Tag Archives: medieval manuscript

Last Things and End of Days

For most of us, tomorrow – 21 December 2012 – will pass like any other Friday before Christmas; finishing work for the holidays, having a few drinks with friends, doing last minute shopping, or wrapping presents, will be the most eventful things we do. Yet some of Earth’s citizens will wait with bated breath to see if predictions associated with the 2012 Phenomenon come true.

Over the last few decades, the idea that the world will end or transform on this day has been advanced by numerous films, documentaries, books, news reports, advertising companies, and internet media. Whatever our individual response to the ‘end of days’ hype, the prophecies about 21 December reflect mankind’s long-standing fascination with Last Things, Apocalypse and Doomsday.

In the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed that 15 signs would herald Christ’s Second Coming and warn of the impending ‘domesday’*, when all men would be judged and sent to heaven or hell. The signs generally include (with some variation): 1) The sea rising; 2) The sea receding; 3) The sea returning to normal; 4) Sea monsters rising up and making hideous noise; 5) All water burning; 6) Trees and plants sweating blood; 7) Earthquakes toppling buildings; 8) Rocks and stones clashing together; 9) Hills and mountains turning to powder; 10) Men leaving their hiding places in fear and silence; 11) The bones of dead men rising; 12) Stars falling to earth from heaven; 13) Death coming for the living; 14) Heaven and Earth burning; 15) Heaven and Earth being made new and the dead rising to be judged.

Linked with St John’s Revelations, and spuriously attributed to Saint Jerome, these portents  appear in texts, such as the Pricke of Conscience, Cursor Mundi, and Legenda Aurea, in the Chester cycle of mystery plays, in sermons like John Mirk’s Festial, and as images in illuminated Books of Hours and Apocalypses. It is possible that many of England’s churches were once adorned with representations of the portents in paintings, carvings and stained glass, but only two examples survive today: a window in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York, and an alabaster altarpiece now in the British Museum.

All Saints Monsters2

Fourth sign of Doomsday: Monsters rise from the oceans and make hideous noise

All Saints Earthquake

Seventh sign of Doomsday: earthquakes. All Saint’s Church tumbles down

All Saints Donors2

The terrified donors of the window watch the end of days at the bottom of the window.

All Saints Death

Death arrives to take ‘childe, man and woman’

The signs were designed to encourage sinners to reflect upon the state of their soul and be mindful that the last days would be ‘cruell’, ‘ferdfull and horrybull’ (Mirk, Advent Sunday Sermon). They frequently accompany descriptions or images of Judgement Day itself, which in Christian iconography is easily recognisable. Christ is often seated on a rainbow (a nod to the rainbow sent to Noah after the deluge), displaying his freshly bleeding wounds, and accompanied by saints and angels, who hold the tools of the crucifixion (the cross, nails, crown of thorns, spear etc.) and trumpet to announce the Judgement. The dead are shown rising from their graves, and heaven and hell appear, with attendant angels and demons.

Judgement Day in British Library MS Yates Thompson 3, f. 32v

Judgement Day in British Library MS Yates Thompson 3, f. 32v

The basis of all judgement scenes is the description of Doomsday found in Matthew 25: 31-46. This account describes what is popularly known as the separation of the sheep and the goats, representative of good and bad souls; the (good) sheep are placed on the right of Christ, or the left of the image being viewed, and the (bad) goats are placed on his left, the right of the image.

Hans Memling's Last Judgement, 1467-71

Hans Memling’s Last Judgement, 1467-71

So, if you notice the earth trembling, sea monsters making a lot of noise, or a red dew on your plants tomorrow, make sure that you’re standing on the right of the man on the rainbow and prepare for doomsday medieval-style.

* ‘dome’ means ‘judgement’ in Middle English

The Parchment Mirror: Reflections of Medieval Life in Literature and Art

Welcome to my occasional blog – The Parchment Mirror.

This is where I will share my fascination with the material remains of the Middle Ages, the manuscripts, literature, art, music, and other precious artefacts, that bring history to life and illuminate medieval culture in thrilling and often unexpected ways.

The inspiration for this blog came from a series of ‘Medieval Entertainment’ tweets that I shared on Twitter a few months ago. I originally envisaged the series comprising approximately ten tweets about the different forms of entertainment available to people in the Middle Ages, but the more I explored the various pastimes illustrated in contemporary manuscripts, the bigger the series grew. I ended the series at fifty-six tweets (across two weeks), but I could have gone on, especially if I’d dedicated more than one tweet to the games that I grouped together under the headings ‘ball games’ and ‘board games’. This blog will allow me to revisit the various forms of entertainment I tweeted about and expand on those activities that my Twitter followers and I found most interesting. It will also allow me to share some of the incredible reflections of the medieval world contained within the literature and manuscripts of the period. Watch this space.

To officially launch my blog, it is only fitting that I should say a few words about the manuscript that inspired the title and featured in my entertainment series: the famous Luttrell Psalter.

The Psalter, otherwise known as British Library Additional MS 42130, is one of the British Library’s greatest treasures; it was made in the first half of the fourteenth century (c. 1325-35) for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276-1345), lord of Irnham in Lincolnshire. Psalters were devotional books that contained the Book of Psalms and other liturgical items, such as calendars, which marked important feast days and often represented medieval life though the ‘Labours of the Month‘. The Luttrell Psalter is particularly special because in addition to containing illustrations typically found in psalters – scenes from the life of Christ and images of the biblical king David, who was believed to be the author of the psalms – the margins of the text are brimming with depictions of daily life in medieval Irnham. From images of low-born peasants tending the fields to striking representations of Geoffrey Luttrell and his noble family feasting and travelling, the psalter offers an exceptional peak at life at both ends of the social spectrum.

Luttrell2As we turn the pages of the psalter, moving through the seasons, we are rewarded with representations of contemporary fashion, rural life, feudal obligation, and fourteenth-century humour. Alongside images of work and play, we also find fantastic grotesques and hybrid creatures drawn straight from the imaginations of the psalter’s artists. Extraordinary drolleries like this commonly inhabit the margins of devotional texts like the Luttrell Psalter and scholars believe that they represent the chaos that lurks beyond the borders of established medieval structures and rule.

As the proud owner of both the British Library facsimile and ebook editions of the psalter, I never tire of looking at the wonderful scenes. They capture my imagination precisely because of the intimate relationship that emerges between the manuscript’s creators and the landscape the artists chose to depict.

To turn the pages of The Luttrell Psalter visit The British Library’s ‘Treasure’ website here. If you fancy time travelling back to fourteenth-century Irnham, watch WAG Screen‘s stunning film based on the Luttrell Psalter below.

To learn more about the psalter’s representation of medieval life see the book that inspired the title of my blog: Michael Camille’s Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England.