THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

9 posts from May 2019

25 May 2019

How to name a mummy

The British Library’s landmark exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opened recently. Many unique objects are on display, revealing the uses and ways of writing from the ancient to the modern world. Among them is one small piece encapsulating the story of an entire life.

The item in question is one of the numerous mummy labels housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, who have kindly loaned it to our exhibition.

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The mummy label on loan to our Writing exhibition: UC 28078 © Petrie Museum

The tag, written in Ancient Greek between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the current era, reads ‘Bobastous to the gate of Thermouthiakes of the metropolis of the Arsinoite (district)’. It is the name of a person (Bobastous) and an address in Arsinoe, the capital of a district in Graeco-Roman Egypt, which corresponds to the modern Medinet el-Fayum, in Middle Egypt, on the western side of the Nile. This little wooden label was attached to the mummified corpse of Bobastous, in order to identify the body and to ensure that, after mummification, it was delivered to the right address for burial.

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‘View of Medinet El-Fayoum’ (1868-1870) by Jean-Léon Gérôme: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Mummy labels are well known from Roman Egypt. They were usually made out of various types of wood, but other materials like faience and stone were also used. The tags could have different shapes, ranging from a tiny stela to a little tablet with one or two ‘ears’ (‘tabula ansata’). Standard forms such as the rectangle are also attested, such as the tag from the Petrie Museum in our exhibition.

The labels usually had one or more holes, through which a string was passed to append the tag to the mummy's neck or feet: the label on display in Writing: Making Your Mark even preserves the original cord.

The tag could bear writing on one or both sides, and two languages — usually Greek and Egyptian (Demotic) — were often employed on the same object. The text was normally drawn in black ink, but it could also be carved. In some cases, red ink was used.

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This tag from the Petrie Museum (UC 45635), a tabula ansata with one ansa, belonged to a certain Didyme: the text is carved and also drawn with ink © Petrie Museum

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A tag on limestone from the Petrie Museum (UC 34473) in Demotic script, written in red ink © Petrie Museum

Each label recorded details of the deceased for the purpose of identification. Alongside the personal name, additional information such as the names of the father and mother, the deceased's place of origin, their profession, and sometimes the age at the time of the death, could also be recorded. In rare occurrences, even the cause of death is stated. For example, one tag now held in Berlin (SB I 1209) reads: ‘Apollonius, son of Eusebes and Tamis, died because of a scorpion’s bite’.

Mummy labels served an important function. It was essential to be able to identify the embalmed corpse, because the body had to be transported to the cemetery or returned to the home village of the deceased (if they had passed away elsewhere). Papyri sometimes shed further light on how mummies were transported. For example, in the British Library's collection is a letter from a man complaining that the recipients had failed to collect the body of the deceased (possibly their brother), and that they did not pay for the funeral expenses (520 drachmas) (Papyrus 717). However, they did take his belongings …

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A papyrus describing funeral expenses: Papyrus 717 (P.Nekr. 18)

Besides providing identification and instructions as to the transport and shipping of the body, mummy labels sometimes bear drawings such as the dog Anubis (guardian dog of the cemeteries) and symbols like the ankh (life) or, in a Christian environment, the cross. In other cases, wishes for prosperity, phrases of encouragement and condolence, and maxims (such as ‘nobody is immortal’) were added as a means of commemoration and farewell.

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Anubis holding the key (kleidouchos) to the Underworld and a burning torch in a mummy tag from the Liverpool Museum

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A Petrie Museum label (UC 45656) for Socrate, daughter of Cyrillus, featuring the ankh, the symbol of life © Petrie Museum

The majority of mummy labels published to the present day are collected in a database with the wonderful name Death on the Nile. If you want to see one of them in person, we'd love you to visit our exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, which is open at the British Library until 27 August.

 

Federica Micucci

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22 May 2019

Book of Beasts at the Getty

Bestiaries are one of the most popular medieval texts, describing the characteristics and habits of beasts real and imagined. We are delighted to say that the British Library has loaned six manuscripts to an exciting new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Book of Beasts, curated by Elizabeth Morrison and Larisa Grollemond, explores the wonders of the medieval bestiary tradition, drawing together manuscripts, tapestries and paintings, as well as a variety of other objects.

Two of these British Library loans are magnificent 13th-century English bestiaries. The first (Royal MS 12 C XIX) contains over 80 illustrations of beasts, birds and fish, painted in gold and bright colours. This bestiary is accompanied by several theological works, including extracts from the Book of Genesis and the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636), as well as a number of medical recipes. In the page illustrated here, it tells us that the camel can endure thirst for three days, and that it prefers to drink muddy water.

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A bestiary made in England (c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 33r (detail)

The second manuscript (Royal MS 12 F XIII) is now known as the Rochester Bestiary, because it belonged to the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester. This manuscript includes 55 finished illustrations, although there were spaces left for 126 in total, some with added instructions in Frecnch to an illuminator. The bestiary is followed by a lapidary (an account of the properties of precious stones), written in Anglo-Norman French.

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The lion (the king of the beasts) is usually the first animal to be described in a bestiary, as found in the Rochester Bestiary (c. 1230): Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 4r

Medieval bestiaries were produced in many different forms. Another of the manuscripts on loan to the Getty contains an illustrated aviary (or text about birds) by Hugh of Fouilloy (Sloane MS 278). It is combined with the Dicta Chrysostomi, which survives in very few manuscripts from this period and contains only a small number of accounts of animals, discussed across 27 chapters. Although the title of this text — The Words of John Chrysostom on the Nature of Beasts — suggests that its author was St John Chrysostom, who lived during the 4th century, it was actually written in France around the year 1000.

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A watchful crane raises its foot, in a bestiary with Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium (northern France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 278, f. 27r (detail)

Another bestiary is featured in the theological miscellany pictured below (Harley MS 3244). Made in the middle of the 13th century, the volume is a compilation of texts intended for a Dominican friar, who is depicted kneeling before Christ on f. 27r. Many of its 133 illustrations have unique designs; it includes more images of fish and insects than most other bestiaries that survive from this period, as well as a number of additions to the text itself.  

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An elephant with a ‘castle’ on its back (England, c. 1236–c. 1250): Harley MS 3244, f. 39r (detail)  

The Getty Museum's exhibition examines how artists adapted the stories and images of the bestiary for use in other medieval manuscripts and artworks. For example, we have also loaned an illustrated collection of treatises on heraldry, compiled around 1494 by a certain Adam Loutfut, a Scottish scribe in the service of Sir William Cummyn of Inverellochy (Harley MS 6149). One of its treatises describes the animals that most commonly appear on medieval coats of arms, many of which derive from the bestiary tradition.

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A page from a heraldic treatise by Adam Loutfut, including images of a modewarp (mole), tiger, horse and a bear (Scotland, c. 1494): Harley MS 6149, f. 17r

The final volume in this selection is known as ‘The Northern French Miscellany’ (Add MS 11639), a lavishly illustrated manuscript containing a variety of biblical and theological texts in Hebrew. Numerous inhabited initial-word panels appear throughout the book, some featuring vibrant images of birds and beasts, whose designs are stylistically very similar to the illustrations of bestiary manuscripts.

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An eagle lands upon an unsuspecting duck in this inhabited initial-word panel, from the Northern French Miscellany (southern Germany or France, 1277–1324): Add MS 11639, f. 107r

To explore more of the stories from the medieval ‘book of beasts’, check out our animations about the lives of the Crane and the Whale, both based on accounts and illustrations from another early illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). Our own website also features an article written by Beth Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

Book of Beasts is on at the Getty Center until 18 August. We'd love you to catch it if you're in California this summer.

 

Calum Cockburn

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20 May 2019

Mehmed the Conqueror, scourge of the world

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 brought Turkish politics closer to western Europe. The Italian merchant cities already had commercial ties with the Ottomans across the Mediterranean, but after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, western Europeans became increasingly more interested in — and often worried by — their new eastern neighbours.

It was not only scholars, manuscripts and ideas that flowed from East to West. In the wake of the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire, the reputation of Mehmed II (1432–1481), commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror, spread throughout Western Europe. Reports travelled of his military genius, political astuteness and cultural refinement.

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A portrait of Mehmed II in Kiyafet ül-insaniye, a description of the first twelve Ottoman sultans: Add MS 7880, f. 45v

A celebrity of the 15th century, Mehmed mesmerised his contemporaries, particularly Italian humanists and artists. Gentile Bellini was even invited to paint Mehmed’s portrait. The humanists’ fascination with the Ottoman sultan may be gauged through an epitaph for Mehmed, which started circulating soon after the sultan’s death in 1481. Previously attributed to Leonardo Griffi (1437–1485), friend of the renowned Italian humanist Francesco Filelfo (1398–1481), but now considered to have been composed anonymously, the epitaph extols Mehmed’s virtues and conquests.

An early copy of the epitaph known as ‘the epigram of the great Turk’ (epigrama magni teurci [sic]) survives in Harley MS 2455, a late-15th century manuscript written probably in Milan. The volume also contains works by Terence and Ovid and a copy of the 14th-century epitaph for Giovanni Visconti, archbishop of Milan (d. 1354), composed by Gabrio Zamorei. As Zamorei’s epitaph occurs in many other manuscripts produced in Milan, it is likely Harley 2455 may have also been written there.

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This copy of the epitaph for Mehmed II is written in a clear humanistic script: Harley MS 2455, f. 90r

The epitaph for Mehmed brings together the humanists’ fascination for the Ottoman sultan and their enthusiasm for classical antiquity. In flowing elegiac couplets, the sultan is described as the ‘dread of the world’ (timor orbis), having conquered countless peoples, kingdoms and cities. Mehmed’s conquest of Constantinople was followed by that of other major Greek cities as well as that of the Genovese colony in Crimea. He is not an equal to Alexander the Great or Hannibal, the text explains, but stands well above them.

In good humanistic tradition, the poet censures ‘proud Italy’ (superba Italia), whom the sultan would have conquered had the fates not conspired against him. Mehmed may have the whole world, but in the face of death, the poet concludes, human pride, magnificence, empires and gold perish without a trace.

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Portrait of Mehmed II by Gentile Bellini, in the collections of the National Gallery, London

The British Library has recently started to upgrade the catalogue records of the Harley manuscripts, including Harley MS 2455. You can read an introduction to this project here.

 

Cristian Ispir

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #HarleyMSS

18 May 2019

Ink in the clink

While he was imprisoned in the Tower of London from 1603 to 1616, the famous courtier, explorer and author, Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618), turned to writing. One manuscript is an impressive witness to the years he spent in prison. Add MS 57555 contains Raleigh’s own handwritten notes, a shelf-list of his books held in the Tower, and an autograph poem addressed to Queen Elizabeth I.

Writing was a familiar activity in the Tower of London. The building contains a substantial collection of early modern graffiti, as prisoners inscribed their names, initials, symbols, monograms or verses onto the walls. A number of early modern prisoners’ poems were circulated with accounts of how they were originally written upon windows with pins or diamonds. Elizabeth I herself, as a prisoner in Woodstock Palace, was said to have written the following verse with a diamond upon her window: ‘Much suspected by me / Nothing proved can be. Quoth Elizabeth, Prisoner’. Lady Jane Grey is also meant to have written verses upon her window in the Tower of London during her imprisonment, using a pin.  

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Walter Raleigh's map of Egypt, showing the lands around 'Babilon or Cairo', 'Heliopolis' and 'Memphis', from his commonplace book: Add MS 57555, f. 23r

Raleigh’s written remains from the Tower can be found in this manuscript. It is partly a ‘commonplace book’: a book in which notes and memoranda could be recorded for easy reference, under subject-headings which had been written in advance. Raleigh used his notebook to compile historical information on the Middle East and North Africa, arranged alphabetically by ancient place-name. This research was most likely undertaken in preparation for his capacious prose work The History of the World (published in 1614). The manuscript also contains Raleigh’s draft maps of the coast and hinterland of North Africa and Palestine, some of which closely mirror the engravings by William Hole which accompany the printed History of the World.

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An alphabetical list in Raleigh's commonplace book: Add MS 57555, f. 2r

Raleigh similarly used his notebook as an apparatus when it came to recording information about the books he owned in the Tower. In his room within the Bloody Tower, Raleigh had approximately 515 books, as well as mathematical instruments and a 'stilhows' or laboratory. In his notebook, Raleigh and two servants or amanuenses compiled a list of these books, and their locations on the shelves, according to their subject and size. The manuscript would have helped Raleigh physically navigate the reading material he had amassed upon his shelves.

This manuscript shows how Raleigh was surrounded by the written word during his time in the Tower. His notebook was an organisational tool for writing; whether that was organising research and notes for his own writing, or the contents and location of volumes in his library. Appropriately, the final item in the volume, an older poem addressed to Elizabeth I, ends with Raleigh imagining an ideal scene of writing, but one which has sadly been diminished:

If love could find a quill

drawn from an angells winge

or did the muses singe

that prety wantons will,

perchance he could indyte

to pleas all other sence

butt loves and woes expens

Sorrow cann only write

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The verse beginning 'If love could find a quill', towards the bottom of the page: Add MS 57555, f. 172v

Raleigh was released from the Tower in 1618, to make a final journey to Guiana in search of El Dorado, a city of gold. The voyage was unsuccessful and, upon his return, King James I ordered his execution for violating peace treaties with the Spanish. Sir Walter Raleigh was executed on the morning of 29 October 1618, at Westminster.

You can see an extraordinary range of similar items relating to the history of writing in the British Library's current major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark , which is on until 27 August 2019.

 

Amy Bowles

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15 May 2019

Cataloguing the Harley manuscripts

In recent months, the British Library has started to revise the online catalogue descriptions of manuscripts in the Harley collection. Sold to the nation in 1753, the Harley manuscripts form one of the Library's foundation collections. The collection comprises more than 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls, spanning the period from the 8th to the 17th centuries. Some of these manuscripts are already well-known — such as the Harley Psalter (Harley MS 603), the 'Book of the Queen', containing the works of Christine de Pizan (Harley MS 4431), and the Book of Thomas More (Harley MS 7368) — but many of them have received less attention than they deserve. Our cataloguing project aims to make them more accessible.

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Two famous manuscripts in the Harley collection: the Harley Psalter (Harley MS 603, f. 8r) and the 'Book of the Queen', with a miniature of Christine de Pizan (Harley MS 4431, f. 4r)

The Harleian library was founded in October 1704, when Robert Harley (1661–1724) purchased more than 600 manuscripts from the collection of Sir Simonds d’Ewes (1602–1650). In 1711, Harley was made 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer; after that date, his son, Edward Harley (1689–1741), was most active in augmenting the collection. The 1710s saw further groups of important English manuscripts enter the library, and from about 1717 the Harleys began using overseas agents to purchase manuscripts from Continental Europe, especially France, Germany and Italy. Numerous important British and foreign collections were auctioned in London in the 1720s, allowing further acquisitions.

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A painting of Humfrey Wanley by Thomas Hill, at the Society of Antiquaries: Wanley holds a Greek lectionary, while the Guthlac Roll (Harley Roll Y 6) hangs by his side

A prominent role in the formation of the library was played by Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), who became library-keeper to the Harleys in 1708. His diary (Lansdowne MSS 771–772) and letters are an important resource for understanding the growth of the collection.

Edward Harley bequeathed the library to his widow, Henrietta Cavendish Harley, countess of Oxford and Mortimer (1694–1755), during her lifetime, and thereafter to their daughter, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, duchess of Portland (1715–1785). In 1753, the manuscripts were sold by the Countess and the Duchess to the nation for £10,000 under the Act of Parliament that also established the British Museum.

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A page from the printed catalogue of the Harley manuscripts, published in 1808, showing the descriptions of Harley MSS 4990–4994

The Harley manuscripts were described systematically in the catalogue printed in four volumes between 1808 and 1812. This reference tool is a product of its own time, and is of limited use for modern users. Some of the Harley manuscripts have been catalogued and digitised in recent years (for example, by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project), but the vast majority have not been described since the 19th century. Our cataloguing project will create new online records for these manuscripts, as well as augmenting existing descriptions on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

As time progresses, the new records of the Harley manuscripts will be made available on the Library's Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue. We have started by focusing on manuscripts referenced in surveys such as Andrew Watson’s Catalogue of Dated and Datable Manuscripts c. 700-1600 in the Department of Manuscripts, the British Library (London, 1979), and in Ruth Dean & Maureen Boulton’s Anglo-Norman Literature (London, 1999). More records are being added every week.

Many manuscripts were described inadequately in the printed catalogue, which we are now attempting to remedy. For example, one 15th-century manuscript containing a fragment of an important textbook about rules for teaching correct French, was previously described as: ‘Formulas of letters, charters, obligations, etc, partly on parchment, partly on paper. 15th century.’

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We have now been able to identify this textbook as the popular Orthographia Gallica, sometimes attributed to Thomas Sampson, a 14th-century teacher of letter writing at Oxford.

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Grammatical works such as Thomas Sampson's Ars Dictamini and Orthographia Gallica are included in this 15th-century volume: Harley MS 4993, ff. 21v–22r

Meanwhile, this manuscript, described in the printed catalogue as a gospel-book, contains one of the earliest example of polyphonic music from England.

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An early 13th-century Latin chant with musical notation and text guides: Harley MS 5393, f. 80v

The Harley collection also contains some fascinating 17th-century manuscripts. Harley MS 1960 is a anthology of riddles written by members of the Holme family in Chester. One riddle reads: ‘ten teeth & neer a tongue, it is sport for old & yong: I pulled it out of my yellow fleece & tickled it well on the belly piece’. The solution is ‘one playing on a violin’.

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The 17th-century manuscript contains around 144 riddles, listed as questions and answers: Harley MS 1960, f. 15v

Some little-known manuscripts reveal unsuspected gems. For example, an ABC illustrated poem, in which each stanza features a richly decorated initial, is found in Harley MS 1704.

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This decorated initial 'N' in a 17th-century manuscript is a reminder of the glory of medieval manuscript illumination: Harley 1704, f. 155r

As our cataloguing project progresses, we will publish more blogposts about our discoveries. We will also be tweeting about the Harley manuscripts via @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #HarleyMSS. Make sure you follow us closely.

 

Cristian Ispir, Clarck Drieshen and Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

12 May 2019

Homer in London

Currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library are these two images of Hercules, one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. They are found in manuscripts of the Histoire Universelle, a medieval history in French of the ancient world from Genesis to the Romans. The Histoire also features the legends of Ulysses and the Trojan wars, which were very popular in the Middle Ages and were widely adapted, translated and illustrated for medieval audiences. (You can read more about this subject in our previous blogpost about the legend of Troy.)

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Meeting between Hercules and the Queen of the Amazons, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Naples, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 D I, f. 25v

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Battle between Hercules and Antaeus, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Acre, 1275–1291): Add MS 15268, f. 104v

Our Greek manuscripts website includes this video of Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Kings College London, talking about the importance of the Iliad and the Odyssey from Antiquity to the early modern era. The works of Homer are also the focus of two courses being held in London this July, one at the British Library and the other at University College London. Both courses will use digitised manuscripts of Homer’s works to explore how classical works were  transmitted during the Middle Ages.

Writing the Greek Classics at the British Library: 19 June, 26 June and 3 July, 10 July, 17 July (14.00–16.00)

This five-week course will examine the long-documented history of the Greek language and its writing systems, and of Greek classical texts including Homer, which have been part of the education and literary production of the West for centuries.

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A text page with marginal annotations, in the ‘Townley Homer’: Burney MS 86, f. 3r

The British Library has 11 manuscripts of the Iliad (see our previous blogpost, Hooray for Homer). They include the Townley Homer, an 11th-century copy of the Iliad with extensive marginal and interlinear notations or scholia, which show how earlier scholars studied and interpreted the text. The manuscript's former owner, Charles Townley (1737–1805), even had an engraving of a bust of Homer (as well as one of himself) inserted at the beginning of the manuscript.

 

UCL Summer School in Homer 2019: 22–26 July 2019

A palaeography course, introducing the history of Latin scripts from ancient Rome to the invention of printing, will be taught as one of the modules of the University College London’s summer school on Homeric language and literature. Classical texts, especially Homer and related works like Virgil’s Aeneid will be used for transcription.

The British Library has one of only 15 surviving manuscripts of the Ilias Latina, a short Latin summary of the Illiad, attributed to one Publius Baebius Italicus in the time of the emperor Nero. This work, which omits or elaborates many of the Homeric episodes, became part of the medieval school curriculum and had a significant impact on the history and transmission of the Trojan story.  

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A diagram of the Wheel of Fortune illustrating Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, in a collection of works from late Antiquity that includes the Ilias Latina: Add MS 15601, f. 49v 

This copy of the Ilias Latina, from the late 10th or early 11th century, is written in Caroline minuscule. It was owned in the 15th century by the wealthy and prestigious monastery of the Celestines in Avignon.

A much later Greek copy of the Odyssey, the 15th-century Harley MS 5673, has marginal translations and annotations in Latin on some of its pages. This manuscript was bought by Edward Harley, the Georgian collector, for his magnificent library, described by Samuel Johnson as ‘excelling any’, and it entered the British Library as part of the Harley manuscript collection.

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The Odyssey with marginal notes in Greek and Latin: Harley MS 5673, f. 8r

You may also like to know that a variety of ancient scripts, including manuscripts of the classical authors, Aristotle and Cicero, are on display in our new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, open throughout the summer, until 27 August, 2019.

 

                                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 May 2019

How many alphabets?

The exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, exploring 5,000 years of writing across the globe, is on at the British Library until 27 August. But how many different ways of writing were there?

The manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project were mostly written in medieval Latin, English and French, and in the Roman alphabet; but we have found all kinds of alphabets and sign systems among their leaves, including ciphers, monastic sign language, and many more.

Many Christian scholars in early medieval western Europe might not have been able to read Greek and Hebrew, but they were aware of their importance as the original languages of the Bible. (You can read more about their understanding of Hebrew in this article.) Certain scribes attempted to copy out these alphabets. One such example is found in an 11th-century compilation of scientific works by writers such as Hrabanus Maurus and Isidore of Seville. The scribe copied approximations of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, with the letter names in Latin, but apparently didn’t understand them, as the two alphabets are mixed up with each other.

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A version of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets from Salisbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 45r

Another, somewhat more accurate, example is found in a collection called Scutum Bede, compiled by Geoffrey of Ufford in the 12th century, and made up of historical and grammatical treatises, including lists of kings, a biblical world history, and a trilingual list of animals, plants and stones. This page gives the Hebrew and Greek alphabets together with their names in Latin.

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The Hebrew and Greek alphabets in the Scutum Bede collection of historical and grammatical works, perhaps from Peterborough, c. 1154: Stowe MS 57, f. 3r

Biblical knowledge was not the only source of alternative alphabets. Before Latin literacy was common in England, the runic alphabet was sometimes used for writing inscriptions. The runic letters þ (th) and ƿ (w) were subsequently added to the Roman alphabet, as they were necessary for writing the sounds of English. The 11th-century scientific compilation already mentioned includes three different versions of a runic alphabet, followed by the words ‘pax vobiscum et salus pax’ ('peace and health be with you, peace').

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Three runic alphabets, in a manuscript from Salisbury: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 65r.

Another ancient alphabet is Ogham, used for inscribing stone monuments, usually in Old Irish. The scribe of the Scutum Bede had a go at this: each sign is shown alongside runic letters.

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Ogham-style signs and runic letters, perhaps from Peterborough: Stowe MS 57, f. 3v.

Another writing system was specifically designed for the manuscript page. Tironian notes were attributed to Tiro, the slave and personal secretary to Cicero, and were a kind of shorthand for representing different Latin letters and words. Some of these symbols ended up being used in place of common words in Latin: for example, the symbol ‘7’ was adopted in Old English to mean ‘and’. But there were entire lexicons full of Tironian symbols, including these two manuscripts digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

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A lexicon of Tironian notes from western France, 10th century: Add MS 21164, f. 3r.

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Another lexicon of Tironian notes from central France, 9th century: Add MS 37518, f. 27r

If a scribe had enough knowledge of Tironian notes, they could copy out the entire Psalter in them. This image is from the opening of Psalm 50, ‘Miserere mei Deus’ (‘Have mercy on me, O God’), which, as the rubric in the Roman alphabet explains, was attributed to David after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba. You can see the manuscript in Writing: Making Your Mark.

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A Psalter written in Tironian notes, from north-eastern France, 4th quarter of the 9th century:  Add MS 9046, f. 24v.

Finally, there is the list of symbols found in the Cosmographia, an 8th-century work supposedly by  Aethicus Ister, which describes a journey around the world. One 12th-century copy of the text ends with an alphabet attributed to Aethicus Ister, but it is not one which is known to have been used. So even an entirely fictional alphabet can be found in a manuscript from medieval England.

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The alphabet of Aethicus Ister, with the letter names written out in the Roman alphabet, England, mid-12th century: Cotton MS Appendix LVI, f. 90r.

 

Kate Thomas

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #PolonskyPre1200

 

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08 May 2019

Keep taking the (wax) tablets

The British Library's new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, celebrates all forms of writing over the last 5,000 years. It focuses not only on the very outcome of the act of writing, the written document itself, but more broadly on the various tools used to create the written word.

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Image of a writing desk from a Byzantine gospel book (Constantinople, 12th century): Burney MS 19, f. 1v

Besides the various types of pens, quills and pencils, one of the earliest and most popular writing tools, used for more than five millennia, is the stylus. The name comes from the Latin word stilus, meaning 'a stake'. It refers to a small, pointed instrument made of metal, wood or bone, used by the Romans for writing upon wax tablets.

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Tablets of the Ten Commandments in Laurent d'Orléans, La Somme le Roi (Paris, c. 1295): Add MS 54180, f. 5v

The term 'tablet' can cover a variety of writing materials. One perhaps thinks of a stone with writing carved onto it, such as the two tablets of the Ten Commandments said to have been carved by God. However, it was not only iconic pieces of inscribed stones that were employed in this way in Antiquity, since tablets made of wood or wax were more commonly in use.

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Zachariah writing on a tablet in the Benedictional of Æthelwold (England, 963–984): Add MS 49598, f. 92v

The earliest surviving wooden writing tablet was recovered from a 3,500-year-old shipwreck near KaÅŸ, in modern Turkey, in 1986. They were not in common use until about 715BC with the Neo-Assyrians in Mesopotamia. In the 7th century BC, the Greeks set up a community in Egypt from where the next oldest tablet was found, although it does not appear that the Egyptians themselves actually used such tablets. They became more common in the Roman Empire, surviving in considerable quantities from Egypt to Britain. Wooden tablets would have been written on with pen and ink, similar to a sheet of papyrus or a page of parchment.

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The alphabet in a teacher’s notebook (Egypt, 2nd century AD): Add MS 37533 (4)

Documents on wooden tablets were usually ephemeral in nature. Pieces written for or at school are the most common survivors, such as teachers' notebooks, children's homework or private letters (such as the famous Vindolanda tablets excavated from Hadrian’s Wall).

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A student’s Greek shorthand notes in wax (Egypt, 2nd century): Add MS 33270

The earliest documented use of wax tablets dates from Italy in the 7th century BC. The Etruscans used them not only for writing but also as amulets. Their wider use started with the Greeks, who were great beekeepers and had plenty of beeswax at their disposal. For a short period, there was a ban on the export of papyrus from Egypt, meaning that wax tablets were in regular use. Styluses would have been employed to scratch letters in the smooth wax.

Most tablets were made from the sandarac tree (Tetraclinis articulata, a member of the cypress family) or from boxwood. A flat, rectangular block would have been hollowed out and filled with wax, often black or natural or with a sooty coating, so that the lighter colour showed through when written on.

Add 34186

A Greek writing exercise from Egypt, 2nd century AD: Add MS 34186

Wax tablets were used in similar contexts as their wooden counterparts. Cheap and easy to re-use, wax tablets were ideal for teaching children to write. The item shown here, approximately the size of a modern iPad, is a homework-book used about 1,800 years ago at a Greek school in Egypt. The teacher wrote out two lines of a maxim on the top of the tablet, which were to be copied out by the child at home. The pupil tried their best but made several mistakes: the first letter in the first line ('C') was missed out twice, the last letter of the line ran over the margin, and the last line became compressed.

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Stylus2

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(1) A Roman bronze stylus found in the River Fleet; (2) a Roman stylus with a separate greenstone writing point and bronze eraser (the wooden shaft is modern); (3) a Roman bronze stylus with five gold bands found in the Roman Senate in the mid-19th century (photos courtesy of the Museum of Writing Research Collection, University of London)

Thanks to a generous loan from the Museum of Writing Research Collection of the University of London Senate House, Writing: Making Your Mark displays the tools children may have used to do their homework 2,000 years ago. The sharp end of an iron stylus was used to write, while the blunt end was heated over a flame and used to erase mistakes or smooth the wax for reuse. The styluses were often stored with the tablets themselves: the last part of a set of tablets often contained a little groove in which to store the stylus.

Add 33270

The last part of a set of bound wax tablets with a groove to store the stylus (Egypt, 2nd century): Add MS 33270 (9)

How would words be erased from a wax tablet? Alan Cole, the consultant of the Museum of Writing Research Collection, has experimented as follows: 'I used original, Roman metal styli and an original Roman lamp. I held the stylus in my thumb and forefinger about a centimetre and a quarter from the flat end and held it in the tip of the flame until I began to feel the warmth.  It was then at the optimum temperature to erase a few characters. This worked for iron and bronze. Not advisable for silver, gold, wood or bone! To erase a whole tablet of characters, hold the tablet upside-down, just above the tip of the flame, and gently move the wax over it until the surface is about at melting point and then remove it from the flame and with the tablet wax side up either move the tablet in a slight see-saw movement or gently go over the surface with a warmed stylus. Personally, I use a blow-torch!'

On 20 May the British Library is hosting a one-day conference featuring the latest research on our tablets and the different kinds of things people wrote on wood, wax and metal, from homework to charms and letters. You can register to attend here.

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August.

 

Peter Toth and Alan E. Cole (Hon Consultant, Museum of Writing Research Collection, University of London)

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