THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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

16 November 2017

Boccaccio’s Venus in Cyprus

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A new exhibition, The Venus Paradox, opened this September in Nicosia in Cyprus. It celebrates Venus, goddess of love, and the stories she has inspired through the ages. According to legend, Venus — or Aphrodite as she was called by Greek authors from Hesiod onwards — rose from the sea foam wearing a golden crown and was wafted over the waves to the island of Cyprus, where she was clothed with heavenly garments. The exhibition focuses on Venus’s place in the western artistic tradition, in both image and text, and her significance for the island of her birth.

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Venus as Queen of Cyprus, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 16v

One of the British Library's exquisite Boccaccio manuscripts is part of this show. On display is an image of Venus as she appears in a 15th-century volume that has links to another very strong woman (see below). In the image, Venus is depicted as the Queen of Cyprus, wearing a crown (the rubric reads, ‘tres ancienne royne des cipriens’). This is one of 106 glorious illustrations of Des cleres et nobles femmes, an anonymous French translation of ‘De mulieribus claris’ (Concerning famous women). Considered the first collection of biographies in western literature devoted exclusively to women, this popular work, first completed in 1361, provides a fascinating insight into medieval attitudes to women, in a time of changing attitudes. In the section on Venus, Boccaccio discusses various beliefs about her, including her disputed origins (was her father a king of Cyprus or Jupiter himself?), and the assertion that Cupid was her son. Her great beauty is compared to the planet, Venus, but she is harshly judged for her licentiousness; having been unfaithful to both husbands, Vulcan and Adonis, she is accused of the ‘shameful madness’ of founding the first public brothels in Crete.

This precious and beautiful volume is already a celebrity: the opening page with a four-part image and a gorgeous rinceaux border was displayed in our 2011 exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.

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A frontispiece in four panels of Boccaccio reading a book, Boccaccio presenting the book to Andrea Acciaivoli, countess of Altavilla, a messenger presenting a letter to Semiramis and a queen with four female musicians, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 5r

It is no surprise that its former owner of this manuscript was wealthy and powerful, a member of the illustrious Beaufort family, probably Lady Margaret Beaufort, one of Britain’s earliest ‘tiger mothers’. She was determined her son, Henry, would become King of England, even if she had to found a new dynasty in the process! She achieved her aim in 1485, when he was crowned King Henry VII aged 28, the first of the Tudors. Perhaps she was inspired by some of the stories in this work, though she is known to have been extremely devout, so it is unlikely Venus was a role model for her.

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Table of chapters in Des cleres et nobles femmes, with added Beaufort arms: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 1r

The opening folio has an added initial 'D' containing the Beaufort badge of a portcullis and chains surmounted by a coronet. James Carley has suggested that this manuscript is 'possibly to be identified as the "greatte volume of velom named John Bokas lymned" owned by Lady Margaret Beaufort' (The Libraries of King Henry VIII (2000) p. xxiv).

Venus is described on the Pafos website as ‘mother, woman, mistress, huntress and seductress’. Here are a variety images from our manuscripts depicting the goddess in her many guises, as she was seen in the Middle Ages.

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Venus with a mirror, emerging from the sea, from Matfre Ermengaud, Breviari d'Amor, France, S. (Toulouse?); 1st quarter of the 14th century: Royal MS 19 C I, f. 41v (this manuscript was recently featured in a blogpost on Occitan manuscripts)


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Venus, Vulcan and Mars, from the Roman de la Rose, France, Central? (Paris?); c. 1380: Egerton MS 881, f. 141v

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Venus as the huntress, from the Roman de la Rose, Paris, c. 1400: Egerton 1069, f. 140v

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Venus presiding over a group of men and women, who are presenting their hearts to her, in Christine de Pizan’s 'L'Épître Othéa', Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414: Harley 4431, f. 100r

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Miniature of Venus arming Aeneas in the foreground, and on the right, Aeneas meeting Evander, at the beginning of book VII of Virgil's Aeneid, Italy, Central (Rome); between 1483 and 1485, King’s MS 24, f. 164r

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Miniature of the Judgement of Paris, with Pallas Athena, Juno and Venus sitting at a table, and Paris giving an olive branch to Venus, in the Convenevole da Prato, Italy, Central (Tuscany); c. 1335–c. 1340: Royal MS 6 E IX, f. 22r

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Venus playing a musical instrument with her ruling Zodiac signs, from a treatise on astrology by Albumazar, Netherlands, S., 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century: Sloane MS 3983, f. 42v

The Venus Paradox exhibition is open at the A.G. Leventis Gallery in Nicosia from 29 September 2017 until 15 January 2018.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Chantry Westwell

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15 November 2017

Call for papers: the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting

Following the first three successful meetings at the British Museum and last year at Cambridge University Library, the British Library is pleased to host the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting. This meeting will take place on 21–22 June 2018 at the British Library Centre for Conservation.

Papyrus 113 (15c)
Illustrated copy of the Life of Secundus the Silent Philosopher – Egypt, 6th century (Papyrus 113 (15c)

We are now inviting proposals for individual papers of 20 minutes or short communications of 10 minutes on subjects related to:

  • Conservation and Preservation
  • Cataloguing
  • Digitisation
  • Ongoing and Completed Projects
  • Funding Opportunities


Papyrus 488
Plato’s Phaedo from 3rd century BCE – one of the earliest papyri in the British Library (Papyrus 488)

Please submit your proposals of no more than 100 words by email to papyrusmeeting.proposals2018@gmail.com by 31 January 2018. Successful submissions will be announced early in the New Year with a full programme to follow.

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Magic ring from a 4th-century Greek handbook on magic (Papyrus 46, f. 5)

Limited travel bursaries are available for delegates who would otherwise face financial barriers to attending, as part of the British Museum’s national knowledge-sharing programmes generously supported by the Vivmar Foundation. If you would like to apply for a bursary, please contact UK Partnerships Co-ordinator Georgia Mallin at gmallin@britishmuseum.org, explaining how your attendance will support your work/organisation and why the bursary is needed.

 

The Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting

21–22 June 2018

The British Library

Peter Toth

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14 November 2017

Canon tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels now on display

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As a text, the canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of scripture. Over many centuries copies of the Gospels in Latin, Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Gothic, Syriac, Georgian or Slavonic begin with these tables. Devised and created in Greek by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, these tables formed a unifying gateway to the fundamental, but multiple narratives of the Evangelists Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As Eusebius explained in a prefatory letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

Canon 1 lists passages common to all four Gospels, Canons 2-9 different combinations of two or three Gospels and Canon 10 those passages found only in one Gospel. Building on a system of dividing up the text of the Gospels into verses that he attributed to Ammonius of Alexandria, Eusebius assigned consecutive numbers to sections in each Gospel and used these numbers within his tables to correlate related passages. By this means he adduced the unity of the four narratives without attempting to harmonise them into a single text.

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Codex Sinaiticus, the folio currently on display at the British Library: Add MS 43725, f. 201r

The earliest known evidence for the use of the tables occurs in Codex Sinaiticus, an extraordinary 4th-century Greek manuscript that is also the earliest surviving complete New Testament. In Codex Sinaiticus the tables themselves do not survive, but the Ammonian section numbers are included throughout the Gospels. These can be seen in the Gospel of St Matthew currently on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, or viewed in detail on our Digitised Manuscripts website. In Codex Sinaiticus, the section numbers (in Greek characters) are added on the left-hand side of each column in red ink, with the number of the canon table that needs to be consulted for parallel texts of that section.

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Section 16, canon 5: a note in the Gospel of St Matthew, a detail from Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f. 201r column 2)

For example, in the right-hand page on display in the Gallery, the third number in the second column (in the account of one of Christ’s temptations) is marked as section 16, in Canon 5. Further information about the manuscript is available on the Codex Sinaiticus website, including a full transcription and translation, and in this previous blogpost.

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The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th–7th century (Add MS 5111/1)

One of most splendid illuminated examples of the Canon Tables in Greek are the leaves now known as the Golden Canon Tables, because they are written on parchment previously painted entirely with gold. Made in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, the tables are now fragmentary but nevertheless betray a very sophisticated artistic style. They are a rare witness of an early version of these tables.

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The pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels currently on display at the British Library: Cotton MS Nero D IV, ff. 14v–15r

Canon tables are also included in the Latin copy of the Gospels known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, which was probably made on the island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in around 700. The fifth canon, which lists texts that are common in the two Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, is now on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery. This is the same canon as that referred to in Codex Sinaiticus, several centuries earlier. The canons in the Lindisfarne Gospels are surrounded by intricately designed micro-architectural decoration, with wonderful intertwined biting birds. You can view them in more detail with the zoom function on the Digitised Manuscripts website, or visit the Treasures Gallery in the coming months.

12 November 2017

Simply the bestiary

Every now and then we come across a real page Turner. So here it is, with a little help from a 1980s power ballad. 

You’re simply the bestiary!

Royal MS 12 C XIX

 Better than all the restiary …

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 30r

Better than any swan

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Any swan I ever met

 Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 39v close

I’m stuck on your hart!

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 23r

I hang on every word you say

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 65v

Tear us apart -

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 26v

No no -

Baby, I would rather be dead.

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 11v

Oooh! You’re the best!

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 37v

All these images are from a richly illuminated bestiary in the British Library’s collections, Royal MS 12 C XIX. The manuscript in question was made in England early in the 13th century, and is related to other bestiaries now held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Follow the hyperlinks and you'll discover more of its beautiful images. We love it and have more than a feeling that you will, too.

And what's love got to do with it? Everything. 

Amy Jeffs

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 November 2017

Science Museum loans in Harry Potter: A History of Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

until 28 February 2018

 

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

 

09 November 2017

Harry Potter exhibition books on sale now

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

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

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

HPHOM

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

HPFAMMAGIC

Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic

 

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

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07 November 2017

Illumination study day at the British Library

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A couple of weeks ago we held a very successful study day for the University of the Third Age, with the British Library Learning Centre auditorium filled to capacity. We thought it might be helpful to provide a list of the British Library manuscripts and suggestions for further reading, for those who would like to look at the manuscripts again in more detail.

Illuminated manuscripts

Dr Alixe Bovey (Head of Research at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London) discussed 'The World in Illuminated Manuscripts'.  

Harley MS 7182, ff. 58v–59r, a depiction of the world based on Ptolemy’s Geography

Harley MS 3667, f. 8v, an Isidoran ‘T-O’ map of the world, Annals of Peterborough Abbey

Harley MS 2772, f. 70v, Macrobius, Commentary of Cicero’s Dream of Scipio

Egerton MS 2781, ff. 1v, 48r, 190r, the Neville of Hornby Hours: f.1v: diagram of the cosmos; f. 48r: the seasons; f. 190r: possible depiction of the manuscript’s owner

Harley MS 4940, f. 28r, Matfre Ermengau, Breviari d’amor, angels cranking the universe

Harley MS 4431, f. 187v, the Book of the Queen, a sibyl shows Christine de Pizan the firmament

Harley MS 3647, f. 32r, an astronomical miscellany

Royal MS 1 E VII, f. 1v, the Creation, in a Bible made at Canterbury

Add MS 18719, f. 1r, a Bible moralisée, Creation scenes

Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 1v, the Queen Mary Psalter, God and Lucifer

Add MS 18856, ff. 5v and 7v, a Bible historiale: f. 5v: creation of sun and moon; f. 7v: God resting

Harley MS 616, f. 1r, a Bible, Creation scenes

Royal MS 14 C IX, ff. 1v–2r, Ranulf Higden, Polychronicon, map

Harley MS 2633, f. 53v, commentary on Cicero's De somno Scipionis, mappa mundi

Sloane MS 2435, f. 1r, Aldobrandino of Siena, Le Régime du corps, Creation scene

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Miniature of God holding a compass with angels and cherubins, and Lucifer with fallen angels and devils: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 1v

Scribe and illuminator Patricia Lovett MBE gave us a calligrapher’s view on parchment, the preparation of pens, ink and pigments, and the writing and illumination process. Her recent publication includes lots of examples and discussion: The Art and History of Calligraphy (British Library, 2017).

Illuminated manuscripts 5

 

Dr Kathleen Doyle (Lead Curator, Illuminated Manuscripts, The British Library) focused on the different types of illustration in English Psalters.

Add MS 89250, the Mostyn Psalter

Add MS 42130, the Luttrell Psalter

Cotton MS Vespasian A I, the Vespasian Psalter

Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, the Tiberius Psalter

Cotton MS Nero C IV, the Winchester Psalter

Royal MS 2 B VII, the Queen Mary Psalter

Royal MS 2 A XVI, the Psalter of Henry VIII

Arundel MS 83, the Howard Psalter

Add MS 62925, the Rutland Psalter

Arundel MS 157, a Psalter

Luttrell

Illuminated initial 'Q'(uam) at the beginning of Psalm 83 (84), with a partial foliate border inhabited by a human-headed hybrid creature and geometric line fillers. In the lower margin are two naked wrestlers, one purple and one brown, engaged in a game of foot-wrestling: Add MS 42130, f. 152v

 

In the afternoon, Dr Mara Hofmann (Sotheby’s) gave us a whistle-stop tour of the highlights of French illuminated manuscripts. Mara has written a detailed guide with lots of examples, as part of the British Library’s online digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts virtual exhibition, available here

Illuminated manuscripts 2

The programme closed with Dr Scot McKendrick (Head of Western Heritage Collections at the British Library), who similarly illustrated the richness of Flemish Illuminated Manuscripts.

Add MS 34294, f. 133v, Gerard Horenbout, Virgin and Child in Glory, in the Hours of Bona Sforza

Add MS 18855, ff. 109r, 108v, Simon Bening, June, December

Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 11v, Master of Beaufort Saints, St Christopher, in the Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours

Add MS 89066/2, ff. 69v–70r, Loyset Liédet, Coronation of the Emperor Galba, in Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur

Harley MS 4418, f. 99r, Créquy Master, Christians fighting Saracens, in the Roman de Mélusine

Cotton MS Vespasian B I, f. 15r, Master of the Harley Froissart, Presentation to Philip the Good

Royal MS 14 E V, f. 29r, Master of the Getty Froissart, Fortune appearing to Boccaccio, in Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes

Add MS 71117, ff. C, J, Simon Marmion, St Matthew and David in Prayer, from the Hours of Ladislas IV Vasa

Add MS 38126, ff. 102v–103r, ff. 240v–241r, Simon Marmion, Virgin and Christ; Virgin and dead Christ, in the Huth Hours

Add MS 18851, ff. 41r, 437r, Gerard David, Adoration of the Kings, Coronation of the Virgin, in the Breviary of Isabella of Castile

Add MS 18852, ff. 411v–412r, St James the Greater, in the Hours of Joanna of Castile

Add MS 54782, f. 230r, Hastings Hours

Add MS 35313, ff. 89v–90r, Master of James IV of Scotland, Nativity and Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, in the Rothschild Hours      

Add MS 17280, ff. 24v–25r, Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, Trinity and Monday Hours, in the so-called Hours of Philip the Fair    

Add MS 18852, ff. 14v-15r, Fall of Man and Mirror of Conscience, in the Hours of Joanna of Castile

Add MS 24098, f. 18v, Simon Bening, Month of December, in the Golf Book

Egerton MS 1147, f. 229r, Simon Bening (?), Agony in the Garden and Arrest of Christ

Add MS 12531, f. 4r, Portuguese Royal Genealogies

Royal MS 16 F II, f. 89r, Poems of Charles of Orleans

Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v, Collection of motets

Eg1147

Miniature with Christ praying on the Mount of Olives, accompanied by a full border with the Betrayal, at the beginning of the Passion of Christ: Egerton MS 1147, f. 229r

 

Further reading

Christopher de Hamel, Bibles: An Illustrated History from Papyrus to Print (Bodleian Library, 2011)

M. Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery in Medieval England 700-1500 (London, 2003)

Patricia Lovett, The Art and History of Calligraphy (British Library, 2017)

Scot McKendrick, Flemish Illuminated Manuscripts 1400-1550 (London: British Library, 2003)

Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, Bible Manuscripts: 1400 Years of Scribes and Scripture (London, 2007)

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London, Thames & Hudson, and the British Library, 2016)

The New Cambridge History of the Bible, 4 vols (Cambridge, 2012- )

 

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

02 November 2017

How many horns does a unicorn have?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burney_ms_97_f010r

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

Burney_ms_97_f041v

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.