The British Library's sizeable exhibition, Royal manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, offers a chance to see some of the oldest and most revered books of England and Europe’s middle ages. It also offers a lot more to its visitors: a chance to glimpse the role in which England’s monarchs saw themselves, what was important to them, and how they taught each other the tricks of the trade. A mid-twelfth century quote from Eadwine of Canterbury reads: “The beauty of this book displays my genius.” It is a fitting introduction to this exhibition.

The Old Royal Library was compiled for the most part by four royal figures: its founder Edward IV, Henry VIII (who contributed the majority of the collection), Prince Henry Fredrick (eldest son of James I) and Charles II. Items from this collection, which were donated to the nation by George II in 1757, form the majority of the 150 objects on display at the British Library.

The first part of the exhibition is dedicated to works collected by Edward IV, and provides some insight into the vastly important role that books played in the royal court of England. These large books, printed with the King’s Arms throughout, were designed to be read aloud at court and to be noticed as indicators of the ruler’s prestige.

The craftsmanship of these books is remarkable. The painstaking exactitude with which the text is formed is stunning, while the tiny detail of the images makes you marvel at the scribes’ patience. It also provides a glimpse into the content of written works in the fifteenth century. One text contains vivid medieval imaginings of biblical stories (a tri-crowned God creating animals with a sceptre), moral anecdotes (penned by Pope Gregory the Great), and warnings for the aristocracy of the time (“On Fates Of Famous Men And Women,” featuring a many-armed Lady Fortune dealing out judgement to a nobleman).   

While it is clear that printed works were incredibly valued by the medieval ruling classes, they also serve to demonstrate the importance of religion. The royal Psalters, some from as long ago as the ninth century, demonstrate how vital faith was to the English monarchs. Unlike the books collected by Edward IV, these books are smaller, for personal use rather than for display, and most of them were made especially for their owners -- for example, the Cnut Gospels, and Catherine of France’s personal prayer book.

The remarkable piety of Henry VIII, as demonstrated in this collection, was surprising, since he is far better known for his quarrel with the Vatican. His well-read Psalter bears the annotations of his religious studies: at one point he has jotted in the margin beside psalm 5: “God hates liars.” The Royal Bible, at one time in the possession of Cardinal Wosely, bears notes by both the King and the Cardinal which attempt to build an argument for Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

The presence of religion in the collection, while fascinating, is predictable in works of an age when the space between state and church was slim. Perhaps what is more unexpected is the amount of propaganda deployed by monarchs through printed works. For example, the book of the Legends of King David includes a brief illustration of his encounter with King Saul. More prominent than the story’s illustrations, however, are the English and French coats of arms; the English placed firmly beside revered King David, and the French associated with the base King Saul.  

In other places less subtlety is employed. Henry VII had a fondness for having himself painted into illustrated manuscripts, painting his coat of arms over those of previous owners, or having himself painted in, worshipping at the feet of the Holy Trinity.

What becomes wonderfully apparent in this exhibition is how closely medieval Europe paired practicality with artistic fancy. Books on personal hygiene or instructions for crusaders in battle are illustrated with the utmost detail, and are coloured with vibrant pigments. The concern with learning the lessons of history is at times in perfect union with the artistic endeavours of the scribe, the one adding glory to the other and illuminating each other. At other times, they seem in conflict, the art detracting from the sobriety of the text’s message.

But perhaps the most bewitching aspect of the exhibition is the chance to get an idea of what medieval Europe was like, what they knew about and what mattered to them. Their instructive works were left for their descendants to learn from; their history books to celebrate their predecessors’ success and to warn against their mistakes; their Holy books to remind them of who their true ruler was. There is a total romanticism to the exhibition, a sense of the mythic and the legendary, which leaves you besotted with the history of the era, and desperate to know more.

The Genius of Illumination, at British Library

Royal Manuscripts offers the chance to see some of the oldest books of the European middle ages, and to get an idea of what medieval Europe and its monarchs were like. There is a total romanticism to the exhibition -- a sense of the mythic and the legendary which leaves you desperate to know more.