THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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19 posts categorized "Harry Potter"

28 February 2018

Rising from the ashes: bringing a medieval manuscript to life

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The British Library‚Äôs major exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, has featured a host of fascinating manuscripts, alongside a fire-damaged cauldron, crystal balls and a ‚Äėreal‚Äô mermaid. It took several months to choose all the exhibits, but when it came to selecting an image of a medieval phoenix, the choice was relatively simple. We have some gorgeous illustrations of phoenixes in our collections, but the one that really caught the curators‚Äô eye was found in Harley MS 4751, a decorated English bestiary. But choosing the manuscript was only the start. We were planning to digitise this bestiary as part of our digitisation project sponsored by The Polonsky Foundation. This blogpost explores the complexities of that process.

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A phoenix collecting twigs (top image) and the phoenix consumed by flames in the funeral pyre (below image), from Harley MS 4751, f. 45r

Some of our readers will already be familiar with our digitisation programme. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, 700-1200: Manuscripts from the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France is a collaborative project between the two national libraries of Britain and France, to digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts. Currently the British Library has made over 100 manuscripts available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. But how does the digitisation process work? Here is a look behind the scenes at the work of the project team, from conservation to the final online publishing of the manuscripts. We are particularly grateful to the generosity of The Polonsky Foundation, which is enabling some of our collections to be made available to view online.

Here we show step-by-step how this beautiful bestiary was digitised. Before any manuscript can be digitised, it may require an additional level of care from staff in the British Library Conservation Centre, in order to safeguard the manuscript during the digitisation process. First, our project conservator, Jessica Pollard, stabilised Harley MS 4751, in order that the manuscript could be photographed securely.

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Project conservator Jessica Pollard with Harley MS 4751 in the British Library Conservation Centre

Next, the bestiary was taken to the Library’s Imaging Studios for digitisation. Project photographer Carl Norman is an expert in safely handling rare and historical material like medieval manuscripts, and the studios are equipped with state-of-the-art photographic imaging systems, producing high quality images for use on Digitised Manuscripts. Carl shot images of the bestiary in carefully controlled conditions, with the light and temperature levels being monitored closely to protect the manuscript.

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Project photographer Carl Norman digitally captures the phoenix of Harley MS 4751 in the British Library Imaging Studios

After being photographed, the book was examined by our project cataloguers, experts in the study of medieval books. Manuscripts are catalogued through careful study of their texts, decoration and the materials used to make them. Our cataloguers also take to care to describe the history of the book and any known past owners. In this instance, they were able to determine that the bestiary was probably produced in Salisbury in the late 12th or early 13th century.

Finally, when both the photography and cataloguing were completed, our project digitisation officer published the fully digitised manuscript online. The complete process was achieved through the great teamwork of every member of the project, and we’re delighted with the results. You can view them now on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

Harley MS 4751 contains over 100 fascinating illuminations, ranging from domestic animals such as the goat and donkey to exotic animals such as the tiger and elephant, and mythical beasts such as the basilisk. Here is a small selection, we hope you can find many more to enthral you online.

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Miniature of goats in a medieval bestiary (Salisbury?, late 12th or early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 14r

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Miniature of a donkey being prompted towards a waterwheel by a man with a stick and a whistle: Harley MS 4751, f. 25r

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Miniature of a knight on horseback and a tiger with a mirror, illustrating the text that a tiger can outrun a man on a horse, so in order to steal a cub and escape, the thief should throw down a mirror, and the tigress will stop to look at its own reflection, thinking it is her cub: Harley MS 4751, f. 3v

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Miniature of an elephant with a wooden tower on its back, with soldiers with crossbows and other weapons: Harley MS 4751, f. 8r

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 Miniature of a basilisk: Harley MS 4751, f. 59r

 

The phoenix, of course, had a legendary ability to rise from the ashes. In its old age, it would create its own funeral pyre, fanning the flames with its own wings, before being reborn after nine days. It takes much, much longer to digitise a medieval manuscript, but we like the idea that, by our digitising our collections, we are giving new life to books made centuries ago.

British Library Harley 4751

 

The Polonsky Project Team

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24 February 2018

Harry Potter meets the Middle Ages

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

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

Potions

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

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

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

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

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

Herbology

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

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

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

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

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

Charms

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

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

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

Astronomy

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

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

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

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

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

Divination

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

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

Defence Against the Dark Arts

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

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

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

Care of Magical Creatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 February 2018

How to make yourself invisible

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There have been times when everyone has wanted to become invisible. But did you know that there is actually a relatively simple way of achieving this? We say 'simple', because you merely have to pronounce the words found in the text known as The Book of King Solomon called The Key of Knowledge. We have a 17th-century copy of this work on show in our exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic, and up to now you've had to visit London in person to read aloud this charm. But now we are giving everyone who reads this blog the same opportunity. Do let us know if it works. You just have to recite the following words.

Stabbon, Asen, Gabellum, Saneney, Noty, Enobal, Labonerem, Balametem, Balnon, Tygumel, Millegaly, Juneneis, Hearma, Hamorache, Yesa, Seya, Senoy, Henen, Barucatha, Acararas, Taracub, Bucarat, Caramy, by the mercy whitch you beare towardes mann kynde, make me to be invysible.

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‚ÄėHowe experyments to be invysible must bee preparedd‚Äô, in The Book of King Solomon called The Key of Knowledge

We SO want this charm to be successful. If it didn't work for you first-time round, it may be that you didn't pronounce the words properly. The manuscript was once owned by the writer and scholar, Gabriel Harvey (1552/3-1631), but whether he had the power to become invisible is lost in the mists of time.

You can see this fantastic manuscript (if you are lucky enough to have a ticket) in Harry Potter: A History of Magic, where it is displayed near a real invisibility cloak (honestly), on loan from a private lender.

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

13 February 2018

Gnome alone

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We know that this blog is usually devoted to medieval manuscripts, but we couldn't help featuring this image of a garden gnome. The little chap in question (in actual fact, he's rather large) is currently standing proudly in the British Library's Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. We have borrowed him from our friends at the Garden Museum here in London, and as with our other lenders (among them the British Museum, the Science Museum and the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic) we are indebted to their generosity in allowing him to be part of our show.

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When we were researching our exhibits, I made an appointment to visit the Garden Museum to view their collection of historic gnomes. At that time, the Museum was closed for a major renovation programme, and so my first task on meeting Emma House, the curator, was to don a hard hat and a pair of sturdy boots before being allowed inside. I had originally been interested in a group of gnomes that had been hand-carved by German prisoners-of-war, but on closer inspection they turned out to be too small (although beautifully made) to have the impact we desired. Emma then showed me their Disney gnomes (too garish) and their Tony Blair gnome (not everyone's cup of tea); and it was then that we set eyes on this fishing gnome, sitting in one corner of the gallery. He dates from around the year 1900 and was made by Heissner of Germany, the world's foremost maker of garden gnomes. As Emma told me, he was the Garden Museum's oldest and most historically significant gnome. He fitted the bill in so many ways: fans of the Harry Potter novels may recall that Ron Weasley described the Muggle craze for garden gnomes, described as 'fat little Father Christmases with fishing rods' (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).

And so the British Library submitted its loan request. Last October, after all the necessary arrangements had been made and the fishing gnome had been safely packed, he made the short journey across London to our own exhibition.

We don't have any pictures of medieval gnomes among our collections, but one of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts does contain one of the earliest references to elves, and another (Bald's Leechbook) reports that elves could cause pain in domestic animals. You can read about both manuscripts in our blogpost Elves and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts; and you can also see Bald's Leechbook in the Potions section of Harry Potter: A History of Magic.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

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 ‚Äď magic.

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

The British Library‚Äôs 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: ‚ÄúLet whatever I wish not take place OR let so-and-so not get married forever‚ÄĚ. 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, ‚ÄúSpirit of the dead ‚Ķ‚ÄĚ'

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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

24 January 2018

The British Museum and Harry Potter: A History of Magic

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One of the most exciting moments when curating our current exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, came when the British Museum kindly agreed to lend us some of their own magical items. The Library and Museum have a long-standing relationship. Apart from having a shared history dating back to 1753 and once occupying the same home at Bloomsbury, we frequently support each others' exhibitions. You may recall, for example, that in 2015 we blogged here about the British Museum's loans to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. We were equally delighted when news came through that the Museum was willing to lend us no fewer than five magnificent items for our Harry Potter show, numbering an astrolabe, some divination cards, a kappa netsuke, a genuine mermaid and the wonderful Battersea Cauldron.

I have to say that we could not help punching the air when we heard that the mermaid and cauldron, in particular, might be wending their way to our exhibition. All five items complement the Library's own books and manuscripts and the other items on display, helping to engage, entertain and educate our visitors in equal measure. We'd like to go on record here to thank the Trustees of the British Museum for their generosity in lending their items to us, and for helping to make our show so spectacular.

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Fans of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels will be familiar with Harry's encounter with the merpeople in The Goblet of Fire. We have a genuine specimen of a mermaid in our exhibition, courtesy of the British Museum. It was presented to the Museum by Princess Arthur of Connaught in 1942, and had allegedly been caught in Japan some 200 years previously. We often say that it is reminiscent of Edvard Munch's The Scream. Somewhat disappointingly, we have to reveal that this mermaid was made by fusing together the upper body of a monkey and the tail of a fish, and is evidence of an East Asian trend in the 1700s for fabricating merpeople. We have placed it on show in the room devoted to Care of Magical Creatures, alongside medieval illustrations of phoenixes and printed images of two-horned unicorns.

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Astrolabes were probably invented by the Greeks 2000 years ago. They provide a two-dimensional map of the heavens, and could be used to identify the stars and planets and for determining latitude. In the Islamic world, they are also used to find the direction of Mecca, which Muslims face when they pray. This finely decorated example, on loan from the British Museum, is made of brass inlaid with silver, and can be dated to the 1200s. The Library's curators have chosen to place it alongside a manuscript from medieval Bohemia, depicting astronomers and astrologers on Mount Athos.

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The kappa takes its name from the Japanese words for ‚Äėriver‚Äô (kawa) and ‚Äėchild‚Äô (wappa). They were mischievous creatures, and reputedly pulled people into the lakes and rivers in which they dwelt. This seated example of a kappa is in the form of a netsuke, a small sculptural object that is part of traditional Japanese dress. Netsuke frequently took the shape of mythical beasts and could function as talismans. Carved of wood, the kappa‚Äôs head has a distinctive hollow to contain the fluid vital to its strength. We made the decision to place this netsuke in Defence Against the Dark Arts, a room which is also dedicated to basilisks, werewolves and snake magic.

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Cartomancy is a form of divination that uses cards to predict the future. This pack from the 1700s is reputedly the earliest designed specifically for divination. The 52 cards follow an unusual procedure. The kings prompt questions that are answered in the form of enigmatic rhyming phrases. Each card was inscribed with the name of a famous astronomer, seer or magician, such as Merlin, Doctor Faustus and Nostradamus. Other items on display in Divination include Chinese oracle bones owned by the British Library and crystal balls loaned by the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.

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Cauldrons are one of the most potent symbols of witchcraft. They were used historically for many different purposes, including preparing potions. This particular example was found in the River Thames at Battersea in 1861, and had perhaps been deposited as an offering to the gods. It is almost 3000 years old and was created by riveting together seven plates of sheet bronze. Visitors to the exhibition can view it in the Potions room, alongside the oldest printed item of witches with a cauldron, dating from 1489, and the 10th-century Bald's Leechbook.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic has proved hugely popular, and thousands of people have visited it in London since it opened last October (it closes on 28 February). We are extremely grateful to the British Museum and all our other lenders for their gracious support, and for helping us to enthral all our visitors, young and old.

 

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

16 January 2018

Leonardo da Vinci on the Moon

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One of the great thrills of curating our blockbuster exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, has been choosing the exhibits and revisiting some of our favourite manuscripts. When we were planning the show, I often used to impress people by mentioning certain of the books and objects we were intending to display: medieval manuscripts, Chinese oracle bones and, oh yes, something written by somebody called Leonardo da Vinci, "you may have heard of him?" At this point heads always turned, and I knew we'd captured everyone's attention.

So what exactly was I talking about, when I mentioned that Leonardo's writings would be featured in the exhibition? You may be aware that Leonardo da Vinci (1452‚Äď1519), the great inventor, scientist and artist, made copious notes throughout his career. These were gathered into a series of notebooks, one of which is today preserved at the British Library in London, where it is known as the ‚ÄėCodex Arundel‚Äô (after a former owner, the Earl of Arundel): its shelfmark is Arundel MS 263 and it can be viewed in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The notes are written in Italian, and if you examine the writing closely, you immediately recognise that they are in Leonardo's characteristic mirror handwriting, reading from right to left.

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Leonardo da Vinci's notebook (Italy, c. 1506-08): Arundel MS 263, f. 104r

One page from Leonardo's notebook seemed particularly appropriate to show in the Astronomy room of Harry Potter: A History of Magic, alongside objects such as an Arabic astrolabe and the oldest surviving manuscript which charts the night sky (made in China around the year AD 700). The diagram shown here describes the reflection of light, according to the alignments of the Sun, Moon and Earth. Leonardo da Vinci’s illustration shows the Sun and Moon revolving round the Earth, accepting the theory popularised by the Greek astronomer, Ptolemy (d. c. AD 170), that the Earth occupied the centre of the universe. Leonardo was writing, of course, approximately 100 years before the invention of the telescope.

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A detail of Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, showing the reflection of light: Arundel MS 263, f. 104r

On the right-hand side of this page are two diagrams showing the Earth and Moon. The second of these supports Leonardo's belief that the Moon was covered with water, and that its surface would operate like a convex mirror, reflecting light. We may no longer believe this to be true (everyone knows that the Moon is made of cream cheese) but it's always fascinating to get a first-hand insight into the mind of a genius such as Leonardo da Vinci. Placing his notebook on display in our Harry Potter exhibition has enabled more of our visitors to come face-to-face with this intriguing document. Maybe we will have inspired some of the astronomers and scientists of the future, who have been coming to see the exhibition in their thousands.

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The Earth and Moon in Leonardo da Vinci's notebook: Arundel MS 263, f. 104r

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on show at the British Library in London until 28 February 2018. There has been a huge demand for tickets, so we strongly urge you to book in advance of your visit.

 

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

 

 

26 December 2017

You cannot be Sirius

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Fans of a certain boy wizard will be familiar with Sirius Black, Harry Potter‚Äôs beloved godfather. In the Harry Potter books, Sirius Black was an Animagus, with the ability to turn into a shaggy-haired black dog. This is no coincidence, as his name was inspired by Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which lies in the constellation known as Canis major (The Greater Dog). The British Library's exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic explores the history, mythology and folklore behind the Harry Potter stories, and we are delighted that it features a wonderful 12th-century astronomical treatise (Cotton MS Tiberius C I), containing an elaborate illustration and description of the constellation Sirius.

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The constellation of Sirius the Dog Star, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

This manuscript was produced at the Benedictine abbey of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew in Peterborough, sometime in the early decades of the 12th century. The astronomical treatise it contains is known as the Aratea, being a Latin translation (by Marcus Tullius Cicero) of the Phaenomena by Aratus of Soli. The description of each constellation is accompanied by a pen-drawing of either human or animal figures, with red dots representing the stars. In this instance, the constellation Sirius takes the shape of a dog, with the words written in black ink.

The body of Sirius (and the other figures in this manuscript) is infilled with an account of the origins and history of each constellation. They comprise quotations from the Astronomica written by Hyginus, an astronomical source-book. Sirius, from the Greek seirios aster, meaning ‚Äėscorching star‚Äô, was thought to have been named by the Egyptian goddess Isis, because the star shone more brightly than any other. The dog days of summer were so-called because the hottest days of the year traditionally coincided when the Dog Star ascended to rise before the Sun, from late July until August.

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The constellation of Orion, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 27v

Sirius was also said to be the hunting dog of Orion. The constellation Orion is portrayed in the same manuscript as a man inside a house. According to the Astronomica of Hyginus, Orion was accidentally slain by the goddess Diana, as the result of a challenge that she could not hit him with one of her hunting arrows. To mourn his death, she placed him among the constellations. Bellatrix, meaning ‚Äėfemale warrior‚Äô, is the third brightest star in the Orion constellation. Other figures in the night sky include the Hare, the Eagle, the Swan and the Centaur. The last-named was believed to be highly skilled in augury, that is, the interpretation of omens.

Image 3_cotton_ms_tiberius_c_i_f031v
The centaur was highly skilled in the interpretation of omens: the Centaur constellation, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 31v

Would you like to stargaze more? This illustrated Aratea has been digitised by the Polonsky Foundation England and France, 700-1200 project. It is now available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Two other copies of the Aratea can also be seen in full there, one made in 9th-century France and later taken to Canterbury (Harley MS 647) and the other made at Fleury around the year 1000 (Harley MS 2506).

Meanwhile, the wonderful manuscript illustrated above is currently on display in the Astronomy section of the British Library‚Äôs major exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. Tickets can be purchased online, but they are selling extremely fast. The show has to end on 28 February, so catch it while you can.

 

Alison Ray

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