Images, Manuscripts

Bodleian Library, MS e Mus. 160: Beyond the Text

The subject of my first post is the image in my header picture. It’s from an English manuscript, Bodleian Library MS e Museo 160. It is a Carthusian manuscript, written around 1520, probably in Yorkshire, and I first encountered it during my Masters. This is essentially a brief overview of a paper I wrote then, and gave as part of a talk to the Medieval German Seminar earlier this term. The manuscript is a miscellany, the first section of which is a history of the world through holy figures and for the first 26 folia, each page has a picture frame. These have been used in different ways, and clearly not all with regard to the book’s original use.

I will just focus on the first section, the verse chronicle of human history, expressed through holy men and women from Adam and Eve to its author’s contemporaries. From folio 1 verso to folio 26 recto, half of each page is marked out with a frame for a picture. As you can see here, many were left blank. Apologies for the image quality in this case.

blank frame

In fact, I think we can only say with any kind of certainty that the first two were filled in as intended because these are the only pictures with an obvious connection to the title above, and each part of the pictures are labelled.

MS e Mus 160 f.1v MS e Mus 160 f. 2r

There are essentially two other styles of image. The first is a similar man with a pointed hat and a blank banner who appears under the headings of Daniel, Hosea, and Amos, and again under Habakuk and Zephaniah. I don’t discount the possibility that these images are meant to be those prophets, but the connection is less obvious than in the earlier pictures, and they are not labelled.

MS e Mus 160

In his final appearance, he sits alongside something quite different: Tudor figures which appear to have been drawn by children.

Drawn by older child?

MS e Mus 160 f. 24v

Given that the scribe left so many frames for images, and began to fill them in, we can conclude that they were a fairly important part of his design. Since he finished the words, and not the images, we can assume that it was the words that really mattered. I don’t have many theories about the man in the pointed hat, beyond pointing out that I think that the artist who began to draw him on folio 20 recto did not finish, and that someone less skilful drew the bottom part.

MS e Mus 160 f. 20r

I am fairly sure that the drawings of the Tudor figures are the work of a child because of the style and proportions – the pictures don’t look like a quick sketch by an adult, however unfamiliar they are with drawing.

So here are some suggested conclusions about the book. It is of little obvious value in itself, being of a low standard, and was probably a Carthusian monk’s personal devotional project. It may well therefore have been acquired after the Dissolution of the Monasteries with a collection of more valuable books. I could theorise about how it ended up accessible to a child, assuming that these images are the work of children, but I’d rather just think about this later (child) artist taking ownership of the book. With its empty picture frames, it’s clearly incomplete. The child – or more probably, children, as the pictures are of slightly different standards – did not scribble on the text, but interacted with the frames, filling them with pictures, as previous owners had done. They understood the concept of frames, even trying at one point to decorate them (although unfortunately I don’t have an image of that). They kept inside the frames to a reasonable degree, and made frames within frames. They found a book which was unfinished, but was intended to be illustrated, and so they illustrated it. Here, then, in a book which is far from a prestige item, we see people taking ownership of their book by attempting to complete it.


1 thought on “Bodleian Library, MS e Mus. 160: Beyond the Text”

  1. This is beautiful, I worked at Mount Grace Priory and the handwriting and illustrations look very familiar. The later children’s illustrations are wonderful.
    I often wondered where the vast number of books produced at Mt Grace ended up, it’s nice to find such an interesting tale about one of them.


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