“Ancients” Flying Around On Little Propeller Chairs UPDATED

I’ll be honest, I have no idea what’s going on here [NOTE: solved, see below]:

2015-01-19 23.07.06Here’s the entire page, which is an illumination from an MS of the Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus.

The floating heads don’t help matters.

2015-01-19 23.07.06

Here’s the previous page:

2015-01-19 23.07.51

And the facing page:


It’s a commentary on Revelation 4:3, with the red text at the top reading:

Et qui sedebat similis erat aspectui lapidis jaspidis, et sardinis: et iris erat in circuitu sedis similis visioni smaragdinae.

That is:

And he that sat, was to the sight like the jasper and the sardine stone; and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

I think the art depicts the “four and twenty seats” of Revelation 4:4, showing the “ancients” not the apostles as I first thought, although they’re not quite “clothed in white garments.”

But why do their seats have propellers? Or windmills? Or crosses? Or whatever they are?

And, as Larry D rightly wondered, why sixteen floating/decapitated heads?


The folks at the incredible British Library Medieval Manuscript blog tweeted to say these are chairs and draw my attention to an illumination of the same passage in their own collection: The Silos Apocalypse. Here’s a detail from it:


Those chairs are sadly propellerless.

SOLVED-ISH: It’s possible that what appear to be propellers are merely X-shaped supports for some kind of bench or camp stool.

UPDATE: Twitterer Graowf did the digging and solved the mystery with a link to a guy who’s “really into chairs“:

The sella curulis was a seat of authority, for army commanders and state rulers. This remained so throughout the Middle Ages: miniatures in medieval manuscripts show kings and abbots seated on a folding chair. Often these are adorned with draperies and cushions, and equipped with a foot stool. Even Lucifer (the ‘authority’ of Hell) had its own ‘living’ folding chair.

Medieval Handwriting: The App

I don’t expect that many of you need to learn to distinguish among and transcribe the many2014-11-06 10.33.17 kinds of medieval hands found in old manuscripts, but Medieval Handwriting is still a must for medieval buffs.

The app, available for Android and iOS, includes 26 religious manuscript pages. Each has an introduction, specimen letter forms, and a full transcription. You can analyse the manuscript, enter your transcription, and then the app automatically determines if that transcription is correct. Any incorrect words are shown in red.

The app was created as an exercise for postgraduate students in the Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds in West Yorkshire.

Jesus–The Revenge!: A Medieval Drama

Signs and portents warning of the destruction of Jerusalem .

The British Museum recently acquired a beautiful illuminated manuscript of a fairly obscure mystery play called Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Ihesu Crist.

In English: Mystery of the Vengeance of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Oh yeah, now we’re talking. I can see the movie poster already. “He’s back, and this time … it’s personal.” Bruce Willis, call your agent.

When we talk about Medieval “mystery” plays, we’re not talking about something like The Mousetrap. These were plays produced, most commonly by the citizenry and guilds on feast days, to illuminate mysteries of faith. It was a kind of dramatic catechism-cum-entertainment.

When Hamlet talks about an actor who can “out-Herod Herod,” he’s talking about the broad and bombastic techniques of acting common to mystery plays, where Herod was a stock villain for the Slaughter of the Innocents. In many regions–particularly England, which had a rich tradition of mystery plays until the Protestants came along and squashed them–the plays were performed on elaborate carts that served as mobile stages.

The version of Vengeance acquired by the Museum is one of the most elaborate, beautiful, and perfectly preserved medieval dramatic manuscripts we have. It was in the possession of the Dukes of Chatsworth for a couple hundred years until it was given up in lieu of estate taxes.

Doctors with the leprous Vespasian. (click to enlarge)

The manuscript is important for several reasons. Aesthetically, it’s a masterful work of 15th century illumination by Loyset Liédet, with 20 plates in pristine condition. It was commissioned by Philip of Burgundy to commemorate a specific performance of the play, so the art captures not only the scenes, but the staging and costuming of the drama as well.

Textually, it contains the most complete version of the play, which was written Br. Eustache Marcadé, a Benedictine monk who also wrote a passion play known as The Passion of Arras. The manuscript contains 14,972 lines of French verse: 1,000 more than the other surviving copy.

The action of the play covers the events leading up to the Fall of Jerusalem (the “vengeance” of the title), and the drama and miracles surrounding it. It’s length required the performance to be split over 4 days, beginning with a debate between the Virtues (Justice, Mercy, Peace and Truth) about whether God should destroy the city in revenge for the crucifixion. The debate concludes with a decision to offer the people many warnings before unleashing destruction.

On day two, Pilate sends a letter to Tiberius recounting the life of Christ, and Vespasian is cured of leprosy by Veronica’s Veil. On the third day, Nero sends Vespasian and Titus to Jerusalem to confront yet another an uprising. The last day of the play covers 69AD–the Year of the Four Emperors–and the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Vespasian.

I don’t believe there is an English translation, but I’ll keep looking.

You can view the entire manuscript at the British Museum Digitized Manuscripts page, and you should.

Catherine of Cleves Has a Case of the Mondays

From the Morgan Library & Museum comes this page from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Monday Matins “Office of the Dead.” Even in the 15th century, Mondays had a grim association.

The Morgan describes it thus:

As a man dies, his wife offers him a candle, a doctor examines his urine, and his son conspires against him. This mercenary heir is shown again, raiding his father’s coffers in the bottom border. On the right is purgatory, the place to which the dying man hopes to go. There his soul, like those depicted, will be cleansed of sin in expiating, if painful, fire.

The Office of the Dead was said for souls in purgatory (on the first Mondays of Advent and Lent, and on All Souls, among other days), even though this looks more like hell:

More on the Hours of Catherine of Cleves. 


Sirach: An Online Manuscript Collection

The Book of Sirach (Latin: Ecclesiasticus) is a beautiful wisdom work that blends Greek and Hebrew thought. It’s the last of the Old Testament books composed, and was probably written only two centuries before the first of the New Testament texts, providing an important glimpse into the development of faith and philosophy between the OT world and the NT world.

The last century has seen the recovery of various important manuscripts of Sirach, first from them middle ages, and then later, fragments from Qumran. These manuscripts are scattered in collections in Cambridge, Oxford, London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem, making close examination and comparison of text a difficult thing. A new project called The Book of Ben Sirah is making that job much easier by attempting to unite all extant manuscripts into a single site. (Only the pages at the Bodleian Library are not included for rights reasons, but the site includes links to them.)

Right now, there are just hi-res scans up, but transcriptions, translations, and resources will be added now that the project is live. Check out the link to get a glimpse of these important manuscripts.

Medieval Warrior Snails

The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog has an interesting compilation of marginal art depicting knights charging at snails. I’ve seen snails in marginals before, but never realized they were such a persistent motif. The symbolism and placement is still puzzling to many medievalists, particularly since the snail did not have a stable meaning associated with it. Lillian M.C Randall found over 70 such images in 29 manuscripts produced in Northern France at the end of the 13th century.

The post is well-illustrated and floats a few unconvincing theories, but also leaves out some interesting observations. Paris Review, where I first saw the link, adds this intriguing quote from Albert the Great:

If thou wilt forejudge, or conjecture things to come … Take the stone which is called Chelonites. It is of purple, and divers other colours, and it is found in the head of the Snail. If any man will bear this stone under his tongue, he shall forejudge, and prophesy of things to come. But notwithstanding, it is said to have this power only on the first day of the month, when the moon is rising and waxing, and again on the twenty-ninth day when the moon is waning.

I found it odd that neither post went to scripture, where the word “snail” only appears once, in Psalm 58:8:

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
Let them be like the snail which dissolves into slime,
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.

Here, it’s use as a straight-up curse, depicting a vile creature known most for its tendency to dissolve. That doesn’t really make for a foe worthy of a charging knight, but may simply be a way of showing contempt for an enemy soon to be vanquished. This enemy is slow and armored, two qualities that give it strength compared to the knights, who charge recklessly.

Perhaps the shells were admired for their imitation of the golden ratio, sometimes called the golden mean, which also refers to the classical notion of perfection in balance between extremes.

Or maybe the monks just liked drawing snails.


A snail also figures in a story by Hans Christian Anderson, where it mocks the rose for not meditating deeply on its purpose or existence, being content to live and die and give pleasure to others. The snail, meanwhile, enjoys the comforts of its shell while it thinks deep thoughts that make it deeply unhappy:

“The world is nothing to me. What have I to do with the world? I have enough to do with myself, and enough in myself.”

“But must we not all here on earth give up our best parts to others, and offer as much as lies in our power? It is true, I have only given roses. But you- you who are so richly endowed- what have you given to the world? What will you give it?”

“What have I given? What am I going to give? I spit at it; it’s good for nothing, and does not concern me. For my part, you may go on bearing roses; you cannot do anything else. Let the hazel bush bear nuts, and the cows and sheep give milk; they have each their public. I have mine in myself. I retire within myself and there I stop. The world is nothing to me.”

It’s an enigmatic story without a clear moral. There’s a sense of the cycle of life at the end, but the snail is much the worse for the misery brought on by deep and slow meditation, while the rose is happy to give beauty to others. Some of Anderson’s stories were reworkings of tales he’d heard as a child, which perhaps retained some lost narrative traditions.

And this is beside the point, but interesting nonetheless: from MISHNAH-TRACTATE SHABBAT 8:1

1. III:3: Said R. Judah said Rab, “Of whatever the Holy One, blessed be He, has created in his world, he has created nothing for nothing. He created the snail as a remedy for a scab, the fly as antidote to the hornet, the mosquito as antidote for a serpent’s bite, a serpent as the antidote for an eruption, a crushed spider as the antidote to a scorpion’s bite.”

And this, from Legends of the Jews:

The snail trailing a moist streak after it as it crawls, and so using up its vitality, serves as a remedy for boils.

The trail of slime left by a snail was seen as a wasting of its substance. Snails were destroyed by salt, which was considered pure.

Mysterious Medieval Manuscript is Probably Not a Hoax

The Voynich Manuscript has baffled everyone since it was first acquired (or, some say, forged) by collector Wilfrid Voynich in 1912.

Probably dating to the 15th century and originating in Northern Italy, the manuscript consists of 240 pages of vellum covered in a mysterious, indecipherable script and illustrations of non-existent plants, astronomical diagrams, tiny naked pregnant women, and other oddities.

The script has defied any attempt to crack it by either philologists or cryptographers, and the entire thing is usually written off as a hoax. I’ve never agreed with that, and assume the text has some meaning, even if it is the ravings of a lunatic Italian monk.

Now, computer analysis suggests that the writing is, in fact, an actual text with meaning ,and not mere gibberish.

The new study in Plos One by theoretical physicist Marcelo Montemurro and Argentina’s Damian Zanette brings more computerized statistical analysis techniques to bear on the text.

In looking at the frequency and patterns of various words and their distribution over the entire book, as well as their relationship to other words, the researchers focused on a “statistical signature” suggesting it’s not just gibberish.

“We show that the Voynich manuscript presents a complex organization in the distribution of words that is compatible with those found in real language sequences,” they write.

“We are also able to extract some of the most significant semantic word-networks in the text. These results together with some previously known statistical features of the Voynich manuscript, give support to the presence of a genuine message inside the book.”

Previous research has also shown that Voynichese is similar to real languages. What the words may mean, however, and whether they represent an encoded known language or a completely made-up one, is still up for debate.

My guess? It’s an esoteric or herbalist text in an encrypted invented language that may have only ever been understood by one man: the author. The lack of correlation between the plants in the manuscript and real plants may just be a novel and extended example of a kind of botanical grotesque.

Claims that it’s either a modern forgery or mere gibberish are unconvincing. Someone filled 240 sheets of valuable vellum with closely-written text and intricate art, indicating a labor that likely took years and showed some level of intelligence and skill. Even if it’s the work of a madman, it at least made sense to him.

Or maybe … you know …


Weird Medieval Marginalia

I guess it’s nice when the internet discovers the much-better-than-the Renaissance-or-Enlightenment awesomeness of the Middle Ages, but like schoolboys searching for the dirty words in the dictionary, they often only seems to find the bizarre or outrageously sexual stuff. Case in point: Buzzfeed’s 20 Bizarre Examples of Medieval Marginalia. Please, please, PLEASE do not click that link if you are easily offended. You have been warned, so I don’t want to hear about, okay?

Here is the least offensive thing I could use:

Honestly, though, for those not familiar with weirdness in Medieval illustration, it’s a decent primer of just how weird some can get, and proof that all those celibates hunched over candles illustrating religious texts got seriously punchy now and then.

If you want a large collection of medieval manuscript art, I recommend Masterpieces of Illumination. It doesn’t have as many sodomite monkeys or butt-trumpets as Buzzfeed, but it is a good selection of fascinating art at a reasonable price.

The Illuminated Sketchbook of Stephen Schriber

Regular commenter Ron19 post this link to an amazing little late-medieval sketchbook by a monk named Stephen Schriber. Brother Schriber is quite obviously doing studies and practice work for his marginals and capitals. I have a lot of books about medieval illumination, but I’ve never seen one like this, where you see the process of the illuminator. Great find.

Some Very Cool Evidence of Early Eyeglass Use

Medievalist.net found this story about some incredibly neat evidence of eyeglass use from a medieval manuscript. No, it wasn’t a mention in the manuscript: it was on the manuscript. Witness:

Someone placed their eyeglasses, most likely leather-framed spectacles, inside the flyleaf, closed the book, and then went off and forgot about them or got killed by Huns or something. It’s like a coffee ring, only made by leather eyeglasses.

They might have looked something like this:

That’s some cutting edge technology, right there: world-changing, in fact, and quite beautiful. Here’s what the discoverer of the evidence deduced:

Advanced scientific methods for dating aside, we can get a good estimate of the age of the eyeglasses that left the impression on the parchment by first examining the script on the parchment (to establish the earliest possible date) and then by looking at the shape of the impression itself. The text is what is known as Southern Textualis or Rotunda. Southern Textualis was popular in Italy and Southern Europe between the late 1200s and the late 1400s. Alternately, the 1568 publication of the printed text provides us with a possible later date. Regardless, the spectacles conform to the physical features and rough time period for early medieval leather-framed spectacles. But dare we hope for more? Because the book was printed in Venice, Italy, the tantalizing possibility exists that the wearer who deposited his spectacles in between the parchment leaves may have been using a pair of the earliest eyeglasses ever made, because Florence, where eyeglasses were invented, is less than 165 miles from Venice. Although we may never know exactly how (or when) these spectacles left their mark on the parchment, their faint impressions nevertheless offer an intriguing glimpse into the early history this important invention.