Medieval manuscripts blog

6 posts from December 2020

24 December 2020

The ox and ass at the Nativity

Picture a traditional Nativity scene. The Christ Child is at the centre with his parents, Mary and Joseph, surrounded by a host of familiar characters who played a role in the unfolding events. There are angels, shepherds, the Three Wise Men or Magi (although they can be in a separate scene of the Epiphany), the innkeeper, sometimes even midwives, and, of course the ox and the ass.

The Holy Family with the ox and ass in a Book of Hours
The Holy Family with the ox and ass in a Book of Hours, France, Tours, 1510 – 1520: Add MS 35214, f. 52v

Images of the Nativity in medieval manuscripts also tend to contain some of these familiar characters. Yet after the three members of the Holy Family, the most frequently depicted are the ox and the ass. This is rather surprising as they are not mentioned in the Gospels, but they are one of the most ancient and stable elements in the iconography of the Nativity.

The earliest surviving text mentioning their presence dates from the 8th century (the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which was not included in the New Testament). However, the first known example of a Nativity scene in art, a carving on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan dated to AD 400, contains just Christ in the manger with the ox and ass on either side; Mary and Joseph are absent.

Nativity scene on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan
Nativity scene on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan, AD 400 (Giovanni Dall'Orto / Attribution only license / Wikimedia Commons)

One of the oldest medieval images of the Nativity in our collections contains a friendly-looking ox and ass, watching over Jesus in a rather elaborate crib, hidden in a corner beneath Mary, who takes centre stage. The midwife and Joseph appear to the right (midwives are found most often in earlier images but gradually disappeared from the iconography). This elaborate and stylised miniature is from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, a manuscript made in Winchester in the 10th century.

Nativity in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold
Nativity in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, 963-984: Add MS 49598, f. 15v

The ox and ass (or donkey) remained prominent features of Nativity scenes, often found alongside the Christ child. In this image below Christ is placed above Mary in a raised manger and the animals appear to have their noses in the manger where Jesus lies. Some commentators have interpreted this as a kind act by the animals, breathing on the baby to keep him warm, while for others the animals are feeding from the manger, referring to the passage in the Gospel of John, where Christ calls himself ‘the bread of life’ and promises eternal life to those who feed on him.

Scene of the Nativity in an architectural setting with the ox and ass at the manger from Germany
Scene of the Nativity in an architectural setting with the ox and ass at the manger, Germany (Swabia, possibly Hirsau): Egerton MS 809, f. 1v

A charming domestic scene in a Book of Hours in French (below) shows Mary reading or saying her prayers, while Joseph seems to watch her in bemusement (though his head-in-hand pose may denote that he is tired or sleeping). Both seem unaware that the baby Jesus, again at some distance, apparently has his hand in the donkey’s mouth. Of the two animals, the donkey is often seen as more playful, and so perhaps he is allowing the baby to prod him, while the ox (traditionally a sacrificial animal in the Bible) was seen by early Christians as symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice, so he is often shown as the more serious of the two.

Nativity with Ox and Ass in a Book of Hours
Nativity with Ox and Ass in a Book of Hours, France,  1400-1425: Harley MS 2952, f. 142v

In the 14th century, St Briget of Sweden’s vision of the Nativity had a major influence on subsequent iconography. She described seeing the ox and the ass and the Virgin kneeling before a ‘glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing’ with ‘ineffable light and splendour’. And so images of Christ lying naked, worshipped by Mary (and sometimes Joseph) became common in devotional manuscripts. The ox and ass are never too far away, a benevolent presence, Christ’s first playmates.

Nativity Scene with the Holy Family, animals and shepherds with musical instruments
Nativity Scene with the Holy Family, animals and shepherds with musical instruments, Sept articles de la foy, France (Rouen), c. 1440: Royal MS 19 A XXII, f. 4v
Nativity with Mary kneeling, Joseph sleeping, and a cuddly ox and ass
Nativity with Mary kneeling, Joseph sleeping, and a cuddly ox and ass, in Eusebius, Chronici canones (trans. Jerome), Italy (Rome), c. 1485- c. 1488: Royal MS 14 C III, f. 119v

A page from the Hours of the Virgin in the Tilliot Hours contains an unusual two-part image where the ox and ass are present in both scenes. The lower image shows Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary arriving at the inn, leading a tired-looking donkey which has been carrying Mary in a saddle, followed by the ox. They are greeted by an inkeeper who in this telling of the tale is a woman. In the Nativity scene above, the ox has his nose to the manger, joining in the adoration of the Christ Child, while the donkey looks on from behind.

Nativity scene in two parts with shepherds above and Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn (below), from 'The Tilliot Hours
Nativity scene in two parts with shepherds (above) and Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn (below), in The Tilliot Hours, France (Tours), c. 1500: Yates Thompson MS 5, f. 41v

A picture of the two animals beside a baby in a manger is the simplest and most easily recognisable symbol of the Nativity. An example of this is a set of representations of key events in a medieval almanac. Each event is depicted with the number of years since it occurred, and, following the Ark (4308 years ago), is a simplistic drawing of an ox and ass on either side of a Christ in a crib. The animals make it obvious to the viewer that this is not just any baby, but Christ at his Nativity and so we know that the almanac was produced 1412 years after the birth of Christ, around the year 1412.

Illustrated almanac showing the number of years since key events in history including the Birth of Christ
Illustrated almanac showing the number of years since key events in history including the Birth of Christ (1412 years previously), England, 1400-1412: Harley MS 2332, f. 20v

And lastly, in this rather worrying scene the Christ Child seems to be trying to leap out of the manger. The donkey is holding him back by grasping his swaddling garments with its teeth. Again, Mary and Joseph are oblivious, though the ox watches in horror.

A Nativity scene with musicians in the four corners, from the Maastricht Hours
A Nativity scene with musicians in the four corners, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century: Stowe MS 17, f. 15v

Whether symbols, playmates, transport or babysitters, it certainly seems that the ox and the ass were useful characters at the Nativity.

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 December 2020

Great medieval bake off: Christmas edition

In the medieval and early modern periods, people celebrated Christmas with twelve days of extravagant feasting and merriment. Following the success of our Great medieval bake off in September, we’re getting into the spirit of the season by recreating some festive treats using authentic recipes from manuscripts held in the Library.

On your marks, get set, bake!

A scene from a medieval manuscript of people feasting at a table
A medieval feast, France, 1290-1300: Add MS 28162, f. 10v

Ellie’s recipe: a dish of snowe

A recipe for 'a dish of snowe' in an early 17th-century manuscript
Recipe for ‘a dish of snowe’, England, early 17th century: Add MS 28319, f. 17v (detail)

To make a dish of Snowe / Take a potte of sweete thicke creme and the white of eight egges and beate them altogether with a spoone then putte them into your creame with a dish full of Rose Water and a dishfull of Sugar withall then take a sticke and make it cleane and then cutt it in the ende fowre square and therewith beate all the aforesayd thinges together and ever as it ariseth take it of and putte it into a Cullander thys done take a platter and set an aple in the middest of it and sticke a thicke bush of Rosemarye in the apple then cast your snowe upon the rosemarye and fill your platter therewith and if you have wafers cast some withall and thus serve them forth

To make a dish of snow, take a pot of sweet thick cream and the whites of eight eggs and beat them together with a spoon, then put them into your cream with a dishful of rosewater and a dishful of sugar withal. Then take a stick and make it clean and then cut it in the end foursquare and therewith beat all the aforesaid things together and ever as it arises take it off and put it in a colander. This done, take a platter and set an apple in the middle of it and stick a thick bush of rosemary in the apple. Then cast your snow upon the rosemary and fill your platter therewith and if you have wafers cast some withal and thus serve them forth.

Some of the highlights of medieval and early modern feasts were novelty foods made to look like something else for the delight of the diners—the historical equivalents of an illusion bake. This recipe for ‘a dish of snowe’, made to resemble a snowy little tree on a hilltop, is a lovely example of this. This version of the recipe comes from an early 17th-century manuscript, but a similar version also appears in the printed book A proper newe booke of cokerye, which was published in several editions with the earliest dating from 1545. Modern editions of the recipe, which are based on these early printed editions, don’t explain that you should stick the rosemary into the apple, meaning that modern commentators have missed its identity as an illusion dessert. The extra detail provided in the manuscript version allows us to rediscover the original presentation of the dish. 

To make this recipe I mixed together a 300 ml pot of double cream, the whites of 2 eggs (the 8 eggs specified in the recipe would make enough snowe for a considerable feast!), 2 tablespoons of rosewater and 2 tablespoons of caster sugar, then whipped them together with a whisk until they formed a firm foamy consistency (about 15 minutes by hand). I love that this recipe gives you instructions to make your own whisk, but boringly I already had one. I placed a small apple in a bowl, made a hole in it with a skewer, and then stuck a sprig of rosemary into the hole so that it stood upright. With a spoon, I gently spread the snowe over the rosemary leaves and apple and put the rest in the bowl. Not having any wafers to hand, I decorated the dish with some cinnamon thins. The finished product looks more exciting than it tastes, which is pleasantly sweet and creamy but a little bland. I think it would work better as a topping, perhaps on something tart and fruity. But the recipe definitely succeeds in what was probably its main purpose, making an eye-catching winter wonderland of a centrepiece.

A photo of a modern recreation of 'a dish of snowe'
A dish of snowe, photo by Ellie Jackson

Calum’s recipe: gingerbread

A recipe for gingerbread in a 16th/17th-century manuscript
A recipe for gingerbread, England, late 16th-early 17th century: Add MS 46139, f. 48r (detail)

To make ginger breade / ffirste take fayre clarified honye, sinnamon, ginger, and a quantitie of pepper and graynes and a great quantitite of liccoras, anniseede, lett all theis seeth together, till they eate like ginger breade, as the taste pleaseth or offendeth you, so mende the aforesaid amixtures, and when you like yt well put in the breade and stirre yt well together, and worke yt forthwith, as hott as may be suffered

To make gingerbread, first take clarified honey, cinnamon, ginger, and a quantity of pepper and grains, and a large amount of liquorice and aniseed. Let all this sit together, until it tastes like gingerbread, as the taste pleases or offends you. Stir the previously mentioned mixtures, and when you like it well add the breadcrumbs and stir them together well, and then work the mixture, as hot as it can take.

Gingerbread is a common feature of surviving medieval cookbooks (this blog has previously featured a gingerbread recipe from an English cookery book made c. 1430). The example above can be found in an early modern collection of medical, alchemical and cookery recipes, partly written by Alexander Gill the Elder (b. 1565, d. 1635), the High Master of St Paul’s School in London, whose pupils notably included the famous English poet John Milton. Readers might have gathered that Gill’s recipe for gingerbread is unlike the biscuit or cookie we all know and love. In fact, this ‘gingerbread’ is not a biscuit at all. It is more similar to a piece of modern confectionary, a soft shaped sweet like marzipan or nougat, and ginger is only one of a number of spices that can be added to the mix.

For my version, I poured a jar of honey into a pan and brought it to a boil, skimmed the scum that formed on the surface and flavoured it with small amounts of cinnamon, ground ginger, white pepper and aniseed. To this, I added plain white breadcrumbs, incorporating them into the liquid a little at a time until the mixture began to grow firm and stick to the pan. I then turned it out on a parchment sheet, placed another parchment sheet on top and rolled it out thinly. Once the gingerbread had cooled, I cut it into squares. Some variants of this recipe mention that you can dye the gingerbread by adding sandalwood. In this case, I used a modern food colouring and shaped the resulting mixture into balls. The recipe resulted in a sweet, quite sickly treat, which tasted much like the filling in a treacle tart.

A photo of a modern recreation of gingerbread
A plate of gingerbread, based on the recipe in Add MS 46139, photo by Calum Cockburn

Clarck’s recipe: mulled wine

A recipe for mulled wine in a medieval manuscript
A recipe for mulled wine, England, 15th century: Harley MS 2868, f. 4v

Take an unce of gode treacle half an unce of tormentile rotes a sponfull of columbyn sedes vj nutkyrnels bray al þies sam except the treacle to þai be small þan putte iij sponefull of Juse of rewe and ij unce of sugar and medle all wele to gedder and put it into a closebox . and take of þat fastand þe quantite of an hesill nutt with a littill wyne or ayle warmyd

Take an ounce of good treacle, half an ounce of tormentil roots, a spoonful of ‘columbine’ [vervain] seeds, and six nut kernels. Grind all these together (except for the treacle) until they are a powder. Then add three spoonfuls of the juice of rue and two ounces of sugar, mix it well together, and put it in a jar. Then take of that solid matter the size of a hazelnut with a bit of warmed wine or ale.

Mulled or spiced wine was commonly consumed in the Middle Ages, but I was surprised to find a 15th-century Middle English recipe for this popular wintry drink in a Latin prayer book that is part of our ongoing cataloguing project on the Harley collection. An owner of the manuscript wrote the recipe below a prayer to St Giles, probably because they considered both the prayer and the recipe as forms of protection against plague: while the saint was often invoked against the disease, the recipe’s main ingredients (treacle, vervain, and tormentil) were considered highly potent plague remedies. Coincidentally, the saint’s feast day on 1 September also marks the beginning of the cold season—the time of the year which we nowadays associate with mulled wine.

I first simmered an ounce of lemon vervain (‘columbyn’ refers to verbena, not the poisonous columbine aquilegia!), common rue, and tormentil rhizome in a litre of water for half an hour. After sieving the resulting ‘herbal tea’, I added half an ounce of molasses (black treacle), two ounces of sugar, and a handful of finely crushed hazelnuts. I bottled the mixture, let it cool down, and then mixed half of it with 750 ml of warmed-up fruity red wine. The resulting flavour was tasty, but mostly dominated by the treacle. For those who want to try this for themselves, I would recommend adding traditional mulled wine spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.

A photo of the ingredients for medicinal mulled wine
Ingredients for a medieval medicinal mulled wine, photo by Clarck Drieshen

We hope that our recipes can inspire your own culinary creations over this holiday season!

Ellie Jackson, Clarck Drieshen and Calum Cockburn
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

***disclaimer: these recipes were made in the authors' own time and at their own expense. No Library resources were used in the making of these medieval treats! ***

19 December 2020

The medieval Christmas weather forecast

Are you wondering if we'll have a white Christmas? If so, forget about new-fangled weather forecasts: medieval manuscripts at the British Library may hold the answer!

One of these, a collection of Middle English texts compiled by John Colyns (d. c. 1542), a mercer of the parish of St Mary Woolchurch Haw in London, includes a series of weather predictions based on the phases of the Moon. It tells us that the weather is determined by the ‘prime of the Moon’, the day of the month on which you can see the first appearance of the ‘New Moon’ (when the Moon is invisible to the naked eye).

A snowy winter scene, including a man chopping wood for a woman to gather, and a domestic interior with a man, woman, and a baby, with, in the border below, men pulling a companion on a sledge.

A snowy winter scene (Bruges, c. 1540): Add MS 24098, f. 18v

The manuscript compiled by John Colyns, Harley MS 2252, gives us the following predictions:

Sunday: When the prime falls on a Sunday, in that Moon you shall have drought.
Monday: When the prime falls on a Monday, in that Moon you shall have wetness.
Tuesday: When the prime falls on a Tuesday, it means wind and coldness.
Wednesday: When the prime falls on Wednesday, you shall hear marvellously in that Moon.
Thursday: When the prime falls on a Thursday, it means a bright Moon.
Friday: When the prime falls on a Friday, you will have a moderate Moon.
Saturday: When the prime falls on a Saturday, you will have plenty of rain.

('Sonday: When the prime fallythe uppon Sonday in þat mone ye shall have drowghte
Monday: When the prime fallyth on the Monday in þat mone ye shall have moyste
Tuysday: When the prime fallyth on Tuysday hyt betokenythe wynde and colde.
Wenysday: When þe prime fallythe on Wednysday ye shall here marvelous in that mone
Thursday: When the prime fallythe on Thursday hyt betokenyt a clere mone
Fryday: When the prime fallythe on Frydaye ye shall have a mean mone
Saturday: When the prime fallythe on Saturday ye shall have plenty of rayne')

A set of weather predictions in John Colyns commonplace book, organised according to the days of the week (Sunday to Saturday), written in brown ink.

Weather predictions in John Colyns’ commonplace book (England, c. 1520c. 1540): Harley MS 2252, f. 159v

Since the New Moon fell this month on Monday, 14 December, this means that Christmas this year is bound to be wet! You heard it here first!

A wintry scene with a man and a woman seated in front of a fire and sheltering from the snow to the left, and in the foreground, a woman walking her dog and warming her hands with her breath.

A wintry scene in the margins of a calendar page for the month of January (Bruges, c. 1500): Egerton MS 1147, f. 6v

Wherever you are, there is a good chance of snow as well. Middle English weather predictions in a 15th-century medical manuscript (Add MS 4898) tell us that if 1 January falls on a Wednesday, which was the case this year, winter shall be ‘cold, hard and good, and [see] great snowfalls versus ferocious winds’ (‘Ȝyf þe ferste day of genever be wednysday . wynter schal be coold hard and good and grete snowys ver wykkyd wyndy’).

Weather predictions for a year in which 1 January falls on a Wednesday, written in black ink, and starting with a large blue initial that features penwork and pen-flourishing in red ink.

Weather predictions for a year in which 1 January falls on a Wednesday (England, 15th century): Add MS 4898, f. 130r

Although we might see wind and snow, the weather will not be too harsh. This is indicated by an English farmer’s almanac (Add MS 17367) that dates to the 1530s, as Dr Eleanor Jackson (Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library) has determined. She points out that the almanac features weather predictions that are based on a year’s ‘Sunday letter’ or ‘dominical letter’. This refers to a method in which the letters 'A' to 'G' are assigned to the days of the week in an alphabetical order, with the letter 'A' always starting on 1 January. The year is then associated with the letter that corresponds with its first Sunday. In 2020, the first Sunday was on 5 January, which means that we live in an ‘E’ year. Our almanac’s weather predictions for such years are mostly illegible, but seem to predict ‘A good [winter]’.

An English almanac with predictions according to the Sunday letter of a year. The Sunday letters are written in red ink on the left side of the page.

Weather predictions in an English farmer’s almanac (England, 1530s): Add MS 17367

If we do get snow, the weather may be similar to a Christmas period sometime in the 15th century. An English almanac from 1420 (Royal MS 17 A XVI) features a weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas that says, ‘last Christmas was of three conditions: rain in the morning, fair weather at ten and eleven, and dark and overcast weather in the afternoon’ (‘Crystynmes day laste past was off iij condycions in þe mornyng rayn at x and xj fayr weddur at aftur none dark and lowring’). During the next Twelve Days of Christmas, mist and clouds alternated with bright weather. However, on 30 December, ‘it began to snow and it snowed until the night’ (‘yt be gan to snaw and snew to nyght’). This weather returned on New Year’s Day when ‘it snowed until 10 in the morning and at noon it began again and it snowed all day until it was night’ (‘att þe mornyng yt snew to x of þe cloke and at xij yt be began agayn and snew all þe day to yt was nyght’).

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas written in brown ink.

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas (England, 1420): Royal MS 17 A XVI, f. 1v

But if snow fails to appear, the Christmas period may be more like a Twelvetide in 16th-century England. A weather report from that period, which was added to a 12th-century biblical manuscript from the Benedictine abbey of St Mary and St Rumon at Tavistock in Devon (Add MS 62122), tells us, ‘Christmas was fair and dry without any sunshine’ (‘Chrystynmas was fayre and drye with owt enye sunne shynyng’). The next days were mostly dry, but ‘New Year’s Day was full of rain all day long’ (‘new yeres day was full of rayne all daye lange’).

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas written in brown ink.

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas (England, 16th century): Add MS 62122, f. 2v

Just in case you question the authority of our sources — the practice of weather forecasting was well established in the Middle Ages, and supported by Classical sources such as the Meteorologica (Meteorology) of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC), whose works on natural philosophy were well-known in late medieval Europe.

A seated philosopher pointing up to a cloud above from which snowflakes fall down and from which emerges an animal’s head with a fiery breath, probably representing lightning.

An initial in Aristotle’s Libri Naturales (Books on Natural Philosophy) with a philosopher pointing up to lightning and snow coming from a cloud above (?Oxford, 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3487, f. 140v

We trust that our 'reliable' weather predictions will help you prepare for the Christmas period. You can explore the weather predictions of John Colyns and related writings in the fully digitised version of his commonplace book (Harley MS 2252) that is now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. It is part of our Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts project, and it's also one of the 3,000 manuscripts from the Harley collection that we have now described online.

Clarck Drieshen
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

15 December 2020

An ancient ‘happy family’

Papyrus documents often provide unique glimpses into the everyday lives of individuals as well as entire families. As the festive season is approaching, in today’s blog post we have decided to tell a story of family affection and fondness from over 1,800 years ago, preserved on a sheet of papyrus recently catalogued and now fully available online.

Two letters on a papyrus sheet from the late second century written in Ancient Greek.
Two letters on a papyrus sheet from the archive of Saturnila and her sons, late 2nd century: Papyrus 2102

Papyrus 2102 is part of the archive of a woman called Saturnila and her sons. It is also known as the ‘Happy Family Archive’, because of the affectionate tone in which the members of the family address each other. This archive consists of eight papyri containing twelve letters, now held in collections across Europe and America. The correspondents are members of a family of Roman citizens living in the Fayum (Middle Egypt), perhaps in the village of Karanis. On palaeographical grounds, the papers, written in Ancient Greek, have been dated to the late 2nd century, when Egypt was part of the Roman empire.

The key figure is Saturnila, mother of at least five and probably seven children; she was presumably a widow as no mention of a husband is made in the documents. Most of the letters preserved are addressed to her, and one of these is Papyrus 2102, which contains two letters written on the same sheet.

Letter from Sempronius to his mother Saturnila
The first letter, from Sempronius to Saturnila

In the first letter, Sempronius, apparently the eldest of the brothers and undoubtedly a very caring son, writes to his mother, as he often does. He is frequently away from home, and is presumably staying in Alexandria. As usual in his letters, he expresses anxiety over Saturnila’s welfare, for whom he makes daily supplications to the god Serapis. He is also concerned about her silence, and urges her to reply to the numerous letters that he had sent her:

‘How many letters have I sent you and not one have you written me in reply, though so many people have sailed down! I beg you, my lady, be not slow to write me news of your welfare that I may live in less anxiety; for your welfare is what I pray for always’.

Letter from Sempronius to his brother Maximus.
The second letter, from Sempronius to Maximus

The second letter, on the other hand, is addressed to Maximus, one of the oldest brothers (perhaps the second oldest), who seems to have acted as the head of the household in Sempronius’ absence, and who features as the addressee of many letters. We learn from other missives that Maximus was married, had daughters, but lost his wife, whose passing he deeply mourned.

In this letter from Sempronius, the tone of brotherly affection is vivid, but the message contains a heavy reproach:

‘I have been informed that you serve our mother and lady grudgingly. I beg you, sweetest brother, do not grieve her in anything; and if any of our brothers gainsays her, you ought to cuff them; for you ought now to take the name of father. I know that without my writing you are able to humour her, but do not be offended by my letter of admonition; for we ought to revere our mother as a goddess, especially one so good as ours. This I have written to you, brother, because I know how sweet a possession our revered parents are.’

Sempronius’ words recall the Greek concept of ‘gerotrophia’, that is, the caring for an elderly parent, which was considered a moral duty in return for everything the child had received during their upbringing. Already in Hesiod’s myth of the ‘Five Ages’, for example, people dishonouring their aged parents and not repaying them for the care they received were considered a sign of human degradation.

The verso of the papyrus containing the address
The verso of the papyrus containing the address: ‘Deliver to Maximus from his brother Sempronius’

Although one of the letters is for Saturnila, Maximus features as the only recipient in the address on the back of the papyrus. Saturnila is not mentioned, and nor does she feature in the address on the other letters for her. She may have been illiterate, as many women were at that time. It has also been argued that in this way the information reaching Saturnila’s ears could be kept under control by her sons. Saturnila’s correspondence was probably read out loud to her by one of them, and this could also explain why two letters were written on the same sheet. Or was perhaps Sempronius a very parsimonious man?

Although more than a millennium has passed, Sempronius’ love for his family is still vivid: thanks to the papyri, we can still be moved by his words, share his concerns, and reflect on his advice.

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Translations by Arthur S. Hunt and Campbell C. Edgar, Select papyri. Vol. 1, Private affairs (London: W. Heinemann, 1932), no. 121.

11 December 2020

New Prophecies of the Ancient Sibyls

The British Library's major project to provide online catalogue records of manuscripts in the Harley collection has made significant progress in 2020. We have now enhanced the descriptions of some 3,000 Harley manuscripts, and more are being added every month to our Archives & Manuscripts Catalogue. Along the way, we are continuing to make new identifications and to unearth hitherto unknown texts. In this blogpost, Clarck Drieshen describes the recent discovery of a 14th-century Latin manuscript from France (Harley MS 3723) that contains previously unknown copies of the universal chronicle of the French Dominican friar Gerald of Frachet (1205–1271) (a history of the world from the Creation up to his own time) and a text on the ancient female oracles known as The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl.

The beginning of the Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl in Harley MS 3723, with a large red initial ‘D’

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl (France, 2nd half of the 14th century): Harley MS 3723, f. 123r

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl tells of ten female oracles, known as Sibyls, who prophesied from sacred locations in regions around the Mediterranean Sea. Except for reporting that the Sibyls at Delphi and Erythraea had predicted the Trojan War, this work has little to say about the first nine oracles. As its modern title suggests, the focus is on the tenth Sibyl, named Tibultina in Greek and Albunea in Latin. She was also known as the 'Tiburtine Sibyl', after Tibur (modern-day Tivoli in Italy), from where she was believed to have made her prophecies. The work identifies her as the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the legendary last king and queen of Troy, making her the sister of the Trojan princes Hector and Paris and the cursed prophet Cassandra.

Twelve women with dresses in different colours sitting on a circular bench with a golden pillar in the middle. The women, who represent the Sibyls, prophesise the birth of Christ.

Twelve Sibyls prophesising the birth of Christ (Bruges, c. 1497): Add MS 18851, f. 8v

In the Middle Ages, the Tiburtine Sibyl was known especially for predicting the birth of Christ. One legend told that she showed Emperor Augustus (r. 27 BC–14 CE) a vision of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, which stopped him from declaring himself divine.

The Roman Emperor Augustus in a grey gown kneeling down and with his crown beside him with the Sibyl Tiburtina in a red dress standing behind him and showing him a vision of the Virgin Mary with Christ (who are visible elsewhere on the page).

The Tiburtine Sibyl with the Emperor Augustus (Northern Netherlands, 1486): Harley MS 2943, f. 11r

In The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, a Roman emperor summons her after one hundred senators had experienced the same dream on the same night. In this dream, nine different suns had appeared in the sky. Asked to interpret the dream, the Tiburtine Sibyl explained that the suns represented nine future eras. She prophesied that one sun, which the senators described as having a blood-red colour, signified an era in which a virgin named Mary would bear a child named Jesus, the son of God. She also foretold that the last sun to appear in the dream, which had been very gloomy, represented the end time in which the son of God would return for a final judgement over humankind.

The Sibyl Tiburtina depicted as a woman with a white veil and a blue mantle unfurling a scroll.

The Tiburtine Sibyl (Catalonia, 1273): Add MS 50003, f. 221r

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl concludes with a poem about the end of the world that contains a ‘hidden’ reference to the birth of Christ and his return at the world's end. In the original Greek version of the poem, reading the first letter of each line downwards spells out the words: ‘Iesous Chreistos Theou Uios Soter’ (‘Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour’). The Latin translator tried to preserve this vertical text (acrostic), but was not always able to find a meaningful Latin word starting with the required letter.

Tiburtina’s poem on the end of the world, with the initials of each new line highlighted in red and forming an acrostic text in Greek about Christ.

The Tiburtine Sibyl's poem on the end of the world (France, 2nd half of the 14th century): Harley MS 3723, f. 126v

Although we now know that The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl originated from a Greek text composed by a 4th-century Christian writer, that in turn was translated into Latin and expanded around the year 1000, medieval authors believed that the Tiburtine Sibyl's prophecies were authentic, and they considered her an important witness to the truth of the Gospels. Her prophecies were circulated widely and today survive in over 100 manuscripts. You can read more about the manuscript tradition in Anke Holdenried, The Sibyl and Her Scribes: Manuscripts and Interpretation of the Latin Sibylla Tiburtina c. 1050-1500 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

Another copy of The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, opening with a large purple initial ‘S’ with decoration in blue, green, purple, and red inside the letter

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl (? Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 12th century): Cotton MS Vespasian B XXV, f. 117v

The 13th-century Dominican friar Gerald of Frachet would undoubtedly have been interested in the Tiburtine Sibyl's predictions about Christ, but probably also in her prophecies about the kings involved with the events leading up to the end time. Since she referred to these important kings only by their first initials, medieval authors were able to identify rulers living in their own times with these prophesied kings. Gerald himself felt a strong allegiance to Charles of Anjou (1226/1227–1285), the youngest son of Louis VIII of France and founder of the Capetian House of Anjou. In his universal chronicle, he stressed that Charles was a descendant of Charlemagne (748–814), King of the Franks and Emperor of the Romans, and compared his victory over Manfred, King of Sicily, in 1266 to Charlemagne’s victory over the Lombards. The Tenth Prophecy of the Sibyl predicted a powerful Frankish king whose name began with the letter ‘K’ and was clearly identifiable with Charlemagne (‘Karolus Magnus’). By adding her prophecies to his chronicle, Gerald may have wanted to emphasise Charles of Anjou’s ancestry and attribute an important role to him — a new Charlemagne — on the world stage. You can read more about the relationship between the chronicle and the prophecies in Régis Rech, ‘Charles d'Anjou et le Limousin: la conquête du royaume de Naples chez Hélie Autenc et Géraud de Frachet’, Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des Chartes, 158 (2000), 443-73.

The pope crowns Charles of Anjou, who sits in the middle, wears a blue cloak and holds two gold-coloured sceptres with a fleur-de-lis.

Charles of Anjou is crowned King of Sicily (Paris, 1332–1350): Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 429v

Harley MS 3723 is an important witness to Gerald of Frachet’s work. Of the roughly 25 manuscripts of his universal chronicle known previously to scholars, only three others contain the The Tenth Prophecy of the Sibyl. This arrangement of texts may also have been part of the manuscript that Gerald is thought to have presented to Charles of Anjou. Harley MS 3723 is also the only copy of Gerald’s work that reached England in the Late Middle Ages. Although English readers may have been less keen to identify the kings in the Tiburtine Sibyl's prophecies with French rulers, her predictions about disease and warfare may have strongly resonated with their experiences of the bubonic plague and Hundred Years War.

Containing more than 7500 manuscripts, the Harley collection is one of the largest intact 18th-century libraries in the world. Watch this Blog for more news about our discoveries as we continue to catalogue the Harley collection.  


Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

04 December 2020

Ancient steam engines

Steam engines are heat-operated devices which use the force of steam pressure to generate rotational force. The importance of steam-generated energy for human history can hardly be overestimated. Without steam engines and the machines, trains and ships they powered, industrialisation, globalisation and economic growth would all have taken radically different shape.

The invention of the steam engine is usually ascribed to British engineers of the 17th and 18th centuries. James Watt (d. 1819) is best known for inventing an especially efficient type of the engine in 1786, which was applied first to trains and then in the early 19th century to ships. It is much less known that the engine was invented in the 1st century AD by Greek engineers of Alexandria, more than 1,500 years before Watt. The British Library holds a remarkable collection of Greek manuscripts that describe and illustrate these early steam engines in great detail. More information can be found in Ian Ruffell's article, Greek mechanical texts.

The most important authority in mechanics from Antiquity was Hero of Alexandria, who lived in the 1st century AD. Relying on the work of earlier scientists, Hero compiled a number of treatises on mechanics, physics and war machinery, which were often richly illustrated.

The title-page of a manuscript of Hero's Pneumatics

The title-page of a copy of Hero’s Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)

One of Hero's works, entitled Pneumatics after the Greek word (pneuma) for air and gases, contains descriptions of a number of machines and automata that made use of gases and steam in various ways. One of these was a construction that fulfilled exactly how a steam engine should convert steam pressure to rotational force. Fortunately, the manuscripts contain illustrations of the machine Heron described, so we have a reliable image of what this Greek scientist may have had in mind.

Image 2

Hero’s steam engine from his Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Harley MS 5589, f. 12v (detail)

Hero’s device was very simple. It consisted of a cauldron under which a fire was ignited. The cauldron contained water and was covered by a lid with two bent tubes (marked ξ and μ on the illustration) connecting to a ball (λ), which had two nozzles (θ and κ) pointing in opposite directions. Once heated underneath, the steam went through the pipes into the hollow ball and exited through the two nozzles in opposite directions, resulting in a rotational movement of the ball in order to achieve a steady speed. Hero’s description was so accurate that it has been possible today to recreate a fully operational version.

A replica of Hero's steam engine

A modern replica of Hero’s steam engine (credit Wikimedia Commons)

Surprisingly, the ancient scientists do not seem to have recognised the revolutionary potential of their invention. The machine, along with a number of similar constructions preserved in these manuscripts, seems to have served very unpractical purposes. Many of these automata were designed only to entertain and surprise the guests at banquets and feasts, having figures of animals or mythical figures that moved around and had water flowing through them.

A manuscript illustration showing Hero’s installation for animating birds in fountains

Hero’s installation for animating birds in fountains, from a collection of mechanical texts (Venice, 16th century): Burney MS 108, f. 42v (detail)

Hero used some of his automata for cultic and religious purposes. He constructed a special system to open temple doors without any human interaction. In one construction he even designed trumpets to be sounded at the opening of the gates. There were sacrificial pyres that lit up at the sound of the trumpet to praise the power of the gods. Rather than machines to help the production of goods and sustain economic growth, ancient engineers explicitly considered their inventions only as devices which, as the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote in the first century AD, 'show the mighty and wonderful laws of heavens and Nature'.

A manuscript illustration showing the design of an animated model of a sanctuary

The design of an animated model of a sanctuary from a copy of Hero's Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 20r (detail)

Hidden in this context, Hero’s designs and illustrations were forgotten and barely copied for centuries until the Renaissance. It was only with the arrival of Greek intellectuals to Florence that manuscripts of Hero’s works, with their rich illustrative tradition, reached Europe, where humanists were amazed by their scientific content.

An annotated manuscript of Hero's Pneumatics

Marginal annotations in Latin to one of Hero’s designs, comparing it to other ancient scientific sources, from a copy of the Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)

Around this time there arose a great demand for copies of Hero’s works. 15th- and 16th-century illustrated manuscripts of his treatises abound and were soon dispersed across Europe. Hero’s texts were translated into Latin and Italian and printed several times. His designs, originally intended for entertainment and worship, had now become practical guides for further experiments and new discoveries. In the hands of the engineers of the 17th and 18th century, they became the blueprints for a more elaborate and effective steam engine that could be used in factories, trains and ships.


Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval