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Illuminated manuscripts: a guide to the British Library’s collections

Introduction Closed collections Open-ended collections

The foundation collections

Cotton collection
Harley collection
Sloane collection

When the British Museum was founded in 1753, its manuscript holdings consisted of three extraordinary collections. The manuscripts of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) had been left to the nation by his grandson, Sir John Cotton, in 1702. The executors of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), the physician, scientist and collector, sold his vast collection of plants, animals, antiquities and books and manuscripts to the nation in 1753, bringing about the foundation of the British Museum. In the same year, the Countess of Oxford and her daughter, the Duchess of Portland, sold to Parliament the collection manuscripts accumulated by Robert Harley (1661-1724) and Edward Harley (1689-1741), 1st and 2nd Earls of Oxford.

Cotton collection    Top top

Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) gathered a remarkable collection of manuscripts, especially rich in historical, devotional and literary material of British interest. The Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton Nero D IV), one of the most famous books in the British Library’s collection, was among Cotton’s greatest treasures. Cotton also acquired the sole witness to the four poems of the Gawain Poet, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Cotton Nero A X, art.3). Some of the most precious manuscripts in the collection, including the eleventh-century Tiberius Psalter (Cotton Tiberius C VI), were damaged in a fire in 1731 at Ashburnham House.

Cotton manuscripts bear distinctive shelfmarks, which reflect the organisation of Cotton’s own library. He had fourteen cases, each surmounted by the bust of a Roman emperor or imperial lady (e.g., Nero, Tiberius, Cleopatra). The shelves of each case were assigned a letter, and every volume on a shelf a Roman numeral. Consequently, every manuscript was known by its corresponding ruler, the letter of its shelf, and its own Roman ruler: e.g., Tiberius C VI; Nero D IV.

Catalogue

*Available on the Manuscripts On-Line Catalogue

J. Planta, A catalogue of the manuscripts in the Cottonian Library deposited in the British Museum (London, 1802).

Further Reading

There is a substantial literature on Sir Robert Cotton and his library, which includes:

Colin Tite, The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton’s Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London, 2003).

M. P. Brown, ‘Sir Robert Cotton, collector and connoisseur?’ Illuminating the Book: makers and interpreters. Essays in honour of Janet Backhouse, ed. M.P. Brown and S. McKendrick (London, 1998), pp.281-98.

C.J. Wright, ed., Sir Robert Cotton as Collector (London, 1997).

Colin Tite, The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton [The Panizzi Lectures, 1993], (London, 1994).

The British Library Journal vol. 18, nos.1 & 2 (1992) focuses on the Cotton collection.

K. Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton 1586-1631: History and politics in early modern England (Oxford, 1979).

Cotton Nero D IV, f.27
Lindisfarne Gospels. England (Lindisfarne), c.710-721.
Cotton Nero D IV, f.27


Cotton Nero A X, art.3, f. 90v
Four poems of the Alliterative Revival. England (N.W. Midlands), late 14th century.
Cotton Nero A X, art.3, f. 90v


Cotton Tiberius C VI, f.9
The Tiberius Psalter. England (Winchester), after 1064.
Cotton Tiberius C VI, f.9


Harley collection    Top top

Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (1661-1724), and his son Edward, 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689-1741), assembled an extensive collection of manuscripts with the assistance of their librarian, Humfrey Wanley. The collection is extraordinarily diverse. Its illuminated manuscripts span the early Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and are particularly rich in material from France, Germany and Italy.

Important early manuscripts include a sixth-century Italian ‘Old Latin’ translation of the Gospels (Harley 1775) and the Book of Nunnaminster (Harley 2965), made c.800-825. The collection includes two volumes of a Bible moralisée (Harley 1526 and 1527), one volume of the Breviary of John the Fearless (Harley 2897), and a magnificent copy of Christine de Pizan’s collected works (Harley 4431).

Catalogue

*Not available on the Manuscripts On-Line Catalogue

A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, (London, 1808-1812).

Further Reading

British Library Journal vol.15 (1989) is devoted to Robert Harley and his collections.

C.E. and C.R. Wright, eds. The Diary of Humfrey Wanley 1715-1726, 2 vols (London, 1966).

C.E. Wright, Fontes Harleiani (London, 1972).

Harley 1775, f.193
‘Old Latin’ translation of the Gospels. Italy, 6th century.
Harley 1775, f.193


Harley 2965, f.16v
The Book of Nunnaminster. England, c.800-825.
Harley 2965, f.16v


Harley 2897, f.33v
Breviary of John the Fearless. Paris, 1413-1419.
Harley 2897, f.33v


Harley 4431, f.178  (detail)
Christine de Pizan’s complete works. Paris, c.1410.
Harley 4431, f.178 (detail)

Sloane collection    Top top

The manuscript collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) reflects the breadth of his learning, as well as his particular interest in medicine and natural history. A thirteenth-century surgical treatise (Sloane 1977) is one of several illustrated medical manuscripts in the collection. A manuscript containing a bestiary and the Aviarium of Hugo de Folieto of c.1280-1300 exemplifies the medieval interpretation of the natural world as an expression of Christian faith (Sloane 278).

Catalogue

*Descriptions partly available on the Manuscripts On-Line Catalogue; index available

S. Ayscough, A Catalogue of the Manuscripts Preserved in the British Museum (London, 1782).

E.J.L. Scott, Index to the Sloane Manuscripts in the British Museum(London, 1904).

Further Reading

The British Museum Quarterly vol.18 (1953) and the British Library Journal 14, no. 1 (1988) are devoted to Hans Sloane and his collections.

A. McGregor, ed., Sir Hans Sloane, Collector, Scientist, Antiquary (London, 1994)

Sloane 1977, f.7  (detail)
Roger Frugardi of Parma’s treatise on surgery. Amiens, c.1300-1310.
Sloane 1977, f.7 (detail)


Sloane 278, f.46  (detail)
Bestiary. N. France (or S. Netherlands), c.1280-1300.
Sloane 278, f.46 (detail)




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