THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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51 posts categorized "Science"

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

 

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

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

 

11 November 2017

Science Museum loans in Harry Potter: A History of Magic

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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

 

 

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)

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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.)

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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

 

 

15 September 2017

Fragmentarium and the burnt Anglo-Saxon fragments

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Have you ever been intrigued by the survival of fragments of medieval manuscripts, used perhaps as waste in later bookbindings, or damaged in catastrophic events such as the Ashburnham House fire? The recent launch of Fragmentarium (the Digital Research Laboratory for Medieval Manuscript Fragments) will enable many of these fragments to be analysed in greater detail, and in some cases to be digitally reunited. The British Library is one partner in this project, alongside institutions and collections from Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the USA, the Vatican and the United Kingdom. As the project states, 'Fragmentarium enables libraries, collectors, researchers and students to publish images of medieval manuscript fragments, allowing them to catalogue, describe, transcribe, assemble and re-use them.'

Some of our readers may have come across the story of the Ashburnham House fire of 23 October 1731. This tragic event left a number of manuscripts in the famous collection of manuscripts assembled by Robert Cotton in an extra-crispy state. After a remarkable conservation effort undertaken in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of these volumes did not look so bad, all things considered, as you can see for yourself with Beowulf. But some of these manuscripts did not fare so well — to the naked eye they often resemble something approaching a burnt biscuit!

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v, as it looks in person.

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v, as it looks in person

The burnt Cotton fragments are among the most evocative artefacts of medieval culture, both for the tragedy of their destruction and the mystery of their contents. Many of the surviving leaves remain critical to scholarship, often containing unique texts or their earliest known copies. Work on other fragments at the British Library has already shown that multispectral photography can make it possible to extract more information from what survives. The burnt leaves remain vulnerable, and so it is critical that digital techniques be used to document and preserve their present state.

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Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v: a blend of photographs taken across light spectra

For several decades, technology has been applied to improve the readability of the Cotton fragments. In the early 1950s, ultraviolet photography was applied to Æthelweard’s Chronicle (in Cotton MS Otho A X and Cotton MS Otho A XII) in order to make new sense of a handful of pages. The same process was also used with Cotton MS Otho A I. At the time, however, these photographs did not achieve wide dissemination due to the limitations of publishing in print.

Multispectral imaging setup at the British Library.

Multispectral imaging setup at the British Library

The recent application of multispectral photography has enabled us to recover more details of these fragments, and with reconstructed colour. At the same time, regrettably but inevitably, this technology has revealed that, in the course of half a century, the condition of these fragments has sometimes deteriorated. A few volumes that seemingly could be read without technological assistance only a few decades ago have details that today are difficult to read with the naked eye. In some cases, the volumes are so fragile that they can only be issued in the British Library's Manuscripts Reading Room with special curatorial permission.

We are currently publishing key remnants of some of the burnt Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the Cotton collection on Fragmentarium. Dr Christina Duffy, the British Library's Imaging Scientist, has photographed over a hundred of these fragments and has skilfully processed them to make their reconstruction as legible as possible. The results will be available under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. Fragmentarium has also built the capacity into their site to handle multiple images of a single folio — rare but critical functionality for dealing with multispectral imaging, since the images you will see are a scientific but also very much a human reconstruction.

Andrew Dunning

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 August 2017

Total eclipse of the Sun

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On 21 August 2017, American readers of our Blog have the exciting opportunity to witness a full solar eclipse (some of them may even be able to hear Bonnie Tyler singing 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' at the very same time: what more could you want?). Of course, solar and lunar eclipses have been a source of wonder across the centuries, with or without Bonnie Tyler. Since Antiquity, astronomers and astrologers have had a clear understanding of how and why eclipses occur, and they were able to predict their arrival using diagrams and tables. Eclipses were also described by medieval chroniclers, who often interpreted them as an omen.

Our first historical example of an eclipse is found in this 15th-century French manuscript of the History of Alexander the Great. The scene it depicts is not a contemporary one, rather it shows the lunar eclipse which occurred during the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, when Alexander the Great’s army met the Persian army of Darius III. Alexander is shown consulting his astrologers about the eclipse's meaning: the soldiers perhaps interpreted it as a bad omen.

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Miniature of Alexander the Great consulting his astrologers about an eclipse of the sun after the battle of Arbela: British Library Burney MS 169, f. 69r

Early medieval scholars knew that a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Sun and Earth. One of our favourite medieval writers, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede (d. 735), explained this phenomenon in his scientific texts entitled De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things), composed around 703. In the chapter headed 'On the eclipse of the sun and the moon', Bede described how a solar eclipse occurs when the Sun is hidden by the intervention of the Moon, and a lunar eclipse when the Sun, Earth and moon are aligned with Earth in the centre.

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Extract from an 11th-century copy of Bede’s De natura rerum: British Library Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 18r

In some medieval manuscripts, astrological texts are accompanied by diagrams illustrating an eclipse. For example, this diagram, found in  a 14th-century compilation of mathematical and astronomical texts, illustrates the Sun's position in relation to the Earth and Moon.

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Diagram of a solar eclipse: British Library Royal MS 12 C XVII, f. 32r

Elsewhere, we sometimes find diagrams showing the different stages of the Sun's visibility during an eclipse.

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Series of diagrams of solar eclipses: British Library Additional MS 10628, f. 28r

Diagrams of lunar and solar eclipses could also be included in almanacs, alongside calendars and other astrological material. Almanacs were used to predict the movement of the stars and the tides, often during medical consultations. A special kind of folding almanac, favoured by medical practitioners, could be hung from its owner's belt. This folding almanac, produced in the 15th century, contains a series of diagrams of the solar eclipse, based on the Kalendarium of John Somer.

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Diagrams of solar and lunar eclipses: British Library Harley MS 937, f. 8r

For those with no astronomical knowledge, the darkening of the sky during a solar eclipse may have been particularly ominous. People would have heard or read about such events from the Old Testament story of the Plagues of Egypt, describing a darkness that lasted for three days. According to the Gospel of St Matthew, a period of darkness lasting for three hours, accompanied by earthquakes and the raising of the dead, followed the Crucifixion of Christ. These apocalyptic associations were supported by other medieval accounts. For instance, the Middle English copy of The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday found in British Library Harley MS 913, explained that the first sign of the approaching Apocalypse is that the ‘Sun will give no light and will be cast down to Earth – while you now see it [the Sun] as pleasing and bright, it will become as black as coal.'

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The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday: British Library Harley MS 913, f. 20v

You may wish to muse on this as you observe or read about this August's solar eclipse (with or without Bonnie Tyler on your headphones, obviously!). 

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God creating the Sun and the Moon: British Library Additional MS 18856, f. 5v

Becky Lawton and Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

16 July 2017

The future is in the Moon

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On this day in 1969, Apollo 11 was launched to take the first men to the Moon. For many medieval men and women, the idea of a journey beyond Earth’s atmosphere would have rocked their worldview: they saw mankind as part of the ‘sub-lunar sphere’, a world where nature is temporal, changing and corruptible. The Moon and other celestial bodies, on the other hand, were thought to inhabit a region where nature is eternal, permanent and incorruptible. A journey to the Moon would have seemed  all the more impossible because of the solid, impenetrable spheres through which the celestial bodies were thought to travel. If you are wondering how comets were accounted for: they were explained as atmospheric phenomena only!  

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Medieval Cosmology from England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton 2781, f. 1v

Classical writings and translated Arabic sources (from the 12th century onwards) nurtured the belief that the celestial bodies exert a strong influence on the sub-lunar world — both on elements and human bodies — to such a degree that they determine the outcome of daily activities and events. This belief resulted in a variety of astrological writings that provided predictions about future events (prognostications) based on the positions of the celestial bodies. Especially popular among these writings were ‘lunaries’ or ‘moonbooks’. An example of such a lunary is the Middle English verse text The Dayes of the Mone. It presents prognostications for each of the days of the synodic month: the period between two consecutive new moons that alternately has 29 and 30 days. The text, extant in the 15th-century medical and astrological miscellanies Harley MS 2320 and Harley MS 1735, helps readers determine for each day of the lunar month whether the Moon's position makes it into a good or a bad day for bloodletting, buying and selling, travelling, finding lost possessions, and for being born. For example, the text tells us that a child that is born today (16 July, the 23th day of a lunar month) will become ‘a good clerk’.

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The Dayes of the Mone, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2320, f. 31r

Users of lunaries had a need for diagrams and devices that could help them keep track of the lunar months. An example can be found in a mid-15th-century German manuscript (Additional MS 17987), where a lunary is preceded by a diagram that shows the phases of the Moon.

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A diagram with the Moon's phases, Germany, 1446, Additional MS 17987, ff. 49v-50r

Perhaps a unique example of a ‘lunary device’ may be found in a series of four paper wheels that are sewn into parchment disks inscribed with Middle Dutch biblical citations and the year ‘1585’ (Additional MS 21549). Its function is not entirely clear, but its contents suggest that it may have been used for determining favourable days for praying for the souls of the dead.

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A Middle Dutch Lunary Device ? Netherlands, 1585, Additional MS 21549

The large wheel records the 30 days of a lunar month and cites Sirach 27:12: ‘A holy man continues in wisdom as the sun: but a fool is changed as the Moon’. The small disk in the large disk’s upper right corner allows the user to record whether a synodic month has 29 or 30 days. The wheel in the left-hand corner, numbered from 1 until 9, cites Proverbs 10:7: ‘The memory of the just is with praises’. Perhaps this wheel was used to track a period of 9 months of prayer — a so-called novena — for the souls of the dead. A separate fourth wheel, numbered from 1 until 14, states that it is holy to pray for the dead. Maybe it helped users to track the period of 14 days from the lunar month’s New Moon until its Full Moon, which may have been the preferred day for prayer.

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Another view of Additional MS 21549

Another unique device can be found in a 15th-century German ‘Book of Fate’ (Additional MS 25435). This book provides answers to questions related to a variety of subjects (‘hope’, ‘happiness’, ‘dreams’, ‘wealth’, etc.) provided by 28 Old Testament prophets. These prophets should be consulted on specific days of the sidereal month: a period of time that is based on the Moon's passage through 28 segments of the zodiac (lunar mansions). In order to establish which prophet a reader should turn to for advice and on what day, the reader first needs to work his or her way to four tables with instructions from Classical and Christian authorities at the beginning of the book. For example, if your question pertains to the subject of warfare (‘crieg’), the Roman poet Cicero, in the first table, tells you that ‘what needs to be done shall be answered by Alexander [the Great]’. Alexander, in a second table, instructs you to wait until the month’s 25th day and then ask Pilate what to do. But Pilate, whose advice is found in a third table, wants you to wait until the next month’s 14th day and then consult Mercury. Mercury, finally, reveals that you should ask your question to the Old Testament prophet Zechariah on the month’s 15th day. The latter’s advice is relatively general, but allowed each reader to find a statement that was applicable to his or her situation.

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A table in the Book of Fate; Zechariah’s advice, Germany, 14th/15th century, Additional MS 25435, f. 2v and f. 10r

What makes this manuscript remarkable is that it features a wooden panel on the inside of its upper cover with, on a moveable disk, a figure with his or her hand in a pointing position that enabled the book’s user to track the days of the sidereal month. Click on the image to see it move!

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The lunary device in the Book of Fate, Germany, 14th/15th century, Additional MS 25435

Today, astrology, for many, is a form of entertainment, but for many medieval men and women it was a very serious matter. Astrology gave them an insight into God’s design of the universe and intended influences of the celestial bodies on earth. The Moon was well beyond their reach, but its perceived importance was much greater than it is for most of us today. To us the Moon's effect on earth begins and ends with its influence on the tides. For medieval men and women its tidal effect only confirmed its much wider influence on the elements and bodily humours.

Clarck Drieshen

14 June 2017

Written in the stars

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Have you ever read a pop-up book or a book with moving parts? Today, such books are usually associated with children, but a rather fiendishly complicated example has just been digitised by the British Library. This is a set of volvelles (moving paper or parchment wheels) and a parchment astrolabe made by Thomas Hood, the first officially appointed lecturer in mathematics in England.

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A volvelle and a tulip-rete astrolabe made by Thomas Hood, 1597, Add MS 71495 

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An astrolabe and a volvelle, London, 1590s, Add MS 71494

Astrolabes are used to measure the position of celestial bodies in the night sky. The best known examples are often made out of metal, but these parchment ones also work. Their latitude suggests that it was designed to be used just south of London. The ‘tulip’-shaped cutouts of the most elaborate astrolabe note the position of no fewer than 190 fixed stars. Astrolabes can be used for navigation, but the texts associated with these  astrolabes and volvelles texts show that they were primarily concerned with astrology. The text revealed by the astrolabe pertains to the 12 ‘houses’ of the zodiac. The positions of stars was used to predict the outcomes of illness and other such events. For example, the ‘fifth house’ is associated with good fortune for Venus but bad fortune for Mars.

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‘Thomas Hood made this, 1597’, Add MS 71495 

We know who made at least one of the astrolabes because he signed his name: Thomas Hood. Hood had trained at Trinity College, Cambridge, and been granted a licence to practise medicine by the university. Between 1588 and 1597, when the astrolabe was made, Hood was living in London, teaching and writing about mathematics. After the Spanish Armada of 1588, English leaders decided that their military and naval commanders needed to broaden their grasp of mathematics and navigation. Therefore, Sir Thomas Smith and Lord Lumley invited Hood to become the first ‘Mathematical Lecturer to the City of London’. 

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Detail of Andromeda and other constellations, Add MS 71495, f. 2r

In his lectures, Hood emphasised that it was important for all different sorts of people to know maths. As well as teaching, he also designed new navigational instruments such as Jacob’s Staff and a Sector and wrote textbooks on globes and astronomy. However, it seems that Hood really wanted to be a doctor. Although he failed his first attempt to get a licence to practice medicine in London (apparently he didn’t know enough about Galen), he was eventually given a medical licence by the Royal College of Physicians in 1597. Hood then became a doctor in Worcester, where he and his wife Frances lived for the next 20 years.

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A conservator carefully works on the astrolabe before photography

Digitising the astrolabe was a laborious process, since the instruments were designed to move and to be read from all sorts of different angles. The writing behind each of the rotating devices was photographed, so that it can easily be read online, and each rotating wheel or ‘rete’ was also photographed separately. The assembled astrolabe was then photographed, as well. This required a great deal of patience, skill and cooperation from the British Library’s conservators and photographers. Let’s take a moment to thank to them for all their hard work.

Thomas Hood's volvelles and astrolabes can be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site: Add MS 71494 and Add MS 71495.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval