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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

23 August 2019

Ancient recyling: writing on potsherds

There are only a few days left to visit the British Library's major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark. Recently, we dedicated a blogpost to one of the exhibits that has undoubtedly captured our visitors’ attention for its length, beauty and interest: the so-called Ravenna papyrus.

Another object on display, quite different from the Latin papyrus in terms of its size, nature and content, has also raised considerable public interest. It is a small potsherd, measuring 6.7 x 10 x 0.7 cm, whose outside (convex) side was used to host writing (Ostracon 13993). It is just one of the almost 4,200 potsherds, written in Ancient Greek, which form part of the British Library collections. They are known as ostraca (singular ostracon). You may not be immediately familiar with this term, but a modern English verb is derived from it. In Athens, in the 5th century BC, names of political figures who were believed to represent a threat to democracy were scratched onto the surface of potsherds, which were then deposited in urns. If a certain number of votes was reached, the person was expelled, that is, ostracised, for a period of ten years.

An ostracon issued for a sex-worker in ancient Egypt
The ostracon on display in Writing: Making Your Mark, dated 7 October 110 (Ostracon 13993)

Writing on pottery was common in the ancient world, and served different purposes. Containers of various types and shapes could be inscribed with information as to their contents, origi, or destination, especially for trade. Such labels, called ‘tituli picti’ or ‘dipinti’, were generally executed on the neck or shoulders of the amphora in red or black ink. However, these painted inscriptions are not considered to be ‘ostraca’, even when they are preserved in fragmentary form.

In contrast, shards of broken pots were commonly recycled and used as a writing material. For example, in Graeco-Roman Egypt ostraca were widely employed for writing many kinds of text, despite their disadvantages. Their smaller surface could only host short texts; they were heavier than a sheet of papyrus; and they could not be sealed. On the other hand, such shards were not only easy to source, such as in households and rubbish heaps, but they were also free of charge. Writing was usually traced on them in ink using the calamus, a reed pen employed for writing Greek and Latin texts on papyrus, or the reed brush for Egyptian writing. In Writing: Making Your Mark, our visitors have the opportunity to view an example of a reed pen in Arabic style, with the nib cut left oblique in order to favour writing from right to left.

As a result of their widespread use, ostraca from Egypt bear a wide variety of Greek texts. These include everyday documents such as tax receipts, lists, accounts and letters, as well as writing exercises and literary texts. At times, it can be difficult to tell whether these literary works were themselves being copied as writing exercises. One of the most famous examples of ostraca preserving a literary text is a Ptolemaic ostracon now held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (PSI XIII 1300). This contains an ode by Sappho, of which only a few words are quoted by other ancient authors.

The island of Elephantine
Elephantine Island (source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephantine)

The ostracon on display in our exhibition dates from over 1,900 years ago, and it contains a type of permit which is only rarely attested in our sources. In it, two tax collectors authorised a woman named Thinabdella to perform her activity as a sex-worker on a specific day. The ostracon is one of a handful of such permits to survive from Elephantine, an island off Aswan in Upper Egypt. The text on our ostracon reads:

Pelaias and Sokraton, tax farmers, to the ‘hetaira’ Thinabdella, greetings. We grant you permission to have intercourse with whomever you wish in this place on the day written below.

The date then follows, corresponding to 7 October 110, alongside the subscription of Sokraton, penned in a different hand. Why the permit was granted for a single day has been a matter of debate. Did Thinabdella come to the town for a short stay, or on a specific occasion, such as a festival?

There are just a few days left to see the ostracon in person at Writing: Making Your Mark: the exhibition closes on 27 August. If you would like to see more ostraca, you can check them out on Digitised Manuscripts, where you will currently find over 145 ostraca originating from Elephantine, with more yet to come!

The exhibition catalogue, in both paperback and hardback, is available from the British Library Shop.

9780712352536 Writing Making Your Mark

 

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21 August 2019

Win tickets to see Dan Jones: Crusaders

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On 9 September, the author and broadcaster Dan Jones is speaking at the British Library about the Crusades. We're delighted to have a pair of tickets for one of our lovely readers. To have a chance of winning, simply answer the question at the end of this blogpost.

Drawing on his new book Crusaders, Dan Jones will tell a tale soaked in Islamic, Christian and Jewish blood, peopled by extraordinary characters, and characterised by low ambition and high principle. These are events that have left an enduring imprint on relations between the Muslim world and the West.

Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a broadcaster, award-winning journalist and pioneer of the resurgence of interest in medieval history. He is the bestselling author of Summer of BloodThe PlantagenetsMagna Carta, Realm Divided and The Templars.

To have a chance of winning 2 tickets to see this event, answer the following question by using the comments box at the end of this blogpost. One pair of tickets is available. The winner will be drawn at random on 4 September from all the entries, and will be notified the same day. You must be able to make your own way to the event and there is no cash alternative.

 

Question: Which Pope was responsible for preaching the First Crusade?

Closing date for entries: 3 September, midnight (GMT).

 

Dan Jones: Crusaders is at the British Library Knowledge Centre, St Pancras (London), on 9 September (19:00–20:30). Tickets cost £15 (concessions are available).

20 August 2019

A medieval guide to predicting your future

How can you predict the future, interpret your dreams, and protect yourself against harm? Some of the manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project have the answer. Many medieval manuscripts include charms, which seek to influence events through the use of words and ritual actions, and prognostics, which predict what will happen. These were usually created and written down by people who knew the church liturgy well and had a deep understanding of the changes of the Moon and the seasons. You can read more about medieval knowledge of such natural phenomena in our article about medieval science.

Page from a medieval manuscript listing months followed by numbers
'On the bad days and which months they are from', Winchester, 3rd quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII, f. 9r

Some particularly intriguing Old English charms and prognostics appear in the opening leaves of an 11th-century Psalter (Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII). These include a list of ‘bad days’ in every month on which nothing you begin will be ended, which are calculated by counting how many days it has been since the last New Moon (the night on which the Moon is on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, making it invisible).

So in case you have any important projects coming up, the text reveals that in August these are the 8th and 13th nights of the Moon (counting the night of the New Moon as the first), in September they are the 5th and the 9th nights of the Moon, in October they are the 5th and the 15th nights, November the 7th and 9th nights, and in December the 3rd and 13th nights. So for the UK in 2019, these translate into the following calendar dates: 8th and 13th of August, 3rd and 7th of September, 2nd and 7th October, 3rd, 5th and 28th of November, and 8th December. Best not to start your projects on these days!

(You can calculate the unlucky dates for any place and year using an online Moon phases calendar).

A page from a medieval manuscript containing a charm
'On theft', from Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, Winchester, third decade of the 11th century: Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 79v

If one of your treasured belongs has gone astray, you might find this Latin charm from a collection of liturgical, scientific and prognostic texts useful (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI). The charm claims to reveal the identity of a thief: 'If you have lost something, write these letters on a blank sheet and place it under your head in the night when you sleep, and you will see him who has taken it from you'. Then it provides a group of letters and symbols for you to copy out.

But if you dream about something else, the prognostic on f. 9r-v might help. A dream which takes place on the 1st night of the New Moon pertains to joy, a dream on the 11th night will be without danger, and whatever you dream about on the 7th night will happen after a long time.

Prognostics could also foretell the course of a person’s life. A text on ff. 7v-8r claims to tell a person’s future based on how many days after the New Moon they were born. For example, we learn that whoever is born on the 21st night of the New Moon will be an ingenious robber, someone born on the 10th will travel around many places, but someone born on the 2nd will merely be 'mediocris' (average)!

A page from a medieval manuscript containing a charm
'Names to protect against a king or emperor', perhaps written in Bréziers, Southern France, 12th century: Egerton MS 821, f. 59v

Another manuscript in the collection is wholly composed of prognostics and charms (Egerton MS 821). One of these is a list of names that you should think through in your mind when in the presence of a king or emperor to work against his power: ‘in axbidino . henonia . adonay, sabaot iactriel. sa. adonai. eloym. hagai’.

If you wish to foretell the outcome of a fight, f. 40r instructs you to count the letters in the combatants' names, add five to whichever is the longer, and deduct ten. If the resulting numbers are equal, the one with the longer name will win; but if they are unequal, the one with the longer name will be beaten. It’s oddly reminiscent of the games that many of us used to play as children: by counting the number of letters in someone’s name, or by drawing a spiral and counting the number of lines in it, you can find out what your future is. Perhaps those fortune-telling games have been circulating for much longer than we think!

Kate Thomas

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