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31 May 2018

London in medieval manuscripts

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The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts team comes from all over the world, but we have one place in common: the city of London, where we work at St Pancras. Today is London History Day, and here are some of our favourite medieval depictions of that city, at once distant yet somehow still recognizable.

 

An early map of the world

London is one of the oldest capital cities, which has survived the fall of the Roman Empire, viking attacks, fires and more. Let's start our survey with the earliest surviving detailed map of the British Isles. This map was made in southern England in the mid-11th century, but it may have been based on earlier models, possibly including maps made under the Roman Empire. The British Isles is shown in the lower left corner, with Lundona being one of the places named.

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An early map of the world, dating from the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

 

London landmarks

The itinerary of Matthew Paris (d. 1259), a monk of St Albans Abbey, is a linear map that allowed the reader to travel to Jerusalem in his or her mind. Matthew described London as the chief city of England and claimed that it was founded originally by Brutus as ‘New Troy’. Matthew also picked out several landmarks, all of which still exist in some form or another today. These included the River Thames, Lambeth, Westminster, St Martin-in-the-Fields, the bridge, and the Tower of London. At the bottom of the map, Matthew Paris listed several of the gates of London. (Click here to see Edward Mills’s fantastic reconstruction of Matthew’s view of London.)

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Matthew Paris’s depiction of London: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

 

The Tower of London

The earliest topographically accurate depiction of London is found in a collection of the poems of Charles, Duke of Orléans, made in Bruges around 1483. Charles had been captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and he was held in England for the next twenty-five years. At the centre of the image is the Tower of London, where Charles was imprisoned during some of this time in England and where he composed his poems.

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A view of London with the Tower of London, and Duke Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Another early resident of the Tower was King Richard II. He was held in captivity there shortly after being deposed in 1399. Things didn't end well for Richard, as he subsequently died at Pontefract Castle (perhaps being starved to death).

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Richard II in the Tower: Harley MS 4380, f. 181v

One thing is certain. There are now fewer elephants in residence at the Tower than there were in the time of Matthew Paris!

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Matthew Paris’s drawing of the elephant that lived in the Tower of London: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 169v

 

St Paul's Cathedral

At the centre of the image in his Itinerary, Matthew Paris drew St Paul’s Church. His building is unfamiliar to modern eyes, since he depicted it with a steeple and not with the iconic dome designed by Christopher Wren (d. 1723), following the destruction of the medieval cathedral in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

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St Paul's Cathedral in the time of Matthew Paris: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

 

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey today is probably not much different from the time of Matthew Paris. In the same manuscript as the Itinerary, Matthew Paris drew depictions of kings holding objects with which they are particularly identified. He depicted King Henry III (r. 1216–1272) holding Westminster Abbey, which he had rebuilt over the structure commissioned by Edward the Confessor. The Abbey today is still largely the same design as that commissioned by Henry.

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Matthew Paris’s depiction of Henry III holding Westminster Abbey: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 9r 

 

London Bridge

Other London landmarks looked very different. The city's bridges are not lined today with houses, as London Bridge was in the medieval period. The population of London was also substantially smaller: around 60,000 people lived there by 1500. But ‘rush hour’ could still be perilous. John Lydgate recounted how, at 4pm on 20 November 1441, the young son of a butcher was pushed by an ox and fell off London Bridge. Thanks to the help of St Edmund, a passing boatman rescued the child and returned him, safe and sound, to his mother. The whole sequence is illustrated vividly in a 15th-century copy of Lydgate’s Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund.

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A boy falling off London Bridge and being returned by a boatman to his mother: Yates Thompson MS 47, ff. 94v, 97r

 

Alison Hudson and Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

04 April 2018

Reynard the Fox and other curiosities

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We sincerely hope that spring has sprung, and to mark that occasion we have recently uploaded a number of manuscripts to the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Among them are translations of Boccaccio, a glorious missal and a collection of crusader's maps ...

Le Roman de Renart

If you need some light relief, who better to provide it than one of literature’s most endearing and enduring tricksters, Reynard the Fox? This 14th-century copy in French contains fourteen of the Renart or Reynard tales, in which the wily fox outwits his fellow creatures and humans; this vast collection of allegorical works circulated in medieval Europe, satirising courtly literature, the powerful and the Church.

In one of the tales, Reynard tries to fool Tibert the cat, but of course he comes off second best.

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Renard and Tibert the cat, seated with the moon above, from Le Roman de Renart: France or England, 14th century, Add MS 15229, f. 53r

In another tale, Reynard is stuck at the bottom of a well. He fools Isengrin (or Ysengrim), the greedy, dull-witted wolf, into lowering himself in the other bucket so that he will rise. Isengrin is often depicted as a cleric to make fun of the religious orders.

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Reynard in a bucket being lowered into a well by a cleric in a white robe: Add MS 15229, f. 42r 

The Missal of Augier de Cogeux

The Missal of Augier de Cogeux is a glorious missal from Grasse in Provence, whose pages contain an array of illuminated initials and borders, among them angels playing a variety of musical instruments, prophets, monks, lions, dogs and rabbits, and a menagerie of weird and wonderful creatures.

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A historiated initial 'V'(ultum) at the beginning of an introit from Psalm 44, of a tonsured cleric in a black robe holding a crozier; a lion-rabbit hybrid creature in the upper margin and zoomorphic initials with hybrid creatures including one with a spotted body and two human heads and a lion-like creature wearing a mitre: France, S. (Provence, between Toulouse and Narbonne), 4th quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 17006, f. 197v

This Missal, or book of liturgical texts for celebrating the Mass throughout the year, was made at the end of the 13th century for a chapel constructed in the abbot’s palace of the abbey of Sainte Marie de Lagrasse in Provence. It is sprinkled with the coats of arms of Augier of Cogeux, the abbot at this time.

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Opening page of the Breviary, with the Offices for the first Sunday in Advent, with a historiated initial 'A'(d) of the two elders lifting a child representing 'anima' (the soul) to God above an altar, and a full border including a knight on horesback holding a shield and standard depicting the Virgin and Child (right). Angels with musical instruments: a trumpet, organ, lute, bagpipes and tabor, psaltery and rebec (below) and hunting scenes with animals, including a lion holding a shield with the arms of Augier de Cogeux, partially cropped (above): Add MS 17006, f. 8r

A Book of Hours from Paris

The cold weather in March may have been hard to endure, but there is always somebody who is worse off. A Book of Hours from Paris depicts some poor folks in Hell who are having a really bad time, but even for them there is a golden and floral lining. If they can only escape into the border, there is a beautiful meadow with an abundance of colourful birds, butterflies and flowers, though a few devils are lurking in the upper margins to catch unsuspecting souls who climb too high.

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Miniature on two levels, of souls being brought in carts, pursued and thrown into holes in the earth by devils; below, in Hell they are subjected to various tortures, from a Book of Hours: France, Central (Paris), between 1406 and 1407, Add MS 29433, f. 89r

If the worst comes to the worst, one can always go fishing (in an orange hat, if necessary!). Here comes the Sun at last.

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A calendar page for February with a miniature of a man in a hat fishing with a pole: Add MS 29433, f. 2r

The butterflies in this border are exquisite, and making a garland is fun, but the question is whose neck to put it on?

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George and the Dragon: Add MS 29433, f. 207r

So, summer is on its way and it will soon be strawberry season! The borders of this manuscript are filled with more delights – flowers of every colour, fruits and birds, although it must be said that not everyone pictured is having much fun.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Deeds of Noble Men and Women

The latest upload also includes images of a copy of a French translation of Boccaccio’s The Deeds of Noble Men and Women. In the early 15th century, the original Latin work by Boccaccio was translated into French by the humanist scholar, Laurent de Premierfait, as Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes. It takes numerous examples from the lives of famous people throughout Biblical, classical and medieval history, describing their misfortunes with an ostensibly moral aim, but with a certain amount of undisguised relish and sanctimoniousness.

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A framed miniature preceding Book 5 showing Boccaccio standing with a group of figures, pointing to a man in a barrel outside, two swans in a pool (lower right) and, in the background, a naked man is tied to a stake, having his eyes put out, from Des cas de nobles hommes et femmes, Add MS 11696, f. 136v

 


Les Trois Pelerinages (The Three Pilgrimages)

As Chaucer famously wrote, spring is a good time for going on a pilgrimage, and if you need to rest on the way, what better place than a garden with umbrella-shaped trees, as long as the birds don’t keep you awake. We have just uploaded images of a manuscript of Guillaume de Deguileville’s allegorical journey, containing over 140 images to illustrate the text. This work spawned a wide tradition of Christian allegorical literature and was extremely popular in the 14th century.

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The pilgrim asleep in a garden with apple trees and birds; beside him is an old man, in Deguileville’s, Les Trois Pelerinages France, c. 1400: Add MS 38120,  f. 199r

The Book of Secrets of the Faithful of the Cross, with maps and portolan charts by Pietro Vesconte

This treatise was written by the Venetian, Marino Sanudo, for Pope John XXII, to promote a crusade to the Levant in 1321. The manuscript has images of the journey and the deeds of the crusaders in the lower margins. The text is accompanied by a set of maps consisting of a ‘mappa mundi’ or world map drawn in the style of a sea chart, five portolan sea charts of the coasts of Europe and North Africa, and a map of the Holy Land.

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Knights on horseback jousting (f. 149v) and knights on foot fighting with lances and crossbows in a rocky landscape (f. 150r) and a historiated initial of a figure in a white headdress addressing robed figures seated on the ground, in the Liber secretorum fidelium cruces: Italy, N. (Venice); c. 1331 (after 1327), Add MS 27376,  ff. 149v–150r

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A portolan chart of the northern Red Sea (above) and the eastern Mediterranean (below), showing, Arabia, the coasts of Egypt and Syria, with Cyprus, the Nile (lower right), and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (upper left): Add MS 27376,  ff. 182v–183r

Here is a list of other manuscripts that have now been added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

Add MS 10015: La Disme de Penitanche and Gossuin de Metz, L’image du monde

Add MS 10341: Le Livre de Boece de Consolacion

Add MS 22660: Acts of  investiture of the territories of Orciano and Torre

Add MS 18144: A 13th-century Psalter from Saxony or Thuringia

Add MS 19416: A Book of Hours of the Use of Thérouanne ('Hours of Charles Le Clerc') 

Add MS 34890: The Grimbald Gospels. The whole manuscript can also be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

                                                                                                                               

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 March 2018

If you’ve got it, flaw-nt it

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Nobody’s perfect, not even manuscripts. Since parchment is made from animal skins, the pages often have holes of varying sizes. Some of these may have been caused by an insect bite that expanded when the skin was stretched during parchment production. Other holes may have been created during other stages in the parchment-making process itself. Medieval scribes still often used this ‘flawed’ parchment. Sheets of parchment were time-consuming and expensive to produce, so some scribes embraced the flaws they found, with creative results.

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Detail of a decorated flaw from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 62v

The creativity of the late 9th- or early 10th-century scribe of the Tollemache Orosius (Add MS 47967) came to the fore whenever they came across a hole in the parchment. In one instance the flaw was turned into a creature, perhaps a badger, a sheep or a mole. 

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Verses about zodiac signs, where the ‘o’ in ‘capricornus’ is created by a flaw in the parchment, from a calendar, England, 1st half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r 

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Detail of Aquarius drawn around a hole in parchment, from the other side of the page in the mid-11th century calendar, England (Canterbury?): Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

The 11th-century scribe and artist of the 'Julius Work Calendar' demonstrated not one but two solutions to dealing with a flaw in parchment. On one side of a page, the scribe used a round hole as a substitute for the ‘o’ in capricOrnus.  On the other side, the scribe or artist used the same hole to represent the negative space under Aquarius’s arm as he pours a jug of water. Unfortunately, we cannot fully appreciate the artist’s and scribe’s ingenuity today, since this page was warped by the Cotton Fire. This means the proportions of the image and letters have shrunk, and the second ‘c’ in capricornus is barely visible.

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Detail of a page from the Echternach Gospels, early 8th century: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat 9389, f. 17r

Sometimes, scribes got so caught up in creatively decorating holes they forgot about the text they were supposed to be writing. Jo Story of the University of Leicester has pointed out that the scribe of the Echternach Gospels was so distracted by making the hole in the parchment into a bird that they missed out a whole clause! They had to go back and add it in the margin between the columns.

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Not all flaws were decorated although depending on how you hold the page, they can provide sneak peeks of other decoration; detail of a flaw in a 12th-century copy of
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae: Add MS 15732, f. 26v (photo credit Jessica Pollard)

Not all holes in manuscripts were decorated. Nevertheless, it is tempting to wish that sometimes there were more flaws in the parchment, just to see what kind of creative solutions the scribes would have come up with.

Have a look through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website and let us know if you have any other favourite examples of scribes or artists who made a virtue out of imperfection.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

28 February 2018

Rising from the ashes: bringing a medieval manuscript to life

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The British Library’s major exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, has featured a host of fascinating manuscripts, alongside a fire-damaged cauldron, crystal balls and a ‘real’ mermaid. It took several months to choose all the exhibits, but when it came to selecting an image of a medieval phoenix, the choice was relatively simple. We have some gorgeous illustrations of phoenixes in our collections, but the one that really caught the curators’ eye was found in Harley MS 4751, a decorated English bestiary. But choosing the manuscript was only the start. We were planning to digitise this bestiary as part of our digitisation project sponsored by The Polonsky Foundation. This blogpost explores the complexities of that process.

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A phoenix collecting twigs (top image) and the phoenix consumed by flames in the funeral pyre (below image), from Harley MS 4751, f. 45r

Some of our readers will already be familiar with our digitisation programme. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, 700-1200: Manuscripts from the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France is a collaborative project between the two national libraries of Britain and France, to digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts. Currently the British Library has made over 100 manuscripts available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. But how does the digitisation process work? Here is a look behind the scenes at the work of the project team, from conservation to the final online publishing of the manuscripts. We are particularly grateful to the generosity of The Polonsky Foundation, which is enabling some of our collections to be made available to view online.

Here we show step-by-step how this beautiful bestiary was digitised. Before any manuscript can be digitised, it may require an additional level of care from staff in the British Library Conservation Centre, in order to safeguard the manuscript during the digitisation process. First, our project conservator, Jessica Pollard, stabilised Harley MS 4751, in order that the manuscript could be photographed securely.

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Project conservator Jessica Pollard with Harley MS 4751 in the British Library Conservation Centre

Next, the bestiary was taken to the Library’s Imaging Studios for digitisation. Project photographer Carl Norman is an expert in safely handling rare and historical material like medieval manuscripts, and the studios are equipped with state-of-the-art photographic imaging systems, producing high quality images for use on Digitised Manuscripts. Carl shot images of the bestiary in carefully controlled conditions, with the light and temperature levels being monitored closely to protect the manuscript.

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Project photographer Carl Norman digitally captures the phoenix of Harley MS 4751 in the British Library Imaging Studios

After being photographed, the book was examined by our project cataloguers, experts in the study of medieval books. Manuscripts are catalogued through careful study of their texts, decoration and the materials used to make them. Our cataloguers also take to care to describe the history of the book and any known past owners. In this instance, they were able to determine that the bestiary was probably produced in Salisbury in the late 12th or early 13th century.

Finally, when both the photography and cataloguing were completed, our project digitisation officer published the fully digitised manuscript online. The complete process was achieved through the great teamwork of every member of the project, and we’re delighted with the results. You can view them now on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

Harley MS 4751 contains over 100 fascinating illuminations, ranging from domestic animals such as the goat and donkey to exotic animals such as the tiger and elephant, and mythical beasts such as the basilisk. Here is a small selection, we hope you can find many more to enthral you online.

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Miniature of goats in a medieval bestiary (Salisbury?, late 12th or early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 14r

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Miniature of a donkey being prompted towards a waterwheel by a man with a stick and a whistle: Harley MS 4751, f. 25r

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Miniature of a knight on horseback and a tiger with a mirror, illustrating the text that a tiger can outrun a man on a horse, so in order to steal a cub and escape, the thief should throw down a mirror, and the tigress will stop to look at its own reflection, thinking it is her cub: Harley MS 4751, f. 3v

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Miniature of an elephant with a wooden tower on its back, with soldiers with crossbows and other weapons: Harley MS 4751, f. 8r

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 Miniature of a basilisk: Harley MS 4751, f. 59r

 

The phoenix, of course, had a legendary ability to rise from the ashes. In its old age, it would create its own funeral pyre, fanning the flames with its own wings, before being reborn after nine days. It takes much, much longer to digitise a medieval manuscript, but we like the idea that, by our digitising our collections, we are giving new life to books made centuries ago.

British Library Harley 4751

 

The Polonsky Project Team

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

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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

07 December 2017

How to harvest a mandrake

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As a general rule, we don't normally give gardening advice on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. It's just possible, however, that you may have been contemplating the best way to harvest a mandrake. And so here we provide you with some handy tips on cultivating this most notorious of plants, based on manuscripts in the British Library's collections.

A cure for insanity

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that mandrakes (mandragora) could cure headaches, earache, gout and insanity. At the same time, it was supposed that this plant was particularly hazardous to harvest, because its roots resembled the human form; when pulled from the ground, its shrieks could cause madness.

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The root of a mandrake, carved to resemble a tiny human, on loan from the Science Museum to the British Library's exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic

Identify your mandrake

You would think this was simple, but it was long believed that there were two different sexes of mandrake (which we have always been tempted to call the 'mandrake' and 'womandrake'). This beautiful 14th-century manuscript is currently on show in the British Library's Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. It contains an Arabic version of De materia medica, originally written in Ancient Greek by Pedanius Dioscorides, who worked as a physician in the Roman army. Dioscorides was one of the first authors to distinguish (mistakenly) between the male and female mandrake, as depicted here. In fact, there is more than one species of mandrake native to the Mediterranean, rather than two sexes of the same plant.

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This mandrake, on the other hand, is quite clearly (ahem) the male of the species ...

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Below are two mandrakes, one male, one female, drawn in the lower margin of the Queen Mary Psalter — hanging upside down, their blood is clearly rushing to their heads.

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It's also advisable not to confuse your mandrake with a gonk, with an elephant (yes, they are elephants), or with a dragon.

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Bring a dog

Medieval plant-collectors devised an elaborate method to harvest mandrakes. The best way to obtain one safely was to unearth its roots with an ivory stake, attaching the plant to a dog with a cord. A horn should then be sounded, drowning out the shrieking while at the same time startling the dog, causing it to drag out the mandrake. This medieval mandrake looks resigned to its fate.

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While this mandrake is blushing with shame at the prospect of being pulled out of the ground ...

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This Anglo-Saxon hound has yet to be tied to the mandrake (is that a ball that has distracted it attention?).

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Stuff your ears with earth

Another trick was to stuff your ears with clods of earth before attempting to pull the mandrake from the ground. The gentleman in the red cap below has done exactly this, and is blowing resoundingly upon his horn: perfect technique!

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You can see some of these mandrakes in the British Library's current major exhibition, devoted to the history of magic across the ages. Tickets can be purchased online, but are selling extremely fast: the show has to end on 28 February, try not to miss it!

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

The manuscripts featured in this post

Or 3366: Baghdad, 14th century

Sloane MS 4016: Herbal, Lombardy, 15th century

Royal MS 2 B VII: The Queen Mary Psalter, England, 14th century

Sloane MS 278: Bestiary, France, 13th century

Harley MS 1585: Herbal, Southern Netherlands, 12th century

Sloane MS 1975: Medical and herbal miscellany, England or Northern France, 12th century

Cotton MS Vitellius C III: Herbal, England, 11th century

Harley MS 3736: Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal, Southern Germany(?), 15th century

 

02 November 2017

How many horns does a unicorn have?

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How many horns does a unicorn have? It's the kind of trick question you might encounter when watching the British television series QI. One, I hear you say — everyone knows that. Unicorns only have ONE horn (the clue is in the name). And that's what I used to think too, but it seems we’ve all been duped. Sometimes a unicorn can have TWO horns. I know, right? Whatever next?

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A lion-like unicorn: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 18r

I first came across the infamous two-horned unicorn when selecting the objects for the British Library's new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic (#BLHarryPotter). The printed book illustrated below, on show in the show, has a diagram featuring five different species of unicorn. It was published in Paris in 1694 and is the work of Pierre Pomet, a French pharmacist. Apart from realising that you discover something new every day — it's incredible to learn that so many species of unicorn have been identified — your eye is also drawn to the beast in the lower, left-hand corner. It clearly has a pair of horns. That's cheating, surely?

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Five species of unicorn, in Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux (Paris, 1694): British Library 37.h.7., part 2, p. 9

On closer inspection, I learned that the mysterious unicorn in question is known as a pirassoipi. We might be inclined to call it a bicorn. Delving deeper, we learn that it was described as being as large as a mule and as hairy as a bear. But our story then takes a rather distressing turn. Pomet noted that unicorn horn was ‘well used, on account of the great properties attributed to it, principally against poisons’. Unicorns, in other words, were valued for their body parts. The rather grisly image below, taken from a study of the unicorn by Ambroise Paré, published in 1582, depicts in the background the killing and skinning of a pirassoipi. Paré was surgeon to the French Crown and he had a keen interest in strange phenomena (his book also contains chapters on mummies and poisons). In his commentary, he admitted uncertainty whether the body parts of the unicorn would have any medicinal effectiveness.

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An Italian unicorn, in Discours d’Ambroise Paré, Conseiller et Premier Chirurgien du Roy. Asçavoir, de la mumie, de la licorne, des venins, et de la peste (Paris, 1582): British Library 461.b.11.(1.), f. 27r

Let's have another look at the unusual unicorn illustrated at the beginning of this blogpost. It's found in a 16th-century Greek manuscript, accompanying a poem by Manuel Philes called On the properties of animals. According to the poem, the unicorn was a wild beast with a dangerous bite: it had the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion. Distinctly un-unicorn-like, isn't it?

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The unicorn with the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 18r

The unicorn is not the only beast illustrated in this manuscript. Its pages are filled with drawings of herons and pelicans, a wolf and a porcupine, and even a cuttlefish. One of my favourites is the illustration of the mythical centaur: it has a pair of over-extended human arms serving as its front legs. The scribe of this manuscript is named as Angelos Vergekios, a Cypriot who had made his home in France, and the illustrator is said to have been his daughter. Here is a selection of those images to whet your appetite. (A few years ago we completed the digitisation of all the British Library's Greek manuscripts thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation: the whole manuscript can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.) We'd love you to take a look at all of them and to tell us your favourites (please use Twitter or the comments form below).

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A heron: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 4r

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Owls: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 10r

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A lioness: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 16v

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A centaur: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 19v

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A porcupine: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 26v

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Is is safe to go back into the water? A swordfish, narwhal, hammerhead shark and whale: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 31v

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An upside-down octopus: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 40r

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A cuttlefish: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 41v

And this returns us neatly to the theme introduced at the beginning of this blogpost. It is a central premise of our exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, that there are lots of things about the real world that we don't properly understand or don't even know about. When the curators started their research a couple of years ago, I could never have imagined that we would have encountered a unicorn with two horns, and that our journey would introduce us at the same time to such a beautifully illustrated manuscript. And now you can show off to your friends too, whenever someone asks "how many horns does a unicorn have?".

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on display at the British Library in London until 28 February 2018. Tickets are selling fast: for more information, please follow this link.

 

Julian Harrison, Lead Curator Harry Potter: A History of Magic and Medieval Historical Manuscripts

We'd love you to follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval. If you tweet about the exhibition, don't forget to use the hashtag #BLHarryPotter.

 

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.)

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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