by Roubiliac, the earliest being those of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Francis Willoughby or Willughby and John Ray. These are placed in pairs at either end of the Library. Later additions include Isaac Barrow, Richard Bentley, Baron Trevor, Lord Whitworth, Sir Robert Cotton and Sir Edward Coke. There are also two by Scheemakers and one by John Bacon.

Each bust is inscribed with the name of the sculptor, sitter and donor, and a date.

The final resting place of all 10 Roubiliac busts in the Wren Library was not established until into the 19th century. While we know that the busts of Newton, Bacon, Ray and Willoughby had been placed in the Library in the 1750s, and the bust of Cotes by the first decade of the following century, guidebooks and accounts do not mention the other busts until the 1830s, and so these had probably been placed elsewhere in College.

The Roubiliac busts










1. Baker, Malcolm. ‘The portrait sculpture’: in ‘The making of the Wren Library’, edited by D. McKitterick, p. 110.

Further reading:

Esdaile, K.A. Roubiliac’s work at Trinity College Cambridge.

Esdaile, K.A. The life and works of Louis Francois Roubiliac.

Bindman, David. Roubiliac and the eighteenth-century monument.

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.


Portolan Chart of the Mediterranean

Manuscript R.4.50 is a spectacular example of a particular type of map which became common among mariners and sailors during the 13th century and remained in use up until the 18th century. Portolan charts were graphic representations of the advice, directions and instructions contained in portolani: these were manuscript sailing instructions, aimed at ensuring a safe navigation for all the ships crossing the seas at that time. R.4.50 is a portolan chart of the Mediterranean, the sea that is literally located “in the middle of the land”; the centre of the Medieval European world.

Section of the Chart
Section of the Chart

The chart, dating from 1584, was hand-drawn and coloured on vellum by Joan Martines, a Mallorcan cartographer. Martines lived and worked in Messina, Sicily from 1556-1587 before moving to the court of Philip II of Spain, in Naples, where he became Royal Cartographer in 1591. He was a famous and prolific cartographer and produced more than thirty charts and atlases between 1550 and 1591.

Joan Martines’ name, location and date of production of the chart.

Developed by mariners for mariners, with an emphasis on practicality and functionality, portolan charts were not only about getting from one place to another, but also about avoiding danger. To emphasize their intended use at sea, the coastal place names were written on the land side of the coast line and perpendicular to it, to avoid interfering with marking courses on the sea. Any point can be located using the combination of direction and distance from a known starting point. The names of lesser ports appeared in black ink, while the names of the more important ones were written in red. The chart shows the characteristic system of “rhumb lines” and compass roses, serving a dual purpose: first, the cartographer used them to construct the chart when drawing the coastlines; later, the sailor used them to plot his course.

Sardinia, and a compass (wind) rose. Rhumb lines are clearly visible.

The coast line can be read as a continuum, thus highlighting the connections between Mediterranean ports. The unifying power of the “sea between the lands” is evident from the co-existence of ports which were bastions of different religions and cultures. Flags drawn over ports, Christian symbols, Islamic features, and various references to the different political allegiances of the time can all be seen. There is no real sense of separation between Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East; everything is connected by people, trades and ideas, from Gibraltar to the Black Sea.

Genoa, Italy. The flags over ports show their political allegiance.
Damietta, Egypt. The flags over ports show their political allegiance.










Further reading:

Pflederer, R. Finding their way at sea: the story of portolan charts, the cartographers who drew them and the mariners who sailed by them. H&DG, 2012

Roger of Salerno’s ‘Surgery’

Left, Damage to the Cerebral Membrane. Right, View of Dispensary. (f. 240r)
Fig. 1 – Left, Diagnosing damage to the Cerebral Membrane. Right, View of Dispensary. f. 240r

Trinity College Library’s Manuscript O.1.20 is one of the earliest and most important known collections of vernacular medical texts from the middle ages. It includes among its various treatises and receipts an illustrated Anglo-Norman translation of the Chirurgia Practica of Roger of Salerno.

Exploratory surgery. (f. 254r)
Fig. 2 – Exploratory surgery. f. 254r

Rogerius (before 1140 – c. 1195), also known as Roger of Salerno, brought academic respectability to the discipline of surgery through the hugely popular work on the subject that is attributed to him. Chirurgia Practica or The Practice of Surgery was actually compiled by his students from his lecture notes c.1180. Surgery brought about a renaissance in European medical writing and promoted innovations in antiseptic, anesthetic, diagnostic and surgical practices. It describes various activities of the medieval Dispensary, a place where remedies were prepared and applied, diagnoses made and surgeries performed by the doctor and his assistants.

Illustration of the Dispensary, accompanying a receipt for an ointment to treat fistula. f.272r.
Fig. 3 – Illustration of the Dispensary accompanying a receipt for an ointment to treat fistula. The doctor holds a bundle of herbs and instructs his assistants. f. 272r.

Trinity’s copy of Surgery was produced in the early 13th century. The French translation in this volume is likely based on a continental model, though was copied in England, as evidenced by the use of vernacular English names such as ‘henbane’ and ‘cockle’ throughout the text. With texts such as this that were transmitted through copying, scholars can make comparisons between editions and can learn quite a lot about their production, including peculiarities of individual scribes and artists working on a manuscript.

A surgeon pulls an arrow from a man's head. f. 248r
Fig. 4 – Extracting an arrowhead from a man’s shaven head by enlarging the exit wound with a trephine. (f. 248r)

Trinity’s copy of Surgery is illustrated throughout with scenes of medical preparations from a medieval dispensary as well as rather hair-raising scenes of surgical procedures. They are wonderfully executed not only in style and composition but in the details of facial expressions and body language that “imparts a sympathetic humanity to medical scenes which elsewhere can often seem brutal, callous or indifferent” (Hunt 1992). Another striking aspect of these illustrations is the relative accuracy with which the surgical instruments and procedures are portrayed.

Treatment of nasal polyps. f. 259v.
Fig. 5 – Treatment of nasal polyps. (f. 259v)

However, the unknown artist was limited by the text from which he was working. The original Latin text of Surgery clearly included a description of cauterising the wound after removing nasal polyps. “The Anglo-Norman translator, however, through eyeskip (i.e. inadvertently copying from a later occurrence of the same word or phrase) which is characteristic of him, has omitted the detail of the hot iron used for searing.” (Hunt 1992) The artist, who was basing his images on the Anglo-Norman text and not the Latin exemplar, did not show a bellows and hot iron in Fig. 5 although he included them with other procedures involving the tools for cauterisation. He seems not to have read the text too carefully when producing Fig. 1, however. One symptom of trauma to the dura mater is a blackened tongue, hence the doctor instructing the patient to stick out his tongue. The artist, however, inexplicably painted the patient’s protruding tongue red.

An assistant holds the patient while the doctor removes a facial tumor. f. 260r.
Fig. 6 – An assistant holds the patient still while the doctor removes a facial tumor. (f. 260r)

This blog has already dealt with some aspects of medieval medical scholarship, including the Zodiac Man figures featured in various medieval manuscripts and based on information like this, readers may have formulated a particular idea of medieval medicine that fits in with popular portrayals of the middle ages. It would be an injustice, however, to characterise medieval medicine as superstitious and backward. Medieval doctors worked with the knowledge they had and in many cases made ingenious advancements in treatment and diagnosis.

For example, it is believed that Roger of Salerno may have originated a technique for detecting a tear in the dura or cerebral membrane in skull fractures. Now known as the Valsalva maneuver, the doctor would have his patient hold their breath, introducing pressure into the skull, and the doctor would watch for air bubbles or cerebrospinal fluid leaking from the skull. Additionally, Roger was a pioneer in the treatment of nerve damage, advocating reanastomosis – the realignment of damaged tissue by surgical means – to repair severed nerves. By modern standards medieval medicine may seem unhygienic, agonizing, even barbaric. However, many of the surgeries and interventions performed were potentially life-saving procedures based on the knowledge available at the time as well as a fair amount of experimentation and innovation.

Further reading

Greenblatt, S. H., Dagi, T. F., & Epstein, M. H. (1997). A history of neurosurgery: in its scientific and professional contexts. Park Ridge, Ill., American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

Hunt (1992) The Medieval Surgery. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.

Treating cranial fissures. (f. 243v)
Fig. 7 – Treating cranial fissures. (f. 243v)

The Voyages Extraordinaires of Jules Verne

Kessler.b.22 cover
Kessler.b.22 cover

The Voyages Extraordinaires (literally Extraordinary Voyages or Extraordinary Journeys) are a sequence of fifty-four novels by the French writer Jules Verne (1828-1905), originally published between 1863 and 1905. According to Verne’s editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel, the goal of the Voyages was “to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format … the history of the universe.” Verne’s meticulous attention to detail and scientific trivia, coupled with his sense of wonder and exploration, form the backbone of the Voyages.  Part of the reason for the broad appeal of his work was the sense that the reader could really learn knowledge of geology, biology, astronomy, palaeontology, oceanography and the exotic locations and cultures of the world through the adventures of Verne’s protagonists.  This great wealth of information distinguished his works as “encyclopaedic novels”. The works in this series included both fiction and non-fiction, some with overt science fiction elements (e.g., Journey to the Centre of the Earth) or elements of scientific romance (e.g., Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea).

In the system developed by Hetzel for the Voyages Extraordinaires, each of Verne’s novels was published successively in several different formats.  This resulted in as many as four distinct editions of each.  The books on display here (and currently in the Wren Library) are taken from the Kessler collection and are examples of Cartonnages dorés et colorés (gilded and coloured bindings): complete editions of the text, published in grand in-8º  (“large octavo”) book form with a lavishly decorated cover.  These deluxe editions, designed for Christmas and New Year’s markets, include most or all of the illustrations from the serializations.

Kessler.b.19 cover ‘Around the world in eighty days’
Kessler.b.19 spine
Kessler.b.22 p. 124
Kessler.b.22 p. 124 ‘Twenty thousand leagues under the sea’
Kessler.b.22 frontispiece
Kessler.b.22 frontispiece
Kessler.b.21 cover
Kessler.b.21 cover ‘Star of the South’

Thanks to Wikipedia

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.