A phial of 'Madonna's milk' is just one of the bizarre medieval treasures on show at the new Medieval Gallery at the British Museum.
Thieving monks, naughty paintings of Jesus and relics claiming to contain breast milk from the Virgin Mary: the British Museum’s new medieval gallery paints a weird and wonderful picture of the Middle Ages.
There are 350 priceless treasures on display, brought from different corners of the museum to make up London’s foremost medieval collection (well, until the V&A opens its medieval and Renaissance gallery in November). “The British Museum’s best known for its mummies and classical art,” says curator James Robinson, “but we want to put medieval culture at the forefront of everyone’s attention.”
Sex and treachery (Silver casket of Isabella of France, circa 1303, from England)
This casket was given to Isabella of France when she married Edward II at the age of 12. She later deposed her husband (who was more interested in men), had him executed, and ruled the country with her lover.
Breast milk and thorns (Reliquary of St Oda)
Medieval folk loved their relics – there were 13 of “Jesus’s foreskins” scattered around Europe at one point, which were believed to have healing powers. This reliquary was claimed to contain milk of the Virgin Mary. Another relic in the collection was supposed to have been a thorn from the crown of thorns used at Jesus’s crucifixion.
Prankster Jesus (Tring Tiles)
These 12th-century tiles show Jesus getting revenge on a bully, being slapped by a teacher for being cheeky and getting scolded by his mother. When he’s being naughty, his halo disappears.
Monky business (Fake seal-die, late 12th century, England)
Fake charters were made by monks to say they were entitled to land or revenue. This die was used to seal the charters. You can tell it’s a fake because there’s a spelling mistake and it’s made from lead rather than silver or gold.
Executive toys (Folding spoon, 15th century, Flanders)
This 15th-century silver-and-enamel spoon could be disassembled to fit in a pocket, and would have come out at a feast as a bit of a party trick. Ceramic pottery and wooden utensils would have been common at this time, but metal cutlery was a luxury: even rich diners would have brought their own to banquets.
Disappearing elephants (Piece from the Lewis chessmen, circa 1150-1200 AD, Norway – found on the Outer Hebrides)
These chessmen are made from walrus ivory. For some reason – no one knows why – the supply of elephant ivory dried up between the ninth and 13th centuries. Chess evolved from an Indian game which was later adopted by the Islamic world and finally reached Europe at the end of the 10th century, when queens and bishops were introduced to the board.
Heart-shaped jewellery (Gold heart brooch, early to mid 15th century, Nottinghamshire) The simplified heart shape as a symbol for love was a 14th-century convention. These 600-year-old brooches wouldn’t look out of place in a jewellery store today.
Proof once again from one of my favourite periods in history, that Human Nature has never really changed, just the technologies.
Sir Dayvd ( who will be first in the queue this weekend.. ) of Oxfordshire