In 1540 Henry VIII commissioned a lavish book of Psalms in which the Tudor king is pictured in the place of David, reading from the very book in which his portrait sits. The image captures two important themes of the British Library’s remarkable winter show, "Royal Manuscripts: the Genius of Illumination". First, it was Henry himself who stripped the English monasteries of their books, thus becoming the largest donor to the Old Royal Library whose riches are displayed here now for the first time. Second, it is the very nature of the book he holds to preserve and transmit knowledge of the era in which it was in use.
The 154 books and scrolls on view were treasured possessions of the kings and queens of England from the ninth until the 16th centuries, made at staggering expense for royal eyes. Now any human with a smartphone can examine them in exquisite detail for £2.49—a fine example of democratisation. Even so, it’s more than worth the trip to see these manuscripts in person, in all their physicality and heft. Some touching is allowed—of book materials and fine facsimiles, including Henry’s Psalter. Even behind glass, it’s possible to sense the social worlds to which these mighty books bear witness.
“There’s so much fuss when bodies get excavated and analysed,” says Scot McKendrick, the head of history and classics at the library who co-curated the exhibit. “Yet these manuscripts themselves are active participants in their societies. [They] tell us so much more about these private and public lives.”
Lavish and stunning though they are, most of these books existed to be read and used. They should be seen not just as artworks, but as evidence of royal life throughout the Middle Ages. Monarchs used them just like laymen: to pray, to learn, and to impress. Gospels and Bibles and Psalters abound, including a flaming gold 11th-century Anglo-Saxon gospel made in Canterbury for King Cnut. Cardinal Wolsey’s Psalter, too, is here, with marginal jottings about his master’s divorce, familiar to all readers of "Wolf Hall". So are the Bedford Hours, a 15th-century prayer book that rivals the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, and Henry IV’s “Great Bible”, the largest work in the exhibit.
Young princes, meanwhile, were expected to receive instruction. Knowledge of history was thought to instil wisdom and virtue. Edward IV ordered tutors to read from his collection to his sons “suche noble stories as behoveth a Prince to understand and knowe.” In 1480 he spent the princely sum of £250 on binding books they probably never saw, as they were imprisoned three years later in the Tower and then presumed murdered. Such books, called “Mirrors for Princes”, included moral parables, the lives of noble men and guides to warfare. All helped to explain the monarch’s role and duties.
Royal lineage, of course, was paramount. Those who’ve forgotten who was who can refer to a crib sheet of the monarchs thoughtfully provided by the library. Heraldry and genealogy loom large in a rare copy of the Royal Garter Book from 1430, as well as portrait-books and long hereditary scrolls. Lines of succession and intermarriage among the European royal houses are also the subject of much gilt and fascination in the final gallery. One fact became clearer as curators began assembling the show, according to Dr McKendrick: the 15th-century English court was not, in fact, particularly English. Anglo-Norman French is the language of 85% of the royal household’s books.
Visitors will marvel at the vibrancy and beauty of these manuscripts, due largely to their careful tending in the castles of the realm. But their survival is also due to one more vital fact. These books are sturdy, heavy objects; it is the experience of books as things that may provide the show’s enduring impact. “The physicality of the vehicle of text is a revelation to many young people,” observes Kristian Jensen, head of arts and humanities at the library. “The book as an object is a new idea for them.”
As such, the show reminds us of the book’s essential function. What we call a “book” is not just a text, but equally a vehicle for transmission. This is important to bear in mind when we consider the fragility of electronic archives, subject to a continual process of obsolescence, as Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière have noted. Medieval books on vellum are survivors: the British monarchy provided an ideal vault. A modern version is now underway near San Francisco, where Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, hopes to stuff 10m physical books into climate-controlled containers. With any luck, 500 years from now, that lovely tactile object called a book may still be there.
"Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination" is at the British Library in London until March 13th 2012, with a full programme of lectures and activities. A companion television series called “The Private Lives of Medieval Kings” will begin in January on BBC Four.
~ A.C. (via Prospero)