Rethinking Royal Manuscripts in a Global Middle Ages

Jacopo Gnisci , University College London,

Umberto Bongianino , University of Oxford,

This panel sets out to examine and compare the impact of royal patronage on the visual, material, and textual features of manuscripts produced across Africa, Asia, Mesoamerica and Europe during the ‘Global Middle Ages.’ As polysemic and multi-technological objects, royal manuscripts were produced in different forms and sizes, and from a variety of materials that could vary according to the taste, wealth, ideology, religion, and connections of their patrons and makers. Their visual and textual content could conform or deviate from existing traditions to satisfy the needs and ambitions of those involved in their production and consumption. Finally, pre-existing manuscripts could be appropriated, restored, enhanced, gifted, and even worshipped by ruling elites for reasons connected with legitimacy and self-preservation, becoming powerful instruments of hegemony, or symbols of prestige and piety. Because of this semiotic versatility, written artifacts provide ideal vantage points for understanding the agency of material culture in the creation and perpetuation of political power.

To what extent do the materials, texts, and images of royal manuscripts reflect the integration of pre-modern courts in networks of patronage and exchange? In which ways were these features adapted for different audiences and for female, male, or genderqueer patrons? How did they inform local and transregional notions of power and authority? How did communities that opposed royal authority situate themselves in relation to the political agency of written texts and their illustrations? When and how did such artifacts become imperial relics to be displayed, or symbols of a contentious past to be concealed or destroyed? What can manuscripts tell us about the royal patronage of other artistic media, dynastic rivalries, political alliances, and state-endorsed religious phenomena?

In pursuing similar questions, we are particularly interested in multidisciplinary papers that move beyond a Eurocentric reading of material culture by considering royal manuscripts from pre-modern polities traditionally seen as ‘peripheral.’ We welcome proposals that apply innovative methodologies to the study of handwritten material and its circulation, questioning conventional assumptions about politics, culture, and religion, and privileging comparative approaches and transcultural artistic phenomena.

Speakers & Abstracts

Western Aspirations in Royal Armenian Manuscripts from the Cilician Kingdom

Emma Chookaszian (Paul Valéry University, Montpellier)

This paper discusses a group of illuminated manuscripts commissioned in the last quarter of 13th century by two illegitimate brothers of king Hetum I of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia: prince Vasak and archbishop John. Vasak and John where the sons of a certain Beatrice who was of Frankish descent. These half-Franc princes manifested an evident western orientation in their political and religious life, and this paper will examine the western-inspired style and iconography of the illuminations of Gospel Books commissioned by them. These manuscripts will be discussed in comparison with other royal Gospels of the same period commissioned by the Chalcedonian Armenians of the kingdom, including queen Keran and king Levon I, whose artistic choices remained faithful to Byzantine traditions. The miniature portraits of the royal commissioners will be discussed to better understand these enigmatic personalities and showing their preferences and unique taste by better understanding the environment in which they were brought up and lived.

Patronage and Political Reflections in Late Medieval Georgian Art: The Case Study of Illuminated Charters

Eter Edisherashvili (G. Chubinashvili National Research Centre for Georgian Art History and Heritage Preservation, Tbilisi)

Illuminated historical documents are little-studied yet important works of arts for exploring late medieval Georgian art and history. Analyses of the material within their texts, illuminations and written sources make a unique possibility to study the cultural and political alignment, artistic taste and social hierarchy of the secular elite in late Medieval Georgia. Studying the patronage and political views of issuers in the context of historical events can shed light on the personality and psyche of Georgian rulers and on the artistic processes at the royal court.

The paper will focus on material from the 15 th century: two blood-money charters issued by the king Giorgi VIII to priest Giorgi Jhuruli in 1460 and to the hieromonk Oralelisdze-Kuitashvili in 1463, and on the endowment charters of the eristav Vamek Shavurisdze and his spouse Dularukh to the Bodorna church (1494) and by Ksani eristav Shalva Kvenipneveli (rulers of the eastern provinces in Georgia) in 1470. The Georgian 15th century is marked by complicated political and historical events. A political crisis combined with the long-lasting wars against the Mongols (from 1220-1221 to 1328) and Tamerlan (in 1383-1403) led the country into a crisis that caused its disintegration into several kingdom and domains. These developments eventually influenced the creative processes of Georgian artists, and although we lack secular art from the period, exploring this group of illuminated documents can fill an important gap in our knowledge of Georgian visual culture. This paper opens new perspectives on the ambitions and worldview of the Georgian aristocracy and provokes new questions about the role of cultural identity markers in the Middle Ages.


Inside Out Borders: Production and Circulation of Aviz Royal Court Illuminated Manuscripts During the Fifteenth Century

Catarina Isabel Martins Tibúrcio (Universidade Nova de Lisboa)

In the late 14th century a succession crisis in Portugal, known as the interregnum of 1383–1385, led to a period of anarchy, putting an end to the first Portuguese dynasty, the House of Burgundy. That caused a climate of instability, which was also one of profound messianic faith in the revolutionary leaders of the new royal lineage who were to guide the promised bright future of Portugal. In cultural and literary terms, there was a double intention behind the narrative of the kingdom’s renewed prosperity: on the one hand was the influence of humanist tendencies, expressed through an interest in vernacular languages, the collection and production of richly illuminated manuscripts, and the creation of great libraries; on the other hand was the soaring demand in Europe for Portuguese manuscripts with unique features, and for stories about prominent Portuguese heroes. Eight testimonies of this literary, historic and artistic activity, in the form of eight 15th-century illuminated court manuscripts, comprise the corpus of our study. The main objective is to determine as exhaustively as possible the processes of production behind these works of art. We will also demonstrate that these manuscripts had a common origin: the court scriptorium.

The research of the modus operandi in the creation of these medieval codices is based on a multidisciplinary approach that includes codicology, palaeography, history, art history, and chemistry (laboratory analyses). The resulting information makes it possible to revise the history of these codices, as well as the cultural, social, political, and even economic dynamics surrounding their creation and consumption. Based on the results of our research, we will present and discuss in this paper the motivations that led the manuscripts’ patrons to plan the creation of these objects of art. In particular, they wished to demonstrate the prestige and power associated with different kings and princes of the same house. We will also look at how these patrons created a system to indoctrinate the court’s nobility with certain principles and values espoused by the lords of Aviz. In short, we will discuss how these eight works were intended to perpetuate and legitimize a new dynasty, what their immediate purpose and uses were, and to what degree they influenced the people and milieus with which they came in contact, within and beyond Portugal.

A Monstrous Assemblage: Trajectories of Sovereignty in a Fifteenth-Century Ottoman Manuscript

Saygin Salgirli (University of British Columbia, Vancouver)

In 1416, in his temporary court in the Northern Anatolian town of Amasya, the Ottoman ruler Mehmed I commissioned an illustrated copy of the poet Ahmedī’s İskendernāme (Book of Alexander the Great). It was a manuscript of many firsts: The first painted Ottoman book of the first Book of Alexander the Great in Turkish, which included as addendum the earliest known history of the Ottoman dynasty. In the context of 1416, it seems to have been a very logical choice of patronage for Mehmed I. Fourteen years had passed since the Battle of Ankara, where Mehmed’s father Bayezid I had received a devastating defeat in the hands of Timur’s Mongol forces. Bayezid I was taken prisoner to Samarkand, large parts of Anatolia were invaded and plundered by the Mongols, and for over a decade Mehmed had to fight and eliminate his brothers for his claim on the Ottoman throne. As such, while the addendum of the 1416 manuscript provided Mehmed I with a history of his dynastic lineage, the story of Alexander the Great surrounded that lineage with a powerful aura, implying a genealogy going back to the mythical-historical example of good kingship in the Persianate-Islamic world. However, the images of the manuscript contradict all intentions of its text.

Only three of the illustrations—and they are highly damaged—were specifically done for the manuscript. All the others are cut-and-paste collages from earlier manuscripts, each with its own lineage to the larger Mongol world. So far, Esin Atıl’s and Serpil Bağcı’s discussions of the 1416 manuscript have mostly focused on the provenance of the paintings. This paper provides a different perspective. It takes its first cue from Michael Camille’s call for studying the monstrous and the marginal as a means to challenge the canon of art history (1996). The second cue comes from Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, who, instead of the simplistic binary logic that sees monsters as representations of the Other, emphasized the uncontainable nature of monsters; how they transgressed cultural and social norms, and destabilized established categories (1996). What happens when we approach the images of this marginal Ottoman manuscript as monsters? With its collages intermingling elements from a multitude of different entities, and with its defaced, unsettlingly damaged original images, where would this monstrous assemblage take us beyond the intentions of its patron? How would the monsters betray the master who summoned them? In pursuit of these questions, I argue that the particularity of this manuscript’s images cannot be explained away as consequential to the limitations of the circumstances in 1416. They are symptomatic of those circumstances, but in their marginal and monstrous qualities they open up new trajectories challenging traditional art historical understandings of the relationship between sovereignty and patronage.

Noble Ladies of the Painted Page: Overlooked Expressions of Female-Led Legitimacy in a Timurid Illustrated Manuscript

Meghan Clorinda Montgomery (Independent Researcher)

Illustrated manuscripts from the Timurid dynasty, which are among the most revered examples of Persian painting, are particularly rich in female imagery. In spite of this, images of women in Timurid manuscripts have never been examined in any detailed art historical study. In the past, the presence of female figures in Timurid illustrations has often been glazed over as a merely decorative element of these complex works of art. This paper seeks to remedy this oversight in scholarship by examining the ways in which royal women are depicted in Timurid manuscript illustration. Specifically, it analyses five illustrations of royal women from the 1346 manuscript copy of the Ẓafarnāma, a Timurid dynastic history whose text and illustrations were both commissioned by Prince Ibrāhīm Sulṭān, grandson of the dynasty’s founder, Tīmūr. I conduct a close reading of the relationship between the illustrations and their accompanying Persian text, demonstrating that they deviate not only from the manuscript’s textual content and larger illustrative programme, but also from earlier Persian manuscript illustrations of women. I argue that these deviations were deliberately designed to highlight Timurid royal women and their crucial role in forging the dynasty’s political legitimacy, in particular that of the manuscript’s royal patron. Through in-depth analysis of the text-image relationship within the manuscript’s historical context, this paper sheds new light on the often-overlooked role of women, not only in Timurid manuscript illustration, but more broadly within the power dynamics of Islamic Central Asia and Iran.

Illuminating the Queen’s World: Ovide moralisé as Miroir des reines

Christopher T. Richards (New York University)

During the 14th-century, assembling a collection of books became an important attribute of French queenship. It is not surprising, therefore, that manuscripts of Ovide moralisé ( Om ), which Miranda Griffin has aptly characterized as a ‘microcosm of the medieval library,’ appear in the inventories of the most prestigious queenly libraries of the francophone world, beginning with those of Clémence de Hongrie (Rouen O.4) and Jeanne de Bourgogne, Queens of France.

By mid-century, Isabelle of France, Queen of England, possessed an Om manuscript, likely a gift from her sister-in-law Queen Jeanne, and Johanna I, Queen of Naples, borrowed a manuscript from the royal library at Paris (Arsenal 5069). For two hundred years, these manuscripts were commissioned, purchased, traded, and gifted across a broad network of aristocratic readers, culminating with the regent of the Habsburg Netherlands Margaret of Austria, who acquired an illuminated Om in 1511 (KBR 9639), and later gifted it to Marie de Hongrie, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia. Like the library itself, Om became an enduring technology of queenly authority.

Griffin characterizes Ovide moralisé as a ‘microcosm’ because the poem, a glossed and considerably amplified French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses , incorporates several works of literature into its ‘all-encompassing’ translation project of over 70,000 lines. Building on these insights, I shift the interpretive focus to Om ’s illuminations, which adapt the text for its queenly patrons and readers, in order to understand Om manuscripts as microcosms of the global macrocosm, a world crafted by and for queens. In terms of mise-en-page , artistic style, and narrative content, the miniatures lend Om the appearance of a vernacular encyclopedia, a speculum or miroir du monde , one that catalogues a startling number of women as powerful creative agents. Whether divine (eg Isis, Egyptian goddess), regal (Juno, interpreted as Queen of Crete), magical (Circe, enchantress and queen of a faraway island), or artistic (Philomela, mythical queen and tapestry-weaver), authoritative women wielding power, across space and time, is the consistent visual focus and programmatic concern of these manuscripts of encyclopedic scope. Indeed, they even depict the world itself, Cybele-Rhée or ‘Mother Earth,’ as a royal and feminine power, both good queen, fighting her despotic husband King Saturn, and authoritative creative force, sculpting humanity out of stones. Anticipating the famous illuminated encyclopedias of women—Boccaccio’s Des cleres et nobles femmes and Christine de Pizan’s Livre de la Cité des Dames— by nearly a century, the illuminations of Om envision queenship as a metamorphic force with the power to reshape the world. Metamorphosed bodies themselves—royal but not born as such— medieval queens found in their adaptations of Metamorphoses didactic and imaginative guides to wield power on the medieval world stage.

Reimagining Southern Italy in the Liber ad honorem Augusti (Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 120 II)

Elvira Miceli (Khalili Research Centre, University of Oxford)

From a pragmatic standpoint, the chief aim of the late twelfth-century Liber ad honorem Augusti would have been to promote the patron, a Holy Roman imperial official in the newly won Kingdom of Sicily, at the court of the recipient, Henry VI of Hohenstaufen. Though its southern Italian context of origin had no great center of manuscript production at the time, and though its afterlife was curtailed by the emperor’s premature death—Henry may never even have laid eyes on it—the richly painted codex is extraordinary on multiple counts. For one, Peter of Eboli, whose Latin epic poem extolling the Sicilian conquest is featured in the Liber, directed the assembly himself. Second, the format, which Peter likely developed with the patron and which consists of facing sections of verse and full-page illuminations, was innovative, giving equal weight to text and image in the development of the narrative. Third, the book presents a sweeping vision for the nascent Hohenstaufen order in southern Italy, a vision that relates in complex ways to the preceding Norman rule and its multiculturalist rhetoric.

In my presentation, I expand upon the limited scholarship on the volume to address all these factors, showing how poem and pictures work together to mediate the interests that brought the Liber into being—not only those of its patron, but also those of its author and intended royal audience. Peter was a former Norman subject steeped in the mythology of that regime even as he allied himself to another dynasty, hoping in the process to secure his own fortune. For his part, Henry, now king of Sicily, was invested in a Latinate model of rulership different from the Norman one and must have been eager to see this reflected in the manuscript, which belongs, I argue, to the literary genre of the mirror for princes. In closing, I touch upon the irony that what is in many respects an anti-Norman book is likewise a Norman product, particularly where the illuminations are concerned.

The Power of Manuscripts or Manuscripts of Power: The Promulgation of a Visual Identity at the Ḥafṣid Court in Tunis (c. 1440 to 1468)


Laura Hinrichsen (Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin)

This paper will focus on a group of manuscripts produced at the court of the Ḥafṣid sultan Abū ʿUmar ʿUṯmān (r. 1435-1488) in Tunis. The discussion of the manuscript corpus reveals remarkable aspects of Ḥafṣid politics in Ifrīqiya (comprising today’s Tripolitania, Tunisia, and the eastern third of Algeria) and beyond. By controlling certain aspects of the local book culture, the implementation of certain aesthetic values allowed the Ḥafṣid elite to promulgate a dynastic style and thus promote a visual identity: away from the radical ideology of their predecessors, the Almohads, and (back) to a more open Mediterranean pattern in which the ruler and his court displayed authority, power and wealth through the diversity and exoticism of material and visual culture.

The material that I would like to present comprises of a group of eight multi-volume manuscripts copied and endowed between 843/1440 and 873/1468 in different Ḥafṣid cities (such as Tunis, Sousse, Annaba, Sfax, and Kairouan). This group exemplifies the aesthetic changes in Ḥafṣid manuscript production in comparison to earlier traditions, as well as how the sultan Abū ʿUmar ʿUṯmān not only shaped a visual identity but promulgated it around Ifrīqiya through book donations. On a more global scale, Abū ʿUmar ʿUṯmān also actively brought his imperial manuscripts into circulation by donating them as diplomatic gifts to the Ottomans. Although the manuscripts produced in regional centres differ considerably from those copied at the Ḥafṣid court, the implementation of a Maġribī visual identity by the Ḥafṣids was so successful that the manuscript production of Ifrīqiya (just as the identity of today’s Tunisia) was continuously understood as a Maġribī tradition even after the Ottoman takeover.





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