bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library

Posted in Exhibitions, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 28 November, 2011

When is a manuscript royal? Is it solely when it was commissioned by a monarch? Or – a slightly broader definition – when it is called into existence by the will of a member of the royal family? Is it one which was made with the intention of entering a royal collection? Or one which, whatever its creator’s plan, did end up there in the Middle Ages? Or, indeed, one which reached the British Royal Library after the medieval period? It is a question worth asking because examples of all of these types of books are on display in the ‘Royal Manuscripts: the Genius of Illumination’ exhibition at the British Library.

On one level, the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition answers the question: John Lowden begins the introductory essays by stating that the definition used includes ‘any manuscript for which there is evidence of a royal connection at any point in its history’ (p. 19). It is a definition so capacious that it invites sub-division, a process that Prof. Lowden himself undertakes in the pages that follow. But it is also a definition not immediately on display to those who visit the exhibition, relying on the brochure, captions or audio-guide to help lead them through the more than 150 manuscripts laid out in the cabinets. They are told, instead, that manuscripts ‘associated with successive kings and queens of England … include some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and figurative painting that survive in Britain from between the 8th and 16th centuries’. A set of associations are implied, linking ‘royal’ with ‘manuscript’– associations which the visitor without a catalogue can (like Miss Lavish wandering Florence without her Baedeker) have the thrill of discovering for themselves.

The visitor may find it is easiest to define ‘Royal Manuscripts’ by what it is not: in the first place, the exhibition does not attempt to provide a detailed history of the library of the English monarchs. It is the case that, after a useful brief section on the creation of a manuscript (where parchment and vellum are bravely distinguished), the exhibition proper opens with a section on Edward IV as founder of the royal library, showing samples of the outsize Burgundian manuscripts that he bought. Beyond that, though, there is little here to hint at the difference between the Plantagenets and their French counter-parts: the development of the library of the Louvre from at least the reign of Charles V had a sense of books as part of the royal patrimony, whereas in England, until the late fifteenth century, manuscripts were as likely to leave the king’s ownership as to enter them, the books he came to own being seen as appropriate diplomatic gifts, ripe to be alienated from his property. Nor is there any mention in the captions of the purchase of the residue of the French royal library by John, duke of Bedford in the earl 1420s and its likely transfer across the Channel. This is simply not a tale the exhibition wishes to tell.

Similarly, the exhibition is not about the physical allure of the written word captured on parchment. The display includes some rolls – of prayers and genealogies – and, in one instance, presents an indenture of Henry VII (a manuscript made for the king to give away to Westminster Abbey: BL, MS. Harl. 1498) bound as a book within its binding and chemise, with heavily-encased seals hanging from it. These, understandably, are the exceptions: after all, the royal collection has suffered the sort of solicitous attention that results in the original bindings being removed and thrown away, though they (as many a presentation miniature reminds us) would have been the most noticeable element of a book to its early owners. Nor is there a discussion of the development of script in these volumes, nor a sense of what import different textual presentations may have been intended to carry. The sub-title for this show tells us where its main interest lies: in that element of a book’s construction that was its illuminations.

But the openings presented belong not only to manuscripts made for kings or queens. The second section of the exhibition, entitled ‘The Christian Monarch’ describes, through the medium of illuminations, the long association of kingship with religious devotion, from Athelstan to Henry VIII. Some of these books were created as instruments of royal worship, while others entered princely hands only a few generations after their first construction – a distinction neatly summed up by the juxtaposition of two Psalters, both owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, with one made for his private worship (BL, MS. Royal 2. B i, noting that the presence of the duke’s notes in the calendar at fol. 4v works against the exhibition’s hypothesis that he intended the book for his nephew’s edification) and the other, the so-called St Omer Psalter, owned by him but produced in Norfolk nearly a century before it reached his hands (BL, MS. Yates Thompson 14). Yet others are included for their depictions of kings rather than being definitely royal in ownership – an example is the eleventh-century Rule of St Benedict from Christ Church, Canterbury with its fine miniature of three Anglo-Saxon kings joined by a swirling scroll that also lifts up the monk who reverently lies beneath them (BL, MS. Cotton Tiberius A iii). The section gives a sense of the habits of devotion and the duties they placed upon royalty but it also raises a question that lies at the heart of the rationale for this exhibition: was there a particularly royal type of illumination?

In some cases, the exhibition strains to associate a book with a royal patron. This is the case with the poster-boy for the show – God creating the world, as depicted in a Bible historiale (BL, MS. Royal 19 D. iii). It is a magnificent piece of work, its blues and reds a mass of delicately realised sets of wings – angels depicted à la Fouquet, if a few decades earlier. The audio-guide at this point echoes the catalogue in suggesting ‘it would not be a surprise if [the manuscript] were made for a royal owner’ but it goes further in suggesting the identity of that prince was likely to be Jean, duc de Berry. What interests me is the reasoning for this suggestion which, on the audio-guide, stresses the lavish nature of the illustration and implies that this would be most likely to be paid for by a member of a royal family. And yet, there are enough examples of resplendent manuscripts on display in this exhibition that were not commissioned by princes – from monastic and ecclesiastical establishments or from aristocratic families and (in the last century or so of the period) confraternities. The fact that some of the products made for such institutions or individuals later entered royal hands reminds us not only that princely collections were often inhabited by the second-hand but also that those same princes did not disdain handling manuscripts illuminated for the lesser-born. In other words, we would be best to avoid assuming that richness of decoration had particularly royal connotations at any point in the period covered by the exhibition.

The implication of this is that in their ownership and use of manuscripts, kings and queens were participating in a wider bookish culture. Rarely was it one of the factors that set them apart from their subjects but, instead, showed them sharing others’ interests. If this is so, we might wonder how far royal patronage defined what was new or what was best in manuscript production, rather than simply partaking of those fashions. Did princes earmark a larger proportion of their wealth on manuscripts than did other book-owners? Or did they reserve their cash for more ostentatious methods of conspicuous consumption? And, when they looked at a book, what drew their attention: did they turn to the illumination, seeing it as light relief from the over-supply of words that they were expected to decipher? Or did they let the volumes rest closed, so that the rich bindings were on show, at the expense of the masterful painting hidden inside? How did they hold these books and turn their pages? It is in the nature of a block-buster exhibition like ‘Royal Manuscripts’ that the objects are static, held open at a single folio for the duration of the display – no equivalent here to the daily turning of the pages in the Piccolomini Library of Siena’s Cathedral. What we are offered, in effect, is a snippet view rather than the whole book. The images can be enthralling, but the books in which they sit are not mere containers for artistic genius – each of these manuscript has a dynamism, an incorrigible plurality of its own, that can only be imagined when it sits under glass. We should savour the exhibition, with its juxtapositions and its insights, while we can; we should relish all the more the day these manuscripts are again available for consultation, folio by folio, opening by opening, in the Reading Room upstairs.