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Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

13 December 2017

British Library manuscripts in Glass exhibition at the Musée de Cluny

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Two British Library manuscripts are featured in the exhibition, Le Verre, un Moyen Âge inventif (‘Glass, the Inventive Middle Ages’), at the Musée de Cluny in Paris, which opened on 20 September and runs until 8 January 2018. A collection of miniatures from a treatise on the Vices and Virtues and a 13th-century copy of Roger Bacon’s Opus Maius are two of nearly 150 objects that include glassware, illuminated manuscripts, engravings and paintings as part of an examination of the use of glass throughout the Middle Ages.

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Miniature of a tavern scene with men drinking illustrating Gluttony, and below a cellarer passing up a drink, from a treatise on the Vices and Virtues (fragment), Genoa, c. 1330–1340: Add MS 27695, f. 14r

The scene above is an image originally bound with a 14th-century treatise on the Seven Vices (now Add MS 27695) by a member of the Cocharelli family of Genoa. Possibly used to instruct the children of the family on the seven deadly sins, the painting depicts four men representing Gluttony as they drink in an Italian tavern. The scene also features a variety of glassware: the moderate drinker on the left sips from a glass, the excessive drinkers beside him both drink from bottles and glass, and the drinker on the right has dropped his bottle as he vomits. The cellarer below is passing the drinkers a refilled glass, and his additional glasses are visible on a shelf beside him.

During the 14th century, northern Italy was a leading centre in the production of glass for domestic and scientific use. Venetian glassmakers specialised in making high quality, colourless glassware made from quartz pebbles from the Italian mainland and plant ash from Egypt and Syria. By the Renaissance, the glass industry of Venice was booming with spectacular glassware used to celebrate special occasions across Europe. As prized status symbols in events such as the marriage ceremonies of noblemen and women, Venetian glassware featured opulent glass imitating semiprecious stones, gilding and enamelling.

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Scientific diagram on optics, from Roger Bacon’s Perspectiva, S. England(?), 4th quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 7 F VIII, f. 54v

As well as domestic glass, medieval glass was used to create scientific apparatuses and invent life-changing tools. The 13th-century English friar and scholar Roger Bacon produced major works on natural philosophy and mathematics, including the Opus Maius, which he sent to the Pope in 1267 or 1268. In this treatise of over 800 pages, Bacon examined topics ranging from celestial bodies to gunpowder. The British Library holds what is thought to be the earliest manuscript copy of several of Bacon’s works (now Royal MS 7 F VIII). This copy features the text of Bacon’s work on optics known as the Perspectiva, in which he describes the properties of light, colour and vision. His study of mirrors and lenses greatly influenced the scientific community, leading to the invention of reading glasses and magnifying glasses. In 1289, the Florentine writer Sandro di Popozo commented in a treatise on the conduct of family that, ‘I am so debilitated by age that without the glasses known as spectacles, I would no longer be able to read and write.’

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Scientific diagrams, from Roger Bacon’s Perspectiva, S. England(?), 4th quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 7 F VIII, f. 89v

Le Verre, un Moyen Âge inventif runs at the Musée de Cluny, Paris (Musée national du Moyen Âge) from 20 September 2017 until 8 January 2018: see this press release for further details.

 

Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

09 December 2017

The destruction of Sappho's works

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

Peter Toth

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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 â€” 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

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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