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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

25 November 2021

Merlin the magician: from devil’s son to King Arthur’s trusted advisor

Merlin is the central mythical character in the world of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. A shadowy and untameable figure who seldom takes a single form for long enough to show us his true nature, he eludes definition today, just as he did a millennium ago, and his origins and fate remain mysterious. His character was probably an amalgam of Myrddin Wyllt, a bard and wild man of the Caledonian forest in Welsh tradition, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a warrior-prophet who was among the last of the Romans in Britain, and possibly a local pagan god whose cult was associated with the Welsh town of Carmarthon (from Caer Myrddin, meaning Merlin’s fort or castle).

Merlin tells his prophecy of Arthur to Uther Pendragon, with Igraine watching from a tower
Merlin tells his prophecy of Arthur to Uther Pendragon, with Igraine watching from a tower, Langtoft’s Chronicle of English History (N. England, 1307–27): Royal MS 20 A II, f. 3v

As a fortune-teller and shape-shifter, Merlin became associated with necromancy and the dark arts in the imagination of medieval Christians. The story of his birth was founded in the religious legend of the Harrowing of Hell. The demons of Hell, annoyed by Christ’s interference and his rescuing of souls from their domain, plot their revenge through the birth of an Antichrist.

Christ rescues souls from Hell while the devils plot revenge
Christ rescues souls from Hell while the devils plot revenge, Estoire de Merlin (St Omer or Tournai, 1316): Add MS 10292, f. 76r

They send a devil to impregnate an innocent princess of Dyfed in Wales, but when the child is born, their evil plans miscarry as the devout mother finds a priest to baptise him before he is pulled into their evil orbit. This is Merlin, a child prodigy with magical powers and the ability to foretell the future, attributes that he decides to use on the side of good rather than evil.

Merlin is conceived by a devil lying with a Welsh princess
Merlin is conceived by a devil lying with a Welsh princess, Estoire de Merlin: Add MS 10292, f. 77v

The earliest of the Arthurian texts to include Merlin was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account in his Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). For more information on this work and the surviving manuscripts of early legends, see, our article on Early Latin Versions of the Legend of King Arthur published on the Polonsky Medieval France and England, 700-1200 website.

Merlin first appears when, following the massacre of the British chieftains by the Saxon leader, Hengist, in the treacherous ‘Night of the Long Knives’, the British King Vortigern flees to Wales where he tries to build a strong tower to protect himself. But every night, the progress made by his builders is mysteriously undone when the foundations crumble. His wizards claim that only by mixing in the blood of a child who has no mortal father will he make the foundations sound. Merlin is found and brought to Vortigern for his purpose, but he is able to see a pool beneath the tower, in which lie two sleeping dragons, one white and one red, and he explains that the white dragon (i.e. the Saxons) will triumph over the red (i.e. the British). He then enters a trance and foretells the future of the Britons to the end of time, predicting the coming of a great king by the name of Arthur.

Vortigern and his tower with the red and white dragons
Vortigern and his tower with the red and white dragons, Roman de Brut (England, 1325–50): Egerton MS 3028, f. 25r

Perhaps Merlin’s most remarkable achievement is single-handedly transporting a ring of magical stones known as ‘the Giant’s Dance’ from Ireland to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire to build Stonehenge. The earliest surviving picture of Stonehenge, showing Merlin helping to place the huge stones, is in a copy of the Roman de Brut, a verse chronicle of British history by a poet from Jersey named Wace, written in Anglo-Norman French.

Merlin helps build Stonehenge
Merlin helps build Stonehenge, Roman de Brut (England, 1325–50): Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

Merlin’s next undertaking is to orchestrate the marvellous conception, birth and education of the future King Arthur. As he foretells, the young boy pulls the sword from the stone and inherits his rightful kingdom and - with Merlin’s help and guidance - achieves greatness. But though Merlin uses his powers to warn his young protégé about the future, he is powerless to change events that have been ordained. One day he appears in the form of a young boy to Arthur, who is out hunting in the forest, revealing that Arthur is son of King Uther and of Igraine. Later, changing into an old man, he prophesies that Mordred, the son who Arthur has conceived with his half-sister Morgause, will one day destroy his father and the court at Camelot.

Merlin meets Arthur hunting in the forest
Merlin meets Arthur hunting in the forest, Livre de Merlin (Arras, 1310): Add MS 38117, f. 76r

Though he is a trusted adviser to kings, Merlin remains an unpredictable character with strange habits and a menacing laugh that announces his sometimes-macabre intentions. In one episode, he changes into a deer and is served up as Caesar’s dinner, later returning as a wild man to interpret the Emperor’s dreams.

Merlin, disguised as a stag, is served at the Emperor’s feast
Merlin, disguised as a stag, is served at the Emperor’s feast, Estoire de Merlin: Add MS 10292, f. 160v

When he becomes obsessed with the fairy huntress, Niniane, he performs bizarre stunts for her that include setting two harpists alight with sulphur, saying they are evil sorcerers.

Merlin sets two harpists on fire with sulphur in front of Niniane
Merlin sets two harpists on fire with sulphur in front of Niniane, Livre de Merlin: Add MS 38117, f. 186r.

In the end Niniane brings about Merlin’s downfall. Having tricked him into revealing all his magical knowledge to her, she uses one of his spells to seal him in a stone tomb in the forest of Broceliande, or in some versions in an oak tree, until the end of time.

Stories of King Arthur and Camelot, alongside some of the most celebrated tales in medieval manuscripts, are featured in my recently published book, Dragons, Heroes, Myths & Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, now on sale now in the British Library shop. Perhaps it would make the perfect Christmas gift for a medieval story-lover?

Chantry Westwell

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Dragons heroes myths magic cover

 

18 November 2021

Robert Dudley's bindings: ‘A bear muzzled and chained’

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-88), is best known today as Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite. He had been a close friend of the Queen from a young age and remained so until his death in 1588. He was referred to as her ‘Lord Robert’ by the diplomat Henry Killigrew in a letter to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, Elizabeth’s ambassador in France, on 28 September 1561, in which Killigrew expressed doubts about Elizabeth marrying because she only had eyes for Dudley.

Letter from Henry Killigrew to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton
Letter from Henry Killigrew to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, 28 September [1561], London: Add MS 35830, f. 205r

As one of the central figures in Elizabeth’s life, Dudley of course plays a key role in the our current major exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, where he can be seen in this spectacular painting by Steven van der Meulen of c. 1561, which shows him displaying all the offices and honours he had accumulated during Elizabeth’s reign.

Portrait of Robert Dudley
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by Steven van der Meulen, c. 1561. By kind permission of Waddesdon (Rothschild Family)

Dudley had been appointed Master of the Horse on Elizabeth's accession to the throne in November 1558, and he became a Privy Councillor in 1562 and Earl of Leicester in 1564. Together with Sir Robert Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, Dudley played a key role in domestic and foreign politics during Elizabeth’s reign. But Dudley was much more than just Elizabeth’s favourite and a statesman. He was also a known patron of the arts, a great book collector and a patron of authors and bookbinders, and it’s his interest in owning finely bound books which is of particular interest here.

During his lifetime, Dudley patronised a number of binding shops and the bindings surviving from his library can be divided into different groups. While some of his bindings show his coat of arms on their covers, the most easily recognisable ones are those bearing his characteristic crest in the centre of both covers. Several different versions of his crest are known, all showing ‘a bear erect muzzled and chained supporting a ragged staff on the shoulder a crescent for difference’. More information on his coat of arms and his crest can be found on the British Armorial Bookbindings website. 

Crest of Robert Dudley, from a book binding
Dudley’s crest from vol. 1 of Biblia sacra, Lyon, 1550: C.18.d.5

Some of Dudley’s bindings show the influence of Parisian bindings on English bindings at the time in the extensive use of gold tooling in an intricate centre and cornerpiece design, such as this example bound by the so-called Dudley Binder in brown calfskin, tooled in gold with traces of black paint and Dudley’s crest in the centre of both covers.

Book binding with Robert Dudley's crest
Plato, Platonis Convivium, Paris, 1543: C.19.c.23., upper cover

A much simpler group of bindings, also showing Dudley’s crest with the addition of his initials ‘R D’, is decorated with a simple frame around the covers with fleurons at the corners, such as this example, bound in brown calfskin and tooled in gold.

Book binding with Robert Dudley's crest
Georg Meier, Justini ex Trogi Pompeii historia, Cologne, 1556: C.64.b.2., upper cover.

When Dudley died in 1588, an inventory of his library listed over 230 books of which over 90 are known today, bound by more than eight different binders’ workshops between the 1550s and the 1580s. Books from Dudley’s collection can now be found in libraries around the world and the British Library holds examples of some of his elaborate as well as plain bindings. You can find more information on and images of Dudley’s bindings on the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings.

Discover more fascinating characters and amazing documents from the world of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots in the exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, open at the British Library until 20 February 2022.

Robert Dudley's signature
Dudley’s signature from vol. 1 of Biblia sacra, Lyon, 1550: C.18.d.5

You can also find out more about Dudley and his bindings in H. M. Nixon and M. M. Foot, The History of Decorated Bookbinding in England (Oxford, 1992); H. M. Nixon, ‘Elizabethan gold-tooled bindings’, in Essays in Honour of Victor Scholderer, ed. by D. E. Rhodes (Mainz, 1970); or W. E. Moss, Bindings from the Library of Robt. Dudley, Earl of Leicester, (Sonning, 1934).

Karen Limper-Herz

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16 November 2021

The archive of Zenon

In the 1910s an exceptional lot of more than 1,800 papyri was unearthed by the ‘sebakhin’ (local diggers searching for decayed mudbricks used as a fertilizer) in the ancient site of Philadelphia in the northeast of the Fayum region, in Egypt. This collection of documents constitutes the richest Greek archive on papyrus hitherto unearthed and dates from the mid-3rd century BC. These papers, collected in ancient times and kept together for more than 2000 years, are today held in different collections around the world. While the vast majority were acquired by the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the rest entered European and American collections, from London and Manchester to Florence and Paris, from Ann Arbor to New York.

Map of a district of Egypt including its subdivisions and showing the village of Philadelphia on the north-eastern border.
Map of the Arsinoite nome taken from The Fayum Project. Philadelphia was located on the north-eastern border.

These precious survivals have allowed scholars to reconstruct the phases of the career of the owner of these papers: Zenon, son of Agreophon, born around 285 BC and originally from Caunus (modern Dalyan), in ancient Caria (southwest of modern Turkey). Covering a period of some thirty years (261-229 BC), the archive includes private and official letters, accounts, contracts, petitions as well as a few literary texts. Besides dealing with official and business matters, some correspondence from this archive is more personal in tone, providing details on Zenon’s life, family and friends.

The documents reveal that from around 261 BC, Zenon served as a business agent and private secretary of Apollonius, the finance minister (dioiketes) of the country, advisor to King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (reigned 285 BC – 246 BC). In the first phase of his career, Zenon was travelling as a representative of Apollonius to Palestine, which at that time was under the control of Ptolemy.

Well preserved papyrus sheet containing a complete letter from 257 BC.
Complete letter from Glaucias to Apollonius, reporting on various business matters and dated 257 BC (British Library, Papyrus 2661)

Apollonius also owned property in Palestine. In a letter from May 257 BC (Papyrus 2661), addressed to the finance minister himself, one of his agents reported that his Palestinian estate was being well cultivated under the management of his local agent, Melas, and the vines amounted to 80,000. The agent even tasted the wine, but could hardly say whether it was Chian wine (one of the most prized wines in classical antiquity) or a local one. He concluded: ‘So your affairs are prospering, and fortune is favouring you in everything’. 

Concluding line from a letter on papyrus.
Conclusion of the letter from Glaucias (British Library, Papyrus 2661).

In the spring of 258 BC, Zenon returned to Egypt and travelled on a few occasions on inspection tours around the Nile Delta. Following a long and apparently serious illness, from which he recovered sometime in 256 BC, Zenon settled down in Philadelphia and became overseer of Apollonius’ large estate (c. 2750 hectars!). Ptolemy II had gifted the estate to Apollonius in the winter of 259 BC, and Zenon succeeded a certain Panacestor as its manager.

Zenon kept this role until 248 BC, when he was discharged from his duties and focused on managing his own businesses in Philadelphia. Having been engaged in various enterprises over the years, such as money-lending, tax farming and renting of animals, he had now become a wealthy and influential businessman. The number of documents relating to Zenon decreases after 240 BC, and the latest dated text mentioning him is from 229 BC. 

With the archive held in various collections worldwide, it is no surprise that even fragments belonging to the same papyrus are now housed at different institutions. However, digitisation and cross-institutional collaboration can help overcome the limits of time and space. For example, a letter from Philinus, a friend of Zenon’s, survives in two fragments, one at the British Library (Papyrus 2351) and one at the papyrus collection of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in New York (P.Col. IV 114d).

Fragmentary papyrus sheet, lacking the bottom and right-hand half
Fragmentary letter from Philinus to Zenon (British Library, Papyrus 2351)

In this letter, Philinus advises Zenon that he has despatched five shields of extraordinary quality: ‘I have sent you the five shields so highly prized by me that not even in Aetolia are there any such.’ The Columbia fragment perfectly joins the British Library portion to the right, containing the ends of the first seven lines of the letter, as shown on the image below.

Two papyrus fragments from different collections now joined.
The two fragments now joined: on the left, British Library Papyrus 2351; on the right, the Columbia portion, P.Col. IV 114d. The image of the Columbia fragment is courtesy of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

In another interesting case, a receipt written in duplicate form has ended up in the British Library and in the papyrus collection of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Nechthembes, apparently a small contractor employing a group of men for the cultivation of an estate, acknowledges that he received money for twenty workmen for the levelling of a vineyard. The British Library holds the upper receipt (Papyrus 2340), representing the inner text, which was originally rolled up and sealed to serve as the authoritative copy. The seal, in this case not preserved, would usually carry the impression of the man acknowledging receipt of payment. The Michigan fragment (P.Mich.inv. 3151), on the other hand, constitutes the outer text that was left open and visible.

Two fragments from the same papyrus, now belonging to different collections.
Two fragments from the same papyrus sheet, the upper being British Library Papyrus 2340 and the lower the Michigan fragment P.Mich.inv. 3151 (© Regents of the University of Michigan)

Our Greek papyri cataloguing project, generously sponsored by the American Trust for the British Library, has focused on fragments shared by the British Library and American collections. You can read about two other examples of such joins in our previous blog posts: A letter of recommendation split between two continents and Defying the Emperor. You can also learn more about the Zenon archive on the Trismegistos dedicated page. All the Zenon papyri from the British Library collections have been digitised and catalogued and will be made available on the British Library new IIIF viewer in the coming months.

Federica Micucci

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