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Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

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

22 April 2018

Lover, sorceress, demon: Circe's transformations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse

The British Library

30 April, 19.00–20.30

 

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21 April 2018

Annual Walton Lecture in Athens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lecture is open to all.

 

Annual Walton Lecture

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

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

Cotsen Hall, 9 Anapiron Polemou Street, Athens

 

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

 

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19 April 2018

A Bible fit for a king

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As regular readers of this Blog will know, the display of the Lindisfarne Gospels follows a conservation programme recommended by an international committee of experts. It is now back in secure storage for a rest period, until the autumn when it will be back on display and featured in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library. 

In its place we have just put out on display in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Gallery (Royal MS 15 D I and Royal MS 18 D IX) two volumes that have been described as forming the most beautiful Bible in French ever made (Berger, La Bible (1884), p. 389; a companion volume is Royal MS 18 D X). Their large number of images, which illustrate a wide range of Old and New Testament subjects, certainly make the Bible among the most profusely illustrated. Moreover, many of their illustrations treat their biblical subjects with a painterly breadth and spaciousness that distinguish them from other late medieval Bible miniatures. Overall, the Bible is an eloquent witness to why Gabriel Tetzel, a visitor to England, described the court of Edward IV (r. 1461–83) in February 1466 as ‘the most splendid … in all Christendom’ (cited in Charles Ross, Edward IV (London, 1974), p. 259).

These volumes were produced in Bruges, one of the most vibrant commercial and artistic centres in Europe during the second half of the 15th  century. Bruges teemed with book artisans capable of producing high quality manuscripts for wealthy clients.

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As he sits feasting at his table, King Belshazzar is distressed at the sight of a disembodied human hand writing on the wall of his chamber, in the book of Daniel: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 45r

As in many such volumes, the illumination is the result of close collaboration between several artists. All but one of its eleven large miniatures in the volume including the books of Tobit to the Acts of the Apostles (Royal MS 15 D I) were contributed by a principal artist working with a talented assistant. In such images as Belshazzar’s Feast these two illuminators developed striking compositions, the basic simplicity of which is enlivened by the bold application of a lively palette and the introduction of a range of complicated figure poses. Despite their large size, all the illustrations focus almost entirely on one episode each.

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Christ dies on the Cross between the two thieves, as Mary falls into the arms of St John, the other two women look on in grief and the Centurion and soldiers converse, in the Gospel Harmony: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 353r

Additional scenes are relegated to obscure corners of the miniatures and easily overlooked by the viewer. In putting together their paintings, the two miniaturists drew on a stock of patterns of both individual figures and groups. Sources for the impressive Crucifixion, for example, include an earlier Netherlandish engraving of the same subject for the two thieves and a panel painting of the Crucifixion by the celebrated Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1464) for the crucified Christ.

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Judith holds the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes whom she has beheaded while in a drunken stupor in his tent outside the besieged city of Bethulia; in the background she carries his head on the point of her sword back to the city, in the book of Judith: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 66v

The only large miniature not painted by these two artists, The Death of Holofernes, was contributed by a painter who worked with a more subdued palette and had greater interest in the depiction of space and the play of light over forms.

Like many of his royal predecessors, Edward IV sought to possess some of the finest books produced on the Continent. As a result he established a remarkable collection of lavish south Netherlandish manuscripts that reflected contemporary aristocratic taste for French instructional and historicising texts enlivened by colourful illuminations. At the beginning of the Tobit to Acts volume, an inscription by the scribe Jan du Ries identifies the date of his manuscript as 1470 and its patron as Edward. However, the volume appears not to have been originally intended for the English king. Edward’s name and titles have clearly been written over an erasure and were not part of du Ries’s original text. Further evidence suggests that the volume was completed for Edward much later.

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Tobit is blinded by bird droppings while he lies asleep in his house; outside Tobit’s son Tobias converses with the angel Raphael disguised as a traveller, at the beginning of the book of Tobit: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 18r

The two companion volumes that make up the remainder of his Bible historiale are dated 1479, a date that conforms to what we now know to have been Edward’s principal period of collecting Netherlandish illuminated manuscripts. Detailed analysis of the heraldry and border decoration, together with an analysis of the costumes of the figures, confirms that the decoration of this volume also formed part of that campaign around 1479.

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God creating the animals: Royal MS 18 D IX, f. 5r

The other volume on display features a magnificent image of God creating the animals, painted in vivid detail. Probably for lack of an earlier patron with sufficient interest and wealth, the high ambition of the planners of this copy of the Bible historiale remained unfulfilled until several years after the writing of the text, when the painting was finally completed for the English king.

 

Further reading

Samuel Berger, La Bible française au Moyen Âge: Étude sur les plus anciennes versions de la Bible écrites en prose de langue d’oïl (Paris, 1884), pp. 389–90.

Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Los Angeles, 2003), no. 82.

John Lowden, ‘Bible historiale: Tobit to Acts’, in Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (London, 2011), no. 53.

Scot McKendrick, ‘The Manuscripts of Edward IV: The Documentary Evidence’, in 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, ed. by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick (London, 2013), pp. 149–77.

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 42.

 

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