One of my favourite primary sources for the thirteenth century is a remarkable manuscript known as the Maciejowski Bible (Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York: MS M.638).
The manuscript, also sometimes known as the Morgan Bible, was commissioned by King Louis IX of France, and was produced around 1250. It contains 46 known leaves (each double-sided, giving 92 pages) and depicts the Old Testament from the Creation to the story of David. It ends quite abruptly, which would seem to indicate that there were probably more leaves in it originally.
It is most famous for its astonishing and vivid illustrations, which were produced by six or seven different medieval artists. Although the artists were drawing scenes from the Bible, they followed the medieval convention of depicting clothes, equipment, tools and so on as if they were contemporary: this means that the text is a valuable source for medievalists. There are also some incredibly action-packed battle scenes which give a real flavour of what combat was like during the mid-thirteenth century and provide information on the armour and weapons in use at the time.
Each leaf is approximately 39 x 30cm, with an inner picture area approximately 27 x 23 cm. Each picture is divided by a horizontal line, and some are also divided vertically, giving two or four pictures on each page. On some pages the pictures also spill out into the margin.
I’ll just pick out a few favourite or particularly illustrative pictures:
Folio 10 verso (back)
Joshua takes the submission of the Gibeonites (Joshua 9: 3-15)
Here Joshua, together with four knights of Israel, stands outside a tent while his defeated foes arrive to make their submission. On the cover of the book you can see four men dressed in rags with their hands held up to ask for mercy; the larger illustration above also depicts a woman and three youths behind them.
The knights are all wearing thirteenth-century mail and coloured surcoats; Joshua himself has folded back his mail coif (hood) to reveal the arming cap beneath, a sort of linen cap which would stop the mail getting caught up in his hair. They all have scabbards belted on their left-hand sides, with swords sheathed or drawn, and one of them additionally holds a lance.
This picture gives a good illustration of what the earl and his contemporaries would have looked like when they were armed; it also shows the difference between their clothes and equipment and those of the less fortunate.
Folio 3 recto (front)
The building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:3-4)
A really good depiction of medieval building work, which shows what might have been going on at the earl’s castle at Conisbrough when he was having it rebuilt in stone. One labourer works the pulley which hauls up the heaviest pieces by walking around inside a wheel (and apparently eating his lunch while he is doing so!) while others carry stone or mortar; masons carve the stone and lay the courses with various tools.
Folio 23 verso
Saul destroys Nahash and the Ammonites (I Samuel 11:11)
To me this is one of the best illustrations in the entire manuscript. The Ammonites in the middle are caught between the charging forces of Saul (the one striking the Ammonite king on the head) and a second party who are making a sortie from their fortification. A number of different weapons and styles of helmet are on show, and the gore and confusion of a battle are brought to life as the dead and wounded are trampled under the hooves of the knights’ horses. I particularly like the man in the margin who is hanging off the end of the trebuchet (a stone-throwing siege engine).
The Maciejowski Bible is available to view online at the Morgan Library’s website.
More informally, you can also find out a bit more about the Bible’s background at this site.
If you think that the Middle Ages was dull and mud-coloured, look through this manuscript and think again!