THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts categorized "Harry Potter"

07 December 2017

How to harvest a mandrake

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

A cure for insanity

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

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

Identify your mandrake

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

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

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

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

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Bring a dog

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

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

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

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Stuff your ears with earth

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

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

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

The manuscripts featured in this post

Or 3366: Baghdad, 14th century

Sloane MS 4016: Herbal, Lombardy, 15th century

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

Sloane MS 278: Bestiary, France, 13th century

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

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

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

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

 

29 November 2017

Harry Potter events at the British Library

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If you're in London over the next few weeks, you may wish to pop into the British Library to attend some of our Harry Potter-themed events. They accompany our current major exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, and they cater for medievalists of all ages (and all tastes).

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The phoenix as imagined by Jim Kay, the exhibition poster for Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The next talks in our series of Hogwarts Curriculum lectures are Care of Magical Creatures with Patrick Aryee on Sunday, 3 December, and Alchemy with our friends from the Science Museum on Tuesday, 12 December. They both promise to be huge fun. Patrick Aryee will be talking about the weird and wonderful animals he's met on his travels, while the Science Museum will reveal the real history of alchemy and the magical effects that can be achieved through science, and there will be a small dose of alchemic science live on stage (have Health and Safety been informed?). In between, on Tuesday, 5 December, the journalist Anita Anand will be chairing an event entitled Women, Witches and Witch Trials, with a descendant of the Salem Witch Trials on the panel.

In January, Julian Harrison, Lead Curator of Harry Potter: A History of Magic, will disclose some of the secrets behind curating the exhibition (22 January), and there are two series of classes organised by the British Library's Learning team, Picturing Magic (beginning on 23 January) and Medieval Magic and Astrology (beginning 24 January). Maybe you know someone who'd love to come along?

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The Ripley Scroll, providing instructions on how to make the Philosopher's Stone, on display until 28 February 2018 in Harry Potter: A History of Magic

 

Julian Harrison

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24 November 2017

Gifts for manuscripts lovers

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Books make great presents — just ask Charlemagne, Alcuin, Anne of Burgundy, Henry VI, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, all of whom gave or received manuscripts for Christmas or New Year. So, now that the Christmas shopping season is upon us, we would like to recommend some of our colleagues' wonderful recent publications as gifts for the historian/art-lover/calligrapher/bibliophile in your life.

Tudor Monarchs

This year saw the publication of Andrea Clarke’s fantastic Tudor Monarchs: Lives in Letters. This book contains transcriptions and translations, images and discussions of dozens of original documents. These include letters from Wolsey to Cromwell, a letter jointly written by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Wolsey, and the draft of Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech (‘I have the heart and stomach of a king ...’). For everyone who is interested in the Tudors, this beautifully written book is a wonderful way to get to know the people behind the portraits. It is an indispensable guide to some of the most significant surviving documents from the Tudor period, and you can buy it here.

Art of the Bible stack

For art lovers, there is Kathleen Doyle’s and Scot McKendrick’s The Art of the Bible. This gorgeously illustrated book explores 1,000 years of history. It examines the diverse ways in which scribes and artists from Iraq to Northumbria to Ethiopia have presented sacred texts. Each page is breath-taking. This book is also available in French, German, Dutch and Italian. Buy it here.

Our other recent publications are the books associated with the exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic. One of these is intended for children (Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic) and the other for a general audience (Harry Potter: A History of Magic). Buy them here.

Harry Potter Book Cover

And don’t just take our word for it — the Guardian has recommended Harry Potter: A History of Magic as one of the top 10 books to buy this holiday season. Harry Potter: A History of Magic is currently the best-selling item in the British Library shop, so order it soon!

A range of other books relating to medieval manuscripts and magic are available in the British Library shop, including Sophie Page’s Magic in Medieval Manuscripts and Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts. There are also postcards and even Oyster Card holders featuring medieval manuscripts in the British Library's shop. So whether you are transfixed by the Tudors, enthralled by illuminations or fascinated by phoenixes, there is something for everyone this Christmas.

 

21 November 2017

The original Hermione

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Bushy hair, writing furiously — why, it must be Hermione! But this is not an early image of Hermione Granger. This is the Hermione of Greek mythology. She features in Greek and Latin writings about the Trojan War, from Homer’s Odyssey to the plays of Euripides and the poems of Ovid.


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Hermione writing a letter, from a copy of a French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, made in Paris at the end of the 15th century: Harley MS 4867, f. 60v

In classical mythology, Hermione was said to be the daughter and only child of Helen of Troy and Menelaus, king of Sparta. She was only a young girl when her mother ran off with (or was kidnapped by) Paris, starting the Trojan War. Hermione’s love life became just as complicated as her mother’s. She was initially engaged to Orestes, the son of Agamemnon. In some versions of the story she even secretly married him. However, Hermione’s oblivious father married her to Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, also known as Pyrrhus. This wedding is one of the first events in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus’s son Telemachus travels to Sparta to ask Menelaus if he has heard any news about the missing Odysseus and

found [Menelaus] in his own house, feasting with his many clansmen in honour of the wedding of his son, and also of his daughter, whom he was marrying to the son of that valiant warrior Achilles … [Menelaus’s] son, Megapenthes, was born to him of a bondwoman, for heaven vouchsafed Helen no more children after she had borne Hermione, who was fair as golden Venus herself (translated by Samuel Butler).

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Beginning of Book IV in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 26r

There is magic in some of the stories about the mythological Hermione. After the sack of Troy, Hermione’s husband Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus was given Andromache, the widow of Hector, as a concubine. In Euripides’s play Andromache, Hermione accuses Andromache of putting a spell on her so she is unable to bear children. She tries to persuade her father, Menelaus, to kill Andromache and her child while her husband is away, but Andromache is protected by Neoptolemus's grandfather, Peleus.

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Epitomes of Euripedes's Andromache and other works, Egypt, c. 100-125 AD: Papyrus 3040

Meanwhile, Hermione's ex-fiancé Orestes arrives. He has killed Neoptolemus. Orestes declares that he is still in love with Hermione and takes her back to his kingdom.

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Andromache flees with her child while Hermione talks to Pyrrhus, from a copy of Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, made in Naples, c. 1330–1340: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 187r

The love of Orestes and Hermione also inspired the Roman writer Ovid. She is one of the heroines of Ovid’s poems known as the Heroides. These 15 poems take the form of letters written by mythological heroines to the men in their lives who have let them down. Ovid portrayed Hermione as a woman who, against her will, had been dragged off by Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus. She writes to Orestes, begging him to come and rescue her.

Pyrrhus … holds me

prisoner here, contrary to the laws of both gods and men ...

Deafer to [my pleas] than the sea, he dragged me into his palace,

as I tore my hair in grief and shouted your name …

When the Greeks won the war and set wealthy Troy on fire,

they didn’t maltreat Andromache as badly as this ...

Follow my father’s example of claiming back an abducted wife …

[But] don’t muster a thousand ships with swelling sails

Or an army of Greek warriors — come yourself!’

(Ovid’s Heroides translated by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves and Sarah Parker, pp. 89–90).

The sense of these verses is similar in the later medieval French translation, see in the first image in this post. This translation was made by Octavien de Saint-Gelais for King Charles VIII between 1490 and 1493. 

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Paris and Helen writing to each other, from a copy of a French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, made in Paris at the end of the 15th century: Harley MS 4867, f. 115r

In Ovid’s poem, Hermione then wonders whether the women in her family have been struck with a curse ‘that makes all us female descendants of Tantalus ripe for the ravishing’, citing the examples of her mother Helen and her grandmother Leda. Ovid’s Hermione is not entirely sympathetic to her mother, however. Part-way through the letter, Hermione addresses her mother directly, allowing Ovid to give a haunting, child’s eye-view of the start of the Trojan War:

‘I tore my girlishly short hair and kept on shouting:

“Are you going away without me, mother?” …

I went to meet you when you came home, and — honestly —

I didn’t know what my mother’s face looked like.

I realized you were Helen because you were so beautiful.’

(Ovid’s Heroides translated by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves and Sarah Parker, p. 92).

Hermione was a fascinating character who continued to inspire writers, musicians and artists in the Middle Ages and beyond, as Greek and Latin texts were recopied, rewritten and reintepreted. The manuscripts featured here are only a small sample of the books that feature the original Hermione.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 November 2017

Science Museum loans in Harry Potter: A History of Magic

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There are some stunning medieval manuscripts in the British Library's current exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. We have spent the last year searching our collections for items that relate in some way to the magical subjects studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and we've made some incredible discoveries along the way. But no exhibition of this magnitude is complete without the assistance and generosity of other institutions. Visitors to the show will recognise instantly that our books are complemented by a wealth of fascinating objects, many of which have kindly been loaned by our friends at the Science Museum in London. We would like to record here our gratitude to the assistance provided by both the Science Museum and the Wellcome Trust in enabling us to borrow these items, which have helped to make our exhibition such a magical experience. Which is your favourite? The mandrake root, perhaps, or the unicorn shop sign?

We are also delighted to announce that, on 12 December, Roger Highfield and Sophie Waring of the Science Museum will be delivering one of our Hogwarts Curriculum Lectures on the subject of Alchemy. You can book your tickets here. It promises to be a very special evening. Roger has also contributed a wonderful essay on Potions and Alchemy to the exhibition book, published by our friends at Bloomsbury. That's well worth a read, though we'd love you to be able to make it to the exhibition in London as well. It closes on 28 February, and tickets need to be purchased in advance.

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A mandrake root: this mandrake root dates from the 16th or 17th century, and it has been carved to resemble the figure of a human. The mandrake's resemblance to the human form has prompted many cultures over the centuries to attribute special powers to the plant. In reality, the mandrake’s root and leaves are poisonous and it can induce hallucinations.

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A real bezoar stone: a corruption of the Persian word pādzahar (pād, expelling; zahar, poison), bezoars were first introduced into medieval Europe by Arabic physicians and reputedly provided a powerful antidote to poison. Wealthy owners (including kings and popes) spent considerable sums on acquiring the stones (digested by goats and similar animals), and often kept them in elaborate cases.

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Apothecary jars: we love these apothecary jars, which were possibly made in Spain in the 17th century. The jar labelled ‘Vitriol Coerul’ contained copper sulphite, ‘Ocul. Cancr’ stored ‘crabs eyes’ — particles from the guts of putrefied crayfish, used to cure indigestion — while the jar named ‘Sang. Draco.V.’ contained ‘Dragon’s Blood’, a potent red resin that still has medical uses today.

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An apothecary's sign: the blood, hair and horn of the unicorn have been traditionally believed to possess powerful medicinal properties. This sign would have stood outside an apothecary’s
shop in the 1700s. The horn is made from the tusk of a narwhal, otherwise known as the ‘unicorn of the sea’.

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A miniature orrery: an orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system, often used for teaching. This miniature orrery was made in London in the 18th century by the mathematical instrument maker, John Troughton. It displays the movement of Earth in relation to the Moon and two other planets. 

 

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

until 28 February 2018

 

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

 

09 November 2017

Harry Potter exhibition books on sale now

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Harry Potter: A History of Magic, the British Library's new blockbuster exhibition, is currently on show (until 28 February 2018). It's definitely worth making a special visit to London. There is an array of beautiful books and artefacts on display — the Evening Standard has described it as 'a cornucopia of magical and mysterious items' — including medieval manuscripts, cauldrons and Chinese oracle bones.

We're delighted to say that two books have also been published by our friends at Bloomsbury to accompany the exhibition, one entitled Harry Potter: A History of Magic and the other aimed at a family audience, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic. They are incredibly well researched and written, and beautifully illustrated (says someone who wrote, edited, reviewed and proofed them!). The 'adult' version contains essays by Lead Curator, Julian Harrison, together with astronaut Tim Peake, naturalist and television presenter Steve Backshall, the Rev Richard Coles, Lucy Mangan and others; while the family version contains lots of fun activities for younger people.

Both books are available online or from the British Library shop, as well as from other major retailers. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed writing them!

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Harry Potter: A History of Magic

HPFAMMAGIC

Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic

 

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

02 November 2017

How many horns does a unicorn have?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

28 October 2017

Harry Potter: A History of Magic on BBC2

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If you like Harry Potter and/or you're interested in the history of magic, you're in for a real treat this Saturday, 28 October. A documentary focusing on the British Library's new exhibition is to be broadcast on BBC2, at 21:00. It features the Library's curators, famous actors, wandmakers and a certain well-known author, and it's called, just like the exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. (The documentary is now also available on the BBC iPlayer.) We think you just might want to watch it, and hopefully you'll be eager to see the exhibition afterwards.

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The artwork of the British Library exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, showing Jim Kay's fantastic illustration of a phoenix

Here, to give you a taster of the television programme, are two short clips, including an introduction to a rather special scroll and the story behind the incantation 'Abracadabra'.

Jim Kay's Harry Potter

Harry Potter, as illustrated by the brilliant Jim Kay, whose original artwork is on display in the British Library exhibition

 

The television documentary Harry Potter: A History of Magic

Saturday, 28 October

BBC2, 21.00–22.00

 

The exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

until 28 February 2018

 

Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter Exhibition and Medieval Historical Manuscripts)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval