THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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94 posts categorized "Ancient"

15 September 2020

Before photo IDs were invented

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Identifying people correctly has always been a challenge. Even in ancient times, there were different ways to ensure that a person acting in a legal case, such as a sale, lease, adoption or inheritance, was who they claimed to be.

The most obvious identification is to record the individual's name, but this was not as straightforward as one may think. To avoid confusion of people with the same names, people in ancient Greece had their personal name appended with that of their father. On this 2500-year-old pottery sherd, which an Athenian citizen used to vote for Pericles to be exiled from the city, he identified the right Pericles by putting down his name accompanied by Xanthippos, the name of his father. This practice of recording the person and their father’s name is reflected even in English personal names. If someone is called George Harrison, that would have been read as George who is Harry’s son.

Piece of a dark pottery dish inscribed with the name of Pericles

Piece of a pottery dish inscribed with the name of Pericles ('Pericles son of Xanthippus') submitted in a vote to exile him from Athens (Athens, mid-5th century BC): Athens, Agora Museum P 16755 (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In Egypt, the system was the same but it was often the master whose name was listed after a personal name. This double identification was not always satisfactory. In a simple declaration of camels from AD 146, the declarant accurately identified himself with his own name and that of his father and grandfather: 'I Stotoetis, son of Stotoetis, grandson of Stotoetis'. All three generations had the same name.

The name of the declarant

Name of the declarant Sotoetis, son of Sototetis, son of Sotoetis, from the upper part of a papyrus sheet (Soknopaiou Nesos, Egypt, AD 146): Papyrus 390 (detail)

The situation was even more complicated if the different parties to the transaction had the same name. In a lease from AD 94, in which Hereius leased a large property to two tenants, these leasees were called Stotoetis of Apynchis and Stotoetis son of Stotoetis. In a sales contract from AD 166, we find women acting together with their families, whose names were all listed. To the probable horror of the clerk, all were called Stotoetis:

'Thases daughter of Stotoetis son of Horus, and her son Stotoetis son of Stotoetis son of Stotoetis, acknowledge that they received 14 silver drachmas as earnest money for a property from Taoues daughter of Stotoetis son of Stotoetis, and her husband Pabous son of Satabous son of Harpagathes.'

The beginning of a sale contract

The beginning of a sales contract with a list of the parties involved (Neilopolis (Tell el-Rusas), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, AD 166): Papyrus 334 (detail)

Keeping order in such a jungle of names would be easier today. The parties might be asked to provide their passport or photo ID, for instance, each with a unique number allocated to it, making it simpler to identify everyone. In the absence of such an option, ancient clerks reverted to another solution: they gave an accurate description of what the parties actually looked like.

The notary recording the above sale in AD 146 AD described each of the women and their families at their first mention in the document. This is how we know that Thases daughter of Stotoetis son of Horus 'was about 50 years old' (her exact date of birth was probably not recorded) and that 'she had a scar above the left elbow'. Her son Stotoetis son of Stotoetis son of Stotoetis was about 30 and 'had a scar on the right side of his forehead'.

A papyrus sheet containing a contract of a land sale

Large fragment from a papyrus sheet, containing a contract of a land sale (Krokodilopolis, Egypt, 107 BC): Papyrus 657 (detail)

In another sales contract from more than 2100 years ago, the two sisters selling the property to a man are described even more accurately: 'Taous, daughter of Harpos, is about 48, medium height, fair skinned, round faced, straight nosed with a scar on her forehead.' Her sister looked very similar: 'she is about 42, medium height, fair skinned, round faced, straight nosed with a scar on her forehead.' Reading these descriptions one can almost visualize the faces of these two ancient women. They may have resembled the face of a lady recorded on one of the portraits found with mummies in the Faiyum Oasis of Egypt.

Portrait of a lady painted on linen

Portrait of Aline, also known as Tonos, tempera on linen (Hawara/Fayum, c. AD 24): Ägyptisches Museum Berlin/Altes Museum, Inv.-Nr. 11411 (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

An even earlier document from 242 BC preserves the will of a man described meticulously for identification: 'He was 65 years old, of middle height, square built, dim-sighted, with a scar on the left part of the temple and on the right side of the jaw and also below the cheek and above the upper lip.'

Fragment from a papyrus sheet preserving the testament of a man

Fragment from a papyrus sheet preserving the testament of a man (Philadelphia, Egypt, 242 BC): Papyrus 2332 (detail)

This elderly man, in the latter stages  of his life, but strong in stature, may have been not unlike this portrait from another coffin in the Faiyum.

ortrait of an elderly man flanked by Egyptian gods

Portrait of an elderly man flanked by Egyptian gods (AD 250): New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 44.2.2 (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Reading these ancient descriptive IDs, one may suppose they were made up on the spot by the clerks themselves. But this may not always have been the case. In another papyrus from more than 2280 years ago, we read about the appointment of new stone-cutters for a project. Before they started their new jobs, the workers were presented to a committee, in order to take down their descriptions.

A letter concerning stone-cutters, written on papyrus

Fragment from a papyrus sheet, containing a letter concerning stone-cutters (Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 260-249BC): Papyrus 514

The document does not say more about these descriptions and how they were recorded and preserved, but we assume that they could have been used in legal transactions. The accurate descriptions of the parties in various documents, recording distinctive marks and features of the individuals involved, may reflect some kind of archived identification of these people. Whatever the truth, these ancient IDs have preserved unique shots of everyday women, men and children, comparable to the famous Faiyum Portraits.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 August 2020

“Collect the fragments – they should not perish!”

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The old saying calling for careful preservation of fragments originally comes from the Bible and refers to the collection of the breadcrumbs remaining after the miraculous multiplication of loaves (John 6:12). Renaissance scholars reinterpreted it as a call to search for and rescue remnants of the past, especially of classical literature and scholarship. The saying could equally apply to fragments of ancient manuscripts which, carefully collected and preserved, are still providing new discoveries.

A detail from the Bristol Psalter, featuring a marginal illustration of the miracle of the manna.
Collecting fragments of the heavenly food (mannah) from the Bristol Psalter, Constantinople, 11th century: Add MS 40731, f. 128r (detail)

Written heritage can become fragmented for multiple reasons. Sometimes disasters such as fire and wars devastated collections of books. A well-known and sad case is the 1731 fire in Ashburnham House, near Westminster school, where Robert Cotton’s extraordinary collection of manuscripts was held. Although the efforts of librarians and many others saved a large number of manuscripts from the fire, there are some sorrowful and often-lamented losses. The remarkable 5th-century illuminated copy of the Book of Genesis, for example, which was still complete in Robert Cotton’s time, came out of the fire in a handful of charred fragments.

A burnt fragment from the Cotton Genesis, featuring an illustration of Abraham receiving three angels.
Abraham receiving three angels, fragment of an illuminated copy of the Greek text of the Book of Genesis, known as the Cotton Genesis, Egypt, 5th/6th century: Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 26v

Apart from such disasters, the most common reasons for the fragmentation of books were age and obsolescence. As decades and centuries passed, books fell out of use. There were new copies of the same text, easier to read and handier to use. Previous copies, often worn, damaged or even unbound, were left on library shelves to disintegrate further.

In exceptional cases librarians did recognise the inherent value in ancient manuscripts and saved and treasured them in various ways. A fragment of a 6th-century copy of Pope Gregory the Great’s homilies on papyrus was found and framed in a beautifully illuminated parchment sheet in the 15th century.

A detail of a mounted papyrus fragment added to a leaf from the Breviary of Margaret of York.
Detail of a papyrus fragment surrounded by a border from the 15th century, Ghent, c. 1480: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r (detail)

Similarly, it was probably a librarian in a monastery on Mount Athos who found these astonishing fragments of a 6th-century Greek gospel-book illuminated with gold. In order to rescue the treasure, he bound them in a later manuscript, which resulted in trimming the originally much larger sheets to the size of the volume. Nevertheless, his actions preserved three remarkable survivals of early Byzantine book illumination.

One of the Golden Canon Tables, written on gold paint, with elaborate floral decoration and a small portrait of a haloed man.
"The Golden Canon Tables", a fragment of a luxury gospel-book in Greek, trimmed and bound in a 12th-century volume, Constantinople, 6th century: Add MS 5111/1, f. 1r

The majority of the forgotten volumes, however, were not this lucky: their sheets were usually reused either for flyleaves or binding supports in later volumes.

Studying and collecting such fragments from manuscript and printed volumes started as early as the 17th century. Flyleaves and pastedowns were often removed from books, mounted on paper sheets and bound together in large volumes to serve as palaeographical specimens to illustrate script and writing in various times and traditions. We have blogged about one of the most famous and prolific producers of such collections, John Bagford (1650-1715) previously.

A fragment from a 13th-century Greek liturgical manuscript, showing evidence of folding and handwritten notes.
Fragment from a 13th-century Greek liturgical manuscript, showing signs of folding and handwritten notes: Add MS 70516, f. 2v.

Cataloguing such collections is a fascinating challenge. One can easily come up with no result and unable to identify the fragmented pieces, but sometimes an unexpected find emerges from the fragmentary sheets. Add MS 70516 was such an endeavour. The volume, which may have been part of the personal collection of the learned librarian of the Harley Collection, Humphrey Wanley (1672-1726), contains 90 fragments in various languages and scripts. The earliest are probably the two thin Greek fragments, foliated as folios 84-85 today, whose characteristic script can be dated to the early 9th century.

A fragment from a 9th-century copy of the Greek Life of St Pachomius, featuring a marginal illustration.
Fragment from a 9th-century copy of the Greek Life of St Pachomius: Add MS 70516, f. 84r.

The fragments are from the lower part of a double-sheet (bifolium) from a lost-9th century manuscript. As shown by their folding marks, they were reused as binding support in an unknown volume. The sheets were previously described as containing remnants of a Greek monastic text. Further research has now confirmed this hypothesis and identified the text as the life of the 4th-century founder of monastic communities, St Pachomius of Egypt.

A detail from the Eadui Psalter, showing an illustration of St Pachomius receiving the monastic rule from an angel.
St Pachomius receiving the monastic rule from an angel in the The Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, 1st half of the 11th century-mid 12th century: Arundel MS 155, f. 9v (detail)

Despite his significance as the inventor of monasteries around 323 in Upper Egypt, exact details of the life of St Pachomius are unclear. One of the most important sources, the earliest version of his Greek biography, a text written in rather clumsy and unpolished Greek, came down to us in one single copy, a truncated 11th-century Greek manuscript now in Florence.

A detail from an 11th-century manuscript, featuring the earliest version of the Greek Life of St Pachomius.
The only other existing manuscript of the earliest version of St Pachomius’s Greek Life showing the same text (cf. line 5) as the British Library Fragment presented above (cf. line 5 from bottom of the fragment), Apiro, Italy 11th century: Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana Plut. 11.09, f. 170v

Closer inspection has confirmed that the 9th-century fragments contain portions of this particular text – the earliest version of the Greek Life of St Pachomius, hitherto known from only one much later manuscript. What this new find means for the history of the text and how it complements the information about the earliest abbot still awaits exploration, but the identification of the two sheets neatly confirms the old axiom that such “fragments should be collected and not be allowed to perish”.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

For a detailed presentation, see P. Toth, “Wisdom in Fragments: The Earliest Manuscript of the First Greek Life of St Pachomius”, in Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Thomas Arentzen, Henrik Rydell Johnsén and Andreas Westergren (eds.), Wisdom on the Move: Late Antique Traditions in Multicultural Conversation (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 13-34.

14 July 2020

Spreading the word: a tribute to ancient teachers

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The Greek and Latin papyri, ostraca and tablets of the British Library provide incomparably rich sources for learning about ordinary people, whose lives and words remained otherwise unrecorded for many centuries. One of the most intriguing perspectives these sources reveal is on families and children. We have recently published an article surveying documents that illustrate aspects of the lives of children in Egypt between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD, from their infancy and early school years to their marriage and first jobs.

An especially well-documented phase of the life of children is their schooling from primary to secondary or higher education. There is another aspect of school documents, however, which is just as important and fascinating as that of the children – the teachers.

Manuscript illumination of Alexander the Great in school instructed by his teacher Aristotle
Alexander the Great in school instructed by his teacher Aristotle, from a 15th century copy of the French Alexander Romance (France, c. 1420), Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 10v (detail)

Notes, methods and even names of teachers survive in surprisingly large numbers in our collection of papyri and writing tablets. These give us intriguing details about how the foundations of literacy and numeracy were laid down thousands of years ago.

The first stage was learning to read. The way to achieve this was simple but not very easy. Similar to modern-day school education, children were first taught to recognise syllables and read them one by one to form the words. The difference between current and ancient practice, however, was that in ancient schools the texts used for this purpose were not easy reads as nowadays, but samples taken from classical authors.

Back of a wooden tablet preserving five lines from Homer’s Iliad
Back of a wooden tablet preserving five lines from Homer’s Iliad (Book 3, lines 273-277) with syllable marks above the lines (Egypt, 3rd century), Add MS 33293 verso

Written with black ink on a whitened board, this 1800-year-old wooden tablet contains 5 lines from Book 3 of Homer’s Iliad copied in the neat hand of a teacher. Compared to the economic layout of texts in contemporary manuscripts where there were usually no spaces left between the words, on this tablet Homer’s words are neatly divided to make it easier to read. Moreover, the teacher placed strokes above the lines to mark the end of the syllables in each word. This practice, unknown in manuscripts designed for advanced readers, shows that the board was probably used to teach children to recognise and read in syllables.

The larger size of the wooden board – about the same as our A4 instead of the more standard A5 format of waxed school tablets – suggests that it was used for demonstration purposes. It may have served either as a blackboard in a classroom or a sample circulated in class. It is not hard to imagine the children holding and studying it, trying to decipher and read out the lines from Homer’s Iliad, ‘Sun, who be-hold-est all things and hear-est all’ (Iliad iii, 276).

Psalms 12-15 on a fragment from a papyrus roll
Psalms 12-15 on a fragment from a papyrus roll (Egypt, 3rd century), Papyrus 230 recto

Another, slightly different, reading exercise survives on a late 3rd-century papyrus roll that contains the text of Psalms 12-15. The layout of the text on the papyrus is the same as it would be in a standard manuscript with the text arranged in two columns with no space left between the words.

However, the large, circle-shaped marks above the lines, neatly arranged over each of the syllables of the words, suggest that the papyrus roll was also used in school education. It may have been designed for more advanced readers who no longer needed spaces between the words but who would still need some help to recognise syllables to ease reading of the rather complicated text of the Psalms.

Detail of Psalm 13:3 on a papyrus fragment
Psalm 13: 3, ‘the way of peace they have not known: there is no fear of God before their eyes’, with syllable marks above the letters (Egypt, 3rd century) Papyrus 230 verso

Interestingly, the other side of the roll contains a classical text from the 4th-century BC rhetorician Isocrates, which has also been supplied with syllable marks. This shows how classical ‘pagan’ and Judaeo-Christian texts were used together in primary education of the late 3rd to early 4th century.

An ancient wax tablet showing the handwriting of a teacher and pupil
Teacher’s handwriting in the first two lines of a wax tablet followed by the pupil’s copy of the same (Egypt, 2nd century) Add MS 34186 (1)

Another 2nd-century document shows how writing was taught in ancient schools. This little wax tablet, consisting of two parts to be folded up as a booklet, was a star item of the British Library’s recent exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark. Scratched in the upper part of the waxed surface are two lines of a maxim, ‘Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours’, in the beautifully tidy hand of a teacher. The pupil copied it out below, with mistakes and irregularities that are detailed in a separate article.

Wax tablets were perfect for use in schools. Writing in wax was easy to correct because you could erase the words by smoothing the wax with the other end of the stylus. Additionally, the child could place their stylus in the teacher’s deeply scratched lines and follow the letter shapes to learn how to imitate the script. The tablet shows very clearly how the individual hand of a teacher could influence the handwriting of generations in the future.

First part of a set of 8 wooden tablets preserving a teacher’s notebook
First part of a set of 8 wooden tablets preserving a teacher’s notebook with the teacher’s name, 'Epaphroditos', in the upper left corner, followed by columns of phrasal verbs (Egypt, 3rd century), Add MS 37533 (1)r

In addition to actual teaching aids used in class, there are unique survivals of teachers’ private notes. This set of eight little wooden tablets from about 1800 years ago preserves the handy notebook of a teacher who put his name, 'Epaphroditos', on the first tablet to mark his possession. The eight wooden boards would have been fastened together by cords passed through two holes in one of the longer sides of each of the tablets. Each side of the eight boards was neatly numbered on the left to facilitate orientation.

Teachers notes on part 4 of a set of wooden tablets
Teachers notes on part 4 of a set of wooden tablets, in three columns, first two with explanations of the alphabet, third with a set of riddles in questions (Egypt, 3rd century), Add MS 37533 (4)r

The texts are recorded in the rapid and practised cursive hand of a teacher, neatly organised into units for teaching probably at an elementary school. The left-hand side of page 8, for example, shows the letters of the alphabet with notes placed next to each clarifying whether the letter is a vowel (long or short or both), or a simple (such as K) or compound (such as X) consonant. On the right-hand side there is a list of short riddles in the form of questions and answers such as ‘what makes life sweet – happiness’. These may have been used as writing samples for wax-tablet homework-books like the one above.

The unique collections of papyri and tablets in the British Library show not only the labour of the children learning to read and write but also pay tribute to the generations of teachers, whose tireless educational work ensured that classical and Christian Greek and Latin texts came down to us.

You can find out more about the lives and education of children in Egypt between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD in our article on the Greek webspace.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 June 2020

A load of rubbish

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We think we can write on anything: notebooks, phones, touchscreens, walls, blackboards or occasionally even our own hand. But using rubbish from the bin probably sounds a bit much.

In the classical and late antique world this was different. In times when purchasing a sheet of papyrus or parchment was a considerable investment, people had to make alternative arrangements. This is how rubbish started to be recycled for writing.

Evangelist portrait of St Luke writing on an exquisite papyrus roll
Writing on an exquisite papyrus roll from a 10th-century portrait of the Evangelist Luke, 10th century, Constantinople. Add MS 28815, f. 162v (detail)

Ancient rubbish heaps were especially rich in broken pottery dishes. Vases, cups, jars and all kinds of home pottery utensils were widely used and broken all over the ancient Mediterranean. From the early 5th century BC, their sherds were already reused for writing.

In ancient Athens, fragments of painted pottery vases were used to record names of individuals whom the Athenians wanted to send into exile. Names of the unwanted were scratched on pieces of pottery – called ostraca in Greek. Those whose names featured on the most ostraca were then exiled – 'ostracised' – for 10 years from the city.

Piece of a dark pottery dish inscribed with the name of Pericles
Piece of a dark pottery dish inscribed with the name of Pericles (“Pericles son of Xanthippus”) submitted as a vote to exile him from Athens. Mid-5th century BC, Athens. Athens, Agora Museum P 16755

Over the next centuries as reuse of pottery waste spread across the Mediterranean, the function of ostraca changed. In Egypt, the shape and material of pottery were different. In contrast to the slim Greek dishes, painted shiny and dark, in which inscriptions had to be incised, Egyptian pottery was light or reddish colour with a grainy surface, which could easily be inscribed with just pen and ink.

The benefits of this cheap and accessible writing surface were soon recognised. From the 4th century BC, an ever-growing number of documents in both Greek and Egyptian were recorded on pieces of this reused rubbish, mainly by the fiscal administration of Egypt.

One of the earliest Greek ostraca in the British Library shows this new use of pottery waste by the local authorities. It preserves an ancient fishing permit issued to a certain Pamyt, who duly paid two drachmas for it in 255 BC. This piece from a light-coloured Egyptian dish foreshadows the basic function of ostraca for the next almost 1000 years: to record receipts of tax or other payments. These were short and ephemeral documents, which were needed only for a limited period of time.

Fragment of a light-coloured dish preserving a receipt for fishing tax
Fragment of a light-coloured dish preserving a receipt for fishing tax, issued by the tax collector Protogenes to Pamyt. Thebes (Egypt), 255 BC, Ostracon 12634

Another much later fragment shows that these receipts on ostraca can be much more revealing than one may probably think. This piece of a reddish pottery vase, for example, was reused to record payment for a very specific tax. 1910 years ago, it was issued to a sex-worker called Thinabdella as a proof that she had paid for her work permit 'to have sex with whomever she wishes in the city of Elephantine on the day indicated below'.

Fragment of a red pottery dish containing a tax receipt for a sex worked
Fragment of a red pottery dish containing receipt for working tax, issued by Pelaias and Socration to the sex-worker Thinabdella. Elephantine (Egypt), 7 October 110 AD, Ostracon 13993

Following the official example set by the authorities, the practice of writing on rubbish spread to private households too. This ostracon, which was probably the bottom of an ancient pottery cup, was reused by someone as a memo to record an important date in 369 AD.

Fragment from a pottery cup reused to record a date
Fragment from a pottery cup reused to record a date. Elephantine (Egypt), 369 AD, Ostracon 14064

The use of recycled household rubbish for writing even extended to food waste, mainly animal bones. This leftover of a meal from about 1800 years ago bears a list of individuals' names and addresses, probably for taxation reasons. Whether these bones were used and archived in a similar way to the pottery fragments is not certain but it is hard to imagine using these as evidence of payment. It is more likely that they served as drafts for the final version of a document.

Shoulder blade of a cow reused to record a list of names
Shoulder blade of a cow (?) reused to record a list of names, Egypt, 2nd century AD, Ostracon 50156

This use of recycled rubbish for making first drafts or sketches is reflected in a rare example of an illustrated ostracon. This piece of a brownish vase was reused to practise drawing an ornamented endpiece for a manuscript on papyrus or parchment. The text in the centre of a decorative panel, announcing 'here is the end' (ⲧⲉⲗⲟⲥ ⲉⲭⲉⲓ), sounds very similar to closing formulae of manuscript books. See this article on the Greek Manuscripts webspace to discover what ancient books looked like.

Fragment of a red pottery dish preserving remnants of a decorated tailpiece with the words “here ends…”
Fragment of a red pottery dish preserving remnants of a decorated tailpiece with the words “here ends…” , Elephantine (Egypt), 1st/2nd century, Ostracon 14135
 
End of the Homeric oracles with the words 'here ends' (ⲧⲉⲗⲟⲥ ⲉⲭⲉⲓ) in a 3rd-century papyrus roll
End of the Homeric oracles with the words 'here ends' (ⲧⲉⲗⲟⲥ ⲉⲭⲉⲓ) in a 3rd-century papyrus roll, Thebes (Egypt), Papyrus 121 (2), detail

It was not only professional scribes who used their rubbish to record drafts. The main market for reused pottery fragments came from schools. Due to their free and almost limitlessly wide availability, ostraca were extremely popular in school education. For more about documents from ancient schools, see this article on children in Ancient Egypt.

Another red-coloured fragment, possibly from an amphora, was first reused to record some names by a more proficient writer, who left the lower part blank. This empty space was later reused again, this time by a child who wrote his name, Paniskos, there. The child also jotted some shaky letters on the back accompanied by his drawing of a human head – maybe of his teacher?

Back of a red pottery sherd reused by a schoolboy, Paniskos, to practice writing
Back of a red pottery sherd reused by a schoolboy, Paniskos, to practice writing. The first line preserves some shaky Greek capital letters and the bottom a doodle of human head by the bored child. Egypt, 4th century, Ostracon 44187

The British Library preserves more than 4000 fragments from ancient vases, cups, jars or bones, bearing various Greek texts from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD. This remarkable trove shows us the economical and sustainable mindset of the ancient world which reused as much rubbish as possible. The reused rubbish is now treasure, providing special glimpses into everyday life that remained rare for many centuries after.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

04 June 2020

Late manuscripts, bad manuscripts?

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The later their date, the lower their quality. This is how some 19th-century scholars approached Greek manuscripts from after 1200. In the quest for the earliest exemplars, hundreds of late medieval and early modern manuscripts were ignored and marginalised as irrelevant late copies.

Despite the many warnings against this view, it was only in 1934 that an Italian scholar, Giorgio Pasquali (1882-1952), finally put it in writing that 'late manuscripts are not bad manuscripts'. They can be important for a number reasons: for the texts they preserve, for the way they present them or, frankly, just for themselves as books of their age.

Representation of a lizard from a 16th-century copy of a Byzantine Bestiary
Representation of a lizard from a 16th-century copy of a Byzantine Bestiary (France, 2nd quarter of the 16th century–3rd quarter of the 16th century), Burney MS 97, f. 24v (detail)

The exceptional collection of Greek manuscripts in the British Library illustrates the truth of Pasquali’s axiom. The Library holds manuscripts that highlight the role of later Greek manuscripts in the development of printing Greek in the West, and that represent interesting interactions of print and manuscript culture in the 16th century.

Thanks to generous funding we received from the Hellenic Foundation last year, we have been able to digitise seven 18th-century Greek manuscripts which amply demonstate why later manuscripts can be just as fascinating as ancient ones.

Old texts in new manuscripts

The most obvious reason why a later manuscript can be of key importance is if it preserves the only copy of an ancient text. One of the volumes digitised during the project (Add MS 78675) is an example of this.

Illuminated headpiece
Illuminated headpiece from the beginning of an unidentified rhetorical text, (Eastern Mediterranean, 18th century), Add MS 78675, f. 1r

Written in nice 18th-century Greek cursive, the manuscript contains texts designed to help the reader to write in polished Greek language. The first text is a long unpublished manual of rhetoric in two parts. It consists of a general introduction to rhetoric, followed by a long treatise on how to tackle and refute arguments of opponents at court.

We have not been able to identify the author of this text but we found other copies of it in four manuscripts: two in Paris and two in the British Library (Add MS 39622, ff. 100-196r, and Add MS 18190, ff. 90-151v). Interestingly, the manuscripts are all from the 18th century but the text itself looks older. Analysing its wording and content, the closest parallels are all from 5th/6th-century rhetorical treatises. This suggests that it may be an ancient rhetorical tract which resurfaced in the 17th/18th century and was spread only in later Greek manuscripts. The text would certainly deserve a full study and edition, which the recently digitised manuscripts will surely facilitate.

Ancient and modern in one manuscript

Another reason why later manuscripts are exciting is that they show how texts from classical antiquity came down to us through the medieval and early modern eras. Another newly digitised Greek manuscript (Add MS 39619) presents this remarkably well.

Copied in 1712 somewhere in the region of Arta in north-western Greece, it was acquired by the English traveller Robert Curzon (1810-1873) and bequeathed to the Library by his heirs in 1917. See more about Greek manuscripts from Curzon’s collection.

The volume is a handy collection of texts instructing the reader on how to compose letters. It starts with a 4th-century collection of samples to convince, refute, denigrate or praise others. This text is followed by a similar but updated collection, which replaces the ancient samples with new ones taken from the Gospels (f. 37r) or Byzantine history (f. 44r).

Sample of refutation from a collection of Greek rhetorical texts
Sample of a refutation using a Byzantine historical topic, 'that what historians write about the Emperor Leo the Wise is not likely to be true', from a collection of Greek rhetorical texts (Region of Arta, 1712), Add MS 39619, f. 44v (detail)

This long series of Byzantine sample texts is followed by some actual examples to show how the theory is to be put into practice. It is illustrated by a selection of letters from a contemporary ecclesiastic, Anastasius Gordius (1654-1720). Anastasius studied in Western Europe and spoke and wrote in Italian as well as in Latin. He lived as a monk in his village and served as a doctor, philanthropist and teacher of rhetoric, and was canonized as a saint in the 18th century. Interestingly, the manuscript was written in his lifetime and is a clear example of how ancient Greek rhetoric stayed alive, transmitted through classical texts and their Byzantine adaptations to be used by Early Modern Greek intellectuals.

Beginning of a selection of letters from Anasatasius Gordius
Beginning of a selection of letters from Anasatasius Gordius (Region of Arta, 1712), Add MS 39619, f. 101r (detail)

Late manuscripts as books

Another recently digitised manuscript (Add MS 78674) shows why these late copies are interesting just for themselves. Copied in 1738 by an unknown scribe, the volume preserves a long commentary on Aristotle’s logical works written by one of the most important Byzantine philosophers of the early 17th century, Theophilus Corydalleus. The volume exhibits a mixture of Eastern and Western layout and decoration, just as the author himself conflated Western philosophical ideas, learned during his education at the best universities in Italy, with Byzantine theological heritage.

Diagram of philosophical concepts from the Commentary of Theophilus Corydalleus
Diagram of philosophical concepts from the Commentary of Theophilus Corydalleus on Aristotle’s logical works (Eastern Mediterranean, 1738), Add MS 78674, f. 66r (detail)

The coloured diagrams illustrating the philosophical reasoning seem to go back to earlier Byzantine or even ancient examples. The frequently recurring motif of a vase at the foot of some of these diagrams resembles the decoration of the 5th-century Codex Alexandrinus.

Tailpiece at the end of the Acts of the Apostles in the the Codex Alexandrinus
Tailpiece at the end of the Acts of the Apostles from one of the earliest complete Bible manuscripts, the Codex Alexandrinus (Eastern Mediterranean, 5th century), Royal MS 1 D VIII, f. 76r (detail)

Yet at the same time, the neatly designed table of contents, showing chapters with folio numbers at the end of the volume, looks like a modern Western print.

Table of contents from the end of the Commentary of Theophilus Corydalleus
Table of content from the end of the Commentary of Theophilus Corydalleus on Aristotle’s logical works (Eastern Mediterranean, 1738), Add MS 78674, f. 270r (detail)

We are very grateful for the generous support of the Hellenic Foundation which helped us digitise and highlight these later Greek manuscripts. They provide ample illustration that late manuscripts ARE NOT bad manuscripts.

Peter Toth

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12 May 2020

Papyrus horoscopes: stars, planets and fortunes

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'The stars (…) disclose for men what will pertain to them from the time of their birth till their leaving the world'. This is what Dorotheus of Sidon, an astrologer who lived in 1st-century Alexandria, wrote at the beginning of his verse treatise on astrology, the Pentateuch.

Heavenly bodies and human fate have long been perceived as intertwined. Predicting the course of human life by observing and studying the positions of the planets and other celestial objects has its roots in the ancient world. Even the lives of powerful rulers were said to have been affected by the planetary positions: legend has it that when Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, was giving birth to the future conqueror, she was advised to delay the birth of her child by several hours until the right astral configuration appeared in the sky.

Royal_ms_20_c_iii_f015r
Detail of a miniature of Olympias giving birth to Alexander the Great, Royal MS 20 C III, f. 15r

Greek papyri from Egypt have preserved a good number of ancient horoscopes, mostly of the 1st−4th centuries AD, which collect astronomical data for interpretation. Horoscopes on papyrus usually bear standard details without astrological interpretation: the name of the ‘native’ (the individual whose birth details are being analysed), the date and time of birth, including the hour, the position of the Sun, the Moon and the five planets known at the time (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury), and the Ascendant (hôroskopos), that is, the rising point of the ecliptic. The position of the heavenly bodies was usually calculated by longitude (the degrees of the celestial body along the ecliptic), and, sometimes, by latitude (the distance perpendicularly above or below the ecliptic). The 360 degrees of the ecliptic were divided into twelve zodiacal signs of 30 degrees each. 

Astrological drawing of the moon and Zodiac constellations
Astrological drawing of the moon and Zodiac constellations, Egerton MS 845, f. 21v

While horoscopes are usually brief lists of data, a handful of them are more elaborate, to the extent that they may be considered proper prose texts. Among these are the three Greek horoscopes from the British Library collections presented below.

Papyrus 98 is a well-known roll preserving a 2nd-century copy of Hyperides’ (c.390-322 BC) Funeral Oration, a speech delivered in memory of the Athenians who lost their lives fighting against Macedonian rule in the Lamian War (323 BC). On the other side, the roll bears a detailed horoscope for a person born on 13 April 95, whose name is not preserved. To recover the erased sections of the text, the papyrus has recently undergone multi-spectral imaging. The horoscope is written in Ancient Greek and Old Coptic, that is, Egyptian language written in an adaptation of the Greek alphabet. It includes statements on the future life of the ‘native’, providing a level of astrological interpretation which has no parallel in Greek papyrus horoscopes. For example, it is predicted that the man will at first enjoy abundance and well-being, but at some point he will also suffer and live abroad.

Horoscope in Greek and Old Coptic, with erased lines
Horoscope in Greek and Old Coptic, with erased lines, Papyrus 98

The second horoscope is Papyrus 110, cast for a certain Anubion, born on 4 December 137, at the first hour of the day. As you can read in our article about children in ancient papyri, the astrologer identifies the star Venus as Anubion’s ruling constellation and wishes him good luck.

There exists a duplicate of this text (P.Paris 19), in addition to another horoscope recording different data that was issued for the same person and cast for the same birthdate (P. Paris 19bis). Did Anubion have his horoscope calculated by two different astrologers?

Conclusion of the horoscope for Anubion, with coronis in the left margin
Conclusion of the horoscope for Anubion, with coronis in the left margin, Papyrus 110

Our favourite piece, however, is Papyrus 130, which is newly digitised and available to view on our digitised manuscripts site. It is a deluxe horoscope cast for a child born in the late evening hours of 31 March 81. It was written after the emperor Titus died in September 81.

A deluxe papyrus horoscope
A deluxe horoscope, exhibiting numerous technical data, Papyrus 130(1)

This horoscope is quite unique, not only for its length and the richness of the details supplied, including the days of pregnancy (276), but also because it records the name of the astrologer who computed it, a certain Titus Pitenius.

Detail of papyrus horoscope
Detail with the name of Titos Pitênios, Papyrus 130(1)

Moreover, in Pitenius’ introductory letter addressing someone named Hermon, there is mention of the so-called 'Perpetual Tables'. These charts, criticised by Claudius Ptolemy, author of the Tetrabiblos, are reported by Pitenius to have been compiled by the ancient Egyptians, who had studied the heavenly bodies and learnt the motion of the 'seven gods'.

Beginning of a commentary on Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos
Beginning of a commentary on Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos (2nd c.), which played a major role in the development of western astrology, Burney MS 104, f. 3r

Just like the horoscope for Anubion (Papyrus 110), the deluxe horoscope on Papyrus 130 ends with some good wishes: 'with good fortune', is written at the end, in enlarged letters.

Detail of papyrus horoscope
Detail ‘with good fortune’ (ἀγαθῆι τύχηι), Papyrus 130(2)

These precious ancient horoscopes witness the continuous attempts of humankind to learn from the celestial bodies, and to relate events of our lives to a vast and fascinating universe.

Federica Micucci

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06 May 2020

The legend of Alexander in late Antique and medieval literary culture: PhD studentship at the British Library

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The British Library is collaborating with Durham University to offer a fully-funded full-time or part-time PhD studentship via the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme. The student’s research will focus on the legend of Alexander the Great, and the successful applicant will be supervised by Dr Venetia Bridges (Durham) and Dr Peter Toth (British Library).

Detail of a miniature of Alexander and the Wheel of Fortune

Alexander the Great on Fortune’s Wheel, in a French chronicle of the ancient world (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 4376, f. 271r (detail)

Alexander the Great is one of the most fascinating figures of the ancient world. He conquered the world from Greece to India in less than 10 years. Although he died in 323 BC when he was only 33, Alexander's legacy continues to influence European, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.

A drawing of Alexander the Great holding an orb and sceptre, with Philosophy holding a pot and brush

Alexander the Great, anointed by the personification of Philosophy, in a Latin version of the Alexander Romance (England, last quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 13 A I, f. 1v

In the last two millennia, Alexander the Great has been represented as a magician, a scientist, a statesman, a philosopher and as one of the greatest explorers of humankind. The British Library’s collection of materials relating to the legend of Alexander provides an exceptional opportunity for PhD research into his immense impact on European literary culture from a transnational and multilingual perspective. As a student at Durham but working on the British Library’s collections, the successful applicant will have a unique opportunity to study the fascinating Alexander legends in their primary sources. This studentship will coincide with an exhibition about the legends of Alexander to be held at the British Library in late 2022. 

Miniatures of Alexander the Great and his army fighting blemmyae

Alexander the Great fighting the headless blemmyae in a French version of the Alexander Romance (Flanders 1st quarter of the 14th century): Harley MS 4979, f. 72v (detail)

Legends of Alexander’s life and conquests were combined into a narrative, known as the Alexander Romance, soon after his death. This compilation quickly became a ‘best-seller’, with translations in almost every language of the medieval Mediterranean, including Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, Persian, English, French and German. Moreover, many of these texts are lavishly decorated with fascinating combinations of ancient and medieval imagery.

Applicants are invited to propose a multilingual and comparative project on Alexander’s reception from Late Antiquity to the close of the Middle Ages in European contexts, with a particular focus on the Alexander Romance. The proposal should focus on texts in more than one language, and include manuscripts in the Library’s collections. Possible topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • the Alexander Romance’s influence upon high medieval literature (11th-13th centuries);
  • the Alexander Romance’s influence on travel and scientific literature and geographical exploration;
  • the Alexander Romance’s dissemination in the later Middle Ages (14th-15th centuries) in translations, adaptations and material witnesses;
  • a comparative study of the Alexander Romance in Western (European) and Eastern (Byzantine and Slavonic) versions;
  • the role of Alexander in royal and religious propaganda, including ‘nationalist’ historiographies and Crusader literature;
  • a study of key medieval manuscripts and/or texts related to the Alexander Romance that demonstrate aspects of Alexander’s appropriation in different cultures;
  • the Late Antique beginnings of the Alexander Romance’s textual histories.

Applicants

The successful applicant will have multilingual interests in medieval and/or late Antique literature and culture with reading fluency in at least two European languages. Applicants should have received a first or high upper-second class honours degree and a master’s either achieved or completed by the time of taking up the doctoral study, both in a relevant discipline. Applicants must satisfy the standard UKRI eligibility criteria.

Stipend

For the academic year 2020-21 the student stipend will be £16,885, consisting of £15,285 basic stipend, a maintenance payment of £600 and an additional allowance of £1,000. The British Library will also provide a research allowance to the student for agreed research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year.

Duration

The studentship is fully funded for 3 years and 9 months full-time or part-time equivalent, with the potential to be extended by a further 3 months to provide additional professional development opportunities.

For full details and how to apply, please visit https://www.dur.ac.uk/english.studies/postgrad/support/

The deadline for applications, including references, is 5pm on 29 May 2020.

 

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30 April 2020

A history of the book in seven objects

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Books surround us. We have them in our homes, kitchens, beds and bathrooms. Supplied by bookstores and libraries, we can even read them on our kindles and phones or listen to them through earphones. What we may not realise, however, is that whenever we open a book, we are taking part in a history stretching back millennia.

On the first anniversary of the opening of our Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition, we are exploring seven objects that represent some of the key stages in the development of the book in the ancient era, leading to the form of book as we know it.

Roman fresco showing ancient writing materials
Roman fresco from Pompeii showing ancient writing materials, a scraper, booklet of wax tablets, inkpot and pen, and papyrus roll: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Inventory number 4676

1.) Books carved in stone

It is with stone inscriptions that the evolution of writing started in many cultures and, together with it, the story of the book. This inscription, carved on a limestone plaque in Egypt about 3600 years ago, is the earliest “book” in the British Library. It was discovered recently and displayed for the first time at the Library’s Writing: Making your Mark exhibition. The stone preserves a hymn written in hieroglyphs to praise Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld and king of the dead.

Ancient Egyptian inscribed stone tablet
Limestone stela bearing a hymn to the god Osiris written in classical hieroglyphs 3,600 years ago: Talbot Stela 6 (Egypt, Abydos ca. 1600 BC)

2.) Books inked on pottery

A major step in the transition from stone to page was a new invention which has become the material manifestation of writing for thousands of years: ink. Using ink made writing easier and faster. As a result, more people started to write and with writing’s spread the format of books also changed. Ink was first applied on stone but people soon realised that it could be used on smoother, smaller and more manageable surfaces. From the 3rd century BC, fragments of broken dishes were used for writing short and perishable texts, such as receipts, drafts and notes.

Broken potsherd bearing three lines of Greek text written with ink to testify that Pamyt has paid for fishing tax in 255BC
Broken potsherd bearing three lines of Greek text written with ink to testify that Pamyt has paid for fishing tax in 255BC: Ostracon 12634 (Egypt, 255 BC)

This little pottery shard contains a fishing permit written with ink by an Egyptian clerk for a man called Pamyt about 2250 years ago, allowing him to fish in the Nile. This kind of handy, ink-inscribed document made writing widely available throughout society.

3.) Books written on scrolls

Writing on stone, pottery or even bone was very efficient, but these items were not big enough to record longer texts. The solution was provided by papyrus rolls. Papyrus is named after the papyrus reed, growing in the marshes of Egypt. The fibres of this plant were soaked and pressed together to create sheets of approximately our A4-A3 format, which were pasted together to form a roll. These rolls were of varying sizes and could even reach 30 metres in length, capable of containing thousands of lines of text.

Portions from Book 24 of Homer’s Iliad in a deluxe papyrus scroll of about 230cm long
Portions from Book 24 of Homer’s Iliad in a deluxe papyrus scroll of about 230cm long: Papyrus 114 (Egypt, 2nd century CE)

One of the British Library’s longest undivided papyrus scrolls is a beautiful deluxe copy of a portion from Homer’s Iliad which is over 230cm long. The scroll provides an excellent example of the standard layout of Greek and Latin texts for more than a millennium. Written in parallel columns across the sheets, a papyrus scroll would usually contain one large unit (“a book”, in Greek biblion) of a work. In ancient libraries, scrolls were stored rolled up on a shelf with a leather label (sillybos) identifying the title of the book, which functioned in the same way as titles printed on the spines of our books today.

The papyrus scroll was the default format of book across the Mediterranean for more than two millennia, recording texts not only in Greek and Latin but also in Egyptian or Hebrew. However, there was a new invention in the making that would revolutionize the book’s history – and that was the codex.

4.) Booklets of tablets

It all started with wooden tablets. Coated with smooth beeswax, these wooden boards were often used to record everyday texts that were not important enough to be put on the expensive papyrus rolls. Letters were scratched in the wax with a metal stylus and could be easily erased using the other, flat end of the stylus. Due to this efficient reusability, wax tablets were especially popular in schools.

A set of two wax tablets once bound together containing the homework book of a child in Greek
A set of two wax tablets once bound together containing the homework book of a child in Greek: Add MS 34186 (Egypt, 2nd century CE)

In this little homework-book from about 2000 years ago, which was one of our favourite objects of the Writing exhibition, the teacher wrote literacy and numeracy homework on two tablets. They would have been carried home by the children and back to school to present the completed homework to the teacher. The two wooden tablets were bound together with string, producing a booklet with pages which was often called a codex after the Latin word caudex (wood-block). This little booklet not only preserves the Greek homework of a pupil from 2000 years ago, but also foreshadows a future format that would swiftly take over from scrolls.

5.) A composite: booklets of papyri

It was probably the arrival of Christianity that prompted the next major change in the history of the book. With its strong emphasis on textual interpretation, Christianity required books that allowed for easy and accurate navigation of the texts of the Old and New Testaments.

A leaf from a papyrus codex containing the Gospel of John
A leaf from a papyrus codex containing the Gospel of John: Papyrus 2484 (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 2nd century) 

Although the earliest copies of the Old and New Testament were handed down in the traditional format of a papyrus scroll, from the early 2nd century a new composite format was developed to hold the books of the scriptures: a little booklet of bound papyrus leaves. These papyrus books, called codices after the bound wax tablets, were usually small and contained only selected portions of the Old or New Testament either for personal or liturgical use, and not the entire Bible as we know it from our printed copies.

Bringing all the books of the Old and New Testament together as one authoritative new book, called the Bible (Biblia) containing all the books (ta biblia in Greek) of the Scriptures, was way beyond the capacities of a simple papyrus booklet. A new writing support was needed to accommodate all these texts in one bound volume – and that was animal skin.

6.) Parchment

Legend has it that when Egypt placed an embargo on its export of papyrus in 197BC, the librarians of the city of Pergamon (in present day Turkey) started to use animal skin to copy their books, which they called pergamen (i.e. parchment) after their own city. It was this more expensive but more durable material that was to replace the fragile papyrus leaves of the early booklets to create the direct predecessor of the books on our shelves.

Fragment of a parchment manuscript, containing a fragment from a historical work, written in Roman literary cursive
Fragment of a parchment manuscript, containing a historical work written in Roman literary cursive: Papyrus 745 (Italy, 1st century AD)

7.) The book

The iconic manifestation of this long process is one of the world’s earliest Bibles, Codex Sinaiticus. Copied possibly in Palestine in the early 4th century, it is the earliest surviving manuscript to contain the complete New Testament and the oldest and best witness for some of the books of the Greek version of the Old Testament. The Codex originally contained the entire Bible in Greek. Its name (‘the book from Sinai’) refers to the monastery of St Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai where it was preserved until the middle of the 19th century. Beside its utmost importance for the textual history of the Bible, Codex Sinaiticus is a milestone in the history of the book.

Codex Sinaiticus, one of the world’s oldest biblical manuscripts and the oldest surviving manuscript to contain the complete New Testament
Codex Sinaiticus, one of the world’s oldest biblical manuscripts and the oldest surviving manuscript to contain the complete New Testament: Add MS 43725 (Palestine, early 4th century)

Codex Sinaiticus is an iconic monument in the history of the book, marking the shift to the format of book that has predominated for the last 1700 years. The manuscript still shows its roots in the culture of papyrus scrolls. For example, the eight parallel columns of text on each double-page opening correspond to the portion of text that was opened for reading on a papyrus scroll. However, when complete, Codex Sinaiticus probably had at least 730 parchment leaves, carefully prepared from the skins of about 365 sheep. With hundreds of leaves, once bound between two heavy wooden covers, Codex Sinaiticus was revolutionary. It shows all the major benefits of a codex book over the ancient format of the scroll. The clear pages of the volume allow for easy navigation of both the Old and New Testament. The texts are neatly prepared and numbered. It may have even contained a detailed index, called canon in Greek, to the gospels.

In addition to the New Testament and substantial parts of the Old Testament now held in the British Library, parts of Codex Sinaiticus are also held in Leipzig University Library, St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, and the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg. The manuscript is now fully digitised and transcribed, and available at an interpretative website produced as a collaboration between the four institutions.

Codex Sinaiticus represents the close of the era of papyrus rolls and the opening of a whole new chapter in human history which, after the invention of paper and printing, eventually takes us to the bound book you may have next to you right now. Opening it in your bed tonight, remember the long history of your familiar companion, going back through handwritten parchment codices, papyrus booklets, wax tablets and stone inscriptions. This is a history of which you are now a part.

To discover more about the history of the book and the British Library's amazing ancient collections, explore our Greek manuscripts and A history of writing webspaces.

Peter Toth

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