THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

70 posts categorized "Ancient"

17 February 2019

When love comes knockin’ at your door

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To the joy and relief of some, the magic of Valentine’s Day has now vanished, taking heart-shaped chocolates and romantic cards with it. A different perspective of love is offered by a motif popular in the Classical world: the so-called paraclausithyron.

This term, used by Plutarch (Moralia 753B), refers to a song of lament and despair sung by an ‘excluded lover’ (amator exclusus) at the firmly shut door of their beloved. The lover usually carries a garland and has walked at night by torchlight to reach their beloved’s house, where they plead to be admitted without success.

In Greek literature, the motif occurs in different genres. An illustrious example is found in Theocritus’ Idyll 3, where the lover, a goatherd, begs his mistress Amaryllis to let him come into her cave. He laments in despair:

Just look: there’s such pain in my heart. If only I could turn into a buzzing bee and come into your cave through the ivy and fern that hide you! Now I know what love is: he’s a cruel god. Truly he was suckled by a lioness, and his mother gave birth to him in a thicket: he’s making me smoulder with love and torturing me deep in my bone. (translated by N. Hopkinson)

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The beginning of Theocritus, Idyll 3 (15th century): Add MS 11885, f. 12r

A number of surviving epigrams relate to the scene of the closed door. This one, by the poet Asclepiades of Samos from the 3rd century BC, emphasises the lover's sorrow at not being admitted into the house:

Abide here, my garlands, where I hang ye by this door, nor shake off your leaves in haste, for I have watered you with my tears — rainy are the eyes of lovers. But when the door opens and ye see him, shed my rain on his head, that at least his fair hair may drink my tears. (translated by W. R. Paton)

Another poem by Meleager of Gadara, written roughly 2,100 years ago, contains several elements typical of the motif:

O stars, and Moon, lighting well the way for those disposed to love, and Night, and you, my instrument that accompanies my revels — will I gaze upon my wanton one, still awake on her bed, singed often by her lamp? Or does someone share her bed? I will take off my suppliant garland, douse it with tears, and fix it on her porch, inscribing on it just this: “Cypris, to you Meleager, the initiate in your revels, hung up these spoils of love. (translated by Paton)

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Detail of a heart (15th century): King's MS 322, f. 1r

It is not only male lovers who might be excluded. The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’ (Papyrus 605 verso) relates the lament of an ‘excluded woman’.  The motif of the ‘abandoned woman’ is well-known in Classical mythology: one thinks immediately of poor Ariadne, deserted by Theseus, or Medea who, left by Jason for another woman, killed her own children to punish him.

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Medea killing her children (c. 1450–1460): Harley MS 1766, f. 33r

The text of this papyrus was copied by Dryton, a cavalry-man, after 10 October 174 BC. His family archive is now dispersed across the world. A small fragment in the Sackler Library, Oxford, supplies a few more words of the second column of the British Library papyrus.

The poem has a complex metrical scheme, although its language is simple. It starts abruptly, with the woman remembering the old promise of love, having Aphrodite as a security (all translations by P. Bing):

Our feelings were mutual, we bound ourselves together. (ll. 1–2)

The tender memories of the past torture her, because her lover has proven to be an ‘inventor of confusion’ (l. 7). An invocation to the stars and night begins her journey to the house:

O beloved starts and lady Night, companions in my desire, take me even now to him. (ll. 11–12)

The trip is lightened not by a torch, but by the fire that enkindles her soul:

My guide is the potent torch that’s ablaze in my soul. (ll. 15–16)

The woman pleads to be admitted in a vortex of feelings, being mad, jealous and ready to submit to her beloved. After all, ‘if you devote yourself to just one, you will just go crazy’ (l. 31), she explains. She has a ‘stubborn temper’ when she gets in a fight (ll. 33–34), yet she now seeks reconciliation. Unfortunately, the second column of the papyrus is fragmentary.

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The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’: Papyrus 605 verso

Ancient authors had different views on these lovers’ practices. Plato considered that imploring one's beloved and sleeping on doorsteps was a form of slavery (Symposium 183A), whereas Plutarch thought that serenading and decorating the beloved’s threshold with garlands might bring some ‘alleviation that is not without charm or grace’ (De cohibenda ira 455B–C).

We should add a word of warning. Should you plan to serenade your lover, make sure that the right person is listening. In Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, two young lovers exchange love songs. One of them invokes her beloved to open the door, but the person who opens it is not exactly whom the young man was hoping for …

 

Federica Micucci

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21 January 2019

Cataloguing Greek papyri at the British Library: new PhD placement position

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According to conventional estimates, the British Library holds some 3,136 glazed Greek and Latin papyri. This may well convey the exact number, but the actual figure is potentially much more, given that certain glass frames may contain several unrelated papyrus fragments (for example, Papyrus 113(9)).

The Library's papyri cover all phases of the ‘Greek millennium’ of Egypt’s history and many areas of the country. They were digitised in 2016–2017, thanks to the joint efforts of staff from Western Heritage Collections, the Library's Conservation Centre and and our Imaging Studios, producing images of extremely high resolution. The project itself might be compared to one of the labours of Heracles, given the number of papyri and the size of some of them. This first stage was presented at the ‘Third Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting’ held at Cambridge University Library in 2017.

Following digitisation, the papyri are now being catalogued: this phase started exactly one year ago and since then the Library's online catalogue has already been enriched with some 300 records. The high resolution images have been added to our Digitised Manuscripts site, while some of the papyri have been published in a new viewer, as the example below shows.

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Hyperides' Pro Lycophrone and Pro Euxenippo (P.Lond.Lit. 132): Papyrus 115

Many important papyri held at the Library are now available online. They include literary texts such as Pindar’s Paeans (Papyrus 1842); the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia (Papyrus 1843); and Bacchylides’ Epinician Odes and Dithyrambs (Papyrus 733), as well as interesting documents that shed light on administration and everyday life in Egypt during the Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine periods.

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Columns 8-10 of Bacchylides: Papyrus 733(1)

The first results of this cataloguing project were presented at the ‘Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting’, which took place at the British Library in June 2018. If you want to read more about this gathering of scholars and specialists from all over the world, read our blogpost Reunion and reunification.

Collaborations with other institutions have contributed to enriching the British Library's online catalogue. Attendees of the ‘2018 Heidelberg Research Webinar on BL Greek Papyri’ have studied and produced metadata for a number of published and unpublished texts, now available on Digitised Manuscripts. The PLATINUM project (Papyri and LAtin Texts: INsights and Updated Methodologies) has also contributed to the cataloguing of our Latin papyri, recently discovering a unique piece written in Arabic but with Roman characters (Papyrus 3124).

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A drawing in Papyrus 123, catalogued by the participants of the Heidelberg Webinar

These achievements combine with exciting projects in the near future. A new training and development opportunity as part of the British Library's PhD research placement scheme has arisen for doctoral students focusing on Greek papyri. The student will join a lively team for three months (or part-time equivalent), gaining first-hand experience in working with the Library's papyri. They will contribute towards the cataloguing associated with this project, enabling the digitised images to be described and published on the Library’s online catalogue and viewer. The placement student will also contribute to blogposts, and will support other Library activities to promote the collection and its international importance.

The deadline for applications is Monday, 18 February 2019. Full details on how to apply and the placement profile are available here.

 

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15 August 2018

New papyrus position at the British Library

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The British Library is delighted to be able to offer a full time papyrus cataloguing and researcher post to work on our world-famous collection of Greek and Latin papyri. This one-year, fixed-term position will be based in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Library’s Western Heritage Collections department in London.

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Drawing from a collection of magical spells, Egypt (Hermopolis), 5th century: Papyrus 122

The British Library holds one of the world's most important collections of Greek papyri. Its diverse holdings comprise unique witnesses of Greek classical literature, early biblical fragments, magical papyri and an extensive corpus of Greek documentary papyri. This collection of more than 3000 items is now being fully digitised and published online. Newly created images, accompanied with new catalogue entries, will be accessible on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site as well as in a new viewer with additional functionalities to enhance further research.

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The Constitution of Athens, Papyrus 131, in our new Universal Viewer

The post-holder will contribute towards the cataloguing associated with this digitisation project. They will create and enhance catalogue entries for the newly-digitised items and will oversee the processing of digital images. Using their specialist knowledge of Greek papyrology and expertise in Ancient Greek and Latin, the cataloguer will be expected to promote the papyrus collection to a wide range of audiences using the Medieval Manuscripts Blog and Twitter feed, as well as participating in events at the Library.

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A 6th-century Latin papyrus fragment of a homily by Gregory the Great: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

This post provides the opportunity for someone with a strong background in Greek papyrology to join a dynamic and diverse team to support the full digitisation and online presentation of one of the world’s greatest collections of Greek papyri.

To apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers. Full details of the position (reference 02248) can be found here.

Closing date: 9 September 2018

Interviews will be held on: 19 September 2018

24 July 2018

Reunion and Reunification: The Fourth Annual Meeting of Papyrus Curators and Conservators

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It has become a summer tradition that curators and conservators of papyrus collections from across the UK meet every June to share their experiences of working with Ancient Egyptian and Greek papyri. After the first two meetings hosted by the British Museum, and the third one at Cambridge University Library, the fourth gathering was held here at the British Library.

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The end of Book 4 of Homer’s Iliad in a 1st-century Greek papyrus: Papyrus 136(3)

During its first three years the meeting expanded considerably. In addition to representatives from collections in the UK and Ireland, colleagues from Germany, France, Austria and even Australia attended this year's conference. This provided an excellent opportunity to discuss various aspects of collection management, cataloguing and conservation, sometimes with startling results.

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Conference programme of the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting at the British Library

This year’s presentations began by highlighting the British Library's recent programme to digitise, catalogue and publish its papyri online: a full list of those already available can be downloaded here. After a session on online papyrus databases, the following international collections introduced their holdings: the Petrie Museum, London; the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin; Trinity College Dublin; Oxyrhynchus Collection, Oxford; Papyrussamlung, Berlin; University Library Leipzig; the National Library of Austria; and the Macquarie University, Sydney.

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Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens (Papyrus 131) on the British Library’s new image viewer

One of the most important lessons we continue to learn is the benefit of co-operation. A collaboration between the British Museum and the British Library to digitise and share the Museum's archival records will support the cataloguing of the 4,146 Greek ostraca held at the British Library. Co-operation with the Berlin-based Elephantine project, collecting and making an inventory of all written and artefact sources from the Egyptian town of Elephantine, has contributed to the discovery of 100 new ostraca from that site, and will result in the imaging and online publication of more than 250 Greek ostraca from the Library's collection.

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Great Doxology in Greek from the 6th century Ostracon 5878 captured in 3D

The most revelatory part of the gathering was when not only colleagues but also collection items met each other. A great example occurred when two parts of a long papyrus roll, one in Berlin and the other in London and both previously considered to be separate fragments, turned out to complement each other, providing us with a complete roll from the 4th century.

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Image of the join of the British Library’s Papyrus 47 and Berlin Staatliche Museen P 5026

This recent discovery by a Greek scholar has now been physically tested. A printout of the Berlin fragment (P 5026), presented by colleagues from the Papyrussammlung, was attached to the British Library piece to reveal how neatly the two portions match. Lines broken at the end of the Library's roll continue on its Berlin counterpart. This creates a long scroll containing magical spells, evoking a gruesome headless demon to reveal secrets to the sorcerer.

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Marginal note in the lower right margin of the British Library’s Papyrus 47 running over to the left margin of Berlin Papyrussamlung P. 5026.

We may never discover how the roll became separated, but we hope that discussions and reunions like we saw this year will lead to further discoveries and reunifications. To be continued at the next meeting in the Chester Beatty Library in 2019 ...

 

Peter Toth

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17 July 2018

Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks July 2018

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Hot on the heels of our recent announcement that the British Library's Anglo-Saxon charters are now online, we are pleased to provide you with another phenomenally fantastic list of digitised manuscripts hyperlinks. As usual, we are making this list available to download in two formats: as a PDF and as an Excel spreadsheet.

A quick glance reveals that no fewer than 2,336 of the Library's ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts are now on Digitised Manuscripts, from Add Ch 19788 (a grant of King Wulfhere of the Mercians) to Yates Thomson MS 51 (Skazanie o Mamaevom Poboishche, 'The Tale of the Rout of Mamai', in Russian Church Slavonic). More are being added weekly to that number. It's always worth checking our Twitter feed, @BLMedieval, for the latest updates.

Here are just a few of the items on Digitised Manuscripts. We hope you enjoy trawling through the list to find your own highlights.

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Miniature of St Dunstan as a bishop (Canterbury, 12th century): Royal MS 10 A XIII/1

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Memorandum for a trip to Constantinople (Egypt, 5th–6th century): Papyrus 2237

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William Bruggys' Garter Book (England, 15th century): Stowe MS 594, f. 5v

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An Anglo-Norman verse miscellany (England or France, 13th century): Harley MS 4388, f. 2v


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The Caligula Troper (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Caligula A XIV. You will be able to see more of our early medieval manuscripts in person in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, opening at the Library on 19 October.

 

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09 June 2018

Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts added to Memory of the World register

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We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation. 

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A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.

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A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

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The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r

The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.

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Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r

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The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83

Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.

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In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. You can read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide here.

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The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r 

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Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v

You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.

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Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

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Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. The full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register can be accessed here.

Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.

 

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07 June 2018

Two in one: a newly-identified bilingual papyrus

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A newly-identified papyrus in Latin and Arabic has recently been discovered in the British Library’s papyrus collections. In the course of the Library’s collaboration with a Naples-based research project, Dario Internullo has identified an unique document: a private letter from 7th- to 9th-century Egypt written in two languages.

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The first page of Sati’s letter in Papyrus 3124

The first language of this letter is Latin, a very lively Latin, in which the sender, whose name is 'Sati' (Sāṭi‘), greets the recipient, his friend 'Iohannes', and asks after his health.

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The beginning of Sati’s greetings to Iohannes from Papyrus 3124r

'In the name of the Lord, I, Sati, write this letter to you, Iohannes. How are you? How is it going? I greet you, my dear friend, and your brothers with friendship, in the name of the Lord. How are you? How is it going? May God, our Lord, keep you safe and sound forever. A letter about your good health reached me: I thank God, because you are safe.'

A new section then starts. The script remains the same, using the Roman alphabet, but the language has switched: it is now in Arabic that Sati continues to address Iohannes. Here he mentions another friend 'Custantin', and some business relating to linen with which they are all involved.

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The second part of Sati’s letter where he starts writing in Arabic using the Roman alphabet

Documents written in an alphabet different from the one that is commonly used for that language are not uncommon, but this particular combination — Arabic written in the Roman alphabet — is rather unusual. This document has an immense significance as it provides one of the earliest continuous texts to register Arabic consonants and vowels, enlarging the corpus of sources for early Arabic. The language of the papyrus is Middle Arabic transcribed on the basis of phonetic principles and free from the influence of Classical Arabic orthography.

As for the contents, the letter is linked to some kind of business — possibly the trading of linen — and it contains a general request for news. The onomastic data seems to point toward Egypt, where Latin imperial names were used in at least two regions (the Theban west bank and Aphrodito). The letter was probably dictated by the sender, Sāṭi‘, to a scribe with a graphic and linguistic education in Latin.

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The back of Sati’s letter recording the sender’s name in Arabic written in the Roman alphabet as 'From Sāṭi‘, House of Ibn Manṣūr', Papyrus 3124v

The newly deciphered Papyrus 3124 compellingly combines two different cultures often considered as opposites, while elucidating a social network stretching from Egypt to Palestine. It also leads us to reflect in a more articulated way on the survival of Latin in the East long after the hegemony of Greek in the 6th and 7th centuries AD.

The text of this papyrus has been edited by Dario Internullo and Arianna D’Ottone Rambach, in One Script for Two Languages: Latin and Arabic in an Early Allographic Papyrus, in Palaeography Between East & West. Proceedings of the Seminars on Arabic Palaeography held at Sapienza University, edited by A. D’Ottone Rambach, Supplement no. 1 to the Rivista degli Studi Orientali, n.s. 90 (2017), pp. 53–72. For further information, see the article by Dario Internullo, 'Un unicum per la storia della cultura. Su un papiro latinoarabo della British Library (P.Lond. inv. 3124)', Mélanges de l’École Française de Rome. Moyen Âge, 128/2 (2016).

To learn more about the British Library's acquisitions of Greek and Latin papyri since 1956, please see this previous blogpost.

 

Dario Internullo (Università degli Studi Roma Tre/Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II)

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24 May 2018

‘The Earth is, in fact, round’

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It’s a major peeve of many medieval historians: the popular belief that people who lived before Christopher Columbus thought that the world was flat. It is actually rare to find groups in the classical, Late Antique and medieval eras who believed in the flat Earth. On the contrary, numerous ancient thinkers, navigators and artists observed that the Earth was round.

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Miniature of the Earth in a circle, with personifications of the four cardinal points, made in England in the 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Egerton MS 843, f. 23r 

The first recorded, unambiguous European references to a spherical Earth are found in the work of ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle. By the time the Roman writer Pliny the Elder was writing the first part of his Natural History around AD 77, the fact that the Earth is a sphere was treated as common knowledge: ‘We all agree on the earth’s shape. For surely we always speak of the round ball of the Earth’ (Pliny, Natural History, II.64).

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Opening page of a much later copy of Pliny’s Historia naturalis, made in Rome in 1457 or 1458: Harley MS 2677, f. 1r

These views continued into the medieval period, since even the changing hours of daylight throughout the year made it evident that the Earth was round. Around 723 or 725, the monk Bede explained to his students:

‘The reason why the same days are of unequal length is the roundness of the Earth, for not without reason is it called ‘‘the orb of the world’’ on the pages of Holy Scripture and of ordinary literature. It is, in fact, a sphere set in the middle of the whole universe. It is not merely circular like a shield [or] spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions ...’ (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, translated by Faith Wallis (Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 91).

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Explanation of the Earth as a sphere, from a copy of Bede, De Temporum Ratione, made in England or Normandy, late 11th or early 12th century: Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 62r  

This belief was also reflected in many medieval maps. Round diagrams of the Earth were included in the works of Isidore of Seville. Meanwhile, a map that was often circulated with the work of the 5th-century writer Macrobius showed the climate zones of Earth divided into northern and southern hemispheres.

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Diagram of the habitable zones of the Earth, from Macrobius, Commentarii in Ciceronis Somnium Scipionis, France or England: Add MS 11943, f. 38v
 

The idea that the Earth was round was not limited to tracts on science and natural history. Much medieval art also depicted the Earth as a sphere. For this reason, depictions of God the Creator often show him holding a compass, a tool used to draw round objects.

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Depiction of God creating the Earth with a compass and scales, from the Tiberius Psalter, Winchester, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 7v

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Depiction of God the Creator holding a compass, from a Bible historiale made in Paris and Clairefontaine, 1411: Royal MS 19 D III, f. 3r

Many writers also assumed the Earth was a sphere. Dante’s Divine Comedy even discussed how the shape of the world created different time zones, and how different stars were visible in the southern and northern hemispheres.

Of course, even though earlier thinkers knew the world was round, they did not fully understand how it worked. Without a theory of gravity, Pliny struggled to understand how people who lived in the southern hemisphere did not fall off the world, while Bede denied that anyone lived in the southern hemisphere at all. (Bede was wrong, as you can see in the British Library’s summer 2018 exhibition, James Cook: The Voyages.) 

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Diagrams using human figures to show the round shape of Earth, from a copy of Gossuin de Metz’s ‘L’Image du Monde’ made in Bruges, 1464: Royal MS 19 A IX, f. 42r 

Nevertheless, there is one thing on which most human thinkers, for most of history, have agreed — as Bede put it, 'the Earth is, in fact, a sphere'.

Alison Hudson

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