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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 â€” 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 ParĂ©, published in 1582, depicts in the background the killing and skinning of a pirassoipi. ParĂ© 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 ParĂ©, 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 â€” this Potter thing might just catch on one day â€” 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

 

 

10 August 2017

Pouncing beasts

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You are turning the pages of an ancient and beautiful manuscript. It is about the size of a modern A4 volume, although wholly different in smell (parchment has the kind of ineffable musk that makes fans of history swoon), appearance (it is bound in leather with handwritten text on its parchment pages), and weight (all that wood and animal skin adds up).

In almost every direction there are pen drawings of animals. The pictures are lively, sometimes with whole scenes showing creatures performing seemingly bizarre acts: a self-castrating beaver; a colourful tiger staring at a disk. What is more, nearly all these images are outlined with little pin holes. The book is an important member of an entertaining category of medieval illuminated manuscript: the bestiary. Those pin holes are also crucial, since they indicate that at some stage someone may have copied the images in this book.

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Close scribal and artistic collaboration would have been necessary to produce pages like this double-spread showing images of birds: Add MS 11283, ff. 22v–23r

Bestiary texts offer animal-lore as a source of allegorical lessons for moral spiritual guidance. The earliest bestiary manuscripts date to the beginning of the 12th century. They were made throughout North-Western Europe, but the genre flourished most in England, eventually declining in popularity in the late 13th and 14th centuries. It may not surprise you to learn that bestiary images of animals were not drawn from nature, but from established artistic conventions.

This particular book has 102 images, drawn in pen and occasionally coloured. They would have been inserted after the text was written, so the scribe left gaps for the artist to fill.

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A beaver self-castrates to escape a hunter, Add MS 11283, f. 4v

Here we can see a beaver fleeing a hunter. It has removed and dropped its testicles — valued for their medicinal properties — in order to save its own life. This alarming depiction provided an allegorical model for the moral lesson that humans should cast away their vices to give the Devil no cause to pursue them.

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A colourful tiger nurses its own reflection, believing it has found its stolen cub, Add MS 11283, f. 2r

On another page we see the sad plight of the tiger. It is coloured with blue, green and red circles and stripes, pawing a disk decorated with the same colours. A man on horseback rides away, carrying a colourful cub in his arms. The text explains that if someone steals the cub of a tiger and they are chased by its mother, she will be distracted if a circle of glass or mirror is thrown before her, mistaking her own reflection for the lost cub in order to nurse it.

Pouncing

If you are fond of wordplay, you may think it apt that as well as the prowling, prancing, crawling and flapping subjects of this manuscript, it also bears the marks of having been used for ‘pouncing’. Pouncing was a post-medieval way of copying of images. Lines of holes would be made around the picture into a sheet below. This would then be removed, held over the surface intended to receive the copy and dusted with powder such as chalk or charcoal. The outline of the first image would be quickly and effectively transferred onto the new surface.

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This image of a group of hoofed animals may have been outlined with pin holes in order for it to be copied via a technique known as pouncing: Add MS 11283, f.11v

Just as medieval scribes could copy texts from ‘exemplars’ (another manuscript used as a model), so later artists could copy their images. At some point, the images of this bestiary were outlined with pin holes, probably to allow them to be copied. We do not know when these holes were made in this particular manuscript, but they typically date to the post-medieval period. It is poignant to think that these holes were left by someone who admired the images as much as us. 

Amy Jeffs

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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Dans le nord-ouest de l’Europe, entre les XIIe et XIVe siĂšcles, les bestiaires Ă©taient un genre de manuscrits trĂšs populaire. Comme tous les bestiaires, Add MS 11283 dĂ©crit des animaux pour en tirer des leçons morales. Ce manuscrit est rempli d’illustrations amusantes : beaucoup d'images sont contourĂ©es avec des trous d'Ă©pingle, ce qui permettait de les transposer Ă  l'aide d’un marquage au pochoir.

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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21 June 2017

Stay cool

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This week in Britain, we have been enjoying some hot weather. For inspiration on how to beat the heat, why not turn to the fantastical stories northern Europeans used to tell each other about how people and creatures in warm places kept cool?

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Detail of elephants and a dragon, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, c. 1310–1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 118v

Examples of such stories can be found in two groups of texts we’ve discussed before on the blog. These are copies of the Marvels of the East, descriptions of weird and wonderful creatures said to live beyond the known world, and bestiaries, collections describing various animals and their habits.

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Panotii, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r

The Marvels of the East focus on creatures found in warm climates, such as elephants and camels. The text may have been based on a variety of ancient sources, but like a game of telephone (or Chinese whispers), they had been much distorted by the time it was being copied and illustrated in the early Middle Ages.

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Bas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid with a panotii (a monstrous race of men with enormous ears), from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 88v

Among the creatures the text describes are the panotii, people with big ears ‘like fans’. Conveniently, the panotii's ears could also be used as blankets at night. Less conveniently, the panotii were said to be very shy, and they had to pick up their large ears when they ran away from company. 

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Detail of a sciapod, from images of the Monstrous Races from the Arnstein Bible, North-West Germany, c. 1172, Harley MS 2799, f. 243r

Another of our favourite strategies for keeping cool comes from the people known as the sciapodes or sciopods: literally, the ‘Shady-feet’. (H/T to Sjoerd Levelt, who recently noted them on Twitter!) These people were said to lie on their backs and use their giant feet to shield them from the heat of sun. 

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Sciapodes from John Mandeville’s Travels, England (East Anglia), c. 1425–1450, Harley MS 3954, f. 31r

This story continued to capture artists’ and writers’ imaginations, and sciapodes appear in manuscripts and maps throughout the Middle Ages. The story seems to have long roots, as well: the 5th-century BCE writer Scylax is credited with a similar story, which may ultimately be based on retellings of ancient Indian stories. On a day like today, one can certainly see the appeal of the idea!

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Detail of a dragon entangling an elephant, from the Flower of Nature, Low Countries, c. 1300-1325, Add MS 11390, f. 13r

Medieval writers also worried about how dragons coped with heat, given that some were believed to breathe fire. They were said to be born in the hottest parts of the world, where no cool places could be found, even on the mountaintops. There was a medieval tradition that overheated dragons solved their conundrum by eating elephants. According to these authors, elephants had cold blood, which dragons tried to drink to cool their ‘burning intestines’. (Please, please do not try this at home.)

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A dragon biting an elephant, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), c. 1225–1250, Harley MS 4751, f. 58v

So enjoy the hot weather, while it lasts, and keep cool!

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 April 2017

An illustrated Old English Herbal

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Plant-based remedies were a major feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Thanks to our current digitisation project with the BibliothĂšque nationale de France, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, one of the British Library’s earliest illustrated collections of such remedies has just been digitised.

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Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v

This manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. (There are other, non-illustrated manuscripts of the same text, for example in Harley MS 585.) The text is an Old English translation of a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognised as  several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined. The manuscript also includes Old English translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers (framed as a fictional letter between Octavian and a king of Egypt) and another on medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals. Together, the herbal and the text on four-legged animals are now known as part of the so-called 'Pseudo-Apuleius Complex' of texts.

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A man and a centaur presenting a book to a figure in a blue veil or hood, captioned 'Escolapius Plato Centaurus', from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 19r

Each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal; its name in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it. Remedies for poisonous bites were marked out with drawings of snakes and scorpions. For instance, a snake appears near the entry for sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes. 

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‘Snakeplant’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57r

Although it might seem like a practical guide to finding plants and preparing remedies, this manuscript's uses are debated. First, the illustrations are not always very useful for identifying plants and animals in the wild: take, for example, these depictions of strawberries and elephants.

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‘Streawberian’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 33v

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A monkey and elephant, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Secondly, the texts include plants and animals from Mediterranean regions and beyond which are not known to be native to the British Isles, such as cumin and licorice. Scholars debate whether the Anglo-Saxons knew these plants through trade or whether the early medieval climate could have permitted such plants to grow in England. Alternatively, the scribes and artists could simply have copied them from their Mediterranean source. The text sometimes explicitly acknowledges that plants are best found in distant regions. For example, ‘dragonswort
 is said that it should be grown in dragon’s blood. It grows at the tops of mountains where there are groves of trees, chiefly in holy places and in the country that is called Apulia’ (translated by Anne Van Arsdall, in Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 154). The Herbal also includes mythical lore about some plants, such as the mandrake, said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons. To pick it, the text claimed you needed an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f057v
A mandrake, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v

However, while this manuscript’s exact uses are debatable, it continued to be used into the 16th century: later users added numbers to the table of contents, some recipes and variants of plants' names in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English. Eventually, a later copy of Peter of Poitiers’ Chronicle and a 9th-century copy of Macrobius’s Saturnalia were bound with the herbal. The volume may once have belonged to William Harvey (b. 1578, d. 1657), who discovered the circulation of blood. Some of his own recipes — featuring ‘licoris’, ‘cinemon’ and opium — are found at the end of the volume.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f140v
Recipe for ‘A Diet Drinke’ in the hand of William Harvey, 1624, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 140v

__________

Le printemps s'annonce et en Angleterre les jardins commencent Ă  renaĂźtre. La British Library vient de numĂ©riser un manuscrit rempli d’images de plantes (et d’animaux). Ce manuscrit (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) contient des textes mĂ©dicaux attribuĂ©s Ă  Pseudo-ApulĂ©e: un herbier, qui prĂ©cise les usages mĂ©dicaux des plantes, et aussi un texte qui concĂšrne les usages mĂ©dicaux des animaux. Tous ces textes sont traduits en vieil anglais.

Ce manuscrit est le seul exemple d’un herbier anglo-saxon illustrĂ©. Les images dĂ©peignent les plantes et les animaux dĂ©crits dans le texte.  Cependant, les images des fraises et de l’élĂ©phant rĂ©vĂšlent un certain manque de vraisemblance de la part de l’artiste.

MalgrĂ© cela, plusieurs lecteurs ont utilisĂ© ce manuscrit: il y a des additions dans des mains datant de l'onziĂšme jusqu’au seiziĂšme siĂšcle. Il est possible que William Harvey, le mĂ©decin qui a dĂ©couvert les lois de la circulation du sang, l’ait possĂ©dĂ© : des recettes mĂ©dicales, dans sa propre main, se trouvent maintenant Ă  la fin du manuscrit. Aujourd’hui, ce volume contient aussi une copie du Compendium historiae de Pierre de Poitiers.

 

Alison Hudson

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01 April 2017

The Chipping Sodbury Bestiary

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In 1932, one of the most sensational discoveries of modern times took place in a country house just outside Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire. A local antique dealer, Marmaduke Snodgrass, had been taking afternoon tea with the owner, known to posterity as 'the Barking Baronet', when he spotted an old parchment book wrapped in a pair of flannel pyjamas. Realising this book's huge significance, Snodgrass took it to the British Museum Library in London, where experts identified the manuscript as containing the only surviving copy of the semi-legendary De bestiis ridiculosis.

This manuscript remains in private hands, having been inherited by the Barking Baronet's descendants. The British Library is delighted to be able to issue today the first images of what is now known as the Chipping Sodbury Bestiary. De bestiis ridiculosis is a remarkable text, describing a range of mythical beasts that are rarely found in other medieval bestiaries.

The Gibbous

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An ape-like creature related to the Yeti and native to jungle regions of the Indian sub-continent. The 14th-century writer Jordanus of Moronicus noted that this creature only emerged from its hidden den on nights of the gibbous moon, in order to gather carambola, also known as starfruit. This line drawing shows a female Gibbous carrying her young.

The Horned Groundsnoort

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Commonly used by farmers in southern France and Tuscany to snuffle out truffles, the Horned Groundsnoort is a beast with a vicious temper when provoked. The anonymous author of this bestiary prescribes that the farmer should always maintain a safe distance from the Groundsnoort, using a 'snoort-rod' if one is at hand.

The Golden Ass

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Most asses are a dull grey or brown in colour, but occasionally a golden mutant is born. The Golden Ass has an exaggerated sense of its own self-worth, and refuses to be steered or ridden unless bribed with the famed golden turnip.

The BoJangle

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A musical bird native to Timbuktu. During the summer months, the male BoJangle performs popular show tunes on musical instruments as part of an intricate mating ritual to attract females. Here is depicted the male BoJangle holding what seems to be a tambourine.

The Legend of Holyfield

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that, in the year 873, King Alfred the Great of Wessex defended his kingdom from attack by a 'fire-spewing dragon' (OE: fyrdraca), using only his bare fists. The encounter took place near the village of Holyfield, and is commemorated to this day by the drinking of prodigious amounts of 'fire-water' every Friday night. Despite losing his left ear in this battle, Alfred left the field victorious.

The Quonk

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When startled by a hunter, the quonk will lay a pair of eggs, which hatch around the full moon. Quonks are described in De bestiis ridiculosis as among the most noble of beasts, and impossible (and undesirable) to tame.

The Dweezil

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Half-dog, half-weasel, dweezils have an almost unique ability to smell with their tongues, a feat they share today with the wombat and the spiny echidna. Older readers of this Blog may be familiar with the arcane proverb, 'A dweezil in the hand gathers no moss'.

The Tree Hedgehog

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Now extinct over most of its former range, the tree hedgehog was much prized as a delicacy in Roman times. Pliny the Elder was reputedly dining on tree hedgehogs and egret tongues, washed down with bull's milk, when he watched Mount Vesuvius erupting in AD 79.

The Dancing Crane

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Not to be confused with its more common cousin, the Skating Crane, the Dancing Crane is notorious for breaking out into intricate stepping routines whenever it gets excited. Some ornithologists have compared its dance technique to the Macarena.

The Giant Bee

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One of the most unpredictable beasts is the Giant Bee of South America. Bee keepers in the foothills of the Andes tell terrible tales of their encounters with these winged creatures, which have the ability to lift a man from the ground before depositing him in a dunghill.

The Hebridean Half-Whit

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Sightings of the Half-Whit are becoming increasingly rare, no doubt due to global warming and tighter regulation of the local licensing laws. The Half-Whit is distinguished by having two heads (one in the usual place, the other at the end of its tail), and by its unorthodox mating call, likened by experts to the sound of bagpipes crossed with the scratching of nails on a chalkboard. 

All images of the Chipping Sodbury Bestiary are courtesy of the descendants of the Barking Baronet. We are extremely grateful to them for kindly giving permission for us to feature this beautiful bestiary on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter (@BLMedieval) for more manuscript discoveries.