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30 posts categorized "Classics"

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‚Äôs shop, in a surgeon‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄėMay something never happen as long as this remains buried‚Äô, in a Greek handbook for magic (Thebes, 4th century): Papyrus 46(5)

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The first recorded mention of the phrase ‚ÄėAbracadabra‚Äô, 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs Travels (Bohemia, 15th century): Additional MS 24189, f. 15r

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Astronomical notes and sketches, in Leonardo da Vinci‚Äôs 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

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‚Äď1259: 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‚Äôs notebook of scientific drawings and the single surviving copy of the Old English poem Beowulf.

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The British Library‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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.

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 ‚Äėsylloge‚Äô. 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‚Äď5v, 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‚Äďv). 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 Niccol√≤ 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‚Äď1511) 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‚Äď16 while he was British consul at Smyrna (Add MSS 10101‚Äď2), 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

10 April 2017

The Wonders of Rome

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Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome never lost its draw. Objects of Roman provenance, whether art, saints‚Äô relics, or even copies of texts, often continued to be treated with reverence. They were integrated into new creations and imitated in new artistic endeavours. Rome‚Äôs reception is the subject of a new exhibition in Germany, at the Di√∂zesanmuseum Paderborn, running from 31 March to 13 August 2017, to which the British Library is delighted to be a lender: the exhibition is called (in English) The Wonders of Rome from a Northern Perspective.

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A view of the exhibition at Paderborn

One medieval manuscript included in the Paderborn exhibition is Matthew Paris‚Äôs Liber additamentorum (British Library Cotton MS Nero D I). Matthew Paris (d. 1259) was a monk of St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, and is renowned as a historian, artist and cartographer. His Liber additamentorum ('Book of Additions') is a collection of documents relating to the history of his abbey, and includes, among other texts, Matthew's Lives of the Two Offas and his Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans Abbey. On display in the exhibition is Matthew Paris's description of the gems and rings that belonged to the church of St Albans in his day (De anulis et gemmis et pallis que sunt de thesauro huius ecclesie), with his own illustrations.

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Matthew Paris’s description of the gems of St Albans: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 146v.

Among the gems depicted by Matthew Paris is one passed on from antiquity: a cameo now thought to have depicted an emperor, Jupiter, or Asclepius. Matthew describes it in extensive detail, noting that it was used in childbirth: ‚ÄėFor an infant about to be born escapes the approaching stone‚Äô (Infantulus enim nasciturus lapidem subterfugit appropinquantem, f. 147r). This seems to have come about through interpretation of the classical imagery, which he describes as showing a man with a spear in his right hand, with a serpent crawling up it, and a boy on his left hand.

Also on display at Paderborn is the British Library’s Additional MS 12154, containing a description of Rome written in Syriac by Pseudo-Zacharias in the 6th century. It outlines its splendours in detail, including what is believed to be the first mention of Christian buildings in the city.

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Installing the exhibition at Paderborn

The British Library is a regular lender to exhibitions in the United Kingdom and overseas. We are very pleased to have been able to lend two of our early manuscripts, one in Latin and the other in Syriac, to the Diözesanmuseum, and we hope that our German readers are able to view these books in person at Paderborn. You may like to know that Matthew Paris's Liber additamentorum is also available to view in full, online and in high definition, on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

Andrew Dunning

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

07 November 2016

Picturing the Sacred: Byzantine Manuscript Illumination

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Some of the British Library’s most precious manuscripts are those containing beautiful miniatures from the Byzantine world. The majority of these manuscripts are religious in focus, usually Gospels or Psalters, reflecting the central role played by Christianity in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine court functioned as a theocracy, in which the Emperor was seen as God’s representative on earth, acting with divine authority. Religion infused every aspect of Byzantine life, including book production.

Although it is difficult (and somewhat artificial) to distinguish between late antique and early Byzantine art, a useful starting-point is the splendid Golden Canon Tables. Created in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, the manuscript is covered in gold paint, over which the Canon Tables (used to identify parallel passages between the four Gospels in biblical manuscripts) were written, and adorned with floral decoration and small medallions containing portraits of four men. Although they survive only as fragments, they would originally have formed part of an incredibly lavish copy of the Gospels, a testament to the importance of the Bible for the inhabitants of Constantinople at this time.

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The Golden Canon Tables. Additional MS 5111, f. 11r. Constantinople, 6th or 7th century.

The Iconoclastic period (726‚Äď842 CE) saw the destruction of many existing works of religious art, and a ban on the production of any new works of art. The prohibition on graven images in the Bible was a source of concern for Christian thinkers in late antiquity and early Byzantium, who worried about the propriety of producing depictions of Jesus and other holy figures. This concern was particularly felt in Byzantium owing to the particular emphasis placed on icons in religious worship there (an emphasis that is still found in the Greek Orthodox tradition today). The impact of iconoclasm has meant that relatively few examples of early Byzantine illumination survive, and those that do, like the Golden Canon Tables, are thus even more precious to us today.

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Depiction of Iconoclasts in the Theodore Psalter. Additional MS 19352, f. 27v. Constantinople, 1066.

After the prohibition on the production of religious art was lifted for the final time in 842, we see the reappearance of illuminated Biblical manuscripts. A number of illuminated Psalters (discussed in more detail in an article by Kalliroe Linardou) actually include images of iconoclasts erasing icons of Jesus. Such images can be found in the Theodore Psalter. On occasion, later owners of the manuscripts have erased the faces of the iconoclasts themselves!

A great emphasis was placed on tradition in Byzantine art. This is why, for instance, there is such great similarity between portraits of the Evangelists in Gospel manuscripts. Yet this stress on tradition also provided an opportunity for artists to distinguish themselves in more subtle ways, and there is clear variation in Byzantine illumination across the Greek-speaking world, as Elisabeth Yota shows in her article on provincial manuscript illumination. Some Greek manuscripts were illuminated by artists from different traditions, as is the case with Harley 5647, in which the portraits were made by a Syriac artist. Comparison of this with, for instance, the portraits in the Guest-Coutts New Testament, show both the strong tradition in terms of how figures are depicted and the room for innovation that was possible. Further examples can be found in Kathleen Maxwell’s article on illuminated Gospel manuscripts.

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 The Evangelist Luke, by a Syriac artist. Harley MS 5647, f. 137v. Eastern Mediterranean, 11th century.

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The Evangelist Luke, in the Guest-Coutts New Testament. Additional MS 28815, f. 76v. Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), mid-10th century.

There are more fantastic illuminated Greek manuscripts than we can possibly hope to talk about in a single blog post, so we invite you to explore the collections and articles available on our Greek Manuscripts Project Website, and the many manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts!

 Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval/@CillianOHogan

11 October 2016

Changing the Script

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The scripts found in Greek manuscripts can be seriously daunting for a newcomer. Not only do they have the usual barriers found in manuscripts of all languages ‚ÄĒ their divergence from printed fonts, their variation over the centuries and across geographical areas, and scribal inconsistencies and peculiarities such as abbreviations ‚ÄĒ they also tend towards a far greater regularity than we find in, for example, Latin manuscripts over the same historical time period. Only close study and careful guidance from handbooks and experts enable students of Greek manuscripts to identify the subtle variations that distinguish Greek manuscripts of the high Byzantine era.

We can’t hope to provide anything approaching this sort of guidance in a short blogpost, but we hope here to give a very general overview of the history of Greek script and to point towards the many resources available on our Greek Manuscripts Project Website that can help put the changes in Greek bookhands into a wider context.

Ancient and late antique Greek texts written on papyrus tend to be divided into ‚Äėbookhands‚Äô and ‚Äėdocumentary hands‚Äô. The latter vary far more noticeably over time and can be dated with much greater ease ‚ÄĒ not least because documentary texts are far more likely than ancient literary texts to have dates attached to them. We can see the contrast clearly in two papyri included on the Greek Manuscripts Project website: the Bankes Homer and the Constitution of the Athenians papyrus.

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Example of a Greek bookhand in a papyrus containing Book 24 of Homer’s Iliad (Papyrus 114). Egypt, 2nd century CE.

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Farm accounts from Hermopolis, on the recto of the papyrus containing the Constitution of the Athenians (Papyrus 131, f. 1ar). Egypt, 78 CE.

However, it is worth remembering that the lines between these two bookhands can be blurred. Scribes who usually wrote documentary texts could occasionally be called upon to copy out literary texts. The text of the Constitution of the Athenians itself appears to be the result of this sort of copying, as it is written in a fairly cursive-style bookhand. For much more about ancient books and their production contexts, several articles are available on the Greek Manuscripts Project website: Ancient Books, Ancient Libraries, and Greek Bibles in Antiquity.

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The Constitution of the Athenians papyrus (Papyrus 131, f. 1av). Egypt, c. 100 CE.

In Late Antiquity and the early Byzantine period, manuscripts tended to be copied in majuscule or uncial script ‚ÄĒ in other words, letters corresponding to our upper-case Greek letters. This is a continuation of the ancient ‚Äėbookhands‚Äô and can be seen in many biblical manuscripts including Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus. On occasion, late versions of this hand can be seen to have developed particular characteristics, such as the Sinai-style majuscule to be seen in Additional MS 26113, an important volume containing fragments of hymns from the 8th and 9th centuries.

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Fragments of hymns in the Sinai-style majuscule (Add MS 26113, f. 3r). Eastern Mediterranean (Mount Sinai), 8th-9th century.

While majuscule hands continued to be used for religious books and for decoration well into the 11th century, the minuscule bookhand came to prominence in the 9th century and became the standard hand used in Greek manuscripts. Because it was a cursive script, it could be written more quickly than majuscule, and since the letters tended to be smaller, more text could be accommodated on a single page. Variety in minuscule scripts can be found across the Byzantine Empire: for instance, certain forms, such as those found in the Harley Trilingual Psalter, are characteristic of southern Italy, while other forms indicate a manuscript was copied in Cyprus or the Levant. For more information about Byzantine scribes and books, please see the articles on Byzantine scribes and scholars and Byzantine libraries.

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Example of a south Italian script in the Harley Trilingual Psalter. Harley MS 5786, f. 158r. Italy, S. (Palermo), c. 1130-1150.

The Renaissance copyists based in Italy and France developed their own characteristic style of writing Greek, which both influenced and was later influenced by early Greek typography. The story of these writers can be found in articles on Greek manuscripts at the dawn of print and Greek manuscripts in the 16th century.

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Manuscript of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae written by Zacharias Kalliergis of the Kalliergis press. Royal MS 16 C XXIV, f. 31r. Italy, N. (Venice?), 1st half of the 16th century.

This is only a very brief and incomplete outline of the history of Greek handwriting. You can find many more examples in the hundreds of manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts and the many articles and collection items available on the Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval/@CillianOHogan

19 September 2016

The British Library's Greek Manuscripts Project

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Have you ever wondered what books looked like in antiquity? Perhaps you have pondered why some manuscripts are written on paper and some on parchment? Did you know that the ancient Greeks thought up machines and robots powered by steam? These issues and more are taken up on a new web resource dedicated to the study of Greek written heritage. Greek Manuscripts, which officially launches today, is intended to complement and promote the hundreds of Greek manuscripts digitised by the British Library in recent years. The website contains articles on a wide variety of subjects relating to Greek papyri and manuscripts, written by experts from the UK, continental Europe, and North America. Additionally, several videos provide short visual introductions to key topics. Collection items discussed in the articles are given separate item pages, with links to the online catalogue entry and full digital coverage on Digitised Manuscripts.

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The Constitution of the Athenians, written on papyrus in Egypt c. 100 CE (Papyrus 131).

Drawing on the rich collections of Greek manuscripts held by the British Library, the website provides succinct introductions to major themes and issues, directed towards a non-specialist audience. The project’s aim is not to present new scholarship, although some of the most exciting developments in recent research are reflected in several articles and videos. We especially hope that the website will be helpful to students, scholars in related fields, and members of the public, in orienting themselves in a subject area that can often appear daunting from the outside.

The articles are organised into five overlapping themes, reflecting some of the most important aspects of Greek manuscripts, classical antiquity, and Byzantine culture: art, religion, scholarship, the Greek world, and the makers of Greek manuscripts. They cover the entire chronological period represented by the British Library’s Greek collections, from classical antiquity down to the early 20th century. Many of the most famous items in the collections, such as the Golden Canon tables, the Theodore Psalter or the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, are included on the site, but so are many lesser-known volumes that are of major importance in their own way.

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The earliest manuscript of the classical author Lucian, written in Constantinople in the early 10th century (Harley MS 5694, f. 60v).

A number of articles introduce complicated topics to the general reader. For instance, James Freeman surveys the shifting use of paper in Greek manuscripts, while Matthew Nicholls and Georgi Parpulov provide a clear overview of the history of libraries from Classical and Late Antiquity to the Byzantine Middle Ages. Other pieces take on a staggering range of material, to provide a succinct overview of a very broad theme: for instance, Dimitris Krallis’s article on Byzantine historiography, or Aileen Das’s survey of the transmission of Greek philosophy and medicine.

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The Harley Trilingual Psalter contains the text of the Psalms in Greek, Latin and Arabic. Sicily (Palermo?), c. 1230-1250 (Harley MS 5786, f. 158r).

The biblical manuscripts that make up a substantial portion of the British Library’s holdings are well-represented on the website. Kathleen Maxwell shares her expertise in the Library’s illuminated Gospels, and the multifaceted transmission of the Old Testament in Greek is also surveyed. Greek manuscripts did not develop in a vacuum: they were circulated far beyond the limits of Greek-speaking antiquity and the Byantine empire. Peter Tóth presents just some of the examples of multilingualism that can be found in Greek manuscripts, while other articles look at topics such as the tradition of schoolboy compositions in Greek in Elizabethan England.

We will introduce more articles on the new website over the coming weeks, advertising them in a series of blog posts. The project, and indeed the preceding Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, has been generously supported by a range of donors, including the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the A. G. Leventis Foundation, the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation, and many others. We are grateful to them and to the many experts who have shared their knowledge on the site. We invite everyone to explore the articles and videos and learn more about the British Library’s unparalleled collection of Greek manuscripts!

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The Golden Canon Tables, created in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century (Add MS 5111, f. 11r).

@BLMedieval

14 September 2016

Palimpsests: The Art of Medieval Recycling

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The art of recycling ‚ÄĒ re-using waste materials to reduce consumption of fresh raw materials ‚ÄĒ may seem alien in a medieval context. Yet when it comes to writing, past peoples were often much more sparing than many of us today.

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Miniature of the Evangelist Luke writing, in a 12th-century Gospel-book,
Add MS 5112, f. 3r

Producing papyrus sheets or parchment volumes was not an easy or cheap endeavour. In order to produce a complete Bible on parchment, the skins of approximately 200 sheep may have been needed. One way to save parchment was to write the words and sentences continuously with no punctuation at all. This might have made reading more difficult and open to misunderstanding, but it definitely saved space.

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Detail of continuous script in the columns of the Codex Sinaiticus, Eastern Mediterranean (Palestine?), 4th century,  Add MS 43725, f. 252r

Another way to save parchment and papyrus was to reuse it. Papyrus scrolls were usually written on one side only, where the fibres were horizontal and more suitable for writing, while the other side with vertical threads was usually left blank. In times of need, however, scribes reused the more inconvenient side of scrolls that they found unimportant or superfluous. The practice of writing tax receipts and payment reminders on the reverse of classical dramas and poems has sometimes saved classical literature which would otherwise have been lost. Examples at the British Library include Papyrus 787 preserving Demosthenes‚Äôs works, Papyrus 1182 with Epicurus‚Äôs treatise and Papyrus 1191 containing Homer.

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Columns from a speech by Demosthenes, Egypt, 2nd century CE, Papyrus 744 recto with later accounts from the other side of the same papyrus, Egypt, 2nd-3rd century CE, Papyrus 744, verso

Reusing parchment pages was more complicated, since books often had writing on both sides. By taking pages of books that were unused, incomprehensible or perhaps banned, it was possible to scrape or wash off the old writing to achieve a new blank page. It is the outcome of this recycling process that we call a palimpsest (the ‚Äúre-scratched‚ÄĚ page).

Many manuscripts with recycled pages are preserved and it is always intriguing to discover what the old writing contained and why it was destroyed. Deciphering undertexts is not always easy. Sometimes the recyclers did not make a very thorough job and the old writing is so transparent that modern viewers can easily read and identify the recycled pages: examples include the epics of Homer and the geometrical works of the mathematician Euclid of Megara.

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The capital letters of Euclid’s Elements recycled in a 9th-century manuscript containing a Syriac translation of a Greek theological text, Add MS 17211, f. 49v

If the recycling was done meticulously, special techniques are necessary to recover the text. Thanks to the British Library‚Äôs multispectral imaging technology, many of the seemingly unreadable undertexts can now be recovered. Recently we managed to discover remnants of at least three manuscripts in one 15th-century Greek liturgical book, including parts of a 9th-century gospelbook, some leaves from a 10th-century service book and two scraps from a 12th-century copy of a Greek commentary on Plato by the 5th-century Proclus.

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Multispectral images of a 15th-century service book showing the capital letters of a 9th-century gospel behind the script, Add MS 36823, f. 17r

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These brownish columns are what remains of a 12th-century copy of Proclus’s Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus recycled in this 15th-century liturgical manuscript:
Add MS 36823, f. 123r

Perhaps the most thrilling find yet is a double-palimpsest from Egypt, a 10th-century manuscript written in Syriac (a Semitic language of the Christian East) on pages that contain a twofold layer of Latin texts. One is a commentary on Donatus‚Äôs Latin grammar attributed to Sergius from the 7th century, written above another 5th-century Latin text preserving fragments of the otherwise lost historical work of the 2nd-century Granius Licinianus, whose writing is known only from these recycled pages.

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Cursive Latin handwriting of a 7th-century grammatical treatise under the Syriac translation of John Chrysostom‚Äôs homilies, Egypt, 10th century, Add. MS 17212, f. 7v

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Capital letters of the Latin text of the Annals of Granius Licinianus under the 7th-century cursive Latin grammatical text in the pages of the 10th-century Syriac manuscript of John Chrysostom’s homilies, Add MS 17212, f. 5r

How these precious fragments ended up in Egypt and why were they recycled to accommodate Syriac translations of Greek religious texts are questions that are very hard to answer. Sebastian Brock, one of the foremost experts on Syriac manuscripts and literature, will try to crack the puzzle in his upcoming lecture at the British Library’s conference on Greek manuscripts. You can book your place to hear the end of the story here.

Peter Toth

@BLMedieval