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47 posts categorized "Ancient"

26 May 2017

Slave, scholar, stoic

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‘Some things are in our control and others are not … the latter should be nothing to you.’ This wise statement begins the Enchiridion of Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher. Epictetus had some experience of hardships being out of his control: he spent part of his life as a slave.

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Detail of the opening lines of Epictetus's Enchiridion, copied in the 2nd half of the 16th century, Add MS 11887, f. 1r

Much of what is known about Epictetus’s life comes from a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopaedia, the Suda. The British Library has a rare complete copy of this text, now Add MS 11892/3. According to the Suda, Epictetus was born in Hierapolis, Phrygia, in the first century CE and became a slave to a cruel master in Rome. On top of that, his mobility was impaired, perhaps from an illness or from mistreatment. The early Christian theologian Origen (d. 253/4) claimed that Epictetus’s owner broke his leg, a situation Epictetus reportedly handled with logic and wit: ‘[W]hen [Epictetus's] master was twisting his leg, Epictetus said, smiling and unmoved, “You will break my leg.” When it was broken, he added, “I told you so.”’

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Opening page from the Suda, copied 15 June 1402, Add MS 11892, f. 2r

Despite Epictetus’s challenges, he was later liberated and started teaching philosophy in Rome. There were still more twists and turns to his career, however. Around AD 93, Domitian chased out all philosophers from Rome, so Epictetus fled to Greece, where he started a school.

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Opening page of Simplicius's Commentary on Epictetus's Enchiridion, copied 15 November 1469, Add MS 10064, f. 1r 

Given Epictetus’s pithy sayings and his dramatic life, stories about him continued to be told and retold. St John Chrysostom (d. 407) wrote about him, claiming that when Epictetus was asked by his master, ‘Do you want me to let you loose?’, Epictetus answered: ‘Why? Am I in any way bound?’ Manuscripts of his works and commentaries on his works continued to be copied into the 16th century. Epictetus continues to influence a wide variety of figures to this day, from philosophers to playwrights to the psychotherapist Albert Ellis, whose school of therapy claims to owe more to Epictetus’s ideas than Sigmund Freud’s. Epictetus’s teachings still resonate today. ‘It is difficulties that show what men are’, according to his Discourses. In the Enchiridion, he noted that ‘These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you; therefore I am better.” “I am more eloquent than you; therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you; therefore my property is greater than yours.” “I am more eloquent than you; therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.’

You can find out more about this subject by consulting the British Library's Greek Manuscripts webspace. Available online are articles such as Greek manuscripts in the 16th century, descriptions of our collection items and videos. We hope you have fun exploring the site!

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 May 2017

An ideal woman

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What's your definition of the ideal woman? For centuries, the model woman of some Greek writers was pious, virtuous … and good at maths.

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Detail of an historiated intial with Geometry portrayed as a woman, from the works of Priscian, Cicero, Aristotle and others, translated by Gerard of Cremona, Paris, 1309–1316, Burney MS 275, f. 293r

For them, the ideal woman was Theano, a philosopher and mathematician who is said to have lived in the 6th century BCE. According to some of these later writers, she was a student and later the wife of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher, musician and mathematician. As with most ancient figures, the details of her life is somewhat obscure: modern scholars debate who she was, or whether there were even two Theanos in Pythagoras’s circle.

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The entry for Theano in a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopaedia (Suda Lexicon Additional MS 11892, f. 278r, copied in 1402 in Florence by Georgios Baiophoros)

Whoever she was (or they were), Theano seems to have been an important thinker in her own right. Later writers reported that she wrote tracts on virtue, piety and Pythagoras’s doctrines, and they attributed some witty aphorisms to her. In one of her commentaries on her husband’s writings, she was said to have remarked that, ‘if the soul were not immortal, death would be a blessing to us all.’ The most noteworthy incident recorded about Theano is when her arm was accidentally revealed in the market and someone noted ‘how beautiful your arm is’, to which she replied ‘maybe, but it’s not public.’

Sadly, none of Theano’s texts survive. A 14th-century manuscript in the British Library preserves a unique collection of seven epistles attributed to her. These letters promote the education of Greek women and critical thinking. The author of the letters addresses mostly women advising them on childcare, marriage and various household affairs. She wrote, ‘It is better to ride a horse without reins than to be an unreflective woman’.

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Copy of a letter purporting to be written by Theano, Harley MS 5610, f. 7v

In the first letter she addresses a mother called Euboule to criticize her for bringing up her children in luxury, noting that, ‘The mark of a good mother is not her concern for the children’s enjoyment, but rather an education towards moderation. Be careful: don’t be an indulgent mother rather than a loving one.’

For centuries, Greek writers considered Theano to be the ideal wife and mother. Although this did not lead to any of the treatises attributed to her being preserved, Theano’s long-lasting fame as an educator of mothers and wives has made her letters a popular read for generations.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 March 2017

Magic in the British Library's Papyri

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10 March 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the first episode of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some members of the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team of the British Library are big fans of the series, which is set in a library and whose characters routinely have to decipher manuscripts in ancient languages in order to defeat the forces of evil. Indeed, we are currently in the process of digitising several papyri  which mention some of the figures whom Buffy battles.

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A handbook of magic: Egypt (Thebes), 4th century, Papyrus 46, f. 2v

The British Library's collection of papyri includes different sorts of texts, from speeches to letters about vineyard management, from the constitution of Athens to fragments of plays, from wills to part of the Iliad. The papyri also include some magical texts: charms, recipes, curses and prayers. Love spells were discussed in our 2017 Valentine's Day post. There are also some demon-summoning spells that sound just like the sort of text that could kick off one of Buffy's, Xander's, Willow's and the librarian Mr Giles's adventures.

Papyrus 123, a fragment from the late 4th century, preserves a special charm to summon demons against others: 'I bring into subjection, put to silence, and enslave every race of people, both men and women, with their fits of wrath, and those who are under the earth, beneath my feet, but especially and now say their names.'

Papyrus 123

Looks familiar? Images of demons, from a magical incantation, Egypt, late 4th century, Papyrus 123

Papyrus 122, a sheet from the early 5th century, contains a spell to request a visit from the netherworld by the demon Besa. (Besa was  originally based on an ancient Egyptian god called Bes.) The text says:

'On your left hand draw Besa in the way shown here with an ink made of blood from a crow and a dove. Put around your hand a black cloth . Go to sleep on a rush mat, having an unbaked brick beside your head — and he’ll come to you in a vision to tell you what you are interested in.'

Below these instructions there is even a sinister image of the demon to be drawn “on your hand”.


Papyrus 122
Detail from a collection of magical spells, Papyrus 122, Egypt (Hermopolis), 5th century

So if you are interested in knowing the future, you could try drawing this image on your hand, but please note you will also need the accompanying spell. For further details, please see our Digitised Manuscripts site. However, if you do not have a vampire slayer to protect you, we don't recommend trying this at home!

Peter Toth and Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

04 March 2017

A Heavenly Recipe

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Instructions about cooking and baking are not rare in medieval manuscripts. We have already posted on this blog some medieval instructions for 'cury' and making pancakes from cookbooks or practical culinary collections. Liturgical service books, however, are probably not the most obvious sources for such notes.

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The miracle of the koliva from a collection of liturgical readings (synaxaria) for Lent, Eastern Mediterranean, c. 1375–1400, Egerton MS 3157, f. 20r

One of our Byzantine Greek service books, a collection of lessons for the Saturdays and Sundays of Lent, contains a very special recipe: not only is it completely vegan, it is said to have been received directly from Heaven. The short note is preserved in a lection for the first Saturday of the Great Lent which records the miraculous revelation of the new recipe as follows.  

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Punishment of the “godless and traitor Julian” from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066, 
Add MS 19352, f. 200r

'When the Emperor Julian, who ruled the Roman Empire after Constantine the Great, returned to his old pagan habits, he decided to defile the Great Lent of the Christians, and ordered the mayor of Constantinople to pollute all the food in the markets of the city with animal blood. While imperial soldiers were spreading blood throughout the markets of Constantinople, God sent the martyr Theodore the Younger (who died about 50 years before Julian) to the archbishop of the city to reveal to him the Emperor’s plans.' 

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St Theodore comes to the archbishop in a dream and tells him about koliva, Egerton MS 3157, f. 20r

'Hearing about the pollution of the food in the markets, the Archbishop was terrified and asked the saint: “So what can we eat then?” “Koliva,” replied Theodore. “What an earth is that?” asked the surprised archbishop. “Koliva is wheat kernels boiled soft and sweetened with honey, sesame seeds, almonds, ground walnuts, cinnamon, pomegranate seeds, raisins and anise.' When the archbishop inquired who is the provider of the new recipe , his visitor simply answered, 'I am Theodore the Martyr of Christ whom he has now sent to you to reveal this and provide new food for his people.'

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The miracle of the heavenly food (mannah) from the Bristol Psalter, Constantinople, 11th century, Add MS 40731, f. 128r

The archbishop immediately announced the new discovery to the inhabitants of Constaninople, who successfully overcame Julian's machinations. To this day, people remember the martyr and this miracle with cooking and eating koliva.

Admittedly, the heavenly origin of koliva is often doubted. In some versions of the story, Theodore simply shares an old recipe of his home country in Pontus with the archbishop. Some say the recipe derives from the ancient Greek cult of Dionysos. Wherever it comes from, the koliva is a very tasty and entirely vegan food. As this Saturday is the anniversary of the miraculous recipe, it might be the right time to give koliva a try (see a detailed recipe here) and remember its source, the martyr and the British Library’s 14th-century manuscript that preserved its story.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 February 2017

Love Me Do: Medieval Love Spells

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Valentine’s Day is all about love — mutual love and shared love. But what if love is unrequited or one-sided? The problem, as always, is not a new one. It was well known in ancient and medieval times alike, but different people had their own ways of dealing with it.

Some people simply believed in persuasion. Some nice words on a bench may break the ice and turn the lover’s heart in the desired direction. 'You can try this with men or women alike', as the caption of the image says.

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Detail from a herbal, Northern Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane 4016, f. 44v

If this does not make a break-through, a picnic set up in an entertaining landscape of flowers, trees and a little brook might bring better results.

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Miniature of the duke of true love and his companions entertaining ladies, from the Book of the Queen, c. 1410–1414, France (Paris), Harley 4431, f. 145

You could even include some sport in these outdoor activities and win their hearts in a race. This is how Hippomenes won over Atalanta after beating her in an (actually unfair) running competition. He rolled golden apples in the girl’s way, slowing her down so that he could finally win and get her hand.

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Miniature of Hippomenes racing Atalanta, from Harley 4431, f. 128r

Others had completely different methods and, convinced about the power of their poetry and music, bravely revealed their feelings before their lovers. Orpheus did it in a live performance for Eurydice. It worked, melting the heart of Death himself who gave his dead wife back to him.

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Miniature of Orpheus looking back at Eurydice, from Harley 4431, f. 126v  

Others, probably less skilled in performing arts, preferred to do this in a less direct way and offered luxury editions of their poetry to their loved ones — enclosing their own burning hearts in the volumes.

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Detail from 49 Love Sonnets, Italy (Milan?), c. 1425–1475, King's 322, f. 1r

There were some, however, who did not deter even from violence and took what they wanted by force. They fought wars, battled kings and occupied cities, just like Menelaus did when his beloved Helena escaped from Sparta, starting the ten-year long Trojan War. The British Library does not endorse this approach! 

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Detail from a series of miniatures on the temptations of lovers, from Breviari d'Amour, Southern France (Toulouse), c. 1300-1325, Royal 19 C I, f. 204r

Sometimes, when the above methods have all proven useless, there was one final risky and dangerous method that only a few have ever tried: magic. The British Library houses an excellent collection of ancient love spells and charms from the first three centuries CE. Papyrus 121 (2), one of the largest extant scrolls in the collection, preserves a whole series of uncanny methods of gaining someone’s heart. Column 12 of this extraordinary papyrus, for example, has a special recipe that proved useful enough to be recorded and come down to us in the 21st century. It reads as follows:

Take a shell from the sea and draw on it with myrrh ink the figure of a demon given below, and in a circle write his names, and throw it into the heating of a hot bath. But when you throw it, keep reciting these words 'attract to me XY, whom XY bore, on this very day from this very hour, with a soul and a heart aflame, quickly, quickly; immediately, immediately.' The picture should be as depicted below.

Papyrus 121
Detail of a love spell, from a collection of magical spells and charms, Egypt, 3rd century, Papyrus 121 (2)

Unfortunately the image to be used in the process was not copied in the papyrus, but other parts of the same document preserve similar images of demons with names written around them that can help us imagine what is needed here.

Papyrus 121 a

Papyrus 121 b

There is also a special charm to be used in the process that is supposed to guarantee its success but we decided not to replicate it here. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 January 2017

New PhD Placements: Greek Papyri in the British Library

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The British Library is offering a PhD placement opportunity for a student working on Greek papyri. This three-month placement will allow someone studying various aspects of Greek literature, papyrology, Late Antique history and religion to have first-hand experience with the ancient sources preserved in one of the world’s most renowned collections of papyri.

Papyrus 2068

Fragments from a papyrus scroll containing Sophocles’ play ‘The Trackers’ (Ichneutae), 2nd half of the 2nd century, Egypt (Papyrus 2068)

The British Library houses one of the most important collections of Greek papyri in the world, comprising unique witnesses of Greek classical literature, early biblical and Christian fragments and a large corpus of Greek documentary papyri. This collection of more than 3000 Greek papyri will now be digitised and then published online with new catalogue entries over the next few years. The PhD placement student will contribute towards the cataloguing associated with this digitisation project, enabling the digitised images to be described and published in the Library’s online catalogue and viewer. The placement student will also contribute to the Medieval Manuscripts Blog and Twitter feed and to Library events in order to promote the papyrus collection and its international importance for the study of Antiquity.

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The Bear Papyrus, Fragment of an illuminated papyrus, Egypt, 3rd–6th century (Papyrus 3053)

In addition to the fascinating challenges of dealing with world-famous treasures (such as Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians or the Egerton Gospel) or hitherto unpublished fragments, the placement student will get an insight into the daily life of the British Library’s collection. He or she will assist in the selection and delivery of the material, liaising with colleagues in the Library’s conservation and imaging studios, and checking image quality.

View a full placement profile.

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Fragment from the Anonymus Londiniensis Papyrus, one of the most important medical papyri surviving from Antiquity, Egypt, 1st century (Papyrus 137)

Funding

This is an unpaid professional development opportunity, which is open to current PhD researchers as part of the Library’s PhD placement scheme. To apply, applicants need to have the support of their PhD supervisor and their department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent senior academic manager). The British Library PhD placement scheme has been developed in consultation with Higher Education partners and stakeholders to provide opportunities for PhD students to develop and apply their research skills outside the university sector. Please note that the Library itself is not able to provide payment to placement students, nor can it provide costs for daily commuting or relocation to the site of the placement. Students applying for a placement at the Library are expected to consult their HEI or Doctoral Training Partnership/Doctoral Training Centre to ascertain what funding is available to support them. The Library strongly recommends to HEIs that a PhD student given approval to undertake a placement is in receipt of a stipend for the duration of the placement.

Application guidelines

For full application guidelines and profiles of the other placement opportunities being offered under this scheme, visit the Library’s Research Collaboration webpages.

The application deadline is 20 February 2017.

For any queries about this placement opportunity, please contact Research.Development@bl.uk

 

12 December 2016

Explore our Greek Manuscripts Online

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The British Library has now digitised and published online more than 900 Greek manuscripts. Alongside the digital collections of the Bibliotheca Vaticana and the Laurenziana in Florence, our online holding is one of the largest such repositories in the world. Available are high resolution colour images of each manuscript, including flyleaves and bindings, with an up-to-date description of its content and codicological features, and an extensive bibliography.

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Embossed silver and gold plate, depicting Chirst flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, surrounded by symbols of the Evangelists, from the binding of a 13th-century Gospel book: Add MS 37007

The British Library's online collections of Greek manuscripts range from precious early manuscripts of Classical literature and science to Syriac-Greek palimpsests to the most precious monuments of Byzantine book illustrations and18th-century Greek translations of Moliere. This diverse content can now be explored online in three different ways.

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Depiction of the call of David to be a King by Samuel, in the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: Add MS 19352, f. 27v

Using the Library's Explore the Archives and Manuscripts, you can search for any names, places and keywords — including authors, titles, scribes and owners — in the descriptions of hundreds of Greek manuscripts. Once an item has been identified, a link (“I want this”) enables the user to order the original manuscript to the Reading Room in London or to view its full digital version online.

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Another way to explore our Greek manuscripts is via the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site, which is also searchable by using various keywords. After identifying the chosen manuscript, you can immediately start browsing the images of its pages, which once would only have been accessible to scholars visiting the Library in person.

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A third way to explore our digitised Greek manuscripts is by using the Library’s new Greek Manuscripts website, which offers a free guided tour throughout the collections. Let our experts guide you through their richly illustrated introductions to themes such as Art, Religion and Scholarship.

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The so-called Anonymus Londiniensis papyrus, dating from the 1st century CE, contains a selection of ancient medical texts and is the most important medical papyrus to survive from antiquity: Papyrus 137

Most importantly, for those who would like to know which Greek manuscripts have been digitised at the British Library, a comprehensive list with hyperlinks is available here: Download Digitised Greek manuscripts in the British Library

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

02 December 2016

Fantastic Beasts at the British Library

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You may have noticed that a certain film is currently wowing audiences worldwide. Fantastic Beasts And Where to Find Them is the first instalment in a new movie franchise written by J. K. Rowling, and takes its inspiration from her book of the same name. But did you know that many of the beasts featured in the film and the book have their origins in Antiquity and the Middle Ages?

In 2014, our Medieval Manuscripts Blog examined some of the creatures found in medieval bestiaries. A typical medieval bestiary contains descriptions of a variety of animals, often accompanied by elaborate illustrations. Many of these animals are familiar to modern readers, including dogs, catselephants and Bad News Birds (better known as owls). Bestiaries also contain a host of more exotic beasts such as the amphivena, manticore and the basilisk, which were an important part of the medieval imagination. Here are some of these fantastic beasts, illustrated with images from manuscripts at the British Library.

Basilisk

Detail of a basilisk wearing a crown, Harley MS 4751 f. 59r.

What makes a beast a 'beast'?

The word ‘bestiary’ derives from the Latin bestia which translates as 'beast' or 'animal'. In the 7th century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, a reference work which functioned much like a modern encyclopaedia. In a chapter entitled De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’), Isidore defined a ‘beast’ as an animal which ferociously attacked either with its mouth or claws. Beasts were characteristically wild, enjoyed natural freedom and were driven by their own desires.

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The opening words of De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’) in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae: Harley MS 3941, f. 153r.

Centaur

Centaurs, half-human and half-horse figures, were frequently depicted in medieval bestiaries. This image of a centaur occurs alongside lions, tigers and hedgehogs in an early 13th-century bestiary. Centaurs held a prominent place in popular folklore, from classical Greek texts, medieval bestiaries and into the modern imagination.

Centaur

Miniature of a centaur holding a snake: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 8v.

Phoenix

Another fantastic beast found in medieval bestiaries is the phoenix. Classical authors described how, when the phoenix reached a certain age, it would build a pyre for itself and be consumed by the flames, in order to rise again from the ashes. These stories were retold by medieval authors who used the phoenix as an allegory for the death and resurrection of Christ, and the promise of eternal life. The image below depicts one phoenix gathering leaves and another phoenix in flame upon a pyre.

Phoenix

Miniature of two phoenixes: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 49v. 

Harley MS 4751

A phoenix rising from the ashes: Harley MS 4751, f. 45r.

Unicorn

Unicorns were another popular animal in the medieval imagination and are often described in bestiaries and other narrative texts. They are frequently said to be too strong and swift for a hunter to catch, unless a maiden was placed in its path. Upon seeing the maiden, the unicorn would place its head in her lap and fall asleep, giving the hunter the chance he needed. This tale is depicted in the image below, found in a 13th-century bestiary.

Unicorn

Miniature of a knight spearing a unicorn, which has placed its head in a virgin's lap: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 10v.

Dragon

Surely one of the most fantastic beasts is the dragon. In the medieval imagination, dragons are characterised by their lizard-like body shape covered in scales, decorated with horns, spikes and wings, and possessing the ability to breathe fire.

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A green snake and a red dragon: Harley MS 3244, f. 59r.

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A dragon, a snake and a plant identified as 'dragontea' or 'serpentaria', in a 15th-century Italian herbal: Sloane MS 4016, f. 38r.

Basilisk

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry famously encounters a basilisk. The basilisk was renowned for killing people with a single stare. If Harry had done his homework properly (who ever does?), he would have known that one approved way of overcoming a basilisk — according to Pliny the Elder (d. AD 79) — was to throw a weasel down its hole or burrow. Weasel odour was reputedly fatal to the basilisk, although the poor weasel would also die in the struggle.

Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

A basilisk in a 13th-century manuscript, with one of its human victims, while being confronted by a weasel: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

Merpeople

Another frequently occurring beast is the mermaid or merman. Merpeople were characterised by their human torso and tail of a fish, and were associated with perilous events such as floods, storms and shipwrecks. Merpeople were also often depicted with a mirror and a comb, accessories which demonstrated their beauty and vanity.

Mermaid
Detail of a mermaid with a mirror and comb and a traveller being bitten by a dog: Additional MS 42130, f. 70v.

Wodewose

Another anthropomorphised beast often found in medieval manuscripts is the mighty wodewose, a mythical forest-dwelling wildman. Those wishing for a more detailed account of the common characteristics of this wild beast should consult our own field guide to wodewoses.

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A wodewose from the Luttrell Psalter: Additional MS 42130, f. 70r.

We are delighted to announce that, next autumn, the British Library will be staging a major exhibition devoted to the Harry Potter novels of J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter: A History of Magic will run from 20 October 2017 until 28 February 2018, and is curated by a team led by medieval manuscripts curator Julian Harrison: here is his article The Magic of the British Library. We love the fact that many of the fantastic beasts found in the Harry Potter books were inspired by their classical and medieval ancestors; and we hope that they also fascinate the readers of our blog!

Becky Lawton and Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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