THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

12 posts from July 2019

30 July 2019

New Anglo-Saxon acquisition on display

Earlier this year, the British Library was delighted to acquire a leaf of an Anglo-Saxon benedictional (a service book used by a bishop). At the time we reported that, despite its fragmentary nature, this manuscript was of great significance for the study of 10th-century English political and religious culture. In particular, we observed that its script pointed to an early date of production, and that it was related textually to other benedictionals from Anglo-Saxon England, most notably the Benedictional of St Æthelwold.

We are pleased to announce that this manuscript (Add MS 89378) is now on display in our Treasures Gallery, in a display case devoted to new acquisitions. This gallery is free to visit and is open seven days a week. The benedictional leaf can be viewed in the same room as other iconic treasures, such as Magna Carta, the Shakespeare First Folio, the Beatles' lyrics, and a letter of the 19th-century computing pioneer, Ada Lovelace.

Leaf1

Given that this display coincides with the Library's major temporary exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, we thought it might be worth making a few remarks on the handwriting of the benedictional leaf. Most unusually, when compared with other surviving Anglo-Saxon benedictionals, it is written in English square minuscule. This script gained currency in 10th-century England during the reigns of King Athelstan (924–939) and his successors. It is characterised by its 'square' letter-forms, as shown, for instance, by the shape of a, c, d, e, g. We reproduce both pages here (the recto, above, is on show in Treasures) to give a flavour of this unusual script.

Our readers may also be interested to know that two leaves of the same benedictional (separated in the 1970s) are now in collections in the USA (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library, Typ 612; New Haven, CT, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Takamiya MS 89). In time we hope that they can be digitally re-united, and that researchers will be able to learn more about their production and usage.

Leaf2

 

Julian Harrison

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27 July 2019

Writing Wyatt

Have you ever wondered how a 16th-century poet gathered their works together? A writer with an eye to posterity might have followed the example of Sir Thomas Wyatt (c. 1503–1542), poet, ambassador and rumoured lover of Anne Boleyn. In the 1530s, Wyatt arranged for clear and authoritative copies of his verse to be transcribed into an album under his own supervision. The resulting manuscript, Egerton MS 2711, has stood the test of time. It is one of the earliest examples of an English poet’s collection of their own poems.

800px-Sir_Thomas_Wyatt_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger_(2)

Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt after Hans Holbein, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 1035)

But Wyatt’s collection did not stay tidy for long. Changes in handwriting reveal that the poet himself took over from his scribes (or amanuenses), first to correct and alter some of the poems, and later to compose new works directly into the album. It is thus the only surviving example of Wyatt’s poetry in his own handwriting. Because the manuscript's purpose evolved during his lifetime, Egerton MS 2711 offers a fascinating glimpse of a Tudor poet at work.

Egerton_ms_2711_f054v

The poet Thomas Wyatt's own hand: Egerton MS 2711, f. 54v

The manuscript reveals that Wyatt sometimes had trouble making up his mind. He often tweaked lines in some of his finished poems, and he experimented with alternative rhyme-words when composing new ones. One of the revised poems is the sonnet ‘If waker care, if sudden pale colour’, in which Wyatt imitated six lines of Petrarch’s Sonnet 188. Wyatt’s alterations to the poem can be read in light of his rumoured relationship with Anne Boleyn: the poem contains a reference to a ‘Brunet’ who ‘set my wealth in such a roar’, but the manuscript shows that the line originally read, ‘her that did set our country in a roar’.

Egerton_ms_2711_f066v

‘If waker care, if sudden pale colour’: Egerton MS 2711, f. 66v

Wyatt’s decision to begin composing poems into the volume may have been related to a journey he made to mainland Europe, as English ambassador to the Spanish court from 1537 to 1539. A satirical poem in the manuscript describes the busy life of a diplomat, who ‘trots still up and down / and never rests but running day and night / From Realm to Realm from city street and town’. When the volume became a working notebook for Wyatt, it also began to reflect his evolving network of colleagues: the handwriting of one scribe who copied verses into the volume has been identified as that of John Brereton, one of Wyatt’s diplomatic secretaries.

As well as providing a place for Wyatt’s poetry to be recorded during his lifetime, the manuscript also became a space for later readers to engage with his work. After Wyatt’s death, the poet Nicholas Grimald made several annotations in the manuscript, such as simple headings like ‘a Sonnett’. Meanwhile, Wyatt’s own son, Thomas, added more of his father’s poems to the collection, and even copied out two letters of paternal advice he had received during his father’s Spanish embassy. (Thomas Wyatt did not necessarily heed his father's advice, since he led an infamous rebellion against Queen Mary, and ended his life on the block at the Tower of London in 1554.)

Egerton_ms_2711_f071r

A letter copied into the manuscript by Thomas Wyatt the Younger: Egerton MS 2711, f. 71r

Despite the many hands involved in the creation of this manuscript, early owners and readers were careful to include material that would shed more light on Wyatt’s life and work, and solidify his reputation. As a result, Egerton MS 2711 very much remains a collection of Wyatt’s poems rather than a multi-authored anthology like the Devonshire manuscript (Add MS 17492).

A later owner of the manuscript, John Harington the elder, decided to include a categorisation of the poems by genre, while John Harington the younger entered some of his own paraphrases of the psalms following those made by Wyatt. Also thanks to the Harington family, many of the early pages of the manuscript are covered with copious mathematical notes and diagrams, which sometimes render Wyatt’s words all but illegible.

Egerton_ms_2711_f010r

Some pages are less easy to read since they are now covered with mathematical notes: Egerton MS 2711, f. 10r

Of course, nowadays we would discourage any further scribbles appearing in Thomas Wyatt's manuscript. But that doesn't mean that you can no longer interact with this important collection of poems. We are delighted to say that Egerton MS 2711 has been digitised, so that modern readers can explore Wyatt's handwriting for themselves. This manuscript can be accessed in full and for free on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

 

Amy Bowles

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25 July 2019

Marvellous monsters

Medieval writers typically relied on Classical texts for their knowledge of the world beyond Europe. The Roman and Greek sources which they consulted informed them that legendary people inhabited distant regions. One of the most influential works was the Natural History of the Roman author Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79). Pliny described people with the heads of dogs (Cynamolgi) and four feet (Artabatiae) in Ethiopia, and with horses’ hooves as feet (Hippopodes) in the Baltic.

Image 1 - Pliny  Naturalis Historia

A hybrid figure in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century): Arundel MS 98, f. 85v

The Classical 'monstrous' people also feature in the Etymologies of the Spanish author Isidore of Seville (570–636). Isidore, who considered such strange beings to be signs of God, claimed that Libya was home to the Blemmyae, a headless people who had their mouths and eyes in their chest, and the Antipodes (‘opposite-footed’), a people whose feet pointed upward. In India, Isidore located the dog-headed people called Cynocephali (‘dog-headed’) and the Cyclopes (‘round-eyed’), a people with one eye in the middle of their foreheads. Ethiopia was supposedly inhabited by the Sciapodes ('shade-footed'), having a single leg with a large foot which they used to shade under during extreme heat.

Image 2 - Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville depicted at the opening of the Etymologiae (France, 4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 15603, f. 1r

Tales of marvellous inhabitants were often included in descriptions of the regions outside Europe. For example, the early 8th-century Cosmography, a fictitious travelogue of a certain ‘Aethicus Ister’, reported that a dog-headed people lived on a northern island above Britain. In Scythia, female warriors known as Amazons reared the cubs of minotaurs (half-man, half-bull) and centaurs (half-man, half-horse) and trained them to fight in war.

Image 3 - Minotaur Cubs in the Cosmographia

‘In solitudinibus catulos minotauros invenisse’ (‘[The Amazons] discovered minotaur cubs in deserted places’, trans. by Michael W. Herren, Cosmography (2011), p. 157), in the Cosmographia (France or England, early 12th century): Harley MS 3859, f. 273r

Testament to the popularity of these tales is a 12th-century Bible from Arnstein Abbey in Germany (Harley MS 2799). On a page that was originally left blank have been drawn seventeen legendary people, including the Cynocephali, Cyclopes, Blemmyae (first row), and Sciapods (third row).

Image 4 - Monstrous Races in the Arnstein Bible

Legendary people added to the Arnstein Bible (Germany, c. 1172): Harley MS 2799, f. 243r

The existence of strange peoples became a popular theme in medieval accounts of Christian conversion. These works signalled that, if even 'monsters' could be taught Christianity, there should be no reason why the entire world could not be converted as well. The so-called Letter of Prester John is an example of this: it purports to be a letter from a priest named John addressed to Manuel of Constantinople and Frederick Barbarossa in 1163. The priest claims to govern a powerful kingdom in India, filled with gold and jewels, and inhabited by strange creatures that have converted to Christianity. The letter claims that the kingdom has:

‘sagitarii, homines agrestes, homines cornuti, fauni, satiri et mulieres eiusdem generis, pigmei, cenocephali, gygantes, quorum altitudo est quadraginta cubitorum, monoculi, cyclopes et a vis, quae vocactur fenix, et fere omne genus animailum, quae sub caelo sunt’.

(‘archers [i.e. centaurs], savage men, horned men, fauns, satyrs and women of the same race, pygmies, dog-headed men, giants whose height is 40 cubits, one-eyed men, cyclopses and a bird which is called ‘phoenix’, and almost every kind of animal which is under heaven’, trans. by Keagan Brewer, Prester John (2015), p. 69)

Image 5 - Monstrous Races in the Letter of Prester John

Unusual races listed in the Letter of Prester John (London, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Add MS 14252, f. 92v

The association between monstrous people and conversion to Christianity perhaps explains why the artist of an early 13th-century English Psalter (Arundel MS 157) chose to paint a figure that looks like a Sciapod at the opening line of Psalm 84:5: ‘Converte nos, Deus salutaris noster’ (‘Convert us, God our saviour’). However, the Sciapod — who appears to be lying upside down in order to find shade under his foot — could also be a pun on the Psalm verse, since the Latin word convertere can be translated both as ‘convert’ and ‘turn upside-down’.

Image 6 - Sciapod in Arundel MS 157

A ‘converted’ Sciapod (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Arundel MS 157, f. 182v

 

Clarck Drieshen

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23 July 2019

Reading the runes in Beowulf (so seaxy)

Students of the Old English epic poem Beowulf (which survives uniquely in Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) may be familiar with the fight between our hero and Grendel’s monstrous mother, and the part played in that encounter by a marvellous sword. As the pair tussle, Beowulf stumbles and falls to the floor. His opponent stabs him with a knife, and he is only saved by his chain mail. Beowulf then sees a sweord eotenisc (a sword of giants, l. 1558), which he grabs and uses to kill Grendel’s mother. Seeing Grendel’s corpse, Beowulf uses the same sword to cut the monster’s head from his body. As soon as Grendel’s blood touches it, the blade melts away like ice and only the hilt is left intact.

Later, when Beowulf returns to Heorot — the hall of the Geatish people — the sword hilt is examined by Hrothgar, their king:

Hroðgar maðelode,   hylt sceawode,

Ealde lafe, on ðæm wæs or writen

fyrngewinnes,   syðþan flod ofsloh,

gifen geotende,   giganta cyn  (ll. 1687–90)

('Hrothgar spoke, the hilt he examined,
— the ancient relic — where was written
of that primordial war, when the flood slew,
with raging waves, the race of giants')

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f170r

A page from Beowulf describing the marvellous sword: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 170r

The poet goes on to describe this strange sword in more detail.

Swa wæs on ðæm scennum sciran goldes

Þurh runstafas rihte gemearcod,

            geseted ond gesæd hwam þæt sweord geworht,

            irena cyst,   ærest wære,

            wreoþenhilt ond wyrmfah.     (ll. 1694–98a)

('On those guards of shining gold
were runic staves, rightly marked

Their set-down shapes told a tale: for whom that sword was wrought,
best of irons, in bygone days,
with twisted hilt and serpent patterns.')

Beowulf is not easy to translate, but there are examples of ‘hypermetric lines’ in many Old English poems, including at ll. 1705–07 of Beowulf. What is important is that the sword is described as gemearcod (marked) with runstafas (runic staves). These markings gesetod ond gesæd, literally ‘set-down and said’ or ‘established and told’, the story of the sword’s original commissioner. This is quite a sword! It tells the story of the flood that killed the giants — usually thought to be a reference to the Biblical flood — and also the story, in snaking patterns and runic staves, of its own creation.

What kind of sword was the poet imagining? What was the significance of runes for the poet? What, indeed, are runes? The runic alphabet was used to write Germanic languages before the Latin alphabet arrived along with Christian missionaries. Runes are generally straight sided, hard-lined beasts. There are no round shapes in the letters as traditionally formed, probably because this made them easier to carve into wood and stone. The runic alphabet and the Latin alphabet were used in tandem in Anglo-Saxon England, and they were on friendly terms — two runic letters routinely appeared in Old English texts written in the Latin alphabet. The first was Þ (lowercase þ), which makes a ‘th’ sound. Runic letters also have names — this one is called thorn, which means ‘thorn’ in Modern English. The second runic letter was Ƿ (lowercase ƿ), which equates to a modern ‘w’. Its name is wynn, which means ‘joy’ (whence we get Modern English ‘winsome’).  

These two runes appear most commonly in Old English texts written in the Latin alphabet (although the ƿ is often changed to ‘w’ in modern editions). But they weren’t the only runes that made their way into texts written in the Latin alphabet. In fact, runes crop up quite frequently in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The poet Cynewulf (one of the very few named poets from the Anglo-Saxon period) embedded runic signatures in his works, some of the riddles of the Exeter Book contain runes, and they also appear in the Beowulf manuscript, on the very same folio where Grendel’s sword hilt is described.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f170r wynn thorn copy

Runes in the Beowulf manuscript: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 170r

On this folio you can see an abundance of the commonly occurring runic letters, ƿ and þ, but 8 lines from the bottom, on the tattered, right-hand edge of the folio, you can see something quite unusual in this manuscript — ᛟ the ethel rune. Ethel means estate or homeland and here the scribe used it as an abbreviation for the first element in the compound ethelweard, meaning guardian of the homeland (weard means ‘guardian’ giving us Modern English ‘warden’). 

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f170r + ethel

Runstafas and the ethel rune: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 170r

Why did the scribe chose the runic abbreviation at this point? Were they prompted by the reference to runstafas a few lines earlier? This brings us back to the sweord eotenisc, the sword of giants. In considering what kind of sword the poet was imagining, archaeology provides some clues. Those of you lucky enough to visit our recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition may remember the Seax of Beagnoth, also known as the Thames Scramasax, a 10th-century Anglo Saxon seax (a long, single-edged knife) on loan from the British Museum. On its blade the seax boasts the only complete carved Anglo-Saxon futhorc, or runic alphabet, as well as the name ‘Beagnoþ’ ᛒᛠᚷᚾᚩᚦ, who is assumed to be its commissioner or creator.

Seax

The Seax of Beagnoth: British Museum 1857,0623.1

This seax does not contain a narrative of the kind described in Beowulf. As yet, no weapons have been discovered that have a narrative inscribed on them, and it’s hard to imagine one having enough space to tell such a story. Perhaps, in describing these runstafas, the poet was not imagining a written text as we would know it today. Perhaps the runes on the sword hilt weren’t meant to be read, but more to prompt the recollection of a particular story. Maybe the runes made by giants were more than just letters — they conveyed something powerful. Maybe the first scribe of Beowulf (only the first of the text’s two scribes used the ethel rune) echoed that power as only a scribe could, by including their own runic abbreviation just a few lines later.

If you’re intrigued by any of these questions, then why not book a place on the Library’s Adult Learning course: Writing in Medieval England, 3–4 August. There are only a few places left, so get your ticket now! Meantime, don’t forget to visit our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, which closes on 27 August.

 

Mary Wellesley

21 July 2019

The first man on the Moon

This weekend, the world is remembering Apollo 11, the first Moon landing, and the two astronauts who first stepped unto the lunar surface on 21 July 1969. Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to walk on another astronomical body, in what was to become one of the most earth-shaking events of the 20th century.

While Armstrong and Aldrin were the first humans on the Moon, there is a figure in medieval literature who may have got there first, around Easter 1300.* In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri describes his fantastical journey down into the nine circles of Hell, upwards on the Mount of Purgatory, and away through the spheres of Heaven: from Inferno to Purgatorio and into Paradiso. Written in Italian in the early 14th century, Dante’s Comedy is one of the most influential poems of all time, a synthesis of medieval culture, science, philosophy, theology, scholarship and political science.

[* Nor should we forget Chang'e 嫦娥, the Chinese goddess of the Moon, who, according to legend, has been living there for some 4,000 years.]

In the Comedy, Dante-the-pilgrim travels through the afterworlds in search of self-knowledge and truth, driven by the desire for union with the divine. Passing through Hell and Purgatory, he is ready to ascend to the stars in Heaven, guided and instructed by the fascinating figure of Beatrice. Dante’s complex Heaven is made out of concentric spheres, each corresponding to a heavenly body in the cosmological system inherited from classical antiquity and modified by Christian thought. Outside the seven planetary spheres (including the Sun in this geocentric model), there is the sphere of the fixed stars, the first mover and the Empyrean, enclosing all the others but lying beyond time and space. To arrive there, the pilgrim must first pass through the sphere of the Moon, located closest to Earth.

Figure1

This diagram shows the structure of the Universe according to the Ptolemaic geocentric model. Earth is surrounded by the nine heavenly circles: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Fixed Stars and First Mover: Harley MS 3647, f. 22v

Dante’s launch from the Earth’s atmosphere opens Paradiso, the third and last section of the Divine Comedy. Comparing his journey upwards to sailing a little ship into the unknown, he explains in classicizing language that he is the first on this kind of mission. In Allen Mandelbaum’s translation:

The waves I take were never sailed before;
Minerva breathes, Apollo pilots me,
and the nine Muses show to me the Bears.
(Paradiso, 2.7–9)

Figure2

Fly me to the Moon: Dante and Beatrice launch towards the Moon in this Tuscan manuscript of the Divine Comedy from around 1444: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 131r

Dante is on his own Apollo mission to the stars. Illustrated manuscripts of the Divine Comedy typically depict his journey as a flight upwards. The Moon is usually identified by its colour and partial phase, to distinguish it from other celestial bodies. In a manuscript painted in Florence in the 1440s (Yates Thompson MS 36), Dante’s lunar mission is remarkably faithful to the poetic text quoted above: the illustration depicts the boat sailing away from familiar, agricultural shores, while Minerva blows from a cloud. The pilgrim is being led by the figure of Apollo, as the chorus-like group of Muses point towards a star (presumably the Northern Star).

Dante’s first stop on the Moon is a giant leap of imagination, but a small step in the traveller’s consciousness, as he instantanously makes a landing:

Beatrice gazed upward. I watched her.
But in a span perhaps no longer than
an arrow takes to strike, to fly, to leave

the bow, I reached a place where I could see
that something wonderful drew me; and she
from whom my need could not be hidden, turned

to me (her gladness matched her loveliness):
“Direct your mind to God in gratefulness,”
she said; “He has brought us to the first star.” (Paradiso 2.22–30)

Propelled by love, Dante’s imaginative mind-capsule lands on the surface of the Moon, whereupon he starts inquiring about the nature of the ‘dark spots’ on the lunar surface. In his own, inquisitive way, Dante-the-traveller is collecting information about the Moon. Armstrong and Aldrin brought 21kg of lunar material back to Earth. Dante gathered information which he took with him to Mercury, his next stop.

Figure3

Beatrice teaches Dante about moonspots; the landscape looks strangely lunar: Egerton MS 943, f. 131r

Figure4

Burning with the desire to know more, Dante reaches the Moon, where the blessed can answer his questions: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 132r

The year before Apollo 11, three astronauts travelled to the Moon, orbited it, and returned safely to Earth. One of them, William Anders, took a famous photograph of the Earth from the lunar orbit known as Earthrise. Dante took no photographs on his interstellar voyage, but he left us a poetic description of Earth from the heaven of the fixed stars, outside the planetary spheres:

And all the seven heavens showed to me
their magnitudes, their speeds, the distances
of each from each. The little threshing floor

that so incites our savagery was all —
from hills to river mouths — revealed to me
while I wheeled with eternal Gemini. (Paradiso 21.148–153)

‘The little threshing floor’, the insignificant dot in the immensity of the cosmos, evokes in the reader of the Divine Comedy the same thoughts as Anders’ Earthrise photograph. The onward and upward quest of discovery and knowledge, whether medieval or modern, concludes with a gaze on ourselves and with an affirmation of responsibility for the future.

 

Cristian Ispir

20 July 2019

Art and science in Renaissance Italy

Here at the British Library we’re big fans of Renaissance art and science. It’s the subject of our current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), and we also have a display about it in our permanent free exhibition space, The Treasures Gallery. Here’s a sneak peek of some of the beauties you can see in the Treasures display.

Early Renaissance Italy witnessed a remarkable flowering of the arts and sciences. Humanist scholars looked to medieval libraries to discover works from the past, which they copied, studied and developed in new ways. They were particularly interested in discovering classical works of ancient Greek and Roman culture, building on the movement to recover classical texts that had been taking place since the 12th century. But they were also stimulated by works of medieval science, both from the Latin and Arabic traditions.

Add_ms_41623_f035v36r

Codex Bellunensis, North-East Italy, early 15th century: Add MS 41623, ff. 35v–36r

The increased study of plants during the Renaissance lead towards the development of the modern field of botany. In medieval Europe, knowledge about plants and their medicinal properties was transmitted in illustrated manuscripts known as herbals. They were based on ancient Latin and Greek sources, compiled and updated by medieval scholars. In the Renaissance, people started to revise herbals based on first-hand examinations of plants. This manuscript, known as the Codex Bellunensis, is largely an adaptation of the ancient work on medicinal plants, De Materia Medica by the Greek physician Dioscorides. But it also includes observations of local flora, in this case from the lower Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy. On the left is the earliest known representation of the plant edelweiss, shown alongside eupatorium, agrimony and valerian.

Royal MS 12 G VII

De aspectibus, a Latin translation of Ibn al-Haytham’s Kitāb al-Manāẓir, Italy, late 14th century: Royal MS 12 G VII, ff. 36v–37r

Renaissance scholars also looked to the Arabic world as a source of knowledge. This manuscript contains De aspectibus, a Latin translation of Kitāb al-Manāẓir (Book of Optics) by the 11th-century Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, known in Latin as Alhazen. This work was the first to systematically demonstrate that vision is the result of light reflecting off objects and entering the eye. The book also includes ‘Alhazen's problem’, a mathematical problem concerning the reflection of light from spherical mirrors that was not solved algebraically until 1965. Translated into Latin around 1200, the work was carefully studied by western thinkers such as Roger Bacon (c.1219/20–c.1292) and Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519). The pages shown here examine the subject of binocular vision, with the diagrams illustrating how the visual axes of the two eyes, labelled ‘a’ and ‘g’, intersect.

Add MS 15819 f 6r

Aratea, a Latin translation by Germanicus of Aratus’ Phaenomena, Florence, 1465–1475: Add MS 15819, ff. 5v–6r

The Aratea is a poem about the ancient constellations and their mythological origins. It was originally written in Greek by the ancient poet Aratus in the 3rd century BC. This particular Latin translation was made in around AD 14–19 by the Roman general Germanicus, who was the nephew of the emperor Tiberius, the father of Caligula and the grandfather of Nero, no less. The poem was an important source for the study of astronomy throughout the Middle Ages, but the humanist interest in rediscovering authentic classical texts led to a surge in its popularity in 15th-century Italy. This copy belonged to Francesco Sassetti of Florence (1421–90), a prominent banker for the Medici family. The pages on display describe and illustrate the constellations closest to the north celestial pole, Ursa Major (the Great Bear), Ursa Minor (the Lesser Bear), and Draco.

To see these manuscripts in person, come and visit the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. To learn even more about Renaissance achievements in art and science, don’t miss our current exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion at the British Library from 7 June until 8 September 2019.

Eleanor Jackson

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18 July 2019

Magical seals in an English Book of Hours

In addition to containing the daily cycle of prayer, Books of Hours sometimes include magical spells or incantations, reflecting their lay owners' concerns over physical and spiritual dangers. Stowe MS 16, a Book of Hours produced in London shortly before 1410, is an interesting example. This manuscript is mainly known to scholars because it includes a miniature of the Annunciation that has been attributed to Herman Scheerre (fl. c. 1388–c. 1422), a Flemish or German illuminator who was one of the most influential artists in early 15th-century England.

Image 1 [Scheerre]

The Hours of the Virgin Mary (London, c. 1410): Stowe MS 16, f. 9r

But another remarkable feature of Stowe MS 16 has so far gone unnoticed: a 15th-century owner — perhaps ‘George Rotherham’, who inscribed his name on a flyleaf — added four circular diagrams that, as their accompanying inscriptions explain, represent ‘seals’ that offered supernatural protection. The first is referred to as the ‘Seal of Solomon’, alluding to an ancient legend according to which the biblical King Solomon owned a seal ring with an engraved hexagram or pentagram, that enabled him to command demons. It formed the basis for a tradition of pseudo-Solomonic seals that flourished during the later Middle Ages. The inscription that accompanies the seal in Stowe MS 16 instructs the reader to use it as an amulet in battle: ‘Hoc signum Salamonis qui super se portaverit nec manu in bello erit captus’ (‘Whosoever will carry the seal of Solomon on themselves will not be captured in battle’).

Image 2 [Seal of Solomon]

The Seal of Solomon: Stowe MS 16, f. 151r

The owner of Stowe MS 16 also added incantations against ‘seven sisters’ (‘septem sorores’), fever demons who are named after seven types of fever, followed by three more magical seals that offered protection against enemies, water and fire, and evil. The inscription on the first seal reads: ‘Hoc signum fer [te]cum contra omnes inimicos’ (‘Carry this seal with you against all enemies’).

Image 3 [Three magical seals]

Three magical seals: Stowe MS 16, f. 152r

Magical seals were not usually copied into prayer books. Instead, they circulated in medical and magical manuscripts. For example, one 15th-century English medical manuscript (Royal MS 17 B XLVIII) contains a seal for thunderstorms: ‘Quando audieris tonitruum respice hoc signum et liberaberis; In nomine patris’ (‘When you hear thunder, look at this seal and you will be freed – In the name of the Father’).

Image 4 [Lightning seal]

A seal against lightning (England, 15th century): Royal MS 17 B XLVIII, f. 1r

Magical seals were also copied onto separate parchment leaves that could be worn as amulets. One such leaf, now bound into Add MS 36674, contains on one side a so-called ‘Heavenly Letter’. This letter, invoking the divine names of God, was purportedly sent by Pope Leo III to Charlemagne in order to protect him in battle. On the leaf’s other side, thirty-two seals have been drawn in red ink. These complement the Heavenly Letter’s purpose since they claim to protect their user against imprisonment, wounds and death in battle.

Image 5 [Thirty-two magical seals]

Thirty-two magical seals (England, late 16th century–early 17th century): Add MS 36674, f. 111r

Another separate amulet leaf with magical seals is now bound into Add MS 15505. The amulet, produced in early 16th-century Italy, features a large circular diagram with ten magical seals inside it. At its centre is a seal with a ‘cross crosslet’ and the magical formula ‘AGLA’. It is circumscribed with the name ‘Antonius’ — probably referring to St Anthony of Egypt, who was often invoked against the plague — and is surrounded by eight more seals that provide protection against demons, enemies, evil and misfortune. The seals contain magical inscriptions such as ‘SATOR AREPO’, a popular magical formula that had been used on amulets for centuries (another example is found in Egerton MS 821). Each seal is flanked by the Greek letters ‘Chi’ and ‘Rho’, representing the name of Christ.

Image 6 [Nine magical seals]

Nine magical seals (Italy, early 16th century): Add MS 15505, f. 22r

Magical seals were also copied onto amulet rolls. On one 15th-century English roll (Harley Roll T 11), they have been combined with devotional items such as the ‘Measure of the Side Wound’. This lozenge-shaped image purports to represent the true size of the wound in Christ’s side, inflicted when the Roman soldier Longinus pierced him with his lance. The accompanying text claims that when pregnant women wear the image on their bodies during childbirth, it will protect both them and their children. This suggests that the amulet roll may have been used as a birthing girdle, making particularly relevant its seals for staunching bleeding wounds and against sudden death (without having received the last rites).

Image 7 [Harley Roll T 11  1]

Magical seals and the Measure of the Side Wound (England, 15th century): Harley Roll T 11, f. 1r

Image 8 [Harley Roll T 11  2]

Magical seals for staunching bleeding wounds and against sudden death: Harley Roll T 11, f. 2r

No less than sixty-three magical seals were copied onto a 17th-century English amulet roll (Add MS 25311). Many are aimed against evil spirits, but others against material and physical dangers: for example, it includes seals against venomous snakebites and poverty. The roll may have served as a multi-purpose amulet, or as a model from which single seals were copied onto smaller amulets.

Image 9 [Amulet roll]

Magical seals against evil spirits [1st column, 1st to 3rd rows], venomous snakes [2nd column, 5th row] and poverty [3rd column, 5th row] (England, 17th century): Add MS 25311

The owner of Stowe MS 16 who added the four magical seals to the manuscript probably copied them from the sort of medical or magical manuscripts that are shown here. In doing so, they evidently wanted to give their Book of Hours protective properties so that, in carrying it with them for their daily prayers, it would function equally as an amulet.

 

Clarck Drieshen

12 July 2019

Underwater adventures

The British Library’s current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), investigates the great thinker’s fascination with water. But Leonardo was not the first to send his imagination plunging beneath the waves. Here are some of the ways that medieval people imagined being able to explore underwater.

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Leonardo’s studies of the River Arno: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 149r 

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Beowulf dives into the mere, Beowulf, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 166r

In the Anglo-Saxon period, underwater exploration belonged to the world of heroic poetry rather than human technology. In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the hero journeys to the bottom of a horrifying mere to fight Grendel’s Mother in her watery lair. He dresses in full war-gear, a mail-shirt and a gold boar-embellished helmet, and arms himself with a precious sword named Hrunting. Then after briefly settling his affairs in case of his death, he dives into the lake:

The man of the Weder-Geats moved briskly, would hardly wait for an answer; the surging water took possession of the war-maker. It was then a good part of the day before he could make out the level bottom (Translation by R. D. Fulk).

In a hall in the depths of the lake, Beowulf and Grendel’s Mother engage in a ferocious fight. For a long time the adversaries seem to be evenly matched, but the decisive moment comes when Beowulf notices an enormous sword that was made by giants in ancient times. He grabs the sword and swings it at the lake-woman, slicing off her head.

The poem makes no attempt to explain how Beowulf is able to survive underwater—he just can. His status as a legendary hero and the strongest man alive places him outside the ordinary limits of human ability. In a world of giants, dragons, magical swords and cursed treasure, the hero is a supernatural figure. Beowulf is up to any challenge, no diving apparatus required.

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Alexander is lowered into the sea, Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 77v

Another of medieval literature’s most memorable underwater adventures is that of Alexander the Great. The ancient Macedonian king and formidable military commander was one of the greatest heroes of medieval romance. One episode associated with Alexander in the romance tradition describes how he travels to the bottom of the sea to explore its wonders.

Unlike Beowulf, Alexander is hampered by the real-world necessity of having to breathe. To solve this, he designs an air-tight barrel made from glass which is lowered on chains from a boat. Inside his proto-submarine, Alexander takes lamps to light his way and two animal companions, a cockerel to tell the time and a cat whose breath purifies the air.

Alexander’s underwater journey shows that medieval people were thinking creatively about how a person could venture safely underwater. That’s not to say that the design would work: for one thing, the barrel would float without ballast; for another, a cat’s breath does not purify air so Alexander would have a very limited air supply.

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Alexander is lowered into the sea, Roman d'Alexandre, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v

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Design for diving equipment, a mechanical sketchbook, Add MS 34113, f. 180v

Is not until the 15th-century that people began to design diving apparatus with a view to practical use. This sketchbook, compiled in the 15th-century by an unknown Italian engineer, contains designs for diving suits that might have inspired Leonardo's (you can also see this manuscript in the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, displaying a design for a water wheel).

The diving suits would allow a person freer movement than the barrel, so that the divers can carry out tasks underwater such as loading these baskets with rocks. With the figure on the left, the engineer has attempted to solve the problem of air supply by feeding air through a hose, connected at one end to a float on the surface and at the other to the diver’s mask. This is close to the design that was finally employed in the first successful diving suits, but with one major difference. The Renaissance engineer had not realised that the air supplied to the diver would have to be pressurised to account for the increased pressure underwater.

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Leonardo’s design for Diving Apparatus, Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

Leonardo’s diving apparatus from the early 16th century follows roughly the same design as the anonymous sketchbook, but adds some improved features. His diving mask is provided with two hoses, one to bring fresh air in and the other to take old air out. He has realised that the hoses will need to be reinforced with metal rings to stop the water pressure from closing them up. The float is also modified to prevent water accidentally spilling into the air supply. But crucially, Leonardo did not think to add an air compressor to the design so in practice the diver would not be able to breathe in deep water.

It was not until the 18th century that the first successful diving suits were made. But from Beowulf to Leonardo, people had long been coming up with creative ways to explore the world beneath the waves. To admire Leonardo’s design for diving apparatus in person, don’t miss the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, at the British Library from 7 June–8 September 2019.

Eleanor Jackson

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