Saturday, February 18, 2012

I finger parchment in the British Library

Henry IV's Great Bible, 1410
To the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library. Runs till 13th March. Parchment and vellum on display, with the notice beloved of modern curators “please touch!”  Parchment is sheepskin, vellum calfskin.  You wouldn’t know it, felt like top quality, thick shiny-surface paper.  Well actually you would know it, since it hadn't been cut up, it still had the shape of an animal skin.

The British museum didn’t used to scruple, and maybe still doesn’t for all I know, to disfigure priceless medieval manuscripts with their stamp: MVSEVM BRITANNICVM about an inch square in red ink.

Some truly massive tomes, none more so than the Great Bible of King Henry IV, from about 1410.  630 mm (25 inches) tall, probably used for readings in the royal chapel.  That's it to the left, but for a real feel of it, take a look at this popup image.

Several manuscripts looked as fresh as if they had been made yesterday and boasted large expanses of a startlingly bright blue pigment, of which they were clearly proud. Made from lapis lazuli, a blue stone imported from Afghanistan. This popup is a good example.

Saw the first known instance of a reference book arranged alphabetically. A manuscript encyclopaedia of world knowledge in medieval Latin, dating from about 1370. Omne bonum, about all good things. Open at a page delineating ancilla (servant) and Anglia (England).  By an Exchequer clerk named James le Palmer. Apparently compiled and written for his own personal use, covered topics such as theology, canon law, natural sciences, the history of man, and the liberal arts. A medieval layman's quest for knowledge. A man after my heart you could say.

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