THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

109 posts categorized "Greek"

22 February 2018

Harry Potter meets the Middle Ages

Add comment Comments (0)

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 show, 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.

Royal_ms_12_d_xvii_f041v

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

ApothecaryShop_G70025-05

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

Harley_ms_3469_f004r

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

Sloane_ms_2523b_3d

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.

Add_ms_22332_f003r

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

Harry-potter-british-library-mandrake-c-british-library-board

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

Harley_ms_5294_f022r

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

Sloane_ms_4016_f038r

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.

Papyrus 46(5)

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)

Royal_ms_12_e_xxiii_f020r

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.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_v!1_f037r

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

Cotton_ms_tiberius_c_i_f028r

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

Add_ms_24189-f015r

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

Arundel_ms_263_f104r

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.

Royal_ms_12_c_xii_f107r

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. 

Add_ms_82955_f129r

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

Royal_ms_12_c_xix_f067r

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.

Burney_ms_97_f018r

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

Harley_ms_4751_f045r

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

Sloane_ms_278_f047r

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

 

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

 

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 February 2018

It's a kind of magic

Add comment

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.

Image_1

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.

Image_2

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.

Image_3

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.

Image_4

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.

Image_5

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.

Image_6

'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 …”'

Image_7

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

Add comment

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).

Image 1_cotton_ms_claudius_d_vi!1_f012v

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.

Image 2_lansdowne_ms_420_f008r

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.

Image 3_add_ms_5412_f001r

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)

Image 4_add_ms_35321_f180r

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

Add comment Comments (0)

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.

Add_ms_5111!1_f010r

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.

Add_ms_5111!1_f010v

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.

Add_ms_5111!1_f011r - Copy

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

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

09 December 2017

The destruction of Sappho's works

Add comment Comments (1)

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

02 December 2017

Germaine Greer on Sappho

Add comment

This year's Panizzi lectures at the British Library will be delivered by Germaine Greer, on the subject of Sappho, one of the first known female poets, and the first woman known to have written poems in Greek. We have a special affection for Sappho in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts section of the Library. Earlier this year we wrote on this blog about The Mystery of Sappho, exploring why only a fraction of her poetry survives.

Professor Greer will be giving three lectures on Sappho and her poetry, on Monday 4 December (The Witnesses); Thursday 7 December (The Glory); and Monday 11 December (The Shame). Each lecture begins at 19.00 and is free to attend, with places allocated on a first come, first served basis. We're delighted that Sappho is the subject of this year's lectures, and hope that many of you are able to come along to the British Library to witness them. As we noted earlier this year, only a few fragments of Sappho's poems survive, and scholars continue to debate why this might be the case.

Sappho

Fragment of a poem by Sappho concerning her brother Charaxus, 3rd century CE: Papyrus 739

The 2017 Panizzi Lectures take place at the British Library's Knowledge Centre Theatre on 4 December, 7 December and 11 December.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

15 November 2017

Call for papers: the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting

Add comment

Following the first three successful meetings at the British Museum and last year at Cambridge University Library, the British Library is pleased to host the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting. This meeting will take place on 21–22 June 2018 at the British Library Centre for Conservation.

Papyrus 113 (15c)
Illustrated copy of the Life of Secundus the Silent Philosopher – Egypt, 6th century (Papyrus 113 (15c)

We are now inviting proposals for individual papers of 20 minutes or short communications of 10 minutes on subjects related to:

  • Conservation and Preservation
  • Cataloguing
  • Digitisation
  • Ongoing and Completed Projects
  • Funding Opportunities


Papyrus 488
Plato’s Phaedo from 3rd century BCE – one of the earliest papyri in the British Library (Papyrus 488)

Please submit your proposals of no more than 100 words by email to papyrusmeeting.proposals2018@gmail.com by 31 January 2018. Successful submissions will be announced early in the New Year with a full programme to follow.

Papyrus 46  f. 5
Magic ring from a 4th-century Greek handbook on magic (Papyrus 46, f. 5)

Limited travel bursaries are available for delegates who would otherwise face financial barriers to attending, as part of the British Museum’s national knowledge-sharing programmes generously supported by the Vivmar Foundation. If you would like to apply for a bursary, please contact UK Partnerships Co-ordinator Georgia Mallin at gmallin@britishmuseum.org, explaining how your attendance will support your work/organisation and why the bursary is needed.

 

The Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting

21–22 June 2018

The British Library

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 November 2017

Canon tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels now on display

Add comment Comments (0)

As a text, the canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of scripture. Over many centuries copies of the Gospels in Latin, Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Gothic, Syriac, Georgian or Slavonic begin with these tables. Devised and created in Greek 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 Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As Eusebius explained in a prefatory letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

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. By this means he adduced the unity of the four narratives without attempting to harmonise them into a single text.

Add_ms_43725_f201r

Codex Sinaiticus, the folio currently on display at the British Library: Add MS 43725, f. 201r

The earliest known evidence for the use of the tables occurs in Codex Sinaiticus, an extraordinary 4th-century Greek manuscript that is also the earliest surviving complete New Testament. In Codex Sinaiticus the tables themselves do not survive, but the Ammonian section numbers are included throughout the Gospels. These can be seen in the Gospel of St Matthew currently on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, or viewed in detail on our Digitised Manuscripts website. In Codex Sinaiticus, the section numbers (in Greek characters) are added on the left-hand side of each column in red ink, with the number of the canon table that needs to be consulted for parallel texts of that section.

Add_ms_43725_f201r_zoom

Section 16, canon 5: a note in the Gospel of St Matthew, a detail from Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f. 201r column 2)

For example, in the right-hand page on display in the Gallery, the third number in the second column (in the account of one of Christ’s temptations) is marked as section 16, in Canon 5. Further information about the manuscript is available on the Codex Sinaiticus website, including a full transcription and translation, and in this previous blogpost.

Add_ms_05111!1_f002r

The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th–7th century (Add MS 5111/1)

One of most splendid illuminated examples of the Canon Tables in Greek are the leaves now known as the Golden Canon Tables, because they are written on parchment previously painted entirely with gold. Made in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, the tables are now fragmentary but nevertheless betray a very sophisticated artistic style. They are a rare witness of an early version of these tables.

Cotton_ms_nero_d_4_f014v Cotton_ms_nero_d_4_f015r
The pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels currently on display at the British Library: Cotton MS Nero D IV, ff. 14v–15r

Canon tables are also included in the Latin copy of the Gospels known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, which was probably made on the island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in around 700. The fifth canon, which lists texts that are common in the two Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, is now on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery. This is the same canon as that referred to in Codex Sinaiticus, several centuries earlier. The canons in the Lindisfarne Gospels are surrounded by intricately designed micro-architectural decoration, with wonderful intertwined biting birds. You can view them in more detail with the zoom function on the Digitised Manuscripts website, or visit the Treasures Gallery in the coming months.