Medieval manuscripts blog

24 February 2018

Harry Potter meets the Middle Ages


Harry Potter: A History of Magic has been a rip-roaring success. Not only has every session of every day of our exhibition sold out (a first for the British Library), and not only did we sell more advance tickets than Tate's Hockney blockbuster, but the accompanying books have been bestsellers both in the United Kingdom and overseas. If you managed to get to London to see the show, you will have noticed that we had a wealth of extraordinary objects on display, from J.K. Rowling's autograph manuscripts and drawings to genuine witches' broomsticks and exploded cauldrons. The exhibition also provided the opportunity for the Library to showcase its own collections relating to the history of magic, across the world and across the ages; and that forms the subject of this blogpost. 

You may be aware that Harry Potter: A History of Magic is organised according to certain of the subjects studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Readers of J.K. Rowling's novels will obviously be familiar with Potions, Herbology and Divination, but many of these themes are also rooted in real-life magic, tradition and folklore. This gave the exhibition curators the chance to call upon some of the British Library's world-class holdings of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts. There were so many to choose from. Today we are delighted to feature some of them here, many of which can also be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site. We'd love you to tell us your favourites using the comments field or via our Twitter feed (@BLMedieval).


First up in the exhibition is a room devoted to Potions, followed by another relating to Alchemy. Among the items on display there are these four extraordinary manuscripts, ranging in date from the 10th century to circa 1600, and providing Anglo-Saxon recipes to instructions for making your own Philosopher's Stone.


Potions against poisoning and snake bites, in Bald's Leechbook (England, 10th century): Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 41v


An apothecary’s shop, in a surgeon’s manuscript (France, 14th century): Sloane MS 1977, f. 49v


Splendor Solis (Germany, 1582): Harley MS 3469, f. 4r


How to make the Philosopher's Stone, in the Ripley Scroll (England, 16th century): Sloane MS 2523B


Herbology is one of our favourite rooms, and here are some of the British Library manuscripts to be seen there, alongside, of course, our gnome alone. Previously on this blog, we've provided our readers with guidance on how to harvest a mandrake.


Digging for herbs, in Extracts from an edition of Dioscorides, De re medica, assembled and illustrated by Gherardo Cibo (Italy, 16th century): Additional MS 22332, f. 3r


A mandrake being pulled out by a dog, in Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal (Italy or Germany, 16th century): Harley MS 3736, f. 59r


A centaur with centaury (centaurea minor), in a herbal (England, 12th century): Harley MS 5294, f. 22r


A dragon and a serpent, in a herbal (Italy, 15th century): Sloane MS 4016, f. 38r


Visitors to our exhibition will have been charmed to see this papyrus (described in our blogost It's a kind of magic), as well as an early example of the Abracadabra charm, originally devised as a protection against malaria.

Papyrus 46(5)

A ring captioned ‘May something never happen as long as this remains buried’, in a Greek handbook for magic (Thebes, 4th century): Papyrus 46(5)


The first recorded mention of the phrase ‘Abracadabra’, as a cure for malaria, in Quintus Serenus, Liber medicinalis (Canterbury, 13th century): Royal MS 12 E XXIII, f. 20r


You cannot be Sirius. The sky's the limit with these manuscripts, which we selected to illustrate the historical study of the night sky. Among them is Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, showing the Sun and Moon rotating round Earth.


Sagittarius, in Cicero’s Aratea (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 37r


Sirius, in a medieval miscellany (Peterborough, 12th century): Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r


Miniature of astronomers on Mount Athos, studying the stars with astrolabes and quadrants, and inscribing strange characters in the dust with sticks, in a set of illustrations for Mandeville’s Travels (Bohemia, 15th century): Additional MS 24189, f. 15r


Astronomical notes and sketches, in Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebook (Italy, 16th century): Arundel MS 263, f. 104r + f. 107v


Harry Potter and Ron Weasley were never convinced by the methods they were taught to divine the future. If only they had been shown this 14th-century manuscript, they may have realised that Divination is a long-practised art.


Reading the hands, in a fortune-telling manuscript (England, 14th century): Royal MS 12 C XII, f. 107r

Defence Against the Dark Arts

Beware the basilisk, my friends. A medieval snake charmer, in contrast, could always come in useful. 


A basilisk, in Historia animalium (Italy, 1595): Additional MS 82955, f. 129r


Image of a snake charmer, in a bestiary (England, 13th century): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 67r

Care of Magical Creatures

And finally, we would like to share with you some of our beautiful unicorns and phoenixes, in the section of the exhibition devoted to Care of Magical Creatures. This unicorn is a very handsome chap, though some of his counterparts, strangely, have two horns.


A unicorn, in Manuel Philes, On the properties of animals (Paris, 16th century): Burney MS 97, f. 18r


A phoenix rising from the ashes, in a bestiary (England, 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 45r


A siren and a centaur, in a bestiary (France?, 13th century): Sloane MS 278, f. 47r

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is completely sold out, sadly (it closes on 28 February); but we hope you've enjoyed this sneak preview into some of the manuscripts that have been on display. And you can read more about them in our exhibition books, available here.

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


Congratulations to everyone at British Library and lenders and promoters for a fabulous and fascinating exhibition. It not only interested me from the medieval and Middle Ages point of view and my love of manuscripts, but more importantly, it introduced my grandson to the subject and now he is Potty about MSS !

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