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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

24 January 2017

Stars in Their Eyes: Art and Medieval Astronomy

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After coming across a familiar-looking diagram of the planets in a 10th-century manuscript a few months ago, I asked my colleagues here at the British Library how cosmology was represented in some of the manuscripts on which they are currently working. The manuscripts they recommended offered a diverse array of ways to represent the planets and stars. Stargazing may have been a common human pastime throughout the ages, but how to depict the night sky was evidently another matter.

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Christine and the Sybil pointing to a ladder from the heavens, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410-1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 189v

Today, planets are often depicted with a diagram which shows their orbits as a series of concentric circles. This type of diagram may have ancient roots, stretching back to Greek philosophers and astronomers like Ptolemy and Heraclides. Such models illustrated excerpts from the Roman thinker Pliny’s Natural History  in some early medieval manuscripts. Over time, some copies were elaborated to take into account planets’ apparent retrogrades, leading to some spectacular models where planets are given overlapping or even zig-zagging paths. Diagrams using concentric circles were incorporated into medieval author's works, too. Such a diagram illustrates a copy of Isidore of Seville’s influential text, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things), made in England in the 10th century. These diagrams reverse the positions of the Earth/moon and the sun, and some of the names of the planets are different from the names we use today, but otherwise they are largely recognizable to modern viewers.

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Left:
Diagram of the planets, from excerpts of Pliny’s Natural History, France (Fleury), c. 990-1000, Harley MS 2506, f. 53r; Right: Diagram of the planets’ orbits, from Isidore of Seville’s De Natura Rerum, England (St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury?), Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23v.

In some cases, diagrams illustrating Pliny and other classical texts were also combined with theories attributed to Pythagoras about the relationship between musical tones, mathematical ratios and planets' orbits. Hence, a 12th-century diagram includes notes about tonus (tones) in between the planets.

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Diagram of the harmony of the planets, marked with names of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, and the Moon, following a commentary on Ovid's Metamorphoses, France, c. 1225-1275, Burney MS 224, f. 191v

The concentric model was expanded in later medieval art to include the seven planets and the earth encircled by a layer of ‘fixed stars’ which was held up by angels. The elements of fire, air, water and earth were given their own layers, under the moon.

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Circular diagram of the spheres of the Ptolemaic system, including the four elements, the seven planetary spheres, and the sphere of fixed stars, with four angels surrounding them, from Matfré Ermengau of Béziers's Breviari d'Amour, Spain (Gerona?), c. 1375-1400, Yates Thompson 31
, f. 66r 

Other depictions of the ‘spheres’ could be even more elaborate, with Hell at the centre and the throne of God at the outermost layer.

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Full-page miniature of the Universe as a diagram formed of concentric circles, from Gautier de Metz’s L’Image du monde, Low Countries (Bruges), 1464, Royal MS 19 A IX, f. 149r  

But concentric circles were not the only way of depicting star systems in medieval manuscripts. By contrast, the model of the sun, moon and earth, from a 13th-century copy of Bede’s De temporibus, might look a bit alien to modern viewers.

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Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets,
 England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v

Earth is represented by a house-/ tomb-/ reliquary-shaped box at the bottom of the diagram, while the moon is labelled in a roundel above it. According to the annotations on the side, the other roundels include Mercury, Venus and other planets, all the way up to Saturn, ‘in the 7th heaven’. The diagram accompanies a passage explaining ‘why the moon, though situated beneath the sun, sometimes appears to be above it’ (translated by F. Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning of Time (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 77). While these diagrams look rather different from modern textbook representations of the sun, moon and earth, some of Bede’s text, updating to previous models of the universe, still stands. In particular, Bede is notable for being the first European to observe and record the connection between phases of the moon and the tides of the ocean.

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Diagram of planets’ orbits, from a scientific miscellany, France or England, late 11th or 12th century, Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 143v
 

The diagram in a scientific miscellany made in the late 11th or early 12th century takes yet another approach, mapping planets’ orbits onto a sort of graph. The sun’s regular appearance in the sky here contrasts with the other planets’ (and the moon's) more variable appearances over days, months and years.

  Egerton 845   f. 21v
Astrological drawing of the moon and Zodiac constellations, from a collection of astronomical and alchemical treatises, England, 16th century, Egerton MS 845, f. 21v

Other depictions of cosmology and the stars prioritised artistic creativity over mathematical calculations.

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Two angels turning the axes of the world, from Matfre Ermengaud's Breviari d'amor, France (Toulouse?), mid-14th century, Harley MS 4940, f. 28r

Byzantine manuscripts provide some stunning examples of the the planets as personified, depicted containing tiny portraits.

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Planets, from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, February 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 135v

Like the concentric model, these personified models were also based on classical sources, which meant that these common themes emerged even in manuscripts produced in distant regions. For example, 11th-century manuscripts from as far apart as Constantinople and England depict the sun as a charioteer.

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A personification of the rising sun, orbs of day and night, and a personification of the setting sun, from the Bristol Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), 11th century, Add MS 40731, f. 80v

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The chariots of the sun and the moon, from a scientific miscellany, Southern England, c. 1030-1060, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 47r

Maps of the constellations were another way of representing the stars that was classically inspired and widespread in the Middle Ages: see our earlier blog post on Cicero’s ‘map to the stars’. Although the image of a night sky teeming with mythical monsters, ships and heroes contrasts with the model of orderly concentric orbits that began this post, we also use some of the same imagery of constellations today. See the similarities between an early medieval map of the constellations below and an advertisement for Air France which features in the British Library’s exhibition on Maps and the 20th Century (on until 1 March 2017). 

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Map of the constellations of disputed origin, 9th or 11th-century, Northwestern Europe (Northern France? Low Countries? St Augustine’s, Canterbury?), Harley MS 647, f. 21v 

This is just a small sample of the ways the planets and stars were portrayed in medieval manuscripts. It does not even begin to touch on diagrams outlining specific celestial events, like eclipses, phases of the moon and zodiac cycles. Hopefully, however, this post gives a small taste of the myriad of ways medieval people thought about and depicted the heavens. 


Add 8785 f108v
Men observing the stars, from Bartholomaeus Anglicus' De Proprietatibus rerum, 
Italy (Mantua), c. 1300-1310, Add MS 8785, f. 108v

Alison Hudson

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20 January 2017

The Psychomachia: An Early Medieval Comic Book

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What do Captain America, Wonder Woman and a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript have in common? The answer may be more surprising than you think. The Psychomachia, or ‘War of the Soul’, was composed by the Late Antique poet Prudentius in the 5th century and depicts an action-packed battle between the Virtues and Vices for possession of the human soul. This allegory of good versus evil was hugely popular in the medieval period with about 300 surviving copies of the work, 20 of which were illuminated. Two illuminated Anglo-Saxon copies are held at the British Library (now Additional MS 24199 and Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII) and their illustrations can be compared to our comic books today.

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No need for utility belts: Pride rides down Humility and Hope, with Latin and Old English captions in Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 15v

These two manuscripts of the Psychomachia were produced in England in the 10th and 11th centuries, and like comics they feature illuminations in bordered frames, frequently accompanied by captions to summarise the often fast-paced plotline. The seven virtues are portrayed as seven female champions of the Christian faith against seven female pagan idolaters, who ultimately claim victory on the battlefield in front of a thousand cheering martyrs. The deaths of each vice are comically violent: Faith beheads Idolatry, Chastity slays Lust with her sword, and Sobriety uses the cross of the Lord to sabotage Indulgence’s chariot before striking her with a flint stone.

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Is it a plane? Sobriety defeating Indulgence as depicted in Additional MS 24199, f. 20r

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Kerpow! Anger’s sword breaks when used against Patience in Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 12r

Both manuscripts were probably used as classroom aids by Anglo-Saxon monks. Cleopatra C VIII was written at Christ Church, Canterbury, and Additional MS 24199 may later have been owned by the abbey at Bury St Edmunds. These copies of the Psychomachia contain numerous glosses, or commentary writings, that are often present in schoolbooks of monastic communities.

Why would monks and their students study such a graphic text? Although monks lived in a warrior society, they could not take up arms against others and were encouraged to fight a spiritual battle instead. Alcuin wrote a letter to Bishop Higbald and the Lindisfarne community after the 793 Viking attack telling them to ‘be a model of all goodness to all who can see you, a herald of salvation to all who hear you’. Later, the New Minster Refoundation Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), probably written by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester in 966, noted that just as the king fought visible enemies, so too did monks protect the realm by fighting spiritual battles with invisible enemies. Similarly, the Psychomachia conveyed a message to monastic communities that moral combat against spiritual enemies was just as heroic as facing physical opponents in war.

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It’s Clobberin’ Time: Patience undaunted by the vices in Additional MS 24199, f. 8r

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Spiritual combat: Cuthbert of Lindisfarne extinguishing a fire set by a demon, from Chapter 13 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert in Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 30r

 

La Psychomachia fut composée au 5ème siècle par le poète Prudence. Ce poème épique met en scène la bataille allégorique des vices et vertus, dont l’enjeu principal est le contrôle de l’âme humaine. Ce “Combat de l’âme” fut largement diffusé tout au long du Moyen Age puisqu’on compte plus de 300 manuscrits subsistants.

Deux d’entre eux sont aujourd’hui conservés à la British Library: Add MS 24199 et Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII. Ils furent copiés en Angleterre, respectivement aux 10ème et 11ème siècles, et présentent une décoration comparable à celles des bandes dessinées actuelles. Chaque scène encadrée illustre l’intrigue, en regard du texte. La vocation pédagogique de ces illustrations suggère que ces manuscrits furent probablement utilisés dans les écoles monastiques. Après l’attaque de Lindisfarne (793), le message délivré n’en devenait que plus clair pour les communautés monastiques: le combat spirituel et moral doit l’emporter sur le glaive.

Alison Ray

Laure Miolo (French summary)

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19 January 2017

Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

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The British Library is delighted to be a participant in this year's ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. Throughout the Festival, from 19 to 23 January, a facsimile of one of the four original Magna Carta documents from 1215, now held at the British Library in London, will be on display at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur. The Festival itself was inaugurated by Chief Minister of Rajasthan Smt. Vasundhara Raje, who was one of the first to view the facsimile.

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Children viewing the facsimile of Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

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Claire Breay (The British Library) showing the facsimile of Magna Carta to Chief Minister of Rajasthan Smt. Vasundhara Raje

Then, on Saturday 21 January, the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival is holding a panel discussion entitled ‘Magna Carta: Spirit of Justice’. The five speakers — writer and lawyer Chintan Chandrachud, historian David Carpenter, barrister Helena Kennedy, biographer and historian Patrick French and curator Claire Breay — will explore the history, impact and global legacy of the 4,000 words of Latin issued by King John at Runnymede in 1215. The British Library is represented at the Festival by Claire Breay (Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts), who will be discussing with Professor David Carpenter (King's College London) the medieval history of Magna Carta, and how the Library's major 2015 exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, explored both the medieval story of Magna Carta and how it came to be such a famous international symbol of rights and liberties.

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The crowd at the inauguration ceremony of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

The loan of the Magna Carta facsimile is part of an ambitious British Library programme of engagement with India, which will also see the loan of one of the Library’s copies of the First Folio of William Shakespeare, to CSMVS Museum in Mumbai from 20 January to 8 March. The programme also includes a major project to digitise thousands of Indian printed books held by the Library: the first phase of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ aims to digitise and make available online 4,000 printed books in Bengali, unlocking their riches to researchers and a wider public than ever before.

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Outside the room where the facsimile of Magna Carta is on display at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

Claire Breay

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