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

14 September 2021

700th anniversary of the death of Dante

14 September 2021 is the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (14 September 1321), author of one of the greatest works of medieval poetry, the Divine Comedy. This epic poem in Italian narrates the poet's spiritual journey from the frozen depths of hell to the cosmic heights of heaven, while exploring themes such as sin, virtue and transcendent love.

The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the Middle Ages right up to the present day, which you can find out about in the following video made especially to celebrate this anniversary. The video has been made by European and American Collections in collaboration with Western Heritage Collections.

Who was Dante?

Dante Alighieri was born in around 1265 into a prominent family in Florence. 13th-century Florence was an up-and-coming metropolis, with a growing economy based largely on the textile trade and banking. Yet the politics of the city was torn apart by conflict between two rival factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Dante’s family sided with the Guelphs. This political setting played an important part in shaping both Dante’s life and poetry.

Dante encountered another of his great influences when, at the age of nine, he went to a party at the house of an eight-year-old Florentine girl, Beatrice Portinari. By his own later account, Dante instantly fell in love with her. But Dante’s love for Beatrice could never be realised: both were placed in arranged marriages by their families, and Beatrice died when she was only twenty-five. Although they only met a few times, Beatrice held a tremendous power over Dante’s imagination. His love for her would remain a central theme in his poetry throughout his life.

Beatrice in a mandorla carried by angels
Beatrice in a mandorla carried by angels, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Naples, c. 1370: Add MS 19587, f. 111v

As a young man, Dante started writing poetry. His first collection of poems, the Vita Nuova (New Life), completed around 1293, narrates the story of his love for Beatrice. He also became involved in Florentine politics, serving as a soldier, public office holder and ambassador in support of the Guelph cause. However, in 1302 he fell foul of the city’s political intrigues and was sentenced to exile from Florence. Banished from his home city, Dante began writing the Divine Comedy, an epic poem in Italian in which he wove together his ideas about philosophy, theology, politics and love into an incredible cosmic journey.

Dante being expelled from Florence and writing the Divine Comedy in exile
Dante being expelled from Florence and writing the Divine Comedy in exile, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Siena, 1444-c. 1450: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 159r

What is the Divine Comedy about?

The Divine Comedy recounts Dante’s visionary journey through the realms of hell, purgatory and heaven to reach God. The poem is divided into three books, one for each of these afterlife realms. It begins with Dante wandering lost and downhearted in a forest, a metaphor for his exile. There he encounters the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil, who reveals that he has been sent by Beatrice to help Dante by guiding him on a spiritual journey.

First Virgil takes Dante through the nine circles of hell, where they see all kinds of gruesome punishments inflicted on sinners. Many of the sinners are identified as real people. For example, in the second circle of hell, Dante and Virgil witness the whirlwind of lovers, people guilty of the sin of lust being battered around by a ferocious wind. There Dante speaks to Francesca da Rimini, a woman who had an adulterous affair with her lover Paulo before they were both murdered by her jealous husband in around 1285. Dante is so moved by Francesca’s story that he faints with pity.

Dante and Virgil witness the whirlwind of lovers
Dante and Virgil witness the whirlwind of lovers, with Francesca and Paulo at the right, and Dante fainting in the centre, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Siena, 1444-c. 1450: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 10r

Many of the souls that they encounter belong to people who Dante regarded as corrupt political figures. For example, in the ninth circle of hell, where treacherous souls are imprisoned in a lake of ice, Dante and Virgil witnesses Count Ugolino gnawing on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri. Both were major political players in 13th-century Pisa. After Ruggieri seized power in 1289, he imprisoned Ugolino with his children and grandchildren in a tower where they starved to death. Dante regarded both men’s abuse of power as leading to this horrific event, for which they now suffer eternal torment.

Dante and Virgil witness Count Ugolino gnawing Archbishop Ruggieri's scalp
Dante and Virgil witness Count Ugolino gnawing Archbishop Ruggieri's scalp, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Emilia or Veneto, c. 1340: Egerton MS 943, f. 58v

At the centre of hell, Dante and Virgil encounter Satan, a three-headed speechless monster. In his three mouths he chews on the three greatest traitors of human history who, according to Dante, are Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Julius Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, betrayor of Christ.

Dante and Virgil encounter Satan, with traitors frozen in a lake of ice below
Dante and Virgil encounter Satan, with traitors frozen in a lake of ice below, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Naples, c. 1370: Add MS 19587, f. 58r

After they leave hell, Dante and Virgil move on to purgatory, which is represented as a mountain which souls must climb. Here, the souls work to purge themselves of the sins they have committed in life so that they can enter heaven. The mountain of purgatory is divided into seven terraces, one for each of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Dante and Virgil follow a group of souls towards the mountain of Purgatory
Dante and Virgil follow a group of souls towards the mountain of Purgatory, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Naples, c. 1370: Add MS 19587, f. 63r

At the top of the mountain they reach the earthly paradise, or Garden of Eden. Here Dante witnesses a procession of biblical figures and a chariot drawn by griffins, in which Beatrice rides. She and Dante have an emotional reunion and she chastises him for letting his life go off course.

The heavenly procession of biblical figures and griffins pulling a chariot
The heavenly procession, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Siena, 1444-c. 1450: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 119r

From here, Beatrice takes over from Virgil as Dante’s guide and together they ascend into heaven. Following the classical and medieval astronomic model, Dante’s heaven is divided into concentric spheres with the earth at the centre. The first seven spheres are each governed by one of the seven classical ‘planets’, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In each of these spheres, Dante and Beatrice meet blessed souls and learn about different kinds of virtue.

Diagram of the spheres of heaven
Diagram of the spheres of heaven, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Emilia or Veneto, c. 1340: Egerton MS 943, f. 128v

After making their way through the spheres of the planets, Beatrice and Dante come to the sphere of the fixed stars, followed by the sphere of the moving stars or Primum Mobile, and then the highest heaven, the Empyrean. Here they leave the physical world behind and enter a heaven of pure radiant light, filled with intellect, love and happiness. The Empyrean contains a huge celestial rose, where all the blessed souls reside, and where Dante witnesses a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Dante and Beatrice before the Virgin and Child, who are seated within the Celestial Rose, surrounded by various saints
Beatrice (in pink) and Dante (in blue) before the Celestial Rose, which contains the Virgin and Child surrounded by various saints, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Siena, 1444-c. 1450 : Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 187r

Finally, Dante is able to witness the eternal light of God, the ultimate goal of his journey. He feels himself powerfully moved by God’s love, the same love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Dante witnessing God
Dante witnessing God, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Emilia or Veneto, c. 1340: Egerton MS 943, f. 186r

Dante completed the Divine Comedy in 1320, and died only about a year later in 1321. His work quickly gained popularity and survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, some of which are richly illustrated like the ones pictured in this blogpost. The tradition of illustrating the Divine Comedy continued into the modern period as you can discover on the British Library’s European Collections blog.

If this has whetted your appetite, you can read The Divine Comedy in both the original Italian and in English translation on the Digital Dante website. You can also find out more about our amazing holdings of Dante material at the online event Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30). And you can come to the British Library to see the Divine Comedy manuscript Yates Thompson MS 36, which is currently on display in The Sir John Ritblat: Treasures Gallery.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

09 September 2021

Dante in the British Library online event

The 14 September 2021 will be the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, author of one of the greatest works of medieval poetry, the Divine Comedy. This epic poem in Italian recounts Dante’s visionary journey through the realms of hell, purgatory and heaven to reach God.

The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the 14th century right up to the present day. To discover more about these fascinating items and celebrate the anniversary, join us for our online event, Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven on Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30. The event will feature two lectures by leading Dante scholars Alessandro Scafi (Warburg Institute; who has previously blogged for the British Library about Maps of Paradise) and Elisabeth Trischler (University of Leeds). Their original research focuses on the cartographic and architectural aspects of the Divine Comedy and is inspired by our medieval manuscripts and early printed editions.

You can also come to the British Library to see the Divine Comedy manuscript Yates Thompson MS 36, which is currently on display in The Sir John Ritblat: Treasures Gallery. And we will be blogging more about Dante and his amazing Divine Comedy on the big day, so watch this space.

The heavenly procession of biblical figures and griffins pulling a chariot
Heavenly procession, the Divine Comedy: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 119r


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01 September 2021

Defying the emperor: the ‘Acts of Appian’ in London and New Haven

When a text on papyrus is fragmentary, there is always hope that further portions of it may turn up at some point, perhaps in a collection on the other side of the world. In one of our previous blog posts, we digitally re-united two halves of a papyrus from the collections of the British Library and Columbia University, New York. Today we will share another story of virtual re-unification and collaboration among institutions focusing on the story of Appian, an Alexandrian ambassador who stood up to the Roman Emperor against injustices.

Back of a papyrus roll bearing portions of five columns of Greek writing
Back of a papyrus roll preserving part of the ‘Acts of Appian’ from the early 3rd century: Papyrus 2435 verso, P.Oxy. I 33

Papyrus 2435 is a fragmentary roll bearing a register of contracts from the late 2nd century on the front-side. The roll was later reused and on the back another text was written, known as the ‘Acts of Appian’ (Acta Appiani), assigned to the first half of the 3rd century. This is the latest piece that has come down to us from a collection of texts on papyrus named the ‘Acts of the Alexandrians’ (Acta Alexandrinorum), written by unknown authors over the first three centuries AD. The surviving texts follow the format of the official minutes of legal proceedings (acta), from which their title derives.

The ‘Acta’ promote Alexandrian patriotism and anti-Roman feelings, recounting hearings of some prominent Greek citizens of Alexandria sent as envoys to the court of the emperors in Rome. These hearings usually concern conflicts between Greek and Jewish communities in Alexandria. As the emperors tend to appear hostile to the Greek delegates, the hearings become proper trials, and often end with the execution of the envoys, who are killed as martyrs of the Alexandrian cause. It is difficult to discern what is historical and what is literary fiction in these texts, but the authors of the Acta may have relied on official documents of the hearings.

Marble sculpture of the head of Emperor Commodus
Marble head from a statue of the Emperor Commodus, c. 185-190. British Museum 1864,1021.9 © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The ‘Acts of Appian’ recount the hearing of an Alexandrian ambassador called Appian, trialled before the Emperor Commodus (176-192), although the emperor is never named in the surviving portion. Appian is sentenced to death twice, but is surprisingly recalled on both occasions. He accuses the emperor of making illegal profit from the trade of Egyptian grain, hoarding it with the aim of selling it at high prices. After being called back from execution, Appian continues to defy the emperor, accusing him of avarice, dishonesty and lack of education, contrasting him to his father Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher, who was fit to rule as an emperor. After this attack, Appian is condemned to death once again, though he is granted the right to die in his robes, as a symbol of his noble status. On his way to execution, he invites the citizens of Rome to watch the show of his death. Following the complaints of the crowds in Rome, the emperor recalls him again. At this point, however, when Appian starts another argument, the papyrus suddenly breaks off leaving the narrative fragmentary.

Back of a papyrus fragment with parts of three columns in Greek; only the second is well preserved
The fragment now in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University preserving further parts of the ‘Acts of Appian’. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

In 1933 a fragment entered the papyrus collection of Yale University, and was identified as belonging to the roll containing the ‘Acts of Appian’ now in the British Library. The fragment preserves a few letters from the first column of the British Library papyrus as well as bits of the two preceding columns, providing some missing portions from the earlier part of the account. At this point of the narrative, after having accused the emperor, Appian is being led away to execution for the first time, when he sees a dead body on the way and talks to a certain Heliodorus, who is unable to help but encourages him to face his death: dying for his fatherland will bring him glory.

Thanks to a collaboration between curatorial teams at the British Library and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, high-resolution images of the two portions have been made available and the fragments have now been joined again, virtually.

A papyrus roll consisting of two fragments housed in two collections, now joined
The fragments re-united: on the left, the portion from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; on the right, the British Library piece

We are also happy to announce that the British Library papyrus is now displayed in the new Universal Viewer, compatible with the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF).

The account of Appian’s trial is still incomplete, and we do not know whether the Alexandrian was eventually sentenced to death, but we hope that new fragments may come to light in the future to reveal the conclusion of the story.

Federica Micucci

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