THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

55 posts categorized "Ancient"

09 December 2017

The destruction of Sappho's works

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The British Library is currently hosting the 2017 Panizzi Lectures, delivered by Professor Germaine Greer on the subject of Sappho. The third and final talk in the series will be given on Monday, 11 December, and is titled Sappho: The Shame.

  Papyrus 739
British Library Papyrus 739

Sappho sang her poems, and there is no evidence she wrote them down herself. However, others in the ancient world did record her poems. The British Library holds a papyrus fragment from the 3rd century which, complemented by a newly identified piece in an American private collection, provides us with an almost complete text of a hitherto unknown poem of Sappho. We've previously blogged about this poem.

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Girl with a lyre from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: 
Add MS 19352, f. 191r

Another 2nd-century fragment, held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, is more tantalising. It preserves the closing stanza of another Sappho poem from the end of a papyrus scroll with a short note: '[this is] the first book of the poems – [containing] 1320 lines.'  On this basis, the scroll may have contained 330 of Sappho’s characteristic strophes, making almost a hundred poems. Moreover, the clear designation of the scroll as 'the first' book of the poems indicates that there was probably a second or maybe even a third volume of Sappho’s poems, the majority of which is now lost.

What survives seems to justify Sappho’s poetic fame: she wrote in various styles, verses and voices, mainly about passionate love. This 'subtle flame that runs over her skin', as she describes it in a famous piece, is directed at various individuals: her brother Charaxus, as in the British Library fragment; beautiful boys (one of whom later tradition identified with Phaon, whose unrequited love reportedly made Sappho commit suicide); and a number of girls, including Pyrrha, Cydro and Anactoria, as recorded by the 1st-century Roman poet Ovid.

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Image of book burning, from the start of Aristotle's Physica, England (Oxford?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Harley MS 3847, f. 4r

It has often been suggested that it was this love of girls that led to the systematic destruction of Sappho's poetry in the Middle Ages. There is a widespread tradition that, in 1073, Pope Gregory VII ordered that all of Sappho’s works be burnt in Rome as well as in Constantinople. However, this is rather unrealistic: it is unclear how a Roman Pope could command the destruction of texts in Constantinople after the great schism of 1054.

This tradition can probably be traced to a collection of the sayings of the French scholar Joseph Scaliger, published in 1666. Scaliger was probably quoting in turn from a work by Geronimo Cardano, a 16th-century Italian polymath who wrote a book about the transmission of ancient wisdom. Lamenting over the miserable destruction of classical writers in the Middle Ages, Scaliger stated first that Pope Gregory VII in 1073 had ordered the burning of all lascivious Roman writers, and secondly that, in Constantinople in the 4th century, Gregory of Nazianzus, had burnt the works of comedians and lyrical poets, including Sappho. Scaliger’s dubious remark is probably a distorted quotation from Cardano, confusing the two Gregories.

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Sermons of Gregory of Nazianzus copied in 972: Add MS 18231, f. 105v

Was Cardano correct? Was it Gregory of Nazianzus who deprived us of the poems of the 'tenth muse', as Sappho was commonly regarded? A closer look at Cardano’s statement reveals that this is also a quotation, taken from the 16th-century scholar Pietro Alcionio, whose book on famous exiles contains his childhood memory of a Greek class by a Constantinople refugee, Demetrios Calkokondylas. He remembers his teacher describing how the Greek Church authorities, supported by the Byzantine emperors, burnt eminent classical Greek poetry, including Sappho’s works, and replaced the burnt poems with those of Gregory of Nazianzus.

Reading Alcionio’s note, it is easy to see how the idea that Gregory of Nazianzus, whose poems were to replace those of Sappho, became twisted into a book-burning inquisitor. However, the question still remains: could the Greek teacher’s information be correct? We have no information whatsoever about the Greek Church burning books other than suspicious or heretic theological works. Did the Byzantine church leaders really burn Sappho's poetry? Was it the flames of Sappho’s burning love that ultimately put her own work on the bonfire?

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

21 November 2017

The original Hermione

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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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

15 November 2017

Call for papers: the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting

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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.

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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.

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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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 November 2017

Canon tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels now on display

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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.

26 October 2017

The gladiator saint

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Gladiatorial games were spectacular shows in the ancient world. In theatres built across the Mediterranean, from the Middle East to the site of the Guildhall in London, professional fighters did battle to entertain the public. The origins of these combats went back to the early Roman Republic, when they probably had magical functions. As part of the funerary rituals, they were sacrifices to the netherworld or played a role in war-magic with gladiators bearing the enemy’s names being gloriously defeated by Roman-looking gladiators to ensure their victory in real battles.

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Miniature of a wrestling game from a 15th-century illustrated copy of Virgil’s Aeneid: 
King's MS 24, f. 88

From the mid-3rd century, however, gladiatorial games became an integral part of city entertainment and political propaganda. Should anyone like to be a successful politician, all he needed to do was to organise a lavish spectacle of games, lasting for several days, accompanied by banquets and scenic performances, and success would be guaranteed. No wonder then that such combats were especially popular in imperial times. Later Roman emperors were constantly trying to outbid their predecessors by funding more and more luxurious games. They recruited gladiators from all over the empire and purchased exotic animals — elephants, lions and bears — to populate their amazing theatres that could even host miniature sea battles. 

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Fragment of a 3rd-century representation of an arena-scene from Oxyrhynchus:
Papyrus 3053

Gladiators, by these times, were professional combatants, some of them fighting as slaves but also for money or fame or simply revenge, not unlike Maximus in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film, Gladiator. From the 1st century CE onwards, a new aspect appeared: Christians, arrested for their faith, started to appear on the stage to serve as mass victims to the slayers.

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Details of illustrations showing martyrs tortured in the arena, from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066:
 Add MS 19352, f. 55r

However, we also hear about the opposite: gladiators, warriors and their slayers coould also become saints. In a 14th-century Greek manuscript held by the British Library we find a story about Nestor, a 3rd-century Greek gladiator.

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Lection for 26 October from a 14th-century collection of saints lives: 
Harley MS 5069, f. 178v

On the afternoon of 26 October, so the story relates, the emperor organised luxurious games to celebrate his arrival in Thessalonica. The highlight of the event was when his favourite gladiator, a giant 'barbarian' called Lyaeus, boasted of his numerous victories all over the Empire and challenged the Christians of the city, calling them to fight and defeat him in single combat. The rules were strict: the emperor built a special stage for Lyaeus’s battles, similar to a threshing floor on pillars. Spears, points upward, were planted beneath this platform. When Lyaeus defeated someone in wrestling, he would throw him from the platform onto the forest of spears. No one could beat him in this special combat.

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Nestor fighting Lyaeus in the arena before the Emperor Maximianus from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: 
Add MS 19352, f. 125v

Nestor accepted this challenge. Jumping onto the stage, he knocked down Lyaeus and threw him onto the sharp spears. According to the story, this made him a champion not only of Christianity but also of Hellenism and civilisation. Although Nestor was put to death immediately by the furious emperor for the murder of his favourite wrestler, Nestor's reputation outlived him. He became renowned as the first holy gladiator, celebrated from Greece to England every 26 October.

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Nestor slaying Lyaeus from a 12th-century English lectionary: Arundel MS 91, f. 107r

Nestor's story, whatever historical truth might be in it, offers an account of a special type of gladiatorial games. His story also showed how the memory of gladiatorial games was perpetuated in art, texts and the imagination of later generations who — had the old manuscripts not preserved the story — would know little about these ancient games.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

22 October 2017

Prepare to be spellbound

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As a general rule, we don't like to start our blogposts with the words, 'We are delighted to announce'. But there's always an exception, and this is it! We are delighted to announce that the British Library's amazing new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic is now officially open to the public.

Our exhibition celebrates the 20th anniversary of the first publication in the United Kingdom of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, originally released in 1997. But, in a new departure, the exhibition also examines the history, mythology and folklore that lie at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. As well as original drafts and drawings loaned by J.K. Rowling herself, alongside artwork by Jim Kay (who is illustrating the Harry Potter books for Bloomsbury), you'll find on display a range of glorious items from the British Library's own collections, including Chinese oracle bones, papyri and a host of medieval manuscripts.

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The Ripley Scroll, dating from around 1600, and explaining how to make your very own Philosopher's Stone. The entire manuscript, all 5.9 metres of it, is on display in the exhibition.

Tickets are selling fast — this Potter thing might just catch on one day — but we'd love you to visit London to see the show in person between now and its final day, 28 February. In the meantime, here is a sneak preview of some of the manuscripts you'll be able to see.

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Harvesting a mandrake, medieval style (so that's how you do it!)

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A phoenix plucking twigs to make its own funeral pyre, before rising from the flames (please don't try this at home)

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How to protect yourself against malaria? Write out the word 'abracadabra' repeatedly on a piece of parchment (it's obvious when you think about it).

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the British Library from 20 October 2017 to 28 February 2018. Tickets can be purchased here. The exhibition has been staged by the British Library in partnership with The Blair Partnership (representing J.K. Rowling) and Bloomsbury Publishing, with the kind assistance of Pottermore and Google Arts and Culture, and the generosity of numerous lenders.

The exhibition books Harry Potter: A History of Magic and a version designed especially for younger people, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic, are available to buy through the British Library's online shop. (They're quite good, really: note to reader, I helped to write them.)

HPHOM HPFAMMAGIC

You may also like to join our online conversation about the exhibition, using the hashtag #BLHarryPotter, with tweets by @britishlibrary, @BLMedieval and the exhibition curators. Even J.K. Rowling has joined in! Hope to see you in London soon.

 

Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Medieval Historical Manuscripts and

Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

20 October 2017–28 February 2018

 

 

21 August 2017

Total eclipse of the Sun

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On 21 August 2017, American readers of our Blog have the exciting opportunity to witness a full solar eclipse (some of them may even be able to hear Bonnie Tyler singing 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' at the very same time: what more could you want?). Of course, solar and lunar eclipses have been a source of wonder across the centuries, with or without Bonnie Tyler. Since Antiquity, astronomers and astrologers have had a clear understanding of how and why eclipses occur, and they were able to predict their arrival using diagrams and tables. Eclipses were also described by medieval chroniclers, who often interpreted them as an omen.

Our first historical example of an eclipse is found in this 15th-century French manuscript of the History of Alexander the Great. The scene it depicts is not a contemporary one, rather it shows the lunar eclipse which occurred during the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, when Alexander the Great’s army met the Persian army of Darius III. Alexander is shown consulting his astrologers about the eclipse's meaning: the soldiers perhaps interpreted it as a bad omen.

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Miniature of Alexander the Great consulting his astrologers about an eclipse of the sun after the battle of Arbela: British Library Burney MS 169, f. 69r

Early medieval scholars knew that a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Sun and Earth. One of our favourite medieval writers, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede (d. 735), explained this phenomenon in his scientific texts entitled De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things), composed around 703. In the chapter headed 'On the eclipse of the sun and the moon', Bede described how a solar eclipse occurs when the Sun is hidden by the intervention of the Moon, and a lunar eclipse when the Sun, Earth and moon are aligned with Earth in the centre.

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Extract from an 11th-century copy of Bede’s De natura rerum: British Library Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 18r

In some medieval manuscripts, astrological texts are accompanied by diagrams illustrating an eclipse. For example, this diagram, found in  a 14th-century compilation of mathematical and astronomical texts, illustrates the Sun's position in relation to the Earth and Moon.

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Diagram of a solar eclipse: British Library Royal MS 12 C XVII, f. 32r

Elsewhere, we sometimes find diagrams showing the different stages of the Sun's visibility during an eclipse.

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Series of diagrams of solar eclipses: British Library Additional MS 10628, f. 28r

Diagrams of lunar and solar eclipses could also be included in almanacs, alongside calendars and other astrological material. Almanacs were used to predict the movement of the stars and the tides, often during medical consultations. A special kind of folding almanac, favoured by medical practitioners, could be hung from its owner's belt. This folding almanac, produced in the 15th century, contains a series of diagrams of the solar eclipse, based on the Kalendarium of John Somer.

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Diagrams of solar and lunar eclipses: British Library Harley MS 937, f. 8r

For those with no astronomical knowledge, the darkening of the sky during a solar eclipse may have been particularly ominous. People would have heard or read about such events from the Old Testament story of the Plagues of Egypt, describing a darkness that lasted for three days. According to the Gospel of St Matthew, a period of darkness lasting for three hours, accompanied by earthquakes and the raising of the dead, followed the Crucifixion of Christ. These apocalyptic associations were supported by other medieval accounts. For instance, the Middle English copy of The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday found in British Library Harley MS 913, explained that the first sign of the approaching Apocalypse is that the ‘Sun will give no light and will be cast down to Earth – while you now see it [the Sun] as pleasing and bright, it will become as black as coal.'

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The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday: British Library Harley MS 913, f. 20v

You may wish to muse on this as you observe or read about this August's solar eclipse (with or without Bonnie Tyler on your headphones, obviously!). 

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God creating the Sun and the Moon: British Library Additional MS 18856, f. 5v

Becky Lawton and Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

08 July 2017

The Mystery of Sappho

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This weekend is part of the Pride Festival in London, which made us reflect on Sappho. Sappho was one of the first known female poets, and the first woman known to write poems in Greek. Very few fragments of her work survive, and it has sometimes been suggested that they were suppressed on account of her sexuality: but to what extent is that really true?

Here at the British Library we have a real connection to Sappho. The earliest extant records describe her as a woman from the island of Lesbos, who lived and worked in the 7th century BCE. She is believed to have composed over 10,000 lines of lyrical poetry and to have invented a special type of musical verse that still bears her name. This extraordinary legacy meant she was very highly esteemed in Antiquity: some even regarded her as the 'tenth muse'. Despite this long-standing fame, most of Sappho's poems are lost. Only a couple of fragments and some other lines survive; one of those precious fragments is preserved at the British Library (Papyrus 739), and is available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site. But what was the cause of this devastating loss?

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Fragment of a poem by Sappho concerning her brother Charaxus, 3rd century CE, Papyrus 739

There has been much speculation as to why a fraction of Sappho's poetry survives. Some have suggested this can be attributed to Sappho’s sexuality. Sappho wrote several love poems apparently about other women. An early and very short biography found on a papyrus from the 3rd century was one of the earliest surviving sources to mention her as a 'woman-lover', although the writer claimed that this was only an 'accusation'. 16th-century humanist scholars claimed that 4th-century Greek and Latin Church authorities had arranged for the systematic destruction of Sappho’s poems as a result. Her sexuality is also one of the primary features for which she is remembered today: the modern terms 'Lesbian' and 'sapphic' are references to Sappho, and her name was adopted by a gay rights magazine (on show in the British Library's current exhibition, Gay UK).

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Miniature of Sappho and her companions, from a Dutch translation of Christine de Pizan’s Livre de la Cité des Dames, Bruges, 1475, Add MS 20698, f. 73r

Sappho's famous love life is only a part of her complicated life story and the later reception of her work. Despite 16th-century claims, Sappho and her work remained admired in the Middle Ages, even as much of her poetry was also lost. Her poetic fragments were quoted by Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the 4th-century churchmen who allegedly opposed her writings. Later, the loss of Sappho's poems was painfully lamented by the 12th-century Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes. In the 14th century, Boccacio and Christine de Pizan still celebrated Sappho as a woman of incomparable beauty and erudition in both natural sciences and poetry.

Several scholars now think there is a simpler explanation for the failure of medieval copyists' failure to preserve Sappho's poetry — they couldn't understand it! She wrote in an ancient and old-fashioned Greek which was not widely understood in the early Middle Ages. This is not to say that later writers approved of her affairs. The 3rd-century BCE biography frames the first stories about her attraction to women as rumours, while later Christian writers used the example of Sappho to argue against pagan lasciviousness. In other cases, Sappho was not always understood to be a homosexual by later writers. She was regularly portrayed in Athenian comedies as a voracious heterosexual, and there were  other stories about her  love affairs with men: some of them speak about her marriage and possibly even record the name of her daughter, while a later anecdote claims she committed suicide because of a young man called Phaon.

The British Library has a unique 3rd-century CE fragment that lets us go beyond these layers of later tradition and leads us back to one of Sappho’s original works (Papyrus 739). This papyrus, found in Egypt, preserves a poetic fragment in Sappho’s characteristic metre which was proved to come from the lost first volume of her collected poetry. She prays for her brother’s return from Egypt 'with many supplications, that he may come here steering his ship unharmed and find us women safe and sound.' Surrendering to fate, she goes on 'and the rest, let’s entrust it all to the gods, for calm suddenly follows great storms.'

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The entry for Sapphos’ brother Charaxos in a 15th century copy of a Byzantine encyclopedia (suidas), Add MS 11893, f. 359v

In the last couple of years, several new fragments of Sappho’s poems discovered. Some of them even complement the British Library’s fragmentary papyrus, creating an almost complete poem. So, after almost 3000 years of 'great storms' of controversy in Sappho’s posthumous reputation, there might now be some calm to regain more of the lost poetry of this iconic female writer.

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Girl with a lyre of the sort Sappho may have played, from the Theodore Psalter (Constantinople, 1066), Add MS 19352, f. 191r

Peter Toth

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