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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 — 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

 

06 December 2017

Chronicles and cartularies – fact and fiction

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Regular readers of this Blog will know that we are constantly adding more manuscripts to our Digitised Manuscripts site. Many of these medieval books have been digitised as part of a major project sponsored by The Polonsky Foundation, in collaboration with our friends at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Here are three examples of newly-digitised British Library manuscripts containing chronicles and cartularies. All three have a connection to France and/or contain texts written in French.

Chronicle of Saint-Martin-des-Champs

Additional MS 11662 contains an illustrated verse chronicle of the priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, produced in Paris between 1072 and 1079, shortly after the events described took place. The priory was founded by King Henry I in the mid-11th century, on or near the site of a Merovingian church just outside Paris, dedicated to St Martin, the Roman soldier who gave his cloak to a poor beggar.  

Narrative illustrations in chronicles are rare in the Romanesque period, and these are unique early examples of the scenes represented. The text includes a copy of the foundation charter by Henry I, dated 1059–1060, and Philip I's confirmation of the donation of Janville and Neuvy-en-Beauce to Saint-Martin-des-Champs (1065). A page is missing after f. 4, but a complete copy of the text with its illuminations was made in Paris c. 1245 (now BnF, nouv. acq. lat. 1359).

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Henry I of France on his throne, pointing to a drawing of the church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, in the Chronicle of Saint-Martin-des-Champs. At the bottom of the page, he presents the foundation charter to the canons of the priory; on the charter is written 'Libertas aecclesia Sancti Martini': Add MS 11662, f. 4r.

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Philip I of France on his throne, surrounded by his court, giving the charter to the canons. Members of the court are named and the churches of Saint-Martin-des-Champs and Saint-Samson of Orléans are illustrated to his left: Add MS 11662, f. 5v

The chronicle is followed by a modern transcription of the text with one of the images (f. 13r) and an index added by an earlier owner. Baron de Joursanvault (1748–1792), whose arms are found on f. 10r.

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An 18th-century transcription of the chronicle: Add MS 11662, f. 13r

The next two manuscripts are associated with St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, founded by Archbishop Augustine (r. 597–604) in the early 7th century. The church, originally known as SS Peter and Paul, was re-founded by King Æthelberht (r. 860–866) to house ‘the bodies of Augustine himself and all the bishops of Canterbury and the kings of Kent’ (Bede, Historia Anglorum, I.33). In the 11th century, the possessions of the convent of Minster-in-Thanet, founded by St Mildreth in the 690s, were acquired by the abbey along with her relics, allegedly donated by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035).

Lives of the Canterbury saints

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The opening page with a charter granting privileges to St Augustine’s Abbey. The name of its former owner, Sir Robert Cotton’s, is inscribed at the bottom: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 2r

Much of this volume, copied in the 12th century, consists of hagiographical works by Goscelin, a monk of the abbey of Saint-Bertin in Saint-Omer, northern France, who came to England in the 11th century and who visited many monasteries, collecting material on English saints. The manuscript contains Goscelin's writings on the miracles and translation of St Augustine, as well as a Life of St Mildreth and other texts relating to the early archbishops of Canterbury. On f. 25r, an otherwise blank page, are notes in very faint pencil, written in Old French, probably dating to the 14th century.

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Display initial at the beginning of Goscelin, Historia minor de adventu sancti Augustini: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 5v

Monastic institutions in the Middle Ages often manufactured documents granting themselves land and privileges. A series of spurious charters and papal privileges follows Goscelin's works in this collection, including a charter of King Edward the Confessor written in a 15th-century hand (ff. 276r–v) and two charters of King Æthelberht I of Kent in Anglo-Caroline script (ff. 277r–279r).

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A full-page historiated initial 'I' depicting King Æthelberht I of Kent, holding a scroll in his right hand and a document in his left: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 277r

A cartulary of St  Augustine’s, Canterbury

A fragmentary 12th-century cartulary owned by St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, is the first item in this composite manuscript, comprising five booklets bound together in the early modern period (Harley MS 337). The Canterbury cartulary contains various papal and imperial privileges, including the confirmation of a privilege granted by Pope Innocent III and correspondence between Calixtus II (r. 1119–1124) and Henry V (r. 1111–1125), the Holy Roman Emperor, relating to the investiture controversy.

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A decorated initial at the beginning of the cartulary: Harley MS 337, f. 1r

Also bound with these earlier works is ‘the Harleian Roll’, so-named because it contains a series of shields, painted around 1314, decorating a work in Anglo-Norman French by William of Waddington, the Manuel de Pechiez. A total of 126 armorial shields in colours are found in the upper margins and the outlines of unfinished shields are sketched in brown ink on the remaining pages.

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A fragment from the Manuel des Pechiez, with armorial shields including that of Sir Giles of Argentein, killed at Bannockburn in 1314: Harley MS 337, f. 15v

Chantry Westwell

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30 November 2017

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition to open in 2018

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On 19 October 2018, our major exhibition on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will open. Ranging from the 5th to the 11th centuries, the exhibition will explore this long, dynamic period when the English language was used and written down for the first time and a kingdom of England was first created. Drawing on the British Library’s own outstanding collections and a large number of very significant loans, the exhibition will examine the surviving evidence for the history, art, literature and culture of the period, as preserved in books, documents and a number of related objects.

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Miniature of Ezra writing in Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

Codex Amiatinus, the earliest complete Latin Bible, will be returning to Britain for the first time in over 1,300 years ago for display in the exhibition. This giant illuminated Bible was made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria in the early 8th century. Abbot Ceolfrith took it with him on his final voyage to Italy, as a gift to the Pope in 716. It is now held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence which is generously loaning the manuscript next year. It will be shown with the St Cuthbert Gospel, the earliest intact European book, which was also made at Wearmouth-Jarrow and was acquired by the British Library in 2012. The two books are very different: while the St Cuthbert Gospel, which contains only the Gospel of John, can be held in one hand, the spine of Codex Amiatinus, containing the whole Bible, is nearly a foot thick. These two books will be exhibited alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of Britain’s greatest artistic treasures, and other illuminated manuscripts of international significance made in the late 7th and 8th centuries.

Cuthbert binding

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The tiny St Cuthbert Gospel, British Library Add MS 89000 and the gargantuan Codex Amiatinus (image courtesy of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana)

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Two other complete Bibles were made at the same time as Codex Amiatinus. Only a few leaves of one of the other Bibles survive; the third has been completely lost: British Library Add MS 45025, f. 2v.

The exhibition will include a number of outstanding objects, including key pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard discovered near Lichfield in 2009, and kindly loaned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils. Objects drawn from the unique array of military equipment which makes up the bulk of the hoard will be on display, as well as the pectoral cross and the gilded strip inscribed with text drawn from the biblical book of Numbers.

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The pectoral cross and an inscribed strip from the Staffordshire Hoard, to be loaned to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils (images courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust)

A key theme in the exhibition will be the development of the English language and the emergence of English literature. We will explore the use of writing on inscribed objects and in documents as well as in books, and will present highlights of the bilingual literary culture. The major works of Old English poetry survive in only four manuscripts, and all four will be brought together at the British Library next autumn for the first time. The unique manuscript of Beowulf, held in the British Library, will be displayed with the Vercelli Book on loan from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli, the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library, and the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. This will be the first time that the Vercelli Book has been in England in at least 900 years.

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Beowulf spoke … (‘Beoƿulf maþelode …’): British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r

All the items in the exhibition are remarkable survivals. Over the centuries they have lasted through wars, the Norman Conquest, the Dissolution of the Monasteries (and their libraries), natural disasters and fires. A significant number of the exhibits have never been seen together before, and some have not been reunited for centuries.

Far from being the ‘Dark Ages’ of popular culture, the kingdoms in this period included centres of immense learning and artistic sophistication, extensively connected to the wider world. The movement of artists, scribes, books and ideas between England, Ireland, continental Europe and the Mediterranean world was fundamental to the development of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and will be a key theme of the exhibition.

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The opening of St Mark’s Gospel, from the Cnut Gospels, southern England, before 1018: British Library Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 45r

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will be open at the British Library from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

Claire Breay and Alison Hudson

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19 November 2017

Happy birthday, Statute of Marlborough!

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Earlier this month, we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charter, Magna Carta’s little sibling. It inspired a new Tree Charter, with accompanying events ranging from bike rides to pole launches. Today, we commemorate the Statute of Marlborough. At 750 years old, issued on 19 November 1267, it’s one of the the oldest pieces of legislation in England still in force today.

The Statute of Marlborough almost didn’t make it to this day. Only four of its twenty-nine sections are still in force. In 2014, the Law Commission made plans to scrap it altogether. The surviving sections are now known as the Distress Act and the Waste Act. The Distress Act states that anyone seeking reimbursement for damages must do so through the courts, while the Waste Act ensures that the tenants do not lay waste, sell or ruin their lands and other resources without special permission. This is still a concern in modern agriculture:

Fermors, during their Terms, shall not make Waste, Sale, nor Exile of House, Woods, Men, nor of any Thing belonging to the Tenements that they have to ferm, without special Licence had by Writing of Covenant, making mention that they may do it; which thing if they do, and thereof be convict, they shall yield full Damage, and shall be punished by Amerciament grievously.

The closing page of the Statute of Marlborough: Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 131r
The closing page of the Statute of Marlborough: Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 131r

There are eight pieces of English legislation from the 13th century that have not been repealed. One of those is Magna Carta, which was originally issued by King John in 1215; the earliest versions were repealed, with the version now in force dating from 1297.

One of the two sources for the official Latin text of the Statute of Marlborough is held at the British Library (Cotton MS Claudius D II). It forms part of a book collecting English laws — the medieval version of legislation.gov.uk, you might say. You can see the Cotton manuscript of the Statute of Marlborough right now in our free Treasures Gallery, alongside a copy of the Forest Charter that was narrowly saved from destruction and a plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey

A plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey: Harley MS 391, ff. 5v–6r
A plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey: Harley MS 391, ff. 5v–6r

The plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey is further evidence of how the environment shaped the medieval world. Medieval monasteries aimed to be self-reliant, and water was key to this. This plan of a conduit built in 1220–22 at Waltham Abbey is one of the earliest surviving English maps. The water flows from three round sources at the top, through a filtration system, and into a pipe towards the abbey. It is found in a cartulary made for the abbey, a collection of charters copied into a single volume for reference and preservation. The agreements in this book show that the monks had to negotiate with several different landlords to build across their land.

 

Andrew Dunning (@anjdunning)

 

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.

 

25 October 2017

Purple pages at the Ashmolean

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How have humans depicted and talked about gods? Some answers to this question are presented at the exhibition Imagining the Divine, which is on at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until 18 February 2018. This exhibition focuses on the 1st millennium AD — a time which witnessed the development and expansion of several major world religions — and it shows how different religious traditions influenced and interacted with one another. The British Library is delighted to have loaned a number of manuscripts to the exhibition which exemplify that theme.

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A purple page with gold and oxidized silver letters, from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, early 9th century: Royal MS 1 E VI, f. 1v

One of the manuscripts that can currently be seen at the Ashmolean is the Royal Bible (Royal MS 1 E VI), which was probably made at Canterbury in the early 9th century. Its ninth-century scribes created at least three pages covered in a deep purple colour, with text written in silver and gold. Pages dyed or painted purple had been created in the Mediterranean earlier in the first millennium. Purple was a colour reserved for the clothes of Roman emperors and it had connotations of power and luxury.

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Purple pages from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, 6th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 4v

In a Christian context, purple pages and text in gold silver represented the glory of heaven. As the text in a late 8th-century gospel lectionary (Paris, BnF nouv acq lat 1203, f. 126v) put it:

Golden words are painted on purple pages

The Thunderer's shining kingdoms of the starry heavens,

Revealed in rose-red blood, disclose the joys of heaven ...

(translated by Paul E. Dutton)

Striking ‘purple pages’ were used in sacred texts throughout and beyond Europe. The Ashmolean’s exhibition also features a Qu’ran from Baghdad with deep blue pages. Like the Royal Bible, it was made in the 9th century.

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The ‘blue Qu’ran’ on display at the Ashmolean Museum, from the Sarikhani Collection

The exhibition also shows how much work went into the showpieces that the scribes produced. On display is an end page of a British Library manuscript (Royal MS 15 A XVI) where different scribes have copied words or fragments of prayers and hymns. At the top of the page, someone has practised drawing interlace decoration. This type of decoration is found in manuscripts throughout northern Europe and also in metalwork and sculpture. Other examples are on display in the exhibition. Underneath the interlace is a very rough sketch of a man with a shield.

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Practice makes perfect! End page with additions by late 10th- or early 11th-century scribes: Royal MS 15 A XVI, f. 84v 

The rest of the manuscript contains riddles, a poem on the Gospels, a glossary of Greek words and a copy of Bede’s textbook, On the Art of Poetry. These texts were written by Northumbrian, West Saxon and Iberian authors. However, judging by this manuscript’s ink and script, it was mostly copied in what is now France, before coming to England, which is probably where the scribes added the pen trials.

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Detail of pen trials of interlace from Royal MS 15 A XVI, f. 84v

Other items loaned by the British Library to the exhibition come from the Asian and African collections. These include a copy of the Book of Exodus in Arabic script (Or 2450); a copy of the Heart Sutra from China, where the text is written in the shape of a stupa, or shrine (Or 8210/S4289); and an 8th-century Qu’ran (Or 2165). If you get a chance, you can visit the Ashmolean and see them all!

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22 October 2017

Prepare to be spellbound

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As a general rule, we don't like to start our blogposts with the words, 'We are delighted to announce'. But there's always an exception, and this is it! We are delighted to announce that the British Library's amazing new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic is now officially open to the public.

Our exhibition celebrates the 20th anniversary of the first publication in the United Kingdom of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, originally released in 1997. But, in a new departure, the exhibition also examines the history, mythology and folklore that lie at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. As well as original drafts and drawings loaned by J.K. Rowling herself, alongside artwork by Jim Kay (who is illustrating the Harry Potter books for Bloomsbury), you'll find on display a range of glorious items from the British Library's own collections, including Chinese oracle bones, papyri and a host of medieval manuscripts.

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The Ripley Scroll, dating from around 1600, and explaining how to make your very own Philosopher's Stone. The entire manuscript, all 5.9 metres of it, is on display in the exhibition.

Tickets are selling fast — this Potter thing might just catch on one day — but we'd love you to visit London to see the show in person between now and its final day, 28 February. In the meantime, here is a sneak preview of some of the manuscripts you'll be able to see.

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Harvesting a mandrake, medieval style (so that's how you do it!)

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A phoenix plucking twigs to make its own funeral pyre, before rising from the flames (please don't try this at home)

Harry-potter-abracadabra

How to protect yourself against malaria? Write out the word 'abracadabra' repeatedly on a piece of parchment (it's obvious when you think about it).

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the British Library from 20 October 2017 to 28 February 2018. Tickets can be purchased here. The exhibition has been staged by the British Library in partnership with The Blair Partnership (representing J.K. Rowling) and Bloomsbury Publishing, with the kind assistance of Pottermore and Google Arts and Culture, and the generosity of numerous lenders.

The exhibition books Harry Potter: A History of Magic and a version designed especially for younger people, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic, are available to buy through the British Library's online shop. (They're quite good, really: note to reader, I helped to write them.)

HPHOM HPFAMMAGIC

You may also like to join our online conversation about the exhibition, using the hashtag #BLHarryPotter, with tweets by @britishlibrary, @BLMedieval and the exhibition curators. Even J.K. Rowling has joined in! Hope to see you in London soon.

 

Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Medieval Historical Manuscripts and

Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

20 October 2017–28 February 2018