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49 posts categorized "Ancient"

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.'

Harley 913

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!). 

Sun and moon

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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”.


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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.

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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.

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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