Medieval manuscripts blog

6 posts from February 2021

23 February 2021

Illuminated Canon Tables

Canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of Scripture over many centuries, in both Greek and Latin. Devised by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. c. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the tables present a unifying gateway to the Gospels, the four biblical accounts of the life of Christ written by the Evangelists, Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The tables contain numbered lists of passages that are either shared in two or more Gospel accounts, or are unique to a particular Gospel. As Eusebius explains in a letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

In deluxe copies of the Gospels, the canon tables offered an opportunity for artists to explore a different type of decoration from pictorial illustration and narrative initials. Typically the tables are presented in micro-architectural frames, sometimes complete with faux marble or porphyry columns under elaborate arched pediments.

Perhaps the most well-known canon table in the British Library is also the earliest: a sophisticated 6th- or 7th-century example in Greek made in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). These canons are now fragmentary, comprising only two leaves that were added to a 12th-century manuscript of the Gospels in Greek. The fragments give a glimpse of what must have been a truly splendid book, as they are written on gold, and embellished with bust portraits above the arches.

The Golden Canon tables, written on gold parchment with rich decoration
The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th-7th century: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r

In an elegant 9th-century Latin example the decoration is enhanced by the presence of an archer who prepares to shoot an arrow across the pediment at another man, who is preparing to launch his spear.

Canon table 2, decorated with an archer and spear-thrower
The Eller Gospels, canon table 2, with an archer and spear-thrower, northeastern France, 2nd quarter of the 9th century: Harley MS 2826, f. 5r

In a later, 12th-century Latin version of the tables from the Benedictine abbey of St Pierre in Préaux in Normandy, the columns feature lush foliage topped by elaborated capitals, with twisted winged creatures embedded in the design. The first canon is set out as seven groups of five passages identified by Roman numerals (the Ammonian section references), divided by horizontal lines and presented in four columns. Each column is headed by the name of the relevant Evangelist (Math[eu]s), Marcus, Lucas and Joh[ann]es). At top, the Abbey’s patron saint St Peter sits above the central column, identified by the key held in his right hand. This attribute was derived from Christ’s statement that ‘That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church . . . And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 16:18-19). 

The Préaux Gospels, canon table 1, with St Peter
The Préaux Gospels, canon table 1, with St Peter, northwestern France, 1st quarter of the 12th century: Add MS 11850, f. 10r

The other nine canons all include a central nimbed figure holding a gold book, presumably representing an Evangelist and the Gospels themselves, which are to come following the elegant correlation of their contents.

The Préaux Gospels, canon table 6, with a nimbed figure
The Préaux Gospels, canon table 6, with a nimbed figure, northwestern France, 1st quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 11850, f. 14r

To find out more, you can also explore our articles on Manuscripts of the Christian Bible, Illuminated Byzantine Gospel-books, and Biblical Illumination, as well as our earlier blogpost on the Golden Canon Tables.

Kathleen Doyle

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20 February 2021

Lady Jane Grey’s letters from the Tower of London

On 12 February 1554, the 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554) approached the scaffold at the Tower of London, to be beheaded for committing high treason against Mary I of England. According to a contemporary diary, known as the Chronicle of Queen Jane, she held ‘a boke in hir hande, wheron she praied all the way till she cam to the saide scaffolde’. Containing prayers that should be read for ‘adversity and grievous distress’ and ‘strength of mind’, this manuscript, identifiable as the pocket-sized prayer book Harley MS 2342, may have comforted her in her final hours. But Jane also used it to comfort others. In its empty margins she had scribbled farewell messages to her father, also imprisoned at the Tower, and to Sir John Brydges, Lieutenant of the Tower of London, who may have passed it on after her death.

A portrait of Lady Jane Grey wearing a red dress and various jewels and holding a small book in her left hand.

Lady Jane Grey by an unknown artist (c. 1590–1600) © National Portrait Gallery, London; reproduced under a Creative Commons image licence

Some abrupt events took place in the final year of Jane’s short life. In 1553, a dying King Edward VI, aged just 15, removed his Catholic half-sister Mary Tudor, his legitimate successor, from the line to the throne. Instead, he instructed that Jane, his Protestant cousin, should inherit the crown. On 10 July, she was proclaimed Queen of England, but only nine days later, Mary seized the throne with the aid of her supporters. Although Jane’s life was cut short, her messages in Harley MS 2342 and other writings associated with her imprisonment at the Tower of London helped create a long-lasting legacy.

The opening page of the Chronicle of Queen Jane, entitled ‘An Annale of Queen Marie her Raigne or a great part of it ab Anonymo’, written in brown ink.

The opening page of the Chronicle of Queen Jane (England, July 1553 to October 1554): Harley MS 194, f. 1r

Most of Jane’s surviving writings from the Tower concern spiritual advice. In her message to John Brydges, she encouraged him to live in stillness (without succumbing to the temptations of the world) by reminding him of the much greater spiritual joy that can be gained in the afterlife:

‘I shalle as a frende desyre you, and as a Christian require you, to call uppon God, to encline youre harte to his lawes, to quicken you in his waye, and not to take the worde of trewethe utterlye oute of youre mouthe. Lyve styll to dye, that by deathe you may purchase eternall life [...] for as the Precher sayethe there is a tyme to be borne and a tyme to dye and the daye of deathe is better then the daye of oure byrthe - youres as the lord knowethe, as a frende Jane Duddeley’

Jane’s signature below her message to Sir John Brydges written in brown ink that has now faded in the lower margin of a page of her prayer book.

Jane’s signature below her message to Sir John Brydges in her prayer book (England, 1539–1554): Harley MS 2342, f. 77r

A Latin poem that Jane is said to have scratched with a pin into the wall of her cell at the Tower of London contains further advice. One manuscript version of the poem, which adds an English translation and opens with an English verse from one of her letters, claims that she wrote it for her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley (c. 1535–1554), who had been awaiting execution elsewhere in the castle. Her purported message offers words of advice, consolation and a caution against the vicissitudes of life that seem appropriate for a wider audience:

‘Certen verses written by the said Lady Jane before hir deathe unto the Lorde Guylford Dudley hir husband who was executed apon the Scaffold at Tower hill [...] a litle before the death of the said Lady Jane:

Bee constant, bee constant, feare not for payne,

Christe hath redeamed thee, and heaven is thy gayn.

Non aliena putes homini, qui obtingere possunt,

Sors hodierna mihi, tunc erit illa tibi.

Do never thincke it straunge,

Though nowe I have misfortune

ffor if that fortune chaunge:

The same to the may happen.

Post tenebras spero lucem

Deo Juvante, nil nocet Livor malus.

Et non Juvante, nil invat Labor gravis.

Yf God do helpe thee: Hate shall not hurte thee,

Yf god do fayle thee: Then shall not Labor prevayle thee’

A poem that Jane purportedly inscribed in her cell at the Tower of London written in black ink with punctuation highlighted in red ink.

A poem that Jane purportedly inscribed in her cell at the Tower of London (Cheshire, late 16th- and early 17th-century): Egerton MS 2642, f. 213v

Although these writings may have been relatively unknown in the 16th century, several of Jane’s prison letters were published in print shortly after death. One is a letter to her younger sister Lady Katherine Grey (1540–1568), written on the night before her execution on the pages of a New Testament in Greek. A copy of this printed letter was subsequently entered onto the empty leaves of a 15th-century English manuscript (Harley 2370) containing a treatise known as the Ars moriendi (‘Art of dying’). Like the latter work, Jane’s letter reminds the reader of the importance of leading a virtuous life while hoping for salvation in death:

‘Lyve styll to dey, that you by deth may purchas eternal lyfe [...] And trust not that the tendernes of your age shall lengthen your liffe; for as sone (if God call) goith the yowng as the old: and laborre alway to lerne to dey, deney the world, defey the devell, and disspyse the flesh, delite yourselfe onely in the lord.’

Jane’s letter to her sister Katherine written in blue ink below the Latin text Ars moriendi, which is written in brown ink

Jane’s letter (‘exhortacyon’) to her sister Katherine on ‘the night bef[ore] she suffred’ (England, 16th century): Harley MS 2370, f. 39v

But Jane did not only write spiritual advice. In two other letters published together with that to her sister, she eloquently defended the Protestant faith against the Catholic Church. One of these is a letter addressed to an anonymous man who had recently converted from Protestantism to Catholicism. A handwritten copy of it can be found in one of the volumes of the Protestant historian John Foxe (1516/1517–1587) that he used for his account of the persecution of Protestants under the Catholic Church, entitled Actes and Monuments and known as his Book of Martyrs, published in 1563.

The title of Jane’s letter to a Protestant who has converted to Catholicism, written in brown ink.

An Epistle of the Lady Iane, a righte vertuwes woman, to a lerned man of late fallen from the truth of Gods word for feare off the worlde (England, c. 1560): Harley MS 416, f. 25r

In the other letter, Jane recounted her debate with John Feckenham (c. 1515–1584), a Benedictine monk sent by Mary Tudor a few days before the execution in order to convert her to Catholicism. In it, Jane details how she remained unmoved by and refuted Feckenham’s attacks on her Protestant ideas. For example, she retorted to him, ‘I grounde my faith uppon goddes word and not uppon the Churche for if the Churche be a good Churche the faith of the Churche must be tried by goddes worde and not goddes worde by the Churche’. The dialogue was published in pamphlet form as early as 1554, but gained further circulation by its inclusion in Foxe’s Actes and Monuments.

Jane’s debate with John Feckenham written in brown ink.

Jane’s debate with John Feckenham, entitled ‘Perswasyons of Fecknam to turne the Lady Jane Dudley agaynst she shulde suffer deathe’ (England, c. 1570) Harley MS 425, f. 83r

When Jane was writing, she cannot have expected her letters to reach an audience beyond their intended recipients. However, during Mary Tudor’s restoration of Catholicism and persecution of Protestants, her letters found a different audience among printers and readers. These publications made her the first female author whose spiritual letters were printed in England, and ensured that her letters survived into modern times.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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18 February 2021

Digesting History

You are invited to sit down with Sheffield Libraries at their digital dinner table at 8.00pm on 25 February to enjoy a menu of poetry, conversation, music and film inspired by our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

A decorated page in the Vespasian Psalter, showing David playing the harp

The Vespasian Psalter: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v

In early 2019, poets Rachel Bower, Kayo Chingonyi and Joe Kriss visited the exhibition, as part of a collaboration between Sheffield Libraries, the British Library and Poet in the City.

A photograph of poets Kayo Chingonyi, Rachel Bower and Joe Kriss

Poets Kayo Chingonyi, Rachel Bower and Joe Kriss

Their visit was part of the ‘Collections in Verse’ project to commission poetry inspired by exhibitions at the Library. ‘Collections in Verse’ encourages poets to work closely with local people to integrate their stories into themes from Library exhibitions.

Rachel, Kayo and Joe took the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition as their starting point for conversations with people in three different branch libraries in Sheffield. These conversations were sparked by items in the exhibition such as the will of Wynflæd, a well-to-do 10th-century widow who lived in south-western England.

Photograph of the will of Wynflaed

Wynflæd’s will, early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

Wynflæd’s will lists her lands and livestock, but also paints a picture of her domestic life. The objects she bequeathed allow us to see how her house was furnished, to look inside her wardrobe, and to see items on her table and in her jewellery box. The passing on of objects and the survival of the jewelled metalwork in the exhibition inspired conversations with women in Sheffield about objects they had inherited and will pass on.

The Winfarthing Pendant

Pendant from Winfarthing: Norwich Castle Museum, 2017.519.6

One of the key themes running through the exhibition was the development of the English language and early English literature. Exhibits included objects inscribed with some of the earliest surviving records of the use of the English language, the earliest datable text written in English (the laws of King Æthelberht of Kent), manuscripts containing over 90 per cent of all surviving Old English poetry, and works by the prolific writer in Old English, Ælfric of Eynsham.

A page from Ælfric's Grammar

Ælfric, Grammar: Cotton MS Faustina A X, f. 53v

This theme was picked up strongly in Sheffield with explorations of the wide-ranging national and international influences on local dialects, and reflections on how language and inherited stories influence ideas of national identity.

Sheffield Central Library had planned to hold an Anglo-Saxon-inspired feast with live poetry and performance in March 2020 to celebrate the work of poets and the Collections in Verse project. While the first lockdown meant that had to be cancelled, around that time Sheffield Libraries began supporting local communities in new ways, with some branch libraries becoming food banks. In response, the poetry commissioned by ‘Collections in Verse’ has now been incorporated into a new film inspired by conversations with the people of Sheffield and the food banks in the city. This film, directed by Eelyn Lee, will be premiered as part of the live online event, Digesting History, on 25 February. During the event, hosted by Silé Sibanda from BBC Radio Sheffield, guest speakers will explore the development of the English language and Sheffield’s dialect, questions of national identity, and how the pandemic has reinforced the importance of libraries in local communities.

Tickets to Digesting History are free and can be booked at Digesting History | Poet in the City.

 

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14 February 2021

Charles d'Orléans, earliest known Valentine?

Around this time of year, the British Library’s reference team are often asked about the earliest known Valentine, supposedly a poem in our collection which was sent by the 15th-century prince Charles d'Orléans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. If you search online for ‘earliest known Valentine’ you will see this claim appearing on various websites. As you might be able to guess, the story doesn’t fully check out. But it’s certainly true that Charles was partial to poetic musings on the theme of Valentine’s Day, so this year, we thought we’d set the record straight by exploring the truth of Charles’ Valentine’s Day poetry.

Frontispiece miniature showing the Court of Love with Charles kneeling at the lower right, from a collection of Charles D'Orleans' poems
Frontispiece miniature showing the Court of Love with Charles kneeling at the lower right, from a collection of Charles D'Orléans' poems: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 1r

Who was Charles d'Orléans?

Born in 1394, Charles d'Orléans was a member of the French royal family, the grandson of King Charles V of France (r. 1364–1380) and nephew of King Charles VI (r. 1380-1422). He became Duke of Orléans at the age of fourteen after the assassination of his father. On 25 October 1415, Charles fought at the Battle of Agincourt when France was catastrophically defeated by England. The twenty-one-year-old was captured on the battlefield and brought back to England where he remained as a political prisoner for the next twenty-five years. He was finally released in 1440 and spent the last years of his life in France, dying in 1465.

Despite the political turmoil that surrounded his life, Charles is best remembered as a gifted writer of romantic, witty and sometimes wistful poetry. He wrote over 500 poems in the course of his life, with a particularly prolific period during his years of captivity. Charles wrote in both Middle French and Middle English, the latter of which he learned to speak fluently while in England. The British Library holds several important manuscripts of Charles’ work: a unique collection of his English poetry thought to have been made under his personal supervision (Harley MS 682), an exceptionally lavish illuminated copy of 166 of his French poems owned by King Henry VII of England (Royal MS 16 F II), a 15th-century copy of Charles' personal poetry manuscript (Harley MS 6916), as well as an early 16th-century copy of some of his French poems (Lansdowne MS 380).

Miniature of Charles d'Orléans writing poetry in the Tower of London, with the Royal arms of England in the border below
Charles d'Orléans writing poetry in the Tower of London, with the Royal arms of England in the border below: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Earliest known Valentine?

The poem that is sometimes referred to as the earliest known Valentine begins ‘Je suis desja d'amour tanné / Ma tresdoulce Valentinee’ (I’m already wearied by love, my very sweet Valentine). Yet the romantic story attached to the poem doesn’t stand up to fact-checking. Charles did not compose this poem while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but in around 1443-60 after he had returned to France. It is not included in Harley MS 682 or Royal MS 16 F II, both manuscripts which consist mainly of poems composed during Charles’ time in England. The only British Library manuscript which includes the poem is Harley MS 6916, a copy of Charles' personal poetry manuscript which he began in England then brought back to France and to which he continued adding until the end of his life (now Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 25458).

Beginning of Charles’ poem ‘Je suis desja d'amour tanné’, in a copy of his personal manuscript
Beginning of Charles’ poem ‘Je suis desja d'amour tanné’, in a 15th-century copy of his personal manuscript: Harley MS 6916, f. 134r

Despite being addressed to ‘my very sweet Valentine’, the poem is not a personal message of affection like today’s Valentine’s cards. It actually refers to the courtly practice of holding a lottery on St Valentine’s Day in which everyone was assigned a partner, generally not their husband or wife, who was supposed to be their ‘Valentine’ for the year. This was a rather artificial enactment of the concept of courtly love, in which knights were supposed to devote themselves to the service of a married lady. In the poem, Charles excuses himself from the custom, apologetically telling his allotted Valentine that he’s too old and tired.

By Charles’ time, Valentine’s Day poetry was already a well-established genre with examples by Geoffrey Chaucer, Oton de Grandson, John Gower, Christine de Pizan and John Lydgate, among others. It was the fact that such poems were already well-known that meant Charles could play with the audience’s expectations by writing what is essentially an anti-Valentine.

Detail of Charles d'Orléans writing poetry in the Tower of London
Detail of Charles d'Orléans writing poetry in the Tower of London: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Charles’s Valentine’s Day poetry

Although he can’t qualify as having written the first Valentine, Charles d'Orléans was still an important figure in the development of Valentine’s Day. About fourteen of his poems explore the subject of Valentine’s Day, a surprisingly high number, many of which can be found in British Library manuscripts.

One poem, beginning ‘Dieu Cupido, et Venus la Deese’ (The god Cupid and goddess Venus), was written when Charles was still a young man in France. It takes the form of a mock contract placing Charles in the service of Cupid and Venus. The poem ends by stating that the contract is granted on St Valentine’s Day:

Donné le jour saint Valentin martir,
En la cité de gracieux desir,
Où avons fait nostre conseil tenir
Par Cupido et Venus souverains,
A ce presens plusieurs plaisirs mondains.

(Granted the day of Saint Valentine, martyr,
In the city of Gracious Desire,
Where we had our council convened.
On behalf of sovereign Cupid and Venus,
Several worldly pleasures to this man present).

(Poetry of Charles D’Orléans and His Circle, ed. Fox and Arn, trans. Barton Palmer, pp. 22-23).

The poem demonstrates the close association of St Valentine’s Day with love and desire. Its optimistic and playful tone makes a striking contrast with Charles’ later more sombre poetry on the theme of Valentine’s Day.

Beginning of Charles’ poem ‘Dieu Cupido, et Venus la Deese’
Beginning of Charles’ poem ‘Dieu Cupido, et Venus la Deese’: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 11r

In a later poem set on St Valentine’s Day, written during his captivity in England, Charles sadly reflects on the death of his partner, perhaps his wife Bonne d’Armagnac (d. 1430/35). Beginning ‘Le beau souleil, le jour saint Valentin’ (On St Valentine's day, the beautiful sun), Charles tells how he wakes up and hears the birds singing and choosing their mates. The idea that birds pick their partners on Valentine’s Day had been a major theme in Valentine’s poetry since Chaucer's Parlement of Foules. This prompts the bereaved Charles to lament:

Saint Valentin choisissent ceste annee
Ceulx et celles de l'amoureux party.
Seul me tendray, de confort desgarny,
Sur le dur lit d'ennuieuse pensee.

(Let men and women of Love's party
Choose their St. Valentine this year!
I remain alone, comfort stolen from me
On the hard bed of painful thought).

(Poetry of Charles D’Orléans and His Circle, ed. Fox and Arn, trans. Barton Palmer, pp. 134-35).

Beginning of Charles’ poem ‘Le beau souleil, le jour saint Valentin’
Beginning of Charles’ poem ‘Le beau souleil, le jour saint Valentin’: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 134r

Both of these poems were also adapted into Middle English versions which can be found in Harley MS 682 (ff. 1r-v, 47v-48r). For example, the above passage about Charles' grief on Valentine's Day appears in English as:

Als wele is him this day that hath him kaught
A valentyne that louyth him, a y gesse,
Where as this comfort sole y here me dresse
Upon my bed so hard of noyous thought.

(As he is well this day that has caught
A Valentine that loves him, as I guess,
Whereas this comfort addresses me here alone
Upon my bed so hard of painful thought).

The end of Charles’ poem '(W)han fresshe Phebus, day of Seynt Valentyne'
The end of Charles’ poem '(W)han fresshe Phebus, day of Seynt Valentyne', Harley MS 682, f. 48r

So while the claims that Charles wrote the first Valentine aren’t true, he was certainly a prolific writer of Valentine’s Day poetry, drawing on earlier poetic traditions and developing them in new ways. His poems on feeling alienated or cynical about the amorous pursuits of St Valentine’s Day provide a novel and, for many, highly relatable perspective on the genre of Valentine’s poetry. Charles’ poetry was very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries, making it likely that he helped to further popularise the romantic associations of St Valentine’s Day. This makes him a particularly important Valentine’s poet.

If, however, you do want to find out about the earliest surviving Valentine’s love letter, take a look at our previous blogpost on the letter written by Margery Brews to her future husband John Paston in 1477.

Eleanor Jackson
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Further reading

Editions and translations of Charles’ French poetry from: Poetry of Charles D’Orléans and His Circle: A Critical Edition of BnF MS. Fr. 25458, Charles D’Orléan’s Personal Manuscript, ed. by John Fox and Mary-Jo Arn, trans. by R. Barton Palmer (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010).

For Charles’ English poetry, see: Fortunes Stabilnes: Charles of Orleans's English Book of Love: A Critical Edition, ed. Mary-Jo Arn (Binghampton, New York: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1994).

13 February 2021

Love spells in the Greek Magical Papyri

As it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, we have collected some ‘charming’ love spells preserved in the Greek magical papyri of the British Library. Such spells were believed to rouse love and passion, but more worryingly they were also intended to bind and attract the loved one to the user. Some spells even went so far as to cause suffering to the victim, which was to end after the lovers were united. Most of the spells presented below are preserved in Papyrus 121, a magical handbook presumably from 4th-century Egypt, originally a roll over two metres long, containing spells for various purposes, from healing and binding to obtaining protection and success.

A ‘fetching’ love spell

Love spells often have titles that define their nature in more detail. One of the most frequent types are the love spells ‘that lead’, named agōgē and agōgimon in Ancient Greek (from the verb agō, ‘to lead’). This type of spell had the aim of bringing the victim to the person performing the magic. One of these spells instructs the user to take a seashell, write holy names with the blood of a black donkey, and recite a formula to attract the victim. The user should select the time to perform the ritual very carefully, as the spell had immediate effect.

Portion of a magical handbook on papyrus, containing a love spell with immediate effect.
‘Love charm which acts in the same hour’: Papyrus 121(2), col. 6

Securing eternal love

Magical words (voces magicae) recur constantly in the magical papyri. These are unintelligible sequences of words or syllables thought to have magical power. This spell, believed to obtain the eternal love of a woman on the spot by invoking the god Iabo, displays some magical words at the end.

Magical text on papyrus to secure the eternal love of a woman.
A love spell to secure the eternal love of a woman: Papyrus 148

An ‘excellent love charm’

Magical signs, known as charaktēres, were another powerful tool. These symbols often had the shape of asterisks or lines ending in small circles. The following love spell makes use of such signs. The spell is described as an ‘excellent love charm’, literally ‘potion’ (philtron). It explains that a tin lamella should be engraved with some magical signs and names, rolled up with some magical material (perhaps a lock of hair or a piece of clothing) and thrown into the sea. The practitioner should also remember to use a copper nail from a wrecked ship for writing!

Love spell on papyrus using magical signs
An ‘excellent love charm’, reminding the user to ‘write with a copper nail from a shipwrecked vessel’: Papyrus 121(2), column 10

Invoking deities

Invoking deities for help is another common feature of love spells. A special invocation to Selene, the Moon, is contained in the following spell. Addressing Selene as the ‘mistress of the entire world’, the user was instructed to make offerings to her by moulding a mixture of clay, sulphur, and blood of a dappled goat into a figurine of the goddess, and by consecrating a shrine made of olive wood, which should never face the sun. As a result, Selene would send a holy angel, who would drag the victim by their feet and hair to the user. The victims would be fearful and sleepless because of their love for the individual performing the magic. Success is guaranteed, as the ‘power of the spell is strong’, according to the papyrus.

Portion of a lunar spell on papyrus, invoking the Moon.
Portions of a lunar spell to bind and attract the victim and obtain their eternal love: Papyrus 121(2)verso, columns 8-9 (numbered 25-6)

Over a cup…

Among the objects featuring in magical rituals are also those of daily use. The following spell is ‘a good drinking cup’ spell: over a cup, the user ought to repeat magical words seven times. These were believed to be ‘holy names of Cypris’, that is, Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Users of the spell hoped that the loved ones’ heart could be reached, and their love would be returned.

A love spell on papyrus to be said over a cup.
A good cup spell, with a formula to be recited over a cup: Papyrus 121(2), column 8

Magical drawings

Spells may have been accompanied by drawings to serve as a model for performing the ritual. For example, a picture is mentioned in the following spell, although the papyrus itself does not preserve it:

‘Take a shell from the sea and draw on it with myrrh ink the figure of Typhon given below, and in a circle write his names, and throw it into the heating of a bath. But when you throw it, keep reciting these words engraved in a circle and attract to me her, NN, whom NN bore, on this very day from this very hour on, with her soul and heart aflame, quickly, quickly; immediately, immediately’.

Love spell on papyrus
Instructions for attracting the victim straightaway: Papyrus 121(2) column 10

‘Unmanageable’ targets

This ‘fetching’ spell (agōgē) was believed to work with ‘unmanageable’ targets. The names of seven ‘great gods’ should be written with myrrh on seven wicks of a lamp, which ought not to be red. The lamp was lit and had wormwood seeds on top. A formula should then be recited. The victim would be sleepless until they reached the practitioner’s house: this would happen by the time the seventh wick flickered.

Part of a love spell on papyrus for an unmanageable woman.
Love spell that could fetch someone even from across the sea: Papyrus 121(2) verso, column 1 (numbered 18)

After reading these ancient love spells, we definitely prefer our Valentine's Day celebrations to be ‘charmless’.

The development of erotic magic continued in the following centuries: you can discover more in our previous blogpost on medieval love spells.

Federica Micucci

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Translations are from The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, ed. by Hans D. Betz (London-Chicago 1986).

04 February 2021

Loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the North East of England

The British Library and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums are delighted to announce the loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle for an exhibition scheduled to open in 2022. This exhibition will explore the contemporary resonance of this spectacular and justly celebrated manuscript in a range of personal, regional and national contexts, focusing on themes such as identity, creativity, learning and a sense of place.

At the same time next year, Newcastle City Library will stage a complementary exhibition. This will be accompanied by a range of public, community and school events across the North East, and a newly commissioned artwork to reimagine the Gospels for the 21st century.

A decorated carpet page in the Lindisfarne Gospels

The carpet page at the beginning of the Gospel of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 210v

The exhibition in Newcastle will see the fifth loan of the Gospels to the North East. The manuscript was loaned to Durham Cathedral in 1987, the 1300th anniversary of the death of St Cuthbert. This was followed by two loans to the Laing Art Gallery in 1996 and 2000, and the most recent loan in 2013 to the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels Durham’ exhibition at Durham University, which generated great excitement in the region and attracted nearly 100,000 visitors.

A photograph of the Lindisfarne Gospels in a glass display case at Durham in 2013

The Lindisfarne Gospels on display at Palace Green Library, Durham University, in 2013

The Lindisfarne Gospels has also featured in two recent temporary exhibitions at the British Library that focused on different aspects of the manuscript. In 2018–19, the ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ exhibition included a spectacular display of illuminated manuscripts from the Golden Age of Northumbria.

Photograph of the Lindisfarne Gospels being removed from its box for display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

The Lindisfarne Gospels being installed in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ exhibition

The Lindisfarne Gospels was displayed with the Book of Durrow on loan from Trinity College Dublin, the Echternach Gospels on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Durham Gospels on loan from Durham Cathedral, the St Cuthbert Gospel, and Codex Amiatinus, returning to Britain from Italy for the first time in 1300 years. In contrast, in the 2019 exhibition, ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’, the beautiful Insular Half-Uncial script of the Gospels was the focus. It was displayed with other manuscripts dating from the 6th to the 15th centuries to illustrate the many different scripts used during the Middle Ages for the Roman alphabet.

A text page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels displayed in the ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ exhibition, showing the Insular Half-Uncial script: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 208r

Although the British Library's physical sites are currently closed to the public, when we are able to reopen our exhibitions the Lindisfarne Gospels will be on display again in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery alongside other highlights from the national collection. So we look forward both to sharing the Gospels in the Treasures Gallery later this year, and to the loan of Gospels to Newcastle next year. In the meantime, you can find out more about the Lindisfarne Gospels on our website and explore all the pages of the manuscript in detail on Digitised Manuscripts.

A decorated page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

 

Claire Breay

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