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

20 April 2019

Fortune-telling the ancient way

Will I have a long life? Am I going to find the person I want? Am I to become successful? If you’ve asked these questions about your future, keep on reading, as we might have the answer for you, from ancient times.

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The ‘Oracles of Astrampsychus’ (Sortes Astrampsychi): Papyrus 2461 verso

The British Library's collections include a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt, that contains part of the so-called ‘Oracles of Astrampsychus’ (Sortes Astrampsychi) (Papyrus 2461 verso). This is an oracle book that provides answers to a fixed set of questions of a personal nature. Among the questions preserved in our papyrus are the following:

‘Am I to find what is lost?’

‘Am I to recover from my illness?’

‘Will I come to terms with my masters?’

‘Shall I have a baby?’

‘Am I to profit from the affair?’

‘Will I become a senator?’

‘Have I been poisoned?’

‘Shall I be a fugitive?’ (and, if so) ‘Will my flight be undetected?’

‘Am I to be separated from my wife?’

This text originated in the 2nd century AD and comprises 92 questions (numbered from 12 to 103) and 103 sets of ten answers (decades). By adding the number of the chosen question to a number between one and ten, randomly given by the customer — clearly divinely inspired — the fortune-teller would look up a table of correspondences. This would lead to a specific decade, and the random number provided by the inquirer would then identify the final response. This papyrus does not preserve any of the decades of responses, but other papyri do, such as P.Oxy. LXVII 4581.

Another fortune-telling practice attested in Roman Egypt relied on the so-called Homeromanteion (‘Homer oracle’) or ‘Scimitar’, a name attested in another papyrus from Oxyrhynchus (P.Oxy. LVI 3831). This same papyrus also provides instructions on how to use the oracle.

‘First, you must know the days on which to use the Oracle; second, you must pray and speak the incantation of the god and pray inwardly for what you want; third, you must take the dice and throw it three times.’ (translated by P. J. Parsons)

The sequence of the three numbers obtained allows one to identify a corresponding Homeric verse, which would be introduced by the same sequence. For example, if one gets 4, 6, 3, the sequence 463 corresponds to Odyssey XX 18:

Have courage, heart. You have endured far worse.

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Broken line from Papyrus 121, with Od. XX 18 introduced by the sequence 463

The British Library holds one of the three papyri that preserve this text: Papyrus 121 is a magical handbook written on a roll over two metres long, with the Homeromanteion placed at the beginning.

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Last column of the Homeromanteion from Papyrus 121

If you want to dispel your doubts, we suggest you either do it the old-fashioned way — by casting the dice three times, identifying the sequence of numbers, and reading the corresponding Homeric verse in Papyrus 121 — or, if you have no dice ready to hand, check out this website.

If you are eager to learn more about the use of writing in relation to divination, don’t miss the British Library's major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, which opens on 26 April.

 

Federica Micucci

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17 April 2019

Medieval Manuscripts Post-doctoral Internship

We are pleased to offer a 9-month Internship in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department for a post-doctoral researcher in History, Art History, Medieval Language or Literature or another relevant subject.

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People riding on an elephant: Harley MS 3244, f. 37r

The intern will use their specialist knowledge of medieval manuscripts to support the curatorial team on a wide range of curatorial activities, including:

  • Cataloguing medieval manuscripts;
  • Supporting delivery of seminars and visits;
  • Writing posts for the Medieval Manuscripts Blog;
  • Responding to reader enquiries;
  • Preparing labels and other interpretative material;
  • Supporting the digitisation of medieval manuscripts.

The successful candidate will enjoy privileged access to the British Library’s world-class collections of medieval manuscripts and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise.

This internship will provide an opportunity to develop writing and presentation skills, to engage with a variety of audiences, and to gain experience of curatorial duties. Previous interns have given feedback that they felt a valued member of the team, gained professional confidence and developed their career by carrying out a ‘real’ job with specific duties.

To be eligible to apply, you must have recently completed or are about to submit a PhD in a subject area focused on medieval manuscripts, and you must have a right to work in the UK full time. You should have experience of researching and/or cataloguing medieval manuscripts, of blogging or using other platforms to engage with a variety of audiences, and of giving presentations about your research. You are also asked to provide evidence of a flexible and adaptable attitude, with a willingness to undertake a variety of tasks in timely fashion.

The interview may include questions about the date and content of a manuscript to be shown at the interview.

For further information and to apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers quoting vacancy ref: COL02726.

Closing Date: 13 May 2019

Interview Date: 6 June 2019

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15 April 2019

Cesare Franchi, Renaissance art in miniature

We are very pleased to have loaned three miniatures from our collection to the National Gallery of Umbria, Perugia, for their exhibition of works by Cesare Franchi. You can visit the exhibition from 13 April until 9 June 2019.

Cesare Franchi (c. 1560–1598), nicknamed il Pollino, was a leading miniaturist from Perugia. He worked in Rome and Perugia, creating fine quality miniatures that resemble tiny versions of late Renaissance paintings. As well as his art, Franchi is also known for his dramatic death. He was condemned for killing a masked reveller who insulted him during the Carnival. His fellow artists petitioned the Pope for a reprieve, but without success, and he was executed for murder. The shortness of Franchi’s career only adds to the rarity of his artworks.

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The Adoration of the Name of Jesus: Add MS 46365 C-D, f. C 

This miniature attributed to Franchi shows the Adoration of the Name of Jesus. The sacred monogram ‘IHS’, an abbreviation of the name of Jesus in Greek, appears in a shimmering gold roundel in the sky. On either side, winged cherubs sitting on clouds are playing musical instruments. Below, nine putti dance in a circle. Putti is the name given to the naked toddlers that often feature in Renaissance and Baroque art. Here, they seem to represent heavenly beings who express joy inspired by the name of Jesus.

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The Adoration of the Name of the Virgin: Add MS 46365 C-D, f. D

While the male putti celebrate the name of Jesus, this group of girls dance in Adoration of the Name of the Virgin. The composition is the same, except here the sacred monogram reads ‘MAR’ for Maria. The two companion miniatures were probably cut out from a liturgical manuscript.

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The Adoration of the Shepherds: Add MS 54246

This tender miniature depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds, the scene when the shepherds came to visit the Holy Family after the Nativity of Christ. The baby Jesus lies on a cloth in the middle of the image. The shepherds, ox and ass gather reverently around him, along with Mary and Joseph who are identified by their haloes, on the left. Above, three cherubs bear a scroll inscribed Gloria in excelsis deo et in terra pax hominibus (‘Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth among men’, cf. Luke 2:14).

Although he was well-known in his time, just over a dozen miniatures attributed to Franchi survive today. We are very proud that our three examples can join his other outstanding works at this important exhibition. We strongly recommend that you visit them at the National Gallery of Umbria, Perugia, from 13 April – 9 June 2019.

 

Eleanor Jackson

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