The funeral of Queen Elizabeth I called for a reflective festival book. © The British Library Board
Celebrity gossip, good PR and an insight into how the other half live – we all love a little glimpse of the high life, flicking through the pages OF Hello! and OK! Well, so did folks back in Renaissance Europe.
The British Library website is now proudly hosting a searchable archive of 253 rare Renaissance festival books, made possible by three years of work by researchers at the University of Warwick, in association with the British Library.
From marriages, coronations and births to official visits and saints’ days, celebrations staged by the royal courts of Europe were occasions to be remembered. Festival books could be compared to souvenir programmes, or magazine reports, documenting through eye-witness accounts and philosophical reflections the key events in the lives of princely and elite folk – the celebrities of the day.
“Festivals were immensely expensive occasions,” said Professor Ronnie Mulryne, who directed the project, “so they could be given permanence by writing an official report.”
The online archive has been designed for scholars as well as the lay man. © The British Library Board
Officially commissioned festival books were unlikely to contain scandal or juicy gossip – they were not exactly Heat magazine. These lavish publications were more of a vehicle for good PR, intended for members of court (at home and abroad).
“They are very diverse: some are interesting and amusing accounts, some of them are very dry,” explained Professor Mulryne, “listing the people who took part and what they wore.”
“They were initially aimed at rival courts and people of influence who might be impressed at the greatness of the festivals,” he continued, “but increasingly at an ordinary readership.”
Some of the texts now available online were written not by official reporters (Renaissance press officers!) but by “people who simply happened to be around and thought they’d turn an honest – or dishonest – penny by writing an account,” said Professor Mulryne.
From 1532: "The maner of the tryumphe at Caleys [and] Buleyn. The second pryntyng. With mo addicio[n]s as it was done in dede." © The British Library Board
These early hacks created a forerunner of newspapers with festival accounts as thin as 16 pages, in comparison to the costly, handsome bound volumes with hand-coloured illustrations. There is a whole range now available on the British Library website, featuring major historical figures such as Charles V, Elizabeth I, Queen Christina of Sweden and Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici. The earliest book in the collection describes the eight-hour banquet held for the marriage of Constanzo Sforza and Camilla of Aragon in 1475.
Choosing the 253 works to be digitised, from the British Library’s collection of more than 2,000 was no easy task, according to Professor Mulryne. Together with Dr Margaret Shewring of the University of Warwick and Dr Kristian Jensen of the British Library, the volumes of most interest to both specialists and the general public were chosen.
Most of the hands-on work was carried out by Dr Sarah Cusk and Dr Alex Samson of the University of Warwick, Colin Wight and Chris Wootton at the British Library and the result is an intriguing glimpse into the big occasions of the 15th to 18th centuries.
The archive allows users to flick through pages and read exactly what those hungry for news back in the day would have read (if they could afford to buy a copy). In addition, there is plenty of accessible background info and expert views on festivals and courts.
The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (formerly Research Board) with the University of Warwick and the Library.
See the festival books at