“Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination”: Review

By Irene O’Daly

Last November I took the opportunity to visit the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library.  Arriving on a quiet Friday morning, the galleries were all but deserted, allowing for close examination of the cases and some peaceful browsing in the gently lit exhibit hall.  The exhibition opened with a brief history of the Royal Library and a display of books of the founder of the royal collection, Edward IV.  Richly illuminated manuscripts, dating from the late fifteenth century, from scriptoria in Bruges were emblazoned with royal emblems and included chronicles, histories, didactic works, as well as ones concerning courtly matters such as chivalry and military arts.  Above the display cases in this section was a large reproduction of Vincent of Beauvais (c. 1190-1264) at work in his study.  Vincent’s work, the Speculum Maius, was an attempt to record all known knowledge; presumably the curatorial choice to display this image so prominently in the exhibition space indicates that the royal collection had similar ambitions – to gather all the information useful for the reigning monarch and his court.

Vincent of Beauvais at work in his study © The British Library Board

While the material in the exhibition was arranged thematically, in sections such as “The World’s Knowledge” and “How to be a King”, the manuscripts within these sections were presented in a loose chronological fashion.   The books in the first section, “The Christian Monarch”, highlighted the significant role of the Church in the life of the king.  Evocative images drawn from Psalters connected the mission of the monarch to that of King David, he was anointed to serve the Lord.  Other sections demonstrated the skills that were considered vital for the monarch – falconry, the arts of war, a grounding in the liberal arts.  While I was more interested in the earlier manuscripts on display, the audio guide gave an excellent series of snippets about many of the books, allowing the visitor to delve in basic, or greater detail, into the items.

One of the great advantages of wide-ranging exhibitions like this is the chance to see manuscripts in a variety of different formats and sizes.  Of particular note was the presentation of several manuscripts in roll format, including prayer rolls and genealogical rolls, such as Royal 14 B v and Royal 14 B vi.

Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, England, East Anglia, c. 1300–07, London, British Library, Royal 14 B. vi © British Library Board

Another highlight was the chance to see Matthew Paris’ (d. c. 1259) itinerary of the route to the London to the Holy Land .  This map, an sort of medieval Rough Guide, shows the likely stopping points of a pilgrim travelling to Jerusalem, calling along the way in places like Paris and Apulia.  The leaves are read sequentially from lower to top left, then from lower to top right and were displayed in the exhibition in glass panels allowing the visitor to see both sides of the leaves as well as the fold-out sections attached to the parchment.  In addition, the pages were accessible on a stand-alone computer screen that encouraged the visitor to look more closely at the itinerary, focussing on the details of the map, and visualising the route, as the medieval monks at St Alban’s would have done.

Itinerary to Jerusalem, Matthew Paris, Map to Jerusalem, St Albans, c. 1250, Royal 14 C vii, ff. 2-5 © British Library Board

The thematic strands of the exhibition were thought-provoking; it encouraged me to think beyond the wow-factor of the selection of books presented and to consider their purpose for the education of the king.  In addition, it was interesting to see how the status and grandeur of the manuscripts progressively became more impressive, demonstrating how books were valued as material objects as well as textual ones.

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