THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

21 June 2017

Stay cool

Add comment Comments (0)

This week in Britain, we have been enjoying some hot weather. For inspiration on how to beat the heat, why not turn to the fantastical stories northern Europeans used to tell each other about how people and creatures in warm places kept cool?

Royal 2 B VII   f. 118v
Detail of elephants and a dragon, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, c. 1310–1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 118v

Examples of such stories can be found in two groups of texts we’ve discussed before on the blog. These are copies of the Marvels of the East, descriptions of weird and wonderful creatures said to live beyond the known world, and bestiaries, collections describing various animals and their habits.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f104r
Panotii, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r

The Marvels of the East focus on creatures found in warm climates, such as elephants and camels. The text may have been based on a variety of ancient sources, but like a game of telephone (or Chinese whispers), they had been much distorted by the time it was being copied and illustrated in the early Middle Ages.

Add MS 62925  f. 88v
Bas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid with a panotii (a monstrous race of men with enormous ears), from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 88v

Among the creatures the text describes are the panotii, people with big ears ‘like fans’. Conveniently, the panotii's ears could also be used as blankets at night. Less conveniently, the panotii were said to be very shy, and they had to pick up their large ears when they ran away from company. 

Harley_ms_2799_f243r
Detail of a sciapod, from images of the Monstrous Races from the Arnstein Bible, North-West Germany, c. 1172, Harley MS 2799, f. 243r

Another of our favourite strategies for keeping cool comes from the people known as the sciapodes or sciopods: literally, the ‘Shady-feet’. (H/T to Sjoerd Levelt, who recently noted them on Twitter!) These people were said to lie on their backs and use their giant feet to shield them from the heat of sun. 

Harley 3954   f. 31
Sciapods from John Mandeville’s Travels, England (East Anglia), c. 1425–1450, Harley MS 3954, f. 31r

This story continued to capture artists’ and writers’ imaginations, and sciapodes appear in manuscripts and maps throughout the Middle Ages. The story seems to have long roots, as well: the 5th-century BCE writer Scylax is credited with a similar story, which may ultimately be based on retellings of ancient Indian stories. On a day like today, one can certainly see the appeal of the idea!

Add_ms_11390_f013r
Detail of a dragon entangling an elephant, from the Flower of Nature, Low Countries, c. 1300-1325, Add MS 11390, f. 13r

Medieval writers also worried about how dragons coped with heat, given that some were believed to breathe fire. They were also said to born in the hottest parts of the world, where no cool places could be found, even on the mountaintops. There was a medieval tradition that overheated dragons solved their conundrum by eating elephants. According to these authors, elephants had cold blood, which dragons tried to drink to cool their ‘burning intestines’. (Please, please do not try this at home.)

Harley 4751   f. 58v
A dragon biting an elephant, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), c. 1225–1250, Harley MS 4751, f. 58v

So enjoy the hot weather, while it lasts, and keep cool!

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

16 June 2017

Old Occitan at the British Library

Add comment Comments (1)

Old Occitan or langue d’Oc was a language widely spoken and written in southern France and parts of Italy up to the French Revolution. The name is based on the word for "yes": ‘òc’ as opposed to the ‘oïl’ (modern ‘oui’) of Paris and northern France. The earliest literary manuscripts date from the 11th century, though there was an earlier oral tradition, and written fragments found in official documents in Latin and responses in litanies date back to the 9th and 10th centuries.

Harley_ms_2928_f014v
The Lord in a mandorla surrounded by the four symbols of the Evangelists, from a Psalter, Breviary and other theological texts, 1075–1225, France, S. W., Harley MS 2928, f. 14v

Clovis Brunel’s Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal lists 376 literary manuscripts in Old Occitan (excluding legal and administrative documents),  of which only 8 are from the 11th and 12th centuries, though many of the key texts were composed in this period.

Harley_ms_2928_f190r
Text page of a passage from John’s gospel in Old Occitan, Harley MS 2928, f. 190r

One of the oldest surviving texts in Old Occitan prose is a translation of four chapters of John’s Gospel from a manuscript in the British Library's collections that has recently been digitised, along with many of our pre-1200 manuscripts, as part of the Polonsky digitisation project: Harley MS 2928

Harley_ms_2928_f074v
Historiated initial ‘D’(ixit dominus), at the beginning of Psalm 110, of the Lord enthroned with a human figure lying prostrate at his feet, Harley MS 2928, f. 74v

This late 11th- or early 12th-century manuscript from southern France (perhaps the town of Solignac in the Limousin) contains chapters 13 to 17 of John’s Gospel in Old Occitan (ff. 187v–191v). It is the only vernacular text in a collection of Latin liturgical texts including a psalter, litanies, prayers, and a book of Hymns (Expositio hymnorum).   

There are 11 historiated initials illustrating the most important Psalms. 

Harley_ms_2928_f077r
Historiated initial ‘B’(eati) of a ?pilgrim with a staff, at the beginning of Psalm 119, Harley MS 2928, f. 77r

The section of John’s Gospel in Occitan, pictured below, relates the events of the Last Supper, the washing of the feet and Christ’s sermon to the assembled Disciples. The rubric preceding the text is in Latin:

Incipit sermo domini nostri Ihesu Christi quem fecit in cena sua quando pedes lavit discipulis suis

(Here begins the sermon of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave at his supper when he washed the feet of his disciples).

Harley_ms_2928_f187v
Text page with rubric at the beginning of John, Chapter 13 in Occitan, Harley MS 2928, f. 187v

The Old Occitan text begins:

Avan lo dia festal de la Pasca sabia lo Salvadre que la soa ora ve que traspasse da quest mun au Paer

(Before the feast of Passover when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart from this world to the Father)

This short extract contains several examples of key variations between Old Occitan and standard French:

  • final consonants in clusters like –nt and -nd fall away completely (in standard French they are nasalised) to produce  ‘avan’ instead of  ‘avant’ (before) and ‘mun’ instead of ‘monde’ (world)
  • some words are closer to modern Spanish than to French: ‘dia’ instead of ‘jour’ (day) and ‘sabia’ instead of ‘savait’ (knew)
  • vowel sounds differ in many common words: ‘lo’ for ‘le’ (masculine article), ‘Paer’ for ‘Père’ (father) and again ‘mun’ for ‘monde’

According to Wunderli , whose 1969 edition of the Occitan text is included in the bibliography, the dialect is from the Limousin or Périgord regions.

The Old Occitan section are not the only interesting parts of this manuscript. The Expositio Hymnorum (Hymnal or Book of Hymns) is arranged according to the liturgical day and year and includes collects from the Gospels and homilies of St Ambrose and St Gregory. It contains 12th-century musical notation, or neumes, from southern France on ff. 127r–187v.

Harley_ms_2928_f134r
Folio from the Expositio Hymnorum with 12th-century neumes, Harley MS 2928, f. 134r

4 full-page miniatures in colours, sadly rather worn (ff. 13v, 14v, 17r, 18r), precede the Psalms, which begin with the Prologue by Pseudo Augustin on f. 19r, 'Laus Psalmorum. Canticum psalmorum animas decorat'.  In one image, what appears to be of a kneeling saint, perhaps Saint Stephen, is being stoned by two figures in tunics, while  gazing at the sun, or perhaps watching a comet.

Harley_ms_2928_f013v
A kneeling saint is stoned, Harley MS 2928, f. 13v

4 more full-page miniatures of scenes from the New Testament (ff. 15r, 15v, 16r, 16v), were added in Bologna in the 13th century and have been attributed to the ‘Master of 1285’ (see Conti, La Miniature Bolognese (1981)).

Harley_ms_2928_f015r
Added miniature of the Raising of Lazarus, last quarter of the 13th century, Italy, N. (Bologna), Harley MS 2928, f. 15r

 

Harley MS 2928 contient un des plus anciens exemples écrits de la langue d’oc ou de l'occitan : il s'agit d'une traduction de quatre chapitres de l’Evangile de saint Jean. Désormais disponible en ligne, entièrement numérisé, sur notre site internet Digitised Manuscripts, ce manuscrit comprend aussi un psautier, une ‘Expositio hymnorum’, avec neumes du XIIe siècle et une collection liturgique en Latin. Selon Winderli, il fut copié dans le Limousin ou le Périgord à la fin du XIe ou début du XIIe siècle.  Quatre grandes enluminures occupent les feuillets ff. 13v, 14v, 17r et 18r et onze lettrines historiées illustrent le Psautier. L’usure a parfois rendu ces illustrations peu lisibles, mais le style est distinctif.  Quatre enluminures furent ajoutées à Bologne à la fin du XIIIe siècle.  L’extrait de l’évangile (Jean, chapitres 13 à 17) raconte les évènements du Jeudi saint et le discours de Jésus à ses disciples lors de la cène.

                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Bibliography

Clovis Brunel, Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal, Société de publications Romanes et Françaises, 13 (Paris: Librairie E. Droz, 1935).

William Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours : the Occitan model’, in The Cambridge History of French Literature, ed. by William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond and Emma Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 20-27.

Alessandro Conti, La Miniature Bolognese: Scuole e botteghe 1270-1340 (Bologna: ALFA, 1981), pp. 25–26.

Peter Wunderli, La plus ancienne traduction provençale (XIIe siecle) des chapitres XII à XVII del’évangile de saint Jean (BM Harley 2928), Bibliotheque Francaise et Romane, D.4 (Paris: Klincksieck, 1969).

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

PF Logo

14 June 2017

Written in the stars

Add comment Comments (1)

Have you ever read a pop-up book or a book with moving parts? Today, such books are usually associated with children, but a rather fiendishly complicated example has just been digitised by the British Library. This is a set of volvelles (moving paper or parchment wheels) and a parchment astrolabe made by Thomas Hood, the first officially appointed lecturer in mathematics in England.

Add_ms_71495_fse001r
A volvelle and a tulip-rete astrolabe made by Thomas Hood, 1597, Add MS 71495 

Add_ms_71494_fse001r
An astrolabe and a volvelle, London, 1590s, Add MS 71494

Astrolabes are used to measure the position of celestial bodies in the night sky. The best known examples are often made out of metal, but these parchment ones also work. Their latitude suggests that it was designed to be used just south of London. The ‘tulip’-shaped cutouts of the most elaborate astrolabe note the position of no fewer than 190 fixed stars. Astrolabes can be used for navigation, but the texts associated with these  astrolabes and volvelles texts show that they were primarily concerned with astrology. The text revealed by the astrolabe pertains to the 12 ‘houses’ of the zodiac. The positions of stars was used to predict the outcomes of illness and other such events. For example, the ‘fifth house’ is associated with good fortune for Venus but bad fortune for Mars.

Add_ms_71495_fiiir
‘Thomas Hood made this, 1597’, Add MS 71495 

We know who made at least one of the astrolabes because he signed his name: Thomas Hood. Hood had trained at Trinity College, Cambridge, and been granted a licence to practise medicine by the university. Between 1588 and 1597, when the astrolabe was made, Hood was living in London, teaching and writing about mathematics. After the Spanish Armada of 1588, English leaders decided that their military and naval commanders needed to broaden their grasp of mathematics and navigation. Therefore, Sir Thomas Smith and Lord Lumley invited Hood to become the first ‘Mathematical Lecturer to the City of London’. 

Add_ms_71495_f002r
Detail of Andromeda and other constellations, Add MS 71495, f. 2r

In his lectures, Hood emphasised that it was important for all different sorts of people to know maths. As well as teaching, he also designed new navigational instruments such as Jacob’s Staff and a Sector and wrote textbooks on globes and astronomy. However, it seems that Hood really wanted to be a doctor. Although he failed his first attempt to get a licence to practice medicine in London (apparently he didn’t know enough about Galen), he was eventually given a medical licence by the Royal College of Physicians in 1597. Hood then became a doctor in Worcester, where he and his wife Frances lived for the next 20 years.

Astrolabe dismantling
A conservator carefully works on the astrolabe before photography

Digitising the astrolabe was a laborious process, since the instruments were designed to move and to be read from all sorts of different angles. The writing behind each of the rotating devices was photographed, so that it can easily be read online, and each rotating wheel or ‘rete’ was also photographed separately. The assembled astrolabe was then photographed, as well. This required a great deal of patience, skill and cooperation from the British Library’s conservators and photographers. Let’s take a moment to thank to them for all their hard work.

Thomas Hood's volvelles and astrolabes can be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site: Add MS 71494 and Add MS 71495.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval