THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

112 posts categorized "Greek"

22 April 2018

Lover, sorceress, demon: Circe's transformations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse

The British Library

30 April, 19.00–20.30

 

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21 April 2018

Annual Walton Lecture in Athens

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Dr Scot McKendrick, the Head of Western Heritage Collections at the British Library, will be delivering the Annual Walton Lecture in Athens on Tuesday, 24 April at 7:00 p.m. His lecture, entitled English Collectors of Greek Manuscripts at the British Library: Lord Guilford and Anthony Askew, will be delivered in Cotsen Hall, 9 Anapiron Polemou Street, and is sponsored by The American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r

Among other important Greek manuscripts collected by English antiquarians and collectors, Scot will be discussing the Golden Canon Tables, Add MS 5111/1 (ff. 10–11), produced in the capital of the Roman Empire of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the 6th or 7th century. This impressive fragment from a Gospel-book is fully digitised and is available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. It has been featured previously on this Blog and in an article on Greek illuminated Gospels on our Greek Manuscripts site.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 10v

Another featured manuscript will be the illuminated Phillipps Gospel lectionary, containing readings from the Gospels to be read in services throughout the year, now Add MS 82957, available in full here. This illuminated copy was also made in Constantinople, in the 11th century. Regular readers of this Blog may recall our two earlier blogposts on this volume, A Window into Byzantine Illumination and Handle with Care.

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Illuminated headpiece, in the Phillipps Gospel lectionary: Add MS 82957, f. 59r

These works mark two ends of the chronological spectrum of the Library’s active engagement with Greek manuscripts. The first was purchased for the Library at auction in London in 1785; the second was assigned to the Library in lieu of tax in 2007. Each was a major acquisition, the first the most expensive purchase of a single Greek manuscript made since the Library’s foundation in 1753, and the second the most important acquisition of an illuminated Byzantine manuscript since the purchase of the Bristol Psalter in 1923. Scot’s talk will explore the importance of individual British collectors in promoting the understanding and appreciation of Greek culture both in their own time, but also as a legacy to future generations. In particular it will consider the contributions of the philhellene Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford, and the 18th-century London physician Anthony Askew. You can find out more in our essay British collectors of Greek manuscripts.

The British Library’s holdings of Greek manuscripts and printed books are widely recognised for their significance. The collection of c. 1000 manuscript volumes includes two of the three oldest Greek Bibles, the remains of c. 227 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and c. 50 Greek codices dating from before the first millennium. Thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation almost all these can be viewed in full online on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

The Library also holds c. 3500 papyri and c. 4000 ostraca preserving Greek literary and documentary texts from Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Its collections also encompass 60 out of the 68 printed editions of Greek texts produced up to 1500 as part of its remarkably comprehensive sequence of early Greek printing. Thanks to its acquisition of the Cotton, Harley and Royal manuscripts in the 1750s, the Library offered scholars a rich new public resource in the metropolitan capital outside of the old universities.

The lecture is open to all.

 

Annual Walton Lecture

Scot McKendrick, English Collectors of Greek Manuscripts at the British Library: Lord Guilford and Anthony Askew

Tuesday, 24 April, 7:00 p.m.

Cotsen Hall, 9 Anapiron Polemou Street, Athens

 

Ο Δρ. Scot McKendrick, Προϊστάμενος του Τμήματος Western Heritage Collections της Βρετανικής Βιβλιοθήκης θα δώσει την 37η Ετήσια Διάλεξη προς τιμήν του Francis Walton στη Γεννάδειο Βιβλιοθήκη της Αμερικανικής Σχολής Κλασικών Σπουδών στην Αθήνα, στις 24 Απριλίου στις 7:00μμ. Η διάλεξη του έχει ως τίτλο Άγγλοι Συλλέκτες Ελληνικών Χειρογράφων στη Βρετανική Βιβλιοθήκη: Λόρδος Guilford και Anthony Askew. Μεταξύ άλλων σημαντικών ελληνικών χειρογράφων που συνέλεξαν Άγγλοι αρχαιοδίφες και συλλέκτες, ο Δρ. McKendrick θα παρουσιάσει το χειρόγραφο Golden Canon Tables (Add MS 5111/1), το χειρόγραφο Ευαγγέλιο από τη συλλογή του Phillipps (Add MS 82957), καθώς και άλλους θησαυρούς. Εάν δεν μπορείτε να παραστείτε στη διάλεξη και ενδιαφέρεστε να ακούσετε περισσότερα για τους Άγγλους συλλέκτες ελληνικών χειρογράφων, μπορείτε να επισκεφθείτε την ιστοσελίδα: British collectors of Greek manuscripts

 

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08 March 2018

The voices of ancient women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another mother from around 150 CE addressed her henpecked son:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

24 February 2018

Harry Potter meets the Middle Ages

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

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

Potions

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

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

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

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

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

Herbology

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

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

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

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

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

Charms

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

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

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

Astronomy

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

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

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

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

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

Divination

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

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

Defence Against the Dark Arts

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

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

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

Care of Magical Creatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10 February 2018

It's a kind of magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 January 2018

A mammoth list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04 January 2018

Glimpses of early Christian splendour in Constantinople

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For over one thousand years Constantinople (now Istanbul) was a byword for awe-inspiring splendour. Named after the Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337), who transferred the capital of the Roman Empire there in 324, the city also became the Christian capital of the world.

The Golden Canon Tables (British Library Add MS 5111/1 [ff. 10–11]) are spectacular witnesses to the remarkable quality of painting undertaken in Constantinople to embellish Christian texts. For one modern authority, they are ‘perhaps the most precious fragments of any Early Christian manuscript’ (Kurt Weitzmann, Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination, p. 116). Now mere fragments, they both hint at what fine early manuscripts of the Bible we might have lost and caution against rash generalisations based merely on those that have survived. The Canon Tables are now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website to view in glorious detail with the zoom feature.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 10r

As we mentioned in a blogpost several weeks ago, as a text the canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of Scripture over many centuries. Of the two thousand or so manuscripts that each contains the Four Gospels in Greek (literally, the Tetraevangelion), the vast majority begin with these tables. Devised by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, these tables formed a unifying gateway to the fundamental but multiple narratives of the Evangelists Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Canon 1 lists passages common to all four Gospels, Canons 2–9 different combinations of two or three Gospels and Canon 10 those passages found only in one Gospel. Building on a system of dividing up the text of the Gospels into verses that he attributed to Ammonius of Alexandria, Eusebius assigned consecutive numbers to sections in each Gospel and used these numbers within his tables to correlate related passages. The present leaves are rare witnesses of an early revision of Eusebius’s tables.

The Golden Canon Tables are a chance survival. Separated from the text of the Four Gospels that they once prefaced, they were added to a Greek Gospels written sometime before 1189. As they survive, the tables comprise the end of Eusebius’s letter, part of Canon 1, all of Canons 8–9 and part of Canon 10. Originally each of the two leaves would have been around twice as large. Both letter and tables are written in an imposing majuscule, or upper case, script on parchment previously painted entirely with ‘shell’ gold, that is powdered gold suspended in a binding medium so-called because this pigment was often kept in a shell in the early Christian and medieval periods.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 10v

Each is framed by magnificently illuminated columns and arches that distinctively combine rigorous geometric and linear forms with remarkable naturalistic features. Carefully drawn outlines and regularly applied paint stress the surface qualities of the overall architectural scheme. Elsewhere lavish and energetic brushwork emulate three-dimensional, natural forms, including lushly growing flowers and colourful birds. The letter is enclosed by one wide arch that once extended to the full width of the page and the tables by two narrower arches on each page.

Within the tables each of the arches is inscribed at the top with the canon number and subdivided below into further smaller arches, each of which is headed by the abbreviated name of the relevant Evangelist. Below each of these smaller arches are the parallel lists of section numbers for each Gospel, written in Greek letters and in groups of four.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r (detail)

Within the surviving arches are four complete medallions with male bust portraits, three of which bear haloes. Each of these medallions emulates an ancient Roman form of portraiture known as the imago clipeata (shield portrait) which honoured the dead by a bust set within a round, shield-shaped form. The Christian symbol of the fish is included in the decorated arch directly above the bust portrait heading Canons 8 and 9. When complete the Golden Canon Tables probably contained twelve bust portraits. It has been argued that these memorialised the Apostles and were inspired by similar busts set in the arcades of the rotunda mausoleum of Constantine the Great located beside the Church of the Apostles at Constantinople.

For more information about Greek illuminated Gospels in general, including the Golden Canon Tables, please see our webspace dedicated to Greek manuscripts.

 

Further reading

Carl Nordenfalk, Die spätantiken Kanontafeln (Göteborg, 1938), pp. 127–46.

Carl Nordenfalk, ‘The Apostolic Canon Tables’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 62 (1963), 17–34 (pp. 19–21).

Kurt Weitzmann, Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination (London, 1977), pp. 19, 29, 116, pl. 43.

Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture from British Collections, ed. by David Buckton (London, 1994), no. 68.

John Lowden, ‘The Beginnings of Biblical Illustration’, in Imaging the Early Medieval Bible, ed. by John Williams (University Park, PA, 1999), pp. 9–59 (pp. 24–26).

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), available here

 

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09 December 2017

The destruction of Sappho's works

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The British Library is currently hosting the 2017 Panizzi Lectures, delivered by Professor Germaine Greer on the subject of Sappho. The third and final talk in the series will be given on Monday, 11 December, and is titled Sappho: The Shame.

  Papyrus 739
British Library Papyrus 739

Sappho sang her poems, and there is no evidence she wrote them down herself. However, others in the ancient world did record her poems. The British Library holds a papyrus fragment from the 3rd century which, complemented by a newly identified piece in an American private collection, provides us with an almost complete text of a hitherto unknown poem of Sappho. We've previously blogged about this poem.

Add MS 19352  f. 191r
Girl with a lyre from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: 
Add MS 19352, f. 191r

Another 2nd-century fragment, held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, is more tantalising. It preserves the closing stanza of another Sappho poem from the end of a papyrus scroll with a short note: '[this is] the first book of the poems – [containing] 1320 lines.'  On this basis, the scroll may have contained 330 of Sappho’s characteristic strophes, making almost a hundred poems. Moreover, the clear designation of the scroll as 'the first' book of the poems indicates that there was probably a second or maybe even a third volume of Sappho’s poems, the majority of which is now lost.

What survives seems to justify Sappho’s poetic fame: she wrote in various styles, verses and voices, mainly about passionate love. This 'subtle flame that runs over her skin', as she describes it in a famous piece, is directed at various individuals: her brother Charaxus, as in the British Library fragment; beautiful boys (one of whom later tradition identified with Phaon, whose unrequited love reportedly made Sappho commit suicide); and a number of girls, including Pyrrha, Cydro and Anactoria, as recorded by the 1st-century Roman poet Ovid.

Harley_ms_3487_f004r
Image of book burning, from the start of Aristotle's Physica, England (Oxford?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Harley MS 3847, f. 4r

It has often been suggested that it was this love of girls that led to the systematic destruction of Sappho's poetry in the Middle Ages. There is a widespread tradition that, in 1073, Pope Gregory VII ordered that all of Sappho’s works be burnt in Rome as well as in Constantinople. However, this is rather unrealistic: it is unclear how a Roman Pope could command the destruction of texts in Constantinople after the great schism of 1054.

This tradition can probably be traced to a collection of the sayings of the French scholar Joseph Scaliger, published in 1666. Scaliger was probably quoting in turn from a work by Geronimo Cardano, a 16th-century Italian polymath who wrote a book about the transmission of ancient wisdom. Lamenting over the miserable destruction of classical writers in the Middle Ages, Scaliger stated first that Pope Gregory VII in 1073 had ordered the burning of all lascivious Roman writers, and secondly that, in Constantinople in the 4th century, Gregory of Nazianzus, had burnt the works of comedians and lyrical poets, including Sappho. Scaliger’s dubious remark is probably a distorted quotation from Cardano, confusing the two Gregories.

Add_ms_18231_f105v
Sermons of Gregory of Nazianzus copied in 972: Add MS 18231, f. 105v

Was Cardano correct? Was it Gregory of Nazianzus who deprived us of the poems of the 'tenth muse', as Sappho was commonly regarded? A closer look at Cardano’s statement reveals that this is also a quotation, taken from the 16th-century scholar Pietro Alcionio, whose book on famous exiles contains his childhood memory of a Greek class by a Constantinople refugee, Demetrios Calkokondylas. He remembers his teacher describing how the Greek Church authorities, supported by the Byzantine emperors, burnt eminent classical Greek poetry, including Sappho’s works, and replaced the burnt poems with those of Gregory of Nazianzus.

Reading Alcionio’s note, it is easy to see how the idea that Gregory of Nazianzus, whose poems were to replace those of Sappho, became twisted into a book-burning inquisitor. However, the question still remains: could the Greek teacher’s information be correct? We have no information whatsoever about the Greek Church burning books other than suspicious or heretic theological works. Did the Byzantine church leaders really burn Sappho's poetry? Was it the flames of Sappho’s burning love that ultimately put her own work on the bonfire?

Peter Toth

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