Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

14 posts from September 2016

14 September 2016

Palimpsests: The Art of Medieval Recycling

The art of recycling — re-using waste materials to reduce consumption of fresh raw materials — may seem alien in a medieval context. Yet when it comes to writing, past peoples were often much more sparing than many of us today.

Miniature of the Evangelist Luke writing, in a 12th-century Gospel-book,
Add MS 5112, f. 3r

Producing papyrus sheets or parchment volumes was not an easy or cheap endeavour. In order to produce a complete Bible on parchment, the skins of approximately 200 sheep may have been needed. One way to save parchment was to write the words and sentences continuously with no punctuation at all. This might have made reading more difficult and open to misunderstanding, but it definitely saved space.

Detail of continuous script in the columns of the Codex Sinaiticus, Eastern Mediterranean (Palestine?), 4th century,  Add MS 43725, f. 252r

Another way to save parchment and papyrus was to reuse it. Papyrus scrolls were usually written on one side only, where the fibres were horizontal and more suitable for writing, while the other side with vertical threads was usually left blank. In times of need, however, scribes reused the more inconvenient side of scrolls that they found unimportant or superfluous. The practice of writing tax receipts and payment reminders on the reverse of classical dramas and poems has sometimes saved classical literature which would otherwise have been lost. Examples at the British Library include Papyrus 787 preserving Demosthenes’s works, Papyrus 1182 with Epicurus’s treatise and Papyrus 1191 containing Homer.


Columns from a speech by Demosthenes, Egypt, 2nd century CE, Papyrus 744 recto with later accounts from the other side of the same papyrus, Egypt, 2nd-3rd century CE, Papyrus 744, verso

Reusing parchment pages was more complicated, since books often had writing on both sides. By taking pages of books that were unused, incomprehensible or perhaps banned, it was possible to scrape or wash off the old writing to achieve a new blank page. It is the outcome of this recycling process that we call a palimpsest (the “re-scratched” page).

Many manuscripts with recycled pages are preserved and it is always intriguing to discover what the old writing contained and why it was destroyed. Deciphering undertexts is not always easy. Sometimes the recyclers did not make a very thorough job and the old writing is so transparent that modern viewers can easily read and identify the recycled pages: examples include the epics of Homer and the geometrical works of the mathematician Euclid of Megara.


The capital letters of Euclid’s Elements recycled in a 9th-century manuscript containing a Syriac translation of a Greek theological text, Add MS 17211, f. 49v

If the recycling was done meticulously, special techniques are necessary to recover the text. Thanks to the British Library’s multispectral imaging technology, many of the seemingly unreadable undertexts can now be recovered. Recently we managed to discover remnants of at least three manuscripts in one 15th-century Greek liturgical book, including parts of a 9th-century gospelbook, some leaves from a 10th-century service book and two scraps from a 12th-century copy of a Greek commentary on Plato by the 5th-century Proclus.

Multispectral images of a 15th-century service book showing the capital letters of a 9th-century gospel behind the script, Add MS 36823, f. 17r

These brownish columns are what remains of a 12th-century copy of Proclus’s Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus recycled in this 15th-century liturgical manuscript:
Add MS 36823, f. 123r

Perhaps the most thrilling find yet is a double-palimpsest from Egypt, a 10th-century manuscript written in Syriac (a Semitic language of the Christian East) on pages that contain a twofold layer of Latin texts. One is a commentary on Donatus’s Latin grammar attributed to Sergius from the 7th century, written above another 5th-century Latin text preserving fragments of the otherwise lost historical work of the 2nd-century Granius Licinianus, whose writing is known only from these recycled pages.


Cursive Latin handwriting of a 7th-century grammatical treatise under the Syriac translation of John Chrysostom’s homilies, Egypt, 10th century, Add. MS 17212, f. 7v


Capital letters of the Latin text of the Annals of Granius Licinianus under the 7th-century cursive Latin grammatical text in the pages of the 10th-century Syriac manuscript of John Chrysostom’s homilies, Add MS 17212, f. 5r

How these precious fragments ended up in Egypt and why were they recycled to accommodate Syriac translations of Greek religious texts are questions that are very hard to answer. Sebastian Brock, one of the foremost experts on Syriac manuscripts and literature, will try to crack the puzzle in his upcoming lecture at the British Library’s conference on Greek manuscripts. You can book your place to hear the end of the story here.

Peter Toth


11 September 2016

Caption Competition 8

It's time, once again, for our caption competition. This week we've chosen a gorgeous image from Royal MS 14 E V, a manuscript containing Giovanni Boccaccio's fourteenth-century De casibus virorum illustrium (On the Fates of Famous Men) in a French translation by Laurent de Premierfait, entitled 'Des cas des ruynes des nobles hommes et femmes'. This influential work was adapted and translated into Middle English in the fifteenth century by the Benedictine monk and poet, John Lydgate, as the Fall of Princes. You can see many magical manuscripts like this one on our Digitised Manuscripts site. 

Send us your suggestions to @blmedieval. Happy Captioning! 

Caption comp

Fortune appearing to Boccaccio sitting at a desk, from the start of Book 6, 'Des cas des ruynes des nobles hommes et femmes', Bruges, c. 1479-c. 1480, Royal MS 14 E V, f. 291r



09 September 2016

Representations of Disabilities and Illnesses in Medieval Manuscripts

We recently received an enquiry asking if medieval manuscripts ever depict people with disabilities. At this time when the eyes of the world are upon the Rio Paralympics, we thought that it might be appropriate to devote a blogpost to medieval illustrations of disability and illnesses. 

Medieval manuscripts are full of portrayals of disabilities. From allegorical figures to pilgrims seeking cures at saints’ shrines, to medical texts describing early surgeries for cleft palates, our manuscripts depict many forms of disability and many individual people with disabilities in images and words.

Illness and disability
Detail of Old Age, portrayed as a woman with a crutch from the Roman de la Rose, Harley MS 4425, f. 10v; part of an account of miracles healing blind, deaf and paralysed people at the tomb of St Swithun, Winchester, Royal MS 15 C VII, f. 86v; detail of Christ and an ill man, from the Theodore Psalter, Add MS 19532, f. 155v

In fact, people with disabilities are illustrated more frequently in medieval manuscript culture than is often realised, particularly as the owners of and inspirations for many surviving manuscripts. To take one example: Bishop Æthelwold—for whom the spectacular Benedictional of St Æthelwold was made—had ‘swollen legs’ according to his students, and he reportedly needed two assistants to help him stand during mass. Aside from these two references, however, Æthelwold’s disability is not mentioned either in the written accounts or in the images which seemingly depict him. Studies of medieval disability are often hampered because scholars are dependent on the sources revealing disability in the first place.

Image of a bishop, possibly Æthelwold of Winchester, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, England (copied by Godeman), c. 963 x 984, Add MS 49598, f. 118v

As well as being the patrons of manuscripts, people with disabilities also influenced the contents of manuscripts as authors, scribes and artists. For instance, the Greek poet Homer may have been blind: at least, he was certainly believed to have been blind by the late Middle Ages. The British Library has a large collection of early copies of Homer’s works, including one of the best-preserved copies of the Iliad from the 2nd century AD, along with later medieval depictions of Homer as blind.

One of the best preserved copies of the Iliad, the Bankes Homer, Papyrus 114 , 2nd century AD 

Detail of a miniature depicting Homer, from a copy of the Iliad with a life of Homer and other prefatory material, Italy (Florence), completed on 16 May 1466, Harley MS 5600, f. 15v

People with disabilities also feature as the subjects of texts in many medieval manuscripts. Many leaders in the Middle Ages experienced one disability or another. King John of Bohemia was blind yet continued to fight on horseback; while Enrico Dandolo was blind by the time he became the doge of Venice in 1192. Admittedly, in some medieval cultures and contexts, being blind was seen as a bar from holding high office: in the Byzantine Empire, deposed leaders or political rivals were sometimes blinded to stop them gaining or resuming power. Nevertheless, Dandolo disproved the idea that sight loss was incompatible with effective leadership when he allied with the crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204.   

Timur defeats Damascus
Detail of Timur watching the defeat of Damascus, from t
he Ẓafarnāmah, a  history of the conquests of Timur by Sharaf al-Din Yazdi completed c. 1424; the manuscript was completed on 31 March 1533, IO Islamic 137, f. 358r

Musculoskeletal disabilities did not stop some medieval warriors, either. Contemporary accounts supported by archaeological discoveries suggest that Timur (d. 1405), the founder of the Timurid Empire, whose armies swept across Central Asia and the Middle East, had physical disabilities on his right-hand side. In several languages, he was remembered as 'Timur the Lame', leading to the European misnomer Tamerlane. Manuscripts recounting the deeds of Timur and his descendants are described in more detail on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog.  

Royal MS 20 C vii, f. 134r
The autograph of Richard III (as Duke of Gloucester, before 1483), from
 Chroniques de France ou St Denis, France (Paris), 1380-1400, Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 134r

Modern archaeological research has also confirmed that Richard III had scoliosis and that Robert the Bruce may have had leprosy towards the end of his life. Perhaps the most famous king to have leprosy, however, was Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, whose disease was discovered while he was playing as a boy. The British Library holds several versions of the history written by Baldwin’s tutor, William of Tyre, which mentions this incident.

Detail of an historiated initial showing William of Tyre discovering Baldwin’s leprosy, from Histoire d'Outremer, a French translation  of
William of Tyre’s Historia rerum, France (Picardy?), 1232–1261, Yates Thompson MS 12, f. 152v

Other medieval rulers had conditions which we can no longer identify, but which were remarked upon by contemporaries. Alfred the Great, king of Wessex (871–99), had an uncertain illness which had an unfortunate tendency to become acute during communal events, such as his own wedding. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, tried very hard to explain away Alfred’s ailment as a test from God to keep Alfred holy. 

Page from an early modern transcript of Asser's Vitae 
Ælfredi describing Alfred's wedding, Cotton MS Otho  A XII/1, f. 18r

These examples do not necessarily mean that all people with disabilities in the Middle Ages enjoyed particularly notable lives or were able to overcome all physical and cultural obstacles. Treatments prevalent in many places may have been more harmful than helpful, notwithstanding some remarkable recent discoveries in medieval medical manuscripts. It is important to stress, however, that medieval people with disabilities were not always marginalised, and that some of them were socially, politically and culturally prominent, as our manuscripts so splendidly reveal.

Alison Hudson




06 September 2016

Greek Manuscripts Conference

A reminder for your diaries, for everyone who is interested in Greek and Byzantine manuscript culture. The British Library is holding a day conference on our Greek manuscripts on 19 September 2016, featuring an international panel of experts (from the United Kingdom, Greece, Bulgaria and France). This is the culmination of the third phase of our project to digitise all the British Library's Greek manuscripts, and to mark the launch of our fantastic Greek Manuscripts Online Resource.


The Theodore Psalter, AD 1066: Add MS 19352, f. 100r

We'd love you to be able to join us: you can book your tickets here. You can also book tickets to both the conference and an evening lecture by Michael Wood at a reduced rate. Not only will you hear discussion of illuminated manuscripts, palimpsests and Greek written culture, but coffee, a sandwich lunch and a reception are also provided to those attending the conference.

Please don't delay, book today. Places are limited, so don't miss out!


Greek Manuscripts at the British Library

British Library Conference Centre

19 September 2016

10.00–17.00, followed by a optional evening lecture by Michael Wood, The Wisdom of the Greeks (18.30–20.00)


Registration and Coffee
Welcome: Scot McKendrick (British Library)

Session 1

Chair: Peter Toth (British Library)

Sebastian Brock (University of Oxford): Greek Undertexts in Syriac Manuscripts from Egypt in the British Library
Elizabeth Jeffreys (University of Oxford): A New Planet Swims into our Ken: Editing Greek Texts in the Digital Era
Lunch (sandwiches provided)

Session 2

Chair: Antony Eastmond (Courtauld Institute)

Georgi Parpulov (Plovdiv, Bulgaria): Illuminated Byzantine Manuscripts – Digitized
Maria Georgopoulou (Gennadius Library, Athens): British Collectors of Greek Manuscripts: A Glimpse from Athens

Session 3

Chair: André Binggeli (Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes, Paris)

Christopher Wright and Philip Taylor (Royal Holloway, University of London): An electronic edition of a post-Byzantine Greek manuscript of the British Library (Royal MS 16 C X)
Charlotte Roueché (King’s College London): Linked Data: The Role of Manuscripts
An end or just a beginning? Discussion on prospects for digitization and cataloguing, introduced and moderated by André Binggeli and Charlotte Roueché
Reception for conference participants

Public Lecture

Michael Wood: The Wisdom of the Greeks

Abstracts and Biographies

Greek Undertexts in Syriac Manuscripts from Egypt In the British Library

Almost all Syriac manuscripts earlier than the 12th century have been transmitted through two monastic libraries in Egypt: St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, and Deir al-Surian in the Nitrian Desert. The latter was the source of much of the British Library’s extensive collection of Syriac manuscripts, and among them are some 65 palimpsests, the subject of this paper. Although for the most part the undertexts are in Syriac or Christian Palestinian Aramaic, in a number of manuscripts it is Greek (in one case, Homer).

Sebastian Brock is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute and a Professorial Fellow at Wolfson College.

A New Planet Swims into our Ken: Editing Greek Texts in the Digital Era

This paper will consider the Greek manuscripts in the digitization programme: what they are, how are they accessed, and what can one do with them. There will be a focus on the manuscripts collected by Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford (d. 1827).

Elizabeth Jeffreys was Bywater and Sotheby Professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek Language and Literature, University of Oxford, and Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, 1996–2006. She is now Emeritus Professor and Emeritus Fellow of Exeter College.

Illuminated Byzantine Manuscripts – Digitized

Manuscript digitization is of enormous benefit to those who are primarily concerned with the physical appearance of books rather than their textual contents. In the miniatures of Add MS 11870, the peculiar manners of different artists can be distinguished. Add MS 36928 shows how a scribe and a miniature painter collaborated. The richly illustrated and as yet unstudied Egerton MS 3157 reminds us that digital images ought to be supplemented with relevant catalogue information.

Georgi Parpulov studies Greek and Slavonic Manuscripts, Byzantine Palaeography and codicology, and Bulgarian history with a special focus on illuminated manuscripts.

British Collectors of Greek Manuscripts

John Gennadius assembled an extensive collection of Greek manuscripts from the 1870s onwards when he held a diplomatic post in London. Some of the most important manuscripts in his collection are now at the Gennadius Library in Athens, several examples of which belonged to Lord Guilford.

Maria Georgopoulou is director of the Gennadius Library, The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Greece. Her publications focus on the artistic and cultural interactions of Mediterranean peoples in the Middle Ages.

An electronic edition of a post-Byzantine Greek manuscript of the British Library (Royal MS 16 C X)

Dr George Etheridge, former Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, addressed a Greek Encomium to Queen Elizabeth I on King Henry VIII for the Queen’s visit to Oxford in 1566. It is now uniquely preserved in Royal MS 16 C X. The electronic edition of the text employs an original interface that graphically links words or phrases in the digitized manuscript image with their counterparts in the transcribed or edited Greek text and in the English translation, supported by multiple dynamic scholarly apparatus including a lexical analysis of each word with direct links to several online dictionaries. This exploratory editorial project is accessible at

Christopher Wright is a research fellow at the Hellenic Institute in the Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Philip Taylor is an Honorary Research Associate at Hellenic Institute of the Royal Holloway, University of London.

Linked Data: The role of manuscripts – or Now What?

The Greek manuscripts project makes rich materials available to a worldwide audience. Manuscripts are bearers of meaning: the challenge now is for those who have the expertise to make this meaning apparent, to ensure that these are more than just images. But no one person – or even group of people – has all the relevant knowledge. Instead, in the spirit in which Tim Berners-Lee developed the web, we need to think in terms of Linked Open Data. We need to link this material to other resources which can enhance what we see. The modern owner of a manuscript might be linked to an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; earlier owners, or scribes, might be linked to their entries in one of the series of Byzantine prosopographies. Locations can be linked to an online gazetteer. As resources develop, it will be increasingly possible to link manuscripts to the texts which are based on them: the pioneering work here has been done by the Homer Multitext Project. This is just a beginning!

Charlotte Roueché is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Classics at King’s College London. For many years she has explored the use of digital tools for the analysis and publication of Greek texts. She is particularly concerned with using the Internet to bring the highest possible level of scholarship to the widest possible audience.

Closing Discussion: An end or just a beginning?

What are the implications of making these rich materials available online? How can we support scholars in exploiting them? What will the ordinary reader need? How will we keep track of what journeys our manuscripts now undertake?

— @BLMedieval

03 September 2016

Guess the Manuscript Returns

It's been a while since we asked you to "guess the manuscript", that fun game for all the family. This medieval manuscript is found, in full, on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. But what is it?

Send us your guesses via Twitter (@BLMedieval) or using the comments box below this post. Good luck! We'll reveal the answer next week.

No idea

A page from an old book, but we're not going to tell you what it is yet, as that would spoil it (British Library MS XXX!)


Update (5 September)

And the answer to our fiendish Guess the Manuscript is Sloane MS 1975, a 12th-century medical and herbal miscellany, currently on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum's Colour exhibition. We showed you folio 93v; here's the other side of that same leaf (f. 93r). Thank you everyone who took part and for all your fun guesses.



01 September 2016

A Calendar Page for September 2016

For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for September from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

Summer’s end is in the air in the calendar pages for September from the Bedford Hours.

Detail of miniatures of a man treading grapes and the zodiac sign Libra, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

The heavy agricultural work of the summer begins to give way to the preparations for autumn, and this calendar page for September shows one of the most common of these preparations.  On the lower left, a man is carefully treading grapes in a vat for making wine; he has removed his trousers for this messy job, but his jaunty cap remains intact.  To his right is a female figure carrying a set of scales, for the zodiac sign Libra.

Detail of a marginal roundel of Palas, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a king with a forked beard, seated in a garden.  Behind him stands an angel with an open book, which is visible behind the king’s crown.  This scene is only somewhat explained by the accompanying rubric, which describes how the month of September is named after the number seven, which is ‘dedicated to Palas which means wisdom’.  The honorific Pallas was given to the goddess Athena, who was indeed the goddess of wisdom.

Calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9v

More details about the month of September can be found on the following folio.  The first marginal roundel shows a bearded man, clad in green leaves, standing in a walled garden overflowing with plants.  Above him in gold lettering is the name ‘Verto[m]pn[us]’, who the rubric tells us produces fruit ‘in the month of September’.  This figure is almost certainly that of Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasonal change, fruit trees, growth and gardens.  At the bottom is a figure of a regal woman standing in a garden, with a bird flying directly before her.  She is labelled ‘Elul’ and the rubrics go on to explain that the month of September is ‘called in Hebrew elul which means the mother of God.’ (Elul is the sixth month of the Hebrew ecclesiastical calendar, corresponding to parts of August and September in the Gregorian system.)

Detail of marginal roundels of Vertumnus and Elul, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9v