THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

11 posts from November 2017

21 November 2017

The original Hermione

Bushy hair, writing furiously — why, it must be Hermione! But this is not an early image of Hermione Granger. This is the Hermione of Greek mythology. She features in Greek and Latin writings about the Trojan War, from Homer’s Odyssey to the plays of Euripides and the poems of Ovid.


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Hermione writing a letter, from a copy of a French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, made in Paris at the end of the 15th century: Harley MS 4867, f. 60v

In classical mythology, Hermione was said to be the daughter and only child of Helen of Troy and Menelaus, king of Sparta. She was only a young girl when her mother ran off with (or was kidnapped by) Paris, starting the Trojan War. Hermione’s love life became just as complicated as her mother’s. She was initially engaged to Orestes, the son of Agamemnon. In some versions of the story she even secretly married him. However, Hermione’s oblivious father married her to Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, also known as Pyrrhus. This wedding is one of the first events in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus’s son Telemachus travels to Sparta to ask Menelaus if he has heard any news about the missing Odysseus and

found [Menelaus] in his own house, feasting with his many clansmen in honour of the wedding of his son, and also of his daughter, whom he was marrying to the son of that valiant warrior Achilles … [Menelaus’s] son, Megapenthes, was born to him of a bondwoman, for heaven vouchsafed Helen no more children after she had borne Hermione, who was fair as golden Venus herself (translated by Samuel Butler).

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Beginning of Book IV in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 26r

There is magic in some of the stories about the mythological Hermione. After the sack of Troy, Hermione’s husband Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus was given Andromache, the widow of Hector, as a concubine. In Euripides’s play Andromache, Hermione accuses Andromache of putting a spell on her so she is unable to bear children. She tries to persuade her father, Menelaus, to kill Andromache and her child while her husband is away, but Andromache is protected by Neoptolemus's grandfather, Peleus.

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Epitomes of Euripedes's Andromache and other works, Egypt, c. 100-125 AD: Papyrus 3040

Meanwhile, Hermione's ex-fiancé Orestes arrives. He has killed Neoptolemus. Orestes declares that he is still in love with Hermione and takes her back to his kingdom.

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Andromache flees with her child while Hermione talks to Pyrrhus, from a copy of Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, made in Naples, c. 1330–1340: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 187r

The love of Orestes and Hermione also inspired the Roman writer Ovid. She is one of the heroines of Ovid’s poems known as the Heroides. These 15 poems take the form of letters written by mythological heroines to the men in their lives who have let them down. Ovid portrayed Hermione as a woman who, against her will, had been dragged off by Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus. She writes to Orestes, begging him to come and rescue her.

Pyrrhus … holds me

prisoner here, contrary to the laws of both gods and men ...

Deafer to [my pleas] than the sea, he dragged me into his palace,

as I tore my hair in grief and shouted your name …

When the Greeks won the war and set wealthy Troy on fire,

they didn’t maltreat Andromache as badly as this ...

Follow my father’s example of claiming back an abducted wife …

[But] don’t muster a thousand ships with swelling sails

Or an army of Greek warriors — come yourself!’

(Ovid’s Heroides translated by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves and Sarah Parker, pp. 89–90).

The sense of these verses is similar in the later medieval French translation, see in the first image in this post. This translation was made by Octavien de Saint-Gelais for King Charles VIII between 1490 and 1493. 

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Paris and Helen writing to each other, from a copy of a French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, made in Paris at the end of the 15th century: Harley MS 4867, f. 115r

In Ovid’s poem, Hermione then wonders whether the women in her family have been struck with a curse ‘that makes all us female descendants of Tantalus ripe for the ravishing’, citing the examples of her mother Helen and her grandmother Leda. Ovid’s Hermione is not entirely sympathetic to her mother, however. Part-way through the letter, Hermione addresses her mother directly, allowing Ovid to give a haunting, child’s eye-view of the start of the Trojan War:

‘I tore my girlishly short hair and kept on shouting:

“Are you going away without me, mother?” …

I went to meet you when you came home, and — honestly —

I didn’t know what my mother’s face looked like.

I realized you were Helen because you were so beautiful.’

(Ovid’s Heroides translated by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves and Sarah Parker, p. 92).

Hermione was a fascinating character who continued to inspire writers, musicians and artists in the Middle Ages and beyond, as Greek and Latin texts were recopied, rewritten and reintepreted. The manuscripts featured here are only a small sample of the books that feature the original Hermione.

Alison Hudson

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19 November 2017

Happy birthday, Statute of Marlborough!

Earlier this month, we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charter, Magna Carta’s little sibling. It inspired a new Tree Charter, with accompanying events ranging from bike rides to pole launches. Today, we commemorate the Statute of Marlborough. At 750 years old, issued on 19 November 1267, it’s one of the the oldest pieces of legislation in England still in force today.

The Statute of Marlborough almost didn’t make it to this day. Only four of its twenty-nine sections are still in force. In 2014, the Law Commission made plans to scrap it altogether. The surviving sections are now known as the Distress Act and the Waste Act. The Distress Act states that anyone seeking reimbursement for damages must do so through the courts, while the Waste Act ensures that the tenants do not lay waste, sell or ruin their lands and other resources without special permission. This is still a concern in modern agriculture:

Fermors, during their Terms, shall not make Waste, Sale, nor Exile of House, Woods, Men, nor of any Thing belonging to the Tenements that they have to ferm, without special Licence had by Writing of Covenant, making mention that they may do it; which thing if they do, and thereof be convict, they shall yield full Damage, and shall be punished by Amerciament grievously.

The closing page of the Statute of Marlborough: Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 131r
The closing page of the Statute of Marlborough: Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 131r

There are eight pieces of English legislation from the 13th century that have not been repealed. One of those is Magna Carta, which was originally issued by King John in 1215; the earliest versions were repealed, with the version now in force dating from 1297.

One of the two sources for the official Latin text of the Statute of Marlborough is held at the British Library (Cotton MS Claudius D II). It forms part of a book collecting English laws — the medieval version of legislation.gov.uk, you might say. You can see the Cotton manuscript of the Statute of Marlborough right now in our free Treasures Gallery, alongside a copy of the Forest Charter that was narrowly saved from destruction and a plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey

A plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey: Harley MS 391, ff. 5v–6r
A plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey: Harley MS 391, ff. 5v–6r

The plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey is further evidence of how the environment shaped the medieval world. Medieval monasteries aimed to be self-reliant, and water was key to this. This plan of a conduit built in 1220–22 at Waltham Abbey is one of the earliest surviving English maps. The water flows from three round sources at the top, through a filtration system, and into a pipe towards the abbey. It is found in a cartulary made for the abbey, a collection of charters copied into a single volume for reference and preservation. The agreements in this book show that the monks had to negotiate with several different landlords to build across their land.

 

Andrew Dunning (@anjdunning)

 

16 November 2017

Boccaccio’s Venus in Cyprus

A new exhibition, The Venus Paradox, opened this September in Nicosia in Cyprus. It celebrates Venus, goddess of love, and the stories she has inspired through the ages. According to legend, Venus — or Aphrodite as she was called by Greek authors from Hesiod onwards — rose from the sea foam wearing a golden crown and was wafted over the waves to the island of Cyprus, where she was clothed with heavenly garments. The exhibition focuses on Venus’s place in the western artistic tradition, in both image and text, and her significance for the island of her birth.

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Venus as Queen of Cyprus, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 16v

One of the British Library's exquisite Boccaccio manuscripts is part of this show. On display is an image of Venus as she appears in a 15th-century volume that has links to another very strong woman (see below). In the image, Venus is depicted as the Queen of Cyprus, wearing a crown (the rubric reads, ‘tres ancienne royne des cipriens’). This is one of 106 glorious illustrations of Des cleres et nobles femmes, an anonymous French translation of ‘De mulieribus claris’ (Concerning famous women). Considered the first collection of biographies in western literature devoted exclusively to women, this popular work, first completed in 1361, provides a fascinating insight into medieval attitudes to women, in a time of changing attitudes. In the section on Venus, Boccaccio discusses various beliefs about her, including her disputed origins (was her father a king of Cyprus or Jupiter himself?), and the assertion that Cupid was her son. Her great beauty is compared to the planet, Venus, but she is harshly judged for her licentiousness; having been unfaithful to both husbands, Vulcan and Adonis, she is accused of the ‘shameful madness’ of founding the first public brothels in Crete.

This precious and beautiful volume is already a celebrity: the opening page with a four-part image and a gorgeous rinceaux border was displayed in our 2011 exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.

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A frontispiece in four panels of Boccaccio reading a book, Boccaccio presenting the book to Andrea Acciaivoli, countess of Altavilla, a messenger presenting a letter to Semiramis and a queen with four female musicians, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 5r

It is no surprise that its former owner of this manuscript was wealthy and powerful, a member of the illustrious Beaufort family, probably Lady Margaret Beaufort, one of Britain’s earliest ‘tiger mothers’. She was determined her son, Henry, would become King of England, even if she had to found a new dynasty in the process! She achieved her aim in 1485, when he was crowned King Henry VII aged 28, the first of the Tudors. Perhaps she was inspired by some of the stories in this work, though she is known to have been extremely devout, so it is unlikely Venus was a role model for her.

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Table of chapters in Des cleres et nobles femmes, with added Beaufort arms: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 1r

The opening folio has an added initial 'D' containing the Beaufort badge of a portcullis and chains surmounted by a coronet. James Carley has suggested that this manuscript is 'possibly to be identified as the "greatte volume of velom named John Bokas lymned" owned by Lady Margaret Beaufort' (The Libraries of King Henry VIII (2000) p. xxiv).

Venus is described on the Pafos website as ‘mother, woman, mistress, huntress and seductress’. Here are a variety images from our manuscripts depicting the goddess in her many guises, as she was seen in the Middle Ages.

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Venus with a mirror, emerging from the sea, from Matfre Ermengaud, Breviari d'Amor, France, S. (Toulouse?); 1st quarter of the 14th century: Royal MS 19 C I, f. 41v (this manuscript was recently featured in a blogpost on Occitan manuscripts)


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Venus, Vulcan and Mars, from the Roman de la Rose, France, Central? (Paris?); c. 1380: Egerton MS 881, f. 141v

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Venus as the huntress, from the Roman de la Rose, Paris, c. 1400: Egerton 1069, f. 140v

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Venus presiding over a group of men and women, who are presenting their hearts to her, in Christine de Pizan’s 'L'Épître Othéa', Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414: Harley 4431, f. 100r

C11655-04

Miniature of Venus arming Aeneas in the foreground, and on the right, Aeneas meeting Evander, at the beginning of book VII of Virgil's Aeneid, Italy, Central (Rome); between 1483 and 1485, King’s MS 24, f. 164r

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Miniature of the Judgement of Paris, with Pallas Athena, Juno and Venus sitting at a table, and Paris giving an olive branch to Venus, in the Convenevole da Prato, Italy, Central (Tuscany); c. 1335–c. 1340: Royal MS 6 E IX, f. 22r

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Venus playing a musical instrument with her ruling Zodiac signs, from a treatise on astrology by Albumazar, Netherlands, S., 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century: Sloane MS 3983, f. 42v

The Venus Paradox exhibition is open at the A.G. Leventis Gallery in Nicosia from 29 September 2017 until 15 January 2018.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Chantry Westwell

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15 November 2017

Call for papers: the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting

Following the first three successful meetings at the British Museum and last year at Cambridge University Library, the British Library is pleased to host the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting. This meeting will take place on 21–22 June 2018 at the British Library Centre for Conservation.

Papyrus 113 (15c)
Illustrated copy of the Life of Secundus the Silent Philosopher – Egypt, 6th century (Papyrus 113 (15c)

We are now inviting proposals for individual papers of 20 minutes or short communications of 10 minutes on subjects related to:

  • Conservation and Preservation
  • Cataloguing
  • Digitisation
  • Ongoing and Completed Projects
  • Funding Opportunities


Papyrus 488
Plato’s Phaedo from 3rd century BCE – one of the earliest papyri in the British Library (Papyrus 488)

Please submit your proposals of no more than 100 words by email to papyrusmeeting.proposals2018@gmail.com by 31 January 2018. Successful submissions will be announced early in the New Year with a full programme to follow.

Papyrus 46  f. 5
Magic ring from a 4th-century Greek handbook on magic (Papyrus 46, f. 5)

Limited travel bursaries are available for delegates who would otherwise face financial barriers to attending, as part of the British Museum’s national knowledge-sharing programmes generously supported by the Vivmar Foundation. If you would like to apply for a bursary, please contact UK Partnerships Co-ordinator Georgia Mallin at gmallin@britishmuseum.org, explaining how your attendance will support your work/organisation and why the bursary is needed.

 

The Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting

21–22 June 2018

The British Library

Peter Toth

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14 November 2017

Canon tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels now on display

As a text, the canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of scripture. Over many centuries copies of the Gospels in Latin, Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Gothic, Syriac, Georgian or Slavonic begin with these tables. Devised and created in Greek by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, these tables formed a unifying gateway to the fundamental, but multiple narratives of the Evangelists Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As Eusebius explained in a prefatory letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

Canon 1 lists passages common to all four Gospels, Canons 2-9 different combinations of two or three Gospels and Canon 10 those passages found only in one Gospel. Building on a system of dividing up the text of the Gospels into verses that he attributed to Ammonius of Alexandria, Eusebius assigned consecutive numbers to sections in each Gospel and used these numbers within his tables to correlate related passages. By this means he adduced the unity of the four narratives without attempting to harmonise them into a single text.

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Codex Sinaiticus, the folio currently on display at the British Library: Add MS 43725, f. 201r

The earliest known evidence for the use of the tables occurs in Codex Sinaiticus, an extraordinary 4th-century Greek manuscript that is also the earliest surviving complete New Testament. In Codex Sinaiticus the tables themselves do not survive, but the Ammonian section numbers are included throughout the Gospels. These can be seen in the Gospel of St Matthew currently on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, or viewed in detail on our Digitised Manuscripts website. In Codex Sinaiticus, the section numbers (in Greek characters) are added on the left-hand side of each column in red ink, with the number of the canon table that needs to be consulted for parallel texts of that section.

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Section 16, canon 5: a note in the Gospel of St Matthew, a detail from Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f. 201r column 2)

For example, in the right-hand page on display in the Gallery, the third number in the second column (in the account of one of Christ’s temptations) is marked as section 16, in Canon 5. Further information about the manuscript is available on the Codex Sinaiticus website, including a full transcription and translation, and in this previous blogpost.

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The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th–7th century (Add MS 5111/1)

One of most splendid illuminated examples of the Canon Tables in Greek are the leaves now known as the Golden Canon Tables, because they are written on parchment previously painted entirely with gold. Made in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, the tables are now fragmentary but nevertheless betray a very sophisticated artistic style. They are a rare witness of an early version of these tables.

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The pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels currently on display at the British Library: Cotton MS Nero D IV, ff. 14v–15r

Canon tables are also included in the Latin copy of the Gospels known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, which was probably made on the island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in around 700. The fifth canon, which lists texts that are common in the two Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, is now on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery. This is the same canon as that referred to in Codex Sinaiticus, several centuries earlier. The canons in the Lindisfarne Gospels are surrounded by intricately designed micro-architectural decoration, with wonderful intertwined biting birds. You can view them in more detail with the zoom function on the Digitised Manuscripts website, or visit the Treasures Gallery in the coming months.

12 November 2017

Simply the bestiary

Every now and then we come across a real page Turner. So here it is, with a little help from a 1980s power ballad. 

You’re simply the bestiary!

Royal MS 12 C XIX

 Better than all the restiary …

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 30r

Better than any swan

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 39v

Any swan I ever met

 Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 39v close

I’m stuck on your hart!

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 23r

I hang on every word you say

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 65v

Tear us apart -

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 26v

No no -

Baby, I would rather be dead.

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 11v

Oooh! You’re the best!

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 37v

All these images are from a richly illuminated bestiary in the British Library’s collections, Royal MS 12 C XIX. The manuscript in question was made in England early in the 13th century, and is related to other bestiaries now held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Follow the hyperlinks and you'll discover more of its beautiful images. We love it and have more than a feeling that you will, too.

And what's love got to do with it? Everything. 

Amy Jeffs

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 November 2017

Science Museum loans in Harry Potter: A History of Magic

There are some stunning medieval manuscripts in the British Library's current exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. We have spent the last year searching our collections for items that relate in some way to the magical subjects studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and we've made some incredible discoveries along the way. But no exhibition of this magnitude is complete without the assistance and generosity of other institutions. Visitors to the show will recognise instantly that our books are complemented by a wealth of fascinating objects, many of which have kindly been loaned by our friends at the Science Museum in London. We would like to record here our gratitude to the assistance provided by both the Science Museum and the Wellcome Trust in enabling us to borrow these items, which have helped to make our exhibition such a magical experience. Which is your favourite? The mandrake root, perhaps, or the unicorn shop sign?

We are also delighted to announce that, on 12 December, Roger Highfield and Sophie Waring of the Science Museum will be delivering one of our Hogwarts Curriculum Lectures on the subject of Alchemy. You can book your tickets here. It promises to be a very special evening. Roger has also contributed a wonderful essay on Potions and Alchemy to the exhibition book, published by our friends at Bloomsbury. That's well worth a read, though we'd love you to be able to make it to the exhibition in London as well. It closes on 28 February, and tickets need to be purchased in advance.

MANDRAKE ROOT low-res

A mandrake root: this mandrake root dates from the 16th or 17th century, and it has been carved to resemble the figure of a human. The mandrake's resemblance to the human form has prompted many cultures over the centuries to attribute special powers to the plant. In reality, the mandrake’s root and leaves are poisonous and it can induce hallucinations.

L0058635

A real bezoar stone: a corruption of the Persian word pādzahar (pād, expelling; zahar, poison), bezoars were first introduced into medieval Europe by Arabic physicians and reputedly provided a powerful antidote to poison. Wealthy owners (including kings and popes) spent considerable sums on acquiring the stones (digested by goats and similar animals), and often kept them in elaborate cases.

L0036765

Apothecary jars: we love these apothecary jars, which were possibly made in Spain in the 17th century. The jar labelled ‘Vitriol Coerul’ contained copper sulphite, ‘Ocul. Cancr’ stored ‘crabs eyes’ — particles from the guts of putrefied crayfish, used to cure indigestion — while the jar named ‘Sang. Draco.V.’ contained ‘Dragon’s Blood’, a potent red resin that still has medical uses today.

Apothecary_Sign

An apothecary's sign: the blood, hair and horn of the unicorn have been traditionally believed to possess powerful medicinal properties. This sign would have stood outside an apothecary’s
shop in the 1700s. The horn is made from the tusk of a narwhal, otherwise known as the ‘unicorn of the sea’.

MiniatureOrrery_1924-0471_(0001)

A miniature orrery: an orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system, often used for teaching. This miniature orrery was made in London in the 18th century by the mathematical instrument maker, John Troughton. It displays the movement of Earth in relation to the Moon and two other planets. 

 

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

until 28 February 2018

 

Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

 

09 November 2017

Harry Potter exhibition books on sale now

Harry Potter: A History of Magic, the British Library's new blockbuster exhibition, is currently on show (until 28 February 2018). It's definitely worth making a special visit to London. There is an array of beautiful books and artefacts on display — the Evening Standard has described it as 'a cornucopia of magical and mysterious items' — including medieval manuscripts, cauldrons and Chinese oracle bones.

We're delighted to say that two books have also been published by our friends at Bloomsbury to accompany the exhibition, one entitled Harry Potter: A History of Magic and the other aimed at a family audience, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic. They are incredibly well researched and written, and beautifully illustrated (says someone who wrote, edited, reviewed and proofed them!). The 'adult' version contains essays by Lead Curator, Julian Harrison, together with astronaut Tim Peake, naturalist and television presenter Steve Backshall, the Rev Richard Coles, Lucy Mangan and others; while the family version contains lots of fun activities for younger people.

Both books are available online or from the British Library shop, as well as from other major retailers. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed writing them!

HPHOM

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

HPFAMMAGIC

Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic

 

Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

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