Tag Archives: British Library

Alphabet Books

A blog post by the British Library on their 15th century “Macclesfield Alphabet Book” set me off on a quest for more of these essential (and decorative) educational texts:  I figured that I could assemble a sample chronological collection that would span the centuries, and I was right: this is one literary genre that never went out of style, until now, I think. My portfolio of pages was gleaned from books produced both for learning the alphabet (primers) and learning to write, not necessarily the same thing but I make the rules! The Macclesfield text, for example, was written for professional scribes (or their prospective patrons) rather than children; centuries later the two types of texts merged a bit but still had somewhat different aims. For a better basis for comparison and evolution, I chose the letter D, my first initial.

Alphabet Sample BL Macclesfield

Alphabet Book Sloane 1448 15thC

Alphabet Book BL Harley MS 16thc

Alphabet samplers from British Library Add MS 88887, the “Macclesfield Psalter” (c. 1475-1525) and Sloane MS 1448a (later 15th century), and the embellished capital D in BL Harley MS 3885, sixteenth century. I love that the D in the Sloane MS takes the shape of a Tudor Rose.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, alphabet books, or ABCs, are pretty distinct from penmanship or “copy” books; the former were often a religious texts, as in ABC with Catechism, and the latter were strictly secular and far more aesthetically pleasing. Only towards the last part of the eighteenth century do we see more decorative alphabet books, and they get ever more whimsical over the next century, as children’s literature becomes a distinct and profitable publishing category.



Alphabet 1775 collage USC

Thomas Watson, A Copy Book Enriched with Great Variety of the Most Useful and Modish Hands (1700);William Chinnery, et. al., Writing and drawing made easy, amusing and instructive: containing the whole alphabet in all the characters now us’d, both in printing and penmanship: each illustrated by emblematic devices and moral copies: calculated for the user of schools and curiously engraved by the best hands … (1750); William Tringham, publisher, The alphabet rendered instructive and entertaining (c. 1775), University of South Carolina Libraries’ Digital Collections.

In the nineteenth century, alphabet books were in the capable and creative hands of such prolific illustrators as Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane, publishers like the McLoughlin Brothers of New York issued very specialized versions, and ultimately Man Ray produced an adult variation. Suddenly the alphabet book is a work of art–or was it always?

Alphabet D Greenaway V and A

Alphabet Crane 1909

Alphabet Baseball Book McLoughlin Brothers 1885

Alphabet Book of Country Scenes

Alphabet Book Man Ray 1970

Pages from from Kate Greenaway’s Alphabet Book (1885), Walter Crane’ Song of Sixpence Picture Book (1909), McLoughlin Brothers & Company’s Baseball ABC Book (1885), and Alphabet Country Scenes Book (1900), as well as the French version of Man Ray’s limited edition Alphabet for Adults (1970).

Love, Illuminated

I’m not really the romantic type, but even I can appreciate Pierre Sala’s “Le Petit Livre d’Amour”, the little book of love that French poet Pierre Sala presented to his future wife Marguerite Bullioud in the early sixteenth century. For me, the combination of illuminated miniatures and Sala’s verse are a testament to both personal and courtly love, for Sala was that ideal Renaissance Man, an accomplished courtier to three French kings.  But he was also a rather whimsical poet, and the images (énigmes attributed to the mysterious “Master of the Chronique scandaleuse”) are so completely charming that one cannot help being……….charmed. A look at this little book is the perfect way to start off what has become Valentine’s Day week.

Sala declares himself right at the beginning, when he gives his strawberry-like heart to Marguerite, or drops his heart in a marguerite flower, a rather more exotic example of our own marguerite daisies. Then it’s games and desperation, as he is parted from the object of his affection. The most captivating miniature is of a pair of maidens capturing hearts, literally:  hearts that can easily fly away!

Love Sala 1 Marguerite

Love Sala 2 Blind Man's Bluff

Love Sala 3 Tree

Sala Petite Livre Winged Hearts

British Library MS Stowe 955.

Sala’s book is one of several iconic manuscripts (including da Vinci’s notebooks and Beowulf) recently digitized by the British Library:  you can find out more about these treasures here, and additional information and images of the “Petite Livre” here.  The book was presented (and still is) in its own wooden carrying case, covered with tooled, painted and gilded leather, with the letters “P” and “M” prominently displayed, of course.  At the end, there is a stunning portrait of Sala, in which he even looks like the ultimate Renaissance man!  It was painted by his fellow courtier, the royal painter and limner Jean Perréal, who, according to the British Library catalogue notes, was also supposed to paint in Sala’s face in the book’s first heart-dropping image.  Somehow that never happened, which makes the book even more charming in its imperfection.

Pierre Sala Portrait

British Library MS Stowe 955, folio 17:  Pierre Sala (1457-1529).

P.S. There is an apparently-beautiful facsimile of The Little Book of Love out there in limited quantities (for you Romantic types out there) but I wasn’t able to find a copy that was either available or for less than $6500.

Royal Entries (and Exits)

The thought of Richard III’s re-interment ceremony got me thinking about the royal festivals of the early modern era, when every coronation, wedding, procession, visitation or funeral was projected to peers and the public via the new medium of print. The festival books that record (or make up) these events are great examples of “official history”, or propaganda. If it was logistically impossible for the “new” monarchs of the sixteenth and seventeenth century to project absolute authority, they could at least project magnificence, even, as in the case of Richard’s vanquisher, Henry VII, and his granddaughter Elizabeth I, in death.

Royal Entry Death of Henry VII


The Death of Henry VII in 1509 at Richmond Palace,  British Library  MS Additional 45131,f.54; Funeral procession of Elizabeth I, 1603, British Library MS. Add. 35 324, fol.37v.

But these solemn displays were nothing compared to the elaborate events that occurred on the Continent, which were recorded in both lavish manuscript books and well as more spare printed texts. The British Library has digitized much of its collection of festival books, and assembled a comprehensive site where you can access over 250 texts in addition to links to other collections and scholarly context and analysis. In these texts, you can read about, and see, all sorts of amazing events staged to mark the “joyful entries” of Renaissance monarchs:  processions (with detailed lists of participants), tournaments, masques and other theatrical performances, ballets, water spectacles, fireworks, and all sorts of temporary architectural and/or mechanical constructions. The effort and expensive that went into these festivities is all the more impressive (and of course, seemingly wasteful) because the moments are so fleeting. A great example of flagrant-display-for-very-little-purpose was the meeting of Kings Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France near Calais in June of 1520, which became known as the Field of Cloth of Gold because of the profligate use of gold for the pavilion tents and presentation clothing of the participants. The two kings achieved very little (besides a wrestling match in which Francis bested Henry), but they put on a great show.

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Royal Entry MS Augustus III, 18 Gold 1520
Royal Entry BL Cotton Augustus III f 19 framed
Field of Cloth of Gold Richard Doyle framed
A printed account of the Field of Cloth of Gold, and two illustrations of the Pavilion tents, British Library MS Cotton Augustus III, folios 18-19; Punch caricaturist Richard Doyle’s cartoon of the wrestling match between Francis I and Henry VIII, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

For both aesthetic and pedagogical reasons (and because it provokes shock and awe among my students), my favorite festival book is a beautifully illustrated account of the promenade into Antwerp of François,the Duke of Alencon and Anjou, in 1582.  This elaborately-staged “joyous entry” was in fact an attempted conquest by the heir to the French throne (and Elizabeth’s serious suitor) in disguise, and the Duke barely escaped with his life. But what does that matter?  There was an elephant in the parade!

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British Library- C.22.c.12 c1748_04_0280+044
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Title page and Scenes from La ioyeuse [et] magnifique entrée de monseigneur Francoys, fils de France, et frere unicque du roy, par la grace de dieu, duc de Brabant, d’Anjou, Alencon, Berri, [et]c. en sa tres-renomée ville d’Anvers (Antwerp, 1582), British Library.

Plant People

The chalkboard-painted backsplash in my kitchen( (which is really not a backsplash at all, a topic for another day), in a color called “peapod”, compelled me to find a few more spring green, pea pod accents for the room.  A simple search uncovered one of John Derian’s decoupaged mini-trays, featuring two people dressed in pea pods, an item that I’d seen before but never really took note of.  My curiosity about the source of the image led me to the blog of the New York Historical Society, which offered up more of Jerome B. Rice’s trade cards from 1885:  not only anthropomorphic peas, but a beet, onion, and potato as well!  Interesting that there is a Mr. Potato-body rather than a Mr. Potato Head, one of my favorite childhood games.

Jerome B. Rice Trade Cards from the Bella Landauer Collection at the New York Historical Society.

So now of course I forgot all about my kitchen and went off on a quest for anthropomorphic plant images.  It wasn’t a difficult quest, as I knew where to begin:  with the mystical medieval mandrake, a plant with a decidedly human root system which has long been the stuff of legend.  There are biblical references to it, as well as Shakespearean ones, and in between all the medieval herbals refer to the plant that shrieks or groans when it is pulled from the ground, a sound that is absolutely fatal to those who hear it, necessitating a dog-pulling technique if one wants to be bold enough to try.  All sorts of secret virtues, both magical and medicinal, are attributed to the plant, from the ancient era to Harry Potter.

Three views of the Mandrake:  Harley Manuscript 5294  (12th century) and Sloane Manuscript 4016 (15th century), British Library, and Hieronymous Brunschwig, Kleines Distillierbuch  (1500), Smithsonian Institution.

Now it is time for a distinguished late Renaissance plant person:  Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1576 until 1612  (and avid cultural patron), depicted as Vertumnus, the Roman God of the seasons, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  You would think that Arcimboldo was on dangerous ground with this “portrait” but apparently Rudolf admired it–I’m sure that the latter knew what he was getting as this painting is very representative of Arcimboldo’s rather whimsical (strange?) works.  This is an image that never fails to amuse (repulse?) my students; it captures their attention at the very least!

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus (Rudolf II), 1590.  Note the pea pod eyelids!

Fast forward to the Victorian era and its obsession with flowers and their essence and meaning, very well expressed by J.J. Grandvilles Les Fleurs Animées (1847) in which a virtual army of flowers begs their commander Flower Fairy for permission to transform themselves:  “We are tired of this flowerlife. We wish for permission to assume the human form, and to judge, for ourselves, whether that which they say above, of our character, is agreeable to truth.”  They receive permission to join the human world, but the 54 etched and hand-colored plates that chart this evolution (devolution?) present them as beautiful but hybridized versions of humanity.

As far as I can tell, the  Grandville illustrations were issued as postcards in the 1870s and again around 1900, along with a veritable flood of flower people postcards on the market:  sugary sweet floral children and young maidens, which make Grandville’s flower girls look quite sophisticated and artistic.  Below is Miss Periwinkle, from a card dated 1900.

There are so many flower people out there from this era that I have to admit that I’m more interested in the rarer fruit and vegetable people, like the Rice pea pods that started my quest. Rice’s trade cards apparently initiated or reflected a trend of anthropomorphic crop images, as illustrated by the “cabbage girl” below (although what Dutch cabbage had to do with the flavoring this Baltimore company was offering I do not know), and a group of radishes from a British nursery in the 1890s.

The postcard manufacturers of the new industry’s golden age could clearly not resist the potential that “cantaloupe” (with or without an e) offered for plays on words, so we have several examples from the first decade of the twentieth century:  for a romantic attachment, and against:  we are too young, dear, we cantaloupe.

This last cantaloupe card is part of a series entitled “Garden Patch”, illustrated by E. Curtis for the prolific postcard publishers Raphael Tuck & Sons of New York City in 1907 and 1908. All of the cards in the series can be viewed here , including my favorites:  featuring a [water]melon, lettuce (be married), and a turnip (your nose is a little turn [ed]ip).  The latter is a bit of a stretch, but at least it gives us a full basket of vegetables.

Stag Party

In addition to my chair duties, I am teaching one course this semester, a survey of English history from the Roman era through the Tudors.  This is a long period, and in order to add more depth to a course that is more characterized by breadth I’m going to bring quite a few illuminated manuscripts (digitally) into the classroom for my students to view and analyze.  While I was reacquainting myself with some of my favorites this past weekend (via the extraordinary resource that is the British Library’s digital catalog of illuminated manuscripts), I seemed to be seeing lots of deer in the margins, and stags in particular:  stags alone, stags as prey, stags with satyrs, stags with serpents (which they can apparently drive out of the ground) and stags parading with other animals. Stags appear not only in medieval bestiaries (encyclopedias of animals) but also in herbals (encyclopedias of plants) because the hardened cartilage of their hearts–os de cor de cervi–was used in medical preparations.

A selection of stags from the British Library Department of Manuscripts:  Arundel, Egerton, and Royal Mss., circa 1280-1490.

The image of the stag persists into the modern era in visual and material culture more as a symbol of majesty and the (receding) forest than a feature of everyday life.  There is the statuesque, noble stag, the leaping stag, and of course, the stag head–a hunting motif that has gained a more general popularity in the last decade or so.  I prefer my deer with their bodies attached, so here are a few favorite images from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum:  leaping deer on a  Meissen plate from the late 18th century, and Foxton furnishing fabric and a Susie Cooper figurine, both from the 1930s.  Cooper (1902-1995), the dominant ceramics designer of the twentieth century, loved the leaping deer motif so much that she used it as her company logo and trademark.

I use a lot of deer for my Christmas decorating, and as I’ve had neither the time or the inclination to do my typical January purge, there’s still quite a few stags around the house.  And I’ve had my eye on the Nico Masemula stag at Anthropologie for the last couple of months, now fortunately (for my wallet) sold out.

Years of Protest

The last days of the year are always a time for reflection and assessment, perhaps personally but certainly by the media.  So far, all of the pieces that I have seen on television and in print characterize 2011 as a “year of protest”, following Time magazine’s “Protester” Person of the Year.  Like all historians, I find agitation attractive because it signals a time of (exciting) change rather than (boring) continuity, but I’m not certain that this is the case with 2011 yet.  Everyone seems so distracted by their various electronic devices, and protesting (and change) takes real engagement.  Perhaps this is too American a view, but 2011 doesn’t look quite like 1968, or 1789, or the 177os, or the 1640s, or the 1520s, or the very rebellious period of 1378-1381.

This last (or first) era of rebellion, culminating in the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, did not really result in change but was exiting nonetheless for its novelty:  the 99 percent seldom rebelled against the 1 percent in the Middle Ages.  But the fourteenth century changed everything, bringing forth famine, plague, war and schism in intense degrees and leaving its survivors with nothing left to lose and everything to gain.  Abandoned by their Church and very conscious of their bargaining power in a world that had lost over 30% of its laborers to the Black Death, the peasants of England marched on London to seek an audience with King Richard II after the imposition of what they perceived as unfair taxes and wage restrictions.  With the charismatic Wat Tyler and John Ball leading them onwards, they got their audience with the young King (slaughtering the Archbishop of Canterbury along the way), but were defeated soon afterwards.

The preacher John Ball leading the peasants, the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Richard confronts the peasants, all from the Chronicles of Jean Froissart, British Library MS Royal 18 E I, circa 1483.

In retrospect, the English Peasants Revolt illustrated, rather than caused, change, but its message, articulated best by a speech attributed to Ball in which he speaks of “liberty” and asks the rhetorical question when Adam delved and Eve span who was then the Gentleman survived and was revived in the modern era, when it reflected even more change.

Edward Burne-Jones illustration for William Morris’s Dream of John Ball, 1888.

The Medieval World

The medieval world was ROUND, smaller than in actuality, and largely comprised of a contiguous land mass.  It was not FLAT.  Please excuse my pedantic capital letters, but this week my graduate seminar is examining Columbus historiography, which raises the ongoing issue (not topic) of the so-called “Flat Earth Myth”, the continuing false belief that the majority educated opinion in the medieval “Dark Ages”  was that the world was flat.  Historians have been writing about the Flat Earth Myth for quite some time (see Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth:  Columbus and Modern Historians), but despite their assertions it is still with us:  every year I poll the incoming freshmen in my World History class about what they were taught in primary and secondary school and every year more than half of them raise their hands in support of the medieval flat earth.

The novelist and Columbus biographer Washington Irving is generally given credit for inventing the flat earth, to use Russell’s title term. Irving’s multi-volume Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus accentuated the New World heroism of Columbus by emphasizing the “darkness”  of the Old World from whence he came.  First published in 1828, it remained the definitive text on Columbus until the publication of Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea more than a century later, influencing and infusing several generations of American history textbooks and students.  Given this text’s popularity, it is easy for me to understand why a student entering college as late as 1950 might have believed in the flat earth myth, but not 2011.

An 1873 likeness of Washington Irving from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, his famous house “Sunnyside” in Tarrytown, New York (HABS, Library of Congress), and an illustration from an 1897 edition of The Life and Works of Christopher Columbus.

Many medieval sources, literary and graphic, exist that demonstrate the prevailing belief in the spherical earth, and these sources have been analyzed and discussed at length. Probably the greatest of medieval philosophers, Thomas Aquinas, asserted that “the world is round” in the same way that we might say “the sky is blue”.  It should be common knowledge, but apparently it is not, so here are a few images to reinforce the round medieval world.  I’m beginning, appropriately, with scenes of instruction from the early fifteenth century and then proceeding chronologically.

A geography master from  a fifteenth-century version of the De proprietatibus rerum (a medieval encyclopedia of sorts) of Bartholomeus Anglicus (British Library MS Royal 17 E III):

God holding a very round world, from an Aristotelian manuscript (BL MS Harley 3487, mid 13th century):

Angels turning the (again, round) world on its axis, from Matfres Eymengau de Beziers, Breviari d’amor (BL MS Harley4940, early 14th century):

God creating the Heavens and Earth, and land and sea, from the Bible Historiale of John the Good, circa 1350 (BL MS Royal 19 D II).  This strikes me as a lot of water for a medieval world map, and of course the medievals have no problem illustrating a not-quite transcendent God!

Some images from a fifteenth-century manuscript of thirteenth-century theologian Gautier de Metz’s popular Image du Monde (BL MS Harley 334), with (again) a very human-like God creating a very round earth:

Finally, a great image of the elemental round earth from John Gower’s Vox Clamantis, circa 1400.  The manuscript is from the University of Glasgow Library (MS Hunter 59) and the image is from the Library’s web exhibition Chaucer and his World.  Obviously medieval intellectuals possessed lots of incorrect and strange (to our eyes and minds) geographical ideas, including a complete lack of knowledge about the soon-to-be-discovered western hemisphere, but the flat earth was not one of them.

Cats Modern and Medieval

Since the weather has turned so dramatically summer-like over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time in the garden, generally accompanied by a cat or two.  My own cats, Darcy and Moneypenny, are primarily indoor cats, but our garden is pretty sheltered so I let them out in the summer and they hang out there.  They have lots of company, as cats like our garden for the following reasons:  1) I have used catnip very liberally as a border plant; 2) our garden serves as a cat “highway” to the park across the street, and; 3) we are one of the few households on the street which doesn’t have a dog.  So there is generally a cat or two back there, particularly on sunny days.  Below is my big tabby Darcy lying on the deck, Moneypenny lying on the bricks, and my neighbors’ cat (Lord of the Garden and King of the Street) surveying his domain.

When I compare these modern cats to their medieval predecessors, it occurs to me that this is an animal that has drastically improved its standard of living over the centuries.  Medieval cats were clearly not pets, and they did not just lie around in the sun; they had working lives.  Looking at the images in medieval bestiaries from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries in the manuscript collections of the British Library, the Bodliean Library, and the Getty and Morgan libraries, it is clear that while dogs served as companions (as well as hunters), cats existed solely to kill mice and rats.

A leashed companion and working cats, all from the British Library digital catalogue of illuminated manuscripts:

From the Northumberland Bestiary (mid-12th century) at the J. Paul Getty Museum:

A trio of cats from the Aberdeen Bestiary(c. 1200) at the University of Aberdeen is below, which is accompanied by this great caption:

The cat is called musio, mouse-catcher, because it is the enemy of mice. It is commonly called catus, cat, from captura, the act of catching. Others say it gets the name from capto, because it catches mice with its sharp eyes. For it has such piercing sight that it overcomes the dark of night with the gleam of light from its eyes. As a result, the Greek word catus means sharp, or cunning.

Only occasionally (generally in the marginalia of the manuscripts) are cats given a break from catching:  here we have two musical cats (one playing, one listening) and one (inexplicably) encased in a snail shell.

Agincourt and After

With each course I teach, I introduce students to my conceptualizations of “boys’ history” and “girls’ history”; the former referring to battles and anything you might find on the History Channel, the latter to everything else that happened.  Of course these are flippant and ridiculous characterizations, but at least it gets them thinking about interpretive issues as apposed to just the facts.  While working on my Renaissance course this past weekend, I encountered a scenario which can represent history for both boys and girls, one with a big battle, a prisoner in the Tower, and an earlyValentine’s Day poem.

The big battle is Agincourt in 1415, which resumed the long series of battles which later became known as the Hundred Years’ War between France and England.  This battle, like all those before it in the War, was a momentous victory for England against overwhelming odds, inspiring Shakespeare’s St Crispin’s Day/”band of brothers” speech in Henry V almost two centuries later.

One reason that English had been so dominant throughout the war was their creative way of financing it:  ransom.  Noble French prisoners would be taken prisoner on the field and given amnesties to collect large ransom demands to ensure their ultimate release.  After Agincourt, however, one notable prisoner of war was not given amnesty or release:  Charles d’Orléans.  The Duke of Orleans, as he is known in the English sources and in Shakespeare’s play, was simply too high up in the French line of royal succession and too connected (by blood and marriage) to be released.  And so he remained an English captive for 25 years, several of them in the Tower of London.

The Duke in Wallingford Castle, National Library of the Netherlands

To relieve the boredom of his long imprisonment (which as you see from the images above, was quite a splendid captivity), the Duke started writing poetry in the romantic style of his near-contemporaries Chaucer and Petrarch.  The ballads addressed to his wife back in France reference Cupid, Courts and Castles of Love (illustrated below in miniatures from a late fifteenth-century Flemish manuscript in the British Library) and St. Valentine’s Day. 

The Duke had very little time with his Duchess, Bonne d’Armagnac, before his capture and imprisonment.  Their betrothal is illustrated in one of the most magnificent illuminated manuscripts of the late Middle Ages:  Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry as that Duke was Bonne’s grandfather.  This was in 1410; in 1415 he was captured at Agincourt, and when he returned in 1440 the Duchess was dead (but he quickly found another).

Given the circumstances and the fashion of the times, the Duke’s”valentines” are a bit plaintive:  I am already sick of love/my very gentle Valentine; Strengthen, my love, this castle of my heart.  More cheerful examples—the products of printing, liberation, and an ever-expanding market, are displayed in the windows of Roost on Front Street in Salem.

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