THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

62 posts categorized "Ancient"

22 April 2018

Lover, sorceress, demon: Circe's transformations

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On 30 April the British Library is hosting the launch of a new novel by the award-winning novelist Madeline Miller, whose book, Circe, revisits the powerful story of this mythological witch known from Homer’s Odyssey.

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The beginning of Circe’s story in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 81v

Circe’s story features in Book 10 of the Odyssey, where Homer describes how the crew of the wandering Odysseus reached Circe’s beautiful island, where they met this powerful sorceress. Circe invited Odysseus’s comrades to a fatal dinner, offering them a potion that transformed them into pigs while retaining their human souls. Arriving slightly later, Odysseus learned about the imminent danger from the god Hermes, who gave him a special drug making him resistant to Circe’s transformative potions. Realising that Odysseus was immune, Circe not only transformed his crew back to men but offered her love to Odysseus and hosted the entire crew for a year of feasting, while instructing them about their journey home. Circe's advice guided Odysseus through the dangers of the seas and the netherworld and finally back home to his wife.

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Circe and her herd of human-beasts with Odysseus’s crew, from the works of Christine de Pizan (Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414): Harley MS 4431, 140r

This strange story of dark magic and unearthly love is full of puzzling details, which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Why does Circe transform the men into beasts so that she is surrounded by a herd of human-minded animals? When she realises that Odysseus is immune to her charms, why does she suddenly agree to help the hero? These questions have intrigued generations of readers and have resulted in many interpretations and retellings of the story, of which Madeline Miller’s book is the most recent.

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Circe as a frivolous lover surrounded by her animals from a French translation of Boccaccio’s work on famous women (Rouen, c. 1440): Royal MS 16 G V, f. 42v

Some people have regarded Circe as a simple prostitute, who charmed her clients and held them captive by desire, and whose ultimate aim may even have been to emasculate her lovers. Other interpretations are more subtle. In a marginal note in one Greek manuscript, Circe is explained as an allegory to unchaste pleasure, that for the sake of short-lived satiety offers a life more pitiful than pigs. Odysseus alone is strong and disciplined enough to resist her pleasures and even his own nature.

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Marginal note from a 13th-century copy of the Odyssey: Harley MS 5674, f. 52r

Another interpretation is preserved in a 16th-century collection of philosophical extracts at the British Library. The text is attributed to Porphyry, a 3rd-century Greek philosopher, and describes Circe’s story as "the most wonderful theory about the human soul". The enchanted men have an animal form but their mind remains as it was before, and so Circe represents the circular journey of the soul, dying in one form and awakening in another, becoming death and rebirth at the same time. According to this manuscript, "This is no longer a myth nor poetry but the deepest truth of nature”.

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An explanation of Circe’s story in a 16th-century philosophical compendium: Harley MS 6318, f. 127r

Re-reading Circe’s story did not stop with the arrival of Christianity. Medieval interpreters regarded her as a demon or an embodiment of fortune or even as the Apocalyptic Whore of Babylon. James Joyce’s Ulysses inherited the age-old understanding of Circe as a prostitute, while Margaret Atwood regarded her as a demon. We are looking forward to hearing Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse, talking about her new book. You can discover more about Circe's world on our Greek manuscripts website.

 

Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse

The British Library

30 April, 19.00–20.30

 

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08 March 2018

The voices of ancient women

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The lives of women from former times often go unrecognised. But here at the British Library we hold a number of ancient Greek private letters, written on papyri, that preserve glimpses of everyday life from a world long disappeared. For International Women’s Day, we are taking a closer look at some of these stories, which contain the intimate voices of ancient women who would otherwise be unknown.

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A girl serving drinks at a table, from an illustrated copy of the Life of Secundus, the Silent Philosopher: Egypt, 6th century (Papyrus 113 (15c))

One of the earliest British Library papyri to preserve a woman's voice is a petition from 235 BCE. A mother, Haynchis, wrote to an official, asking for assistance in a dispute involving her daughter. Although probably not written by her, but dictated to a professional scribe, the voice resonating from this document is still vivid.

Demetrios the vine dresser deceived my daughter and took her away and keeps her hidden saying that he is going to live with her without me. She was managing my store and supported me, since I am old. But he has a wife and children so he cannot live with a woman he deceived. Please help me, an old woman, to return my daughter back to me.”

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Haynchis’s letter to Zenon to return her daughter to her: Philadelphia, Egypt, 253 BCE (Papyrus 2660)

Possibly the earliest female hand in the collection is preserved in a letter dated 168 BCE. Isias wrote to her husband, who had been away from his family on temple service, and for some reason had failed to return home.

“You have not even thought about coming home, disregarding that I was in need with your child going through hard times and every extremity … I am ill-pleased and so is your mother, so please both for her sake and for ours, return to the city if nothing more pressing holds you back.”

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Isias’s letter to her husband Hephaistion: Memphis, Egypt, 168 BCE (Papyrus 42)

At the very end of the letter, which she probably dictated to a professional scribe, Isias added in her own shaky hand: “Farewell”.

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Isias’s hand-written “farewell” (ἔρρωσθε) to her husband from her letter to Hephaistion (Papyrus 42)

One mother from around 250 CE was particularly concerned about her daughter breastfeeding her new-born, so she wrote to her son-in-law to express her views.

I hear that you are compelling my daughter to nurse. If she wants, let the infant have a nurse, for I do not permit my daughter to nurse the baby.”

Unfortunately, the beginning of the papyrus is lost, but the mother's strong-willed character still emerges in the surviving lines.

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Letter of a woman to her son-in-law: Egypt, second half of 3rd century (Papyrus 951 verso)

Another mother from around 150 CE addressed her henpecked son:

I know your quick temper but it is your wife who inflames you when she says all the time that I do not give you anything. When you came, I gave you a little money … but this month I could not find anything.” In the margin she added one final reproach: “Nobody can love you, for she shapes you to her own will”.

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“No one can love you, for she shapes you at her own will” Mother’s reproach from the margin of her letter to her son Copres: Arsinoe, Egypt, 2nd century CE (Papyrus 1920)

A more formal letter written by a lady called Aureliana (nicknamed Lolliana) in 253 CE preserves a different voice. She wrote to the local authorities to apply for the legal independence granted to women with three children, in accordance with a Roman law issued by Augustus in 18 BCE. Aureliana’s words still touch us today:

“I enjoy the happy honour of being blessed with three children and as I am a literate woman who can write with a high degree of ease so it is with abundant confidence that I appeal to your highness by this application of mine to be enabled to accomplish without any hindrance whatever business I henceforth transact.”

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“I am a literate woman who can write with a high degree of ease”, from Aurelia’s application letter for independence: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 253 CE (Papyrus 2458)

Aureliana’s application was preserved with the official archive of her city, and now it is held with other papyri at the British Library, alongside other papyri which preserve the voices of ancient women. If you'd like to find out more about our Greek collections, please visit our dedicated website.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

24 February 2018

Harry Potter meets the Middle Ages

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

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

Potions

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

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

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

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

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

Herbology

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

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

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

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

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

Charms

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

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

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

Astronomy

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

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

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

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

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

Divination

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

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

Defence Against the Dark Arts

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

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

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

Care of Magical Creatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 February 2018

It's a kind of magic

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Have you ever lost something and were searching for it desperately, wishing for an easy way to locate it? Have you ever been anxious, seeking for a way to avoid a particular thing happening? Have you ever hoped for a miracle to find true love? You are not alone: people in the ancient world had exactly the same problems, but they may have been less reluctant than us to make use of a special tool – magic.

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The Ibis spell from a handbook of magic, Egypt, 3rd century: Papyrus 121(2)r

The British Library’s blockbuster exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, gives an excellent insight into how people in the past applied magic to solve their problems. Essentially, magic provided the practitioner with a chance to influence fate and the gods.

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St Anthony commanding demons from the Theodore Psalter, executed in Constantinople, 1066: Add MS 19352, f. 151r

Egyptian papyri written in the Greek and Coptic languages preserve unique survivals of ancient magical practices, long thought to have been destroyed or lost after the advent of Christianity. A number of these 3rd to 6th-century documents attest to a significant use of magic in the already Christianised province of Egypt.

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Image of the crucifixion from a 6th-century Coptic magical text: Or 6796 (4)

The British Library owns one of the finest collections in the world of these Greek magical papyri. Complete manuscripts, in book format and also on long scrolls of almost 2 metres in length, are preserved here. Some of these documents are handbooks probably used by professional magicians in the 3rd to 4th centuries. They collected charms and related instructions for a variety of purposes, such as to predict the future, locate lost or stolen property, or to catch thieves.

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A spell to catch a thief: 'As long as I strike this eye with this hammer, let the eye of the thief be struck and swell up until it betrays him', from a handbook of magic, Egypt, 4th century: Papyrus 46, f. 2v

Other, shorter papyrus manuscripts contain only one or two specific charms with a short guide on how to use them. These may have been sold to individual customers by the magicians.

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A charm to get your enemies destroyed by demons, Egypt, 4th century: Papyrus 123

A common feature of all these spells is that they are not supplications and prayers, but rather commands to spiritual, demonic entities to serve the users and complete their orders. Commanding otherworldly beings to obey a mortal man had two basic requirements: knowledge of the demon’s full and exact name, and a physical way to ensure that the demon would perform the request. The magical formulas on the papyri are always careful to include the long and complicated names of the demons being evoked.

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'The name of power of the great god KMEPHIS CHPHYKIS IAEO IAEOBAPHRENE', written inside a serpent biting its tail, from a handbook of magic, Egypt, 3rd century: Papyrus 121(2)r

The other important way to harness the demon's power was to  connect them physically with the victim. A 4th-century Greek magical handbook, Papyrus 46, currently on display in Harry Potter: A History of Magic, provides an excellent illustration of how this might be achieved. This handbook records detailed instructions on how to compel the demons to bind someone not to do something, by using an iron ring to establish a physical bond with the target of the magic. The curious recipe reads as follows:

'Take a papyrus and an iron ring, put the ring on the papyrus and draw the outlines of the ring with a pen, inside and outside. On the area outside the ring write the name and invocation of the demon, on the inside the following: “Let whatever I wish not take place OR let so-and-so not get married forever”. Then put the ring on its outline, wrap it up with the papyrus until it is completely covered. Bind the package with cords and throw it into an unused well or dig it into the grave of someone untimely dead and say the following, “Spirit of the dead …”'

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The magic ring, from a handbook of magic, Egypt, 4th century: Papyrus 46, f 5v

We don't know anyone who has ever tried this spell, and we can't guarantee its success. It's fascinating, nonetheless, to see this practical application of 4th-century magic. The papyrus itself is presently on view in London, and you can also read more about it in the book which accompanies the exhibition. You can also currently see the beautiful Theodore Psalter, featured above, in our free Treasures Gallery, besides reading more about the British Library's Greek manuscripts on our dedicated website.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 January 2018

A mammoth list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks

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We have been hard at work here at the British Library and we are excited to share with you a brand new list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks. You can currently view on Digitised Manuscripts no less than 1,943 manuscripts and documents made in Europe before 1600, with more being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this PDF Download Digitised MSS January 2018. This is also available in the form of an Excel spreadsheet Download Digitised MSS January 2018 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

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Matthew Paris, Map of Britain, England (St Albans), 1255–1259: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v

The list reflects the wide range of materials made available online through our recent on on-going digitisation projects, including Greek manuscripts and papyri, pre-1200 manuscripts from England and France thanks to funding from the Polonsky Foundation, and illuminated manuscripts in French and other European vernacular languages.

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Image depicting the Journey of the Magi and underneath the Magi before Herod, from a Psalter, England (London), 1220s: Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8r

To find out how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts, check out this blogpost. Many images of our manuscripts are also available to download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages. We also recommend taking a look at the British Library's Collection Items pages, featuring Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook of scientific drawings and the single surviving copy of the Old English poem Beowulf.

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The British Library’s largest papyrus is over 2 metres long and features a deed of sale, Ravenna, 3 June 572: Add MS 5412 (detail of opening)

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Depiction of Boccaccio talking to the Lady Fortune and a battle in a walled, moated city, from Boccaccio’s Des cas des nobles homes et femmes, 3rd quarter of the 15th century: Add MS 35321, f. 180r

Follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, to get the latest news about our digitisation projects, events and exhibitions.

22 January 2018

Doctoral Students Open Day – Pre-1600 Collections

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A reminder for PhD students with research interests relating to the ancient, medieval and early modern worlds: the British Library’s Doctoral Open Day for our pre-1600 collections will take place on 5 February 2018. The day is aimed at first-year doctoral students who would like to learn more about finding and using our collection material for their research. The approach is interdisciplinary and useful for students working on topics in classics, history, literature, history of art, religion, and the history of science and medicine. You can book your place on the Events page. A ticket to attend costs £10, including lunch and refreshments. The number of places is limited, so booking in advance is necessary. 

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Beginning of genealogy of King William I (1066–1087), in the centre, from a genealogical roll of the kings of England from the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy to Edward I (1272–1307), England, c. 1300–1340: Royal MS 14 B VI, membrane 5r

On the Open Day you will be introduced to the wide range of manuscript and early printed collections at the British Library and the practicalities of finding and using them in your research. The sessions will help explain how to use and access the catalogues, databases and other relevant online resources relating to each collection area. There is also a session specifically on digital research. In the afternoon, there will be an opportunity to get a closer introduction to some of our collection items.

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The incipit page of the Gospel of St John, Gospel book, Northern France, c. 875–900: Harley MS 2797, f. 132r

 

Programme:

09.45–10.15  Registration & refreshments

10.15–10.30  Welcome, speed networking & EThOS (Allan Sudlow, Head of Research Development)

10.30–10.45  British Library Collections: Introduction & Overview (Scot McKendrick, Head of Western Heritage Collections)

10.45–11.00  Comfort break

11.00–11.40  Medieval Manuscripts (Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts)

11.40–12.10  Early Printed Collections (Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator Incunabula & 16th Century Books)

12.10–12.30  Early Maps (Magdalena Pezko, Curator, Map Collections)

12.30–13.30  Lunch

13.30–14.15  Reading Room Session/Meet the Curators (Nicola Beech & Claire Wotherspoon, Maps & Manuscripts Reference Team)

14.15–15.00  Reading Room Session/Meet the Curators (Nicola Beech & Claire Wotherspoon, Maps & Manuscripts Reference Team)

15.00–15.30  Refreshments

15.30–16.00  Digital Research Session (Mia Ridge, Digital Curator)

16.00–16.20  The Art of History and the History of Art (Alixe Bovey, Head of Research, Courtauld Institute of Art)

16.20–16.30  Questions, Feedback forms and Close

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Miniature of Joanna of Castile (b. 1479, d. 1555) kneeling, flanked by St John the Baptist and her guardian angel with the arms of Joanna and those of her husband, Philip the Fair (b. 1478, d. 1506), Book of Hours of Joanna of Castile, Netherlands, 1486-1506: Add MS 18852, f. 26r

The Pre-1600 Collections Day on 5 February is part of the British Library’s 2017/18 series of Doctoral Open Days, which covers all the different collection areas. You can read more about the entire series here. To find out about how previous Doctoral Open Days have helped early-stage PhD students and what the most commonly mentioned benefits are, take a look at 5 reasons to attend a British Library Doctoral Open Day.

If you do not already have one, we also recommend that you register for a free Reader Pass in advance so that you can make the most of the Open Day. We look forward to welcoming many new postgraduate students to the Library on 5 February.

 

Emilia Henderson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

30 December 2017

Digging for inscriptions in medieval manuscripts

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Inscriptions are one of the key sources for understanding premodern history. Monuments carved in stone could outlast even the most carefully preserved papyri, and there are thousands of people in ancient times that go completely undocumented save for a single inscribed memorial. But monuments were subject to the elements, destroyed, and reused as building materials. We can look for evidence of lost inscriptions in medieval and early modern manuscripts.

Inscriptions copied after the Vitae Patrum: Add. MS 34758, f. 311r.

Inscriptions copied after the Vitae Patrum: Add MS 34758, f. 311r

Interest in inscriptions never completely died away during the Middle Ages. The Carolingians preserved some of the most important collections of inscriptions, such as that in Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 326(1076). Within the field of epigraphy (the study of inscriptions), these are called a ‘sylloge’. Such collections might be found as part of a travelogue, or simply copied as a note with an unrelated text. British Library Harley MS 3685, ff. 3r–5v, includes an important witness of the inscriptions Pope Damasus designed for the new Roman catacombs of the martyrs, now destroyed. Add MS 34758 was made at the monastery of St Andrew in Rome in the late 14th or early 15th century: after a copy of the Lives of the Desert Fathers comes two pages of inscriptions from Rome relating to its emperors (f. 311r–v). This text was copied in the same hand as what precedes it: either it was of interest to the original compiler, or it was copied along with the rest from an earlier manuscript. It shares some features with a well-known sylloge by Niccolò Signorili, suggesting a common source.

A stray inscription: Royal MS 12 B XXII, f. 2r.

A stray inscription: Royal MS 12 B XXII, f. 2r

Other inscriptions end up in manuscripts almost by accident. In Royal MS 12 B XXII, a copy of Calcidius’s Latin translation of Plato’s Timaeus, an inscription from the time of the Emperor Hadrian, datable between 10 December 123 and 9 December 124, has been included at f. 2r. It was likely written into the margin of an earlier copy, and was copied along with the rest as if it were a rubric or heading. This inscription was not known from any other sources before a reader noticed it in the 20th century.

An inscription copied from the house of Paulus Coronatus in Rome: Stowe MS 1016, f. 119v.

An inscription copied from the house of Paulus Coronatus in Rome: Stowe MS 1016, f. 119v

The most visually impressive example of manuscript epigraphy in the British Library is Stowe MS 1016, made by the scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito (1433–1511) some time after 1502. It includes a copy of a sylloge by his friend Fra Giovanni Giocondo, here in its third recension: he continued to revise the text as he saw new inscriptions. The results are stunning, even if some of the coloured monuments speak more of Renaissance than Classical tastes.

An inscription from a house in the Forum Piscarium: Stowe MS 1016, f. 123r.

An inscription from a house in the Forum Piscarium: Stowe MS 1016, f. 123r

The use of manuscripts for finding evidence about inscriptions is best known for Roman epigraphy, but it continues to be applicable in the modern day. Many inscriptions of Aphrodisias are best preserved in the notebooks made by William Sherard in 1705–16 while he was British consul at Smyrna (Add MSS 10101–2), with fair copies in Harley MS 7509. Ancient monuments continue to be threatened by war, neglect and pollution. Such documents are a poignant reminder of the importance of preserving the past while there is still time.

Andrew Dunning

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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.

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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

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