Magnificent manuscripts return to Exeter for first time in 400 years
Published: 30 May 2023
Six exceptional medieval manuscripts will return to Exeter for the first time in over 400 years in June, as part of the new exhibition at Exeter City Council’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM).
On loan from the world-famous Bodleian Library in Oxford, these manuscripts formed part of its founding collection of 1602 and had all originally been part of Exeter Cathedral’s impressive medieval library.
Exeter is an ancient city and the Cathedral was one of the greatest in medieval England. Its bishops, including Leofric (1050-1072) and John Grandison (1327-1369), amassed a magnificent collection of manuscripts, making the library a renowned centre of learning.
The Bishops were powerful figures in the religious, cultural and political life of the country.
The exhibition, Gatekeepers to Heaven: Religion, Knowledge and Power in Medieval Exeter opens on 3 June. Highlights include two early illuminated manuscripts dating to 850 CE, which were brought to Exeter by Leofric, its first bishop.
The first ‘selfie’ in British art can be found in another manuscript, a spectacularly illustrated 11th century CE copy of Jerome’s commentary on Isaiah - lurking in the corner of a page is a depiction of scribe Hugo Pictor, giving us an incredibly rare picture of one of the people behind these works.
Another work is full of fantastic beasts – strange and beautiful depictions of mermen, centaurs, dragons, lions, monkeys, and hares.
There are some very human touches too. Into one rather dry theological manuscript in Latin someone has scribbled, in Old English, a charm for curing toothache.
The loan is supported by the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund.
Created by the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund, the Weston Loan Programme is the first ever UK-wide funding scheme to enable smaller and local authority museums to borrow works of art and artefacts from national collections.
Tom Cadbury, Assistant Curator at RAMM said: ‘These manuscripts tell us such a lot about life in medieval Exeter and being able to see them here, in the place where they lived for centuries, will be a very special occasion.
The loan has enabled us to bring out objects from RAMM’s collections, some not seen before, to tell stories about power, belief and the medieval imagination.
It has been a real privilege working with the curators at the Bodleian and partners to bring this exhibition together.’
Cllr Laura Wright, Exeter City Council deputy leader said: ‘We’re excited to welcome these extremely important manuscripts back to RAMM for Gatekeepers to Heaven. Thanks to partnership working between the museum, the Bodleian, Exeter Cathedral, Exeter City of Literature and supporters such as the Garfield Weston foundation, our local community will be able to experience this fascinating slice of history.’
Sophia Weston, Trustee of the Garfield Weston Foundation, said: ‘Bringing world class objects to local museums so that they can be enjoyed by as many people as possible is what the Weston Loan Programme is all about. We are thrilled to support the display of these fascinating manuscripts in Exeter – returning them to the city for the first time in centuries.’
This exhibition was made possible with generous loans from Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, grants from the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund, RAMM Development Trust, Friends of RAMM and the support of a private donor, and as a result of the Government Indemnity Scheme.
RAMM would like to thank HM Government for providing Government Indemnity, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and Arts Council England for arranging the indemnity.
Gatekeepers to Heaven: Religion, Knowledge and Power in Medieval Exeter is open from Saturday 3 June to Sunday 3 September. Entry to RAMM and the exhibition is free. More information at rammuseum.org.uk/gatekeepers