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80 posts categorized "Ancient"

23 August 2019

Ancient recycling: writing on potsherds

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There are only a few days left to visit the British Library's major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark. Recently, we dedicated a blogpost to one of the exhibits that has undoubtedly captured our visitors’ attention for its length, beauty and interest: the so-called Ravenna papyrus.

Another object on display, quite different from the Latin papyrus in terms of its size, nature and content, has also raised considerable public interest. It is a small potsherd, measuring 6.7 x 10 x 0.7 cm, whose outside (convex) side was used to host writing (Ostracon 13993). It is just one of the almost 4,200 potsherds, written in Ancient Greek, which form part of the British Library collections. They are known as ostraca (singular ostracon). You may not be immediately familiar with this term, but a modern English verb is derived from it. In Athens, in the 5th century BC, names of political figures who were believed to represent a threat to democracy were scratched onto the surface of potsherds, which were then deposited in urns. If a certain number of votes was reached, the person was expelled, that is, ostracised, for a period of ten years.

An ostracon issued for a sex-worker in ancient Egypt
The ostracon on display in Writing: Making Your Mark, dated 7 October 110 (Ostracon 13993)

Writing on pottery was common in the ancient world, and served different purposes. Containers of various types and shapes could be inscribed with information as to their contents, origi, or destination, especially for trade. Such labels, called ‘tituli picti’ or ‘dipinti’, were generally executed on the neck or shoulders of the amphora in red or black ink. However, these painted inscriptions are not considered to be ‘ostraca’, even when they are preserved in fragmentary form.

In contrast, shards of broken pots were commonly recycled and used as a writing material. For example, in Graeco-Roman Egypt ostraca were widely employed for writing many kinds of text, despite their disadvantages. Their smaller surface could only host short texts; they were heavier than a sheet of papyrus; and they could not be sealed. On the other hand, such shards were not only easy to source, such as in households and rubbish heaps, but they were also free of charge. Writing was usually traced on them in ink using the calamus, a reed pen employed for writing Greek and Latin texts on papyrus, or the reed brush for Egyptian writing. In Writing: Making Your Mark, our visitors have the opportunity to view an example of a reed pen in Arabic style, with the nib cut left oblique in order to favour writing from right to left.

As a result of their widespread use, ostraca from Egypt bear a wide variety of Greek texts. These include everyday documents such as tax receipts, lists, accounts and letters, as well as writing exercises and literary texts. At times, it can be difficult to tell whether these literary works were themselves being copied as writing exercises. One of the most famous examples of ostraca preserving a literary text is a Ptolemaic ostracon now held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (PSI XIII 1300). This contains an ode by Sappho, of which only a few words are quoted by other ancient authors.

The island of Elephantine
Elephantine Island (source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephantine)

The ostracon on display in our exhibition dates from over 1,900 years ago, and it contains a type of permit which is only rarely attested in our sources. In it, two tax collectors authorised a woman named Thinabdella to perform her activity as a sex-worker on a specific day. The ostracon is one of a handful of such permits to survive from Elephantine, an island off Aswan in Upper Egypt. The text on our ostracon reads:

Pelaias and Sokraton, tax farmers, to the ‘hetaira’ Thinabdella, greetings. We grant you permission to have intercourse with whomever you wish in this place on the day written below.

The date then follows, corresponding to 7 October 110, alongside the subscription of Sokraton, penned in a different hand. Why the permit was granted for a single day has been a matter of debate. Did Thinabdella come to the town for a short stay, or on a specific occasion, such as a festival?

There are just a few days left to see the ostracon in person at Writing: Making Your Mark: the exhibition closes on 27 August. If you would like to see more ostraca, you can check them out on Digitised Manuscripts, where you will currently find over 145 ostraca originating from Elephantine, with more yet to come!

The exhibition catalogue, in both paperback and hardback, is available from the British Library Shop.

9780712352536 Writing Making Your Mark

 

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16 August 2019

The longest papyrus

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There are lots of fabulous things to see in our exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, ranging from an early homework book (on a wax tablet) to an entire manuscript written in Tironian notes. One of our star exhibits is also one of the largest, namely the Ravenna Papyrus, the longest intact papyrus held at the British Library.

Detail of the Ravenna Papyrus
Detail of the Ravenna Papyrus: Add MS 5412

Measuring 224 cm (long) by 20 cm (wide), the Ravenna Papyrus (Add MS 5412) records a sale of land in the 7th year of the reign of Justin II the Younger (AD 572) by Domninus, a hayward (agellarius) from Cesena, to a court officer named Deusdedit. Domninus agreed to sell five-twelfths of a small estate called Custinis and two-twelfths of a farmhouse called Bassianum, for the price of five gold solidi. Five witnesses signed the deed, that is, Pascalis, Eugenius, Moderatus, Andreas and Vitalis, while the notary (forensis) was named Flavius Iohannis. The document can be viewed in its glorious entirety on the Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

One significant feature of this papyrus, aside from its great length, is its handwriting. Flavius Iohannis, the notary, wrote a professional and rapid form of the script known as New Roman Cursive. This was the administrative script of Late Antiquity, first attested in the late 3rd century, and characterised by the introduction of lower-case forms and time-saving devices such as loops. The five witnesses also wrote in the same script: the handwriting of Pascalis and Moderatus is upright and slow in execution, while that of Eugenius is more rapid and rounded. Andreas’s hand is equally rapid but inclined to the right; Vitalis used a more rough form of this script.

The handwriting of the Ravenna Papyrus
The Ravenna Papyrus bears witness to the handwriting of several scribes, all of whom wrote differing forms of New Roman Cursive

In the Middle Ages this document was held in the archbishop’s archive at Ravenna. At the beginning of the 18th century it came into the hands of Giusto Fontanini of Rome (d. 1736), and after his death it passed to Ludovico Zucconi of Venice from whom it was bought for the Pinelli Library in Venice. On the occasion of the sale of the Pinelli library on 2 March 1789, it was acquired for the British Museum Library. We are delighted that so many visitors have been able to examine it in person this summer in Writing: Making Your Mark, and we hope that you also enjoy the opportunity to view it online.

 

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August 2019.

The Ravenna Papyrus (Add MS 5412) is available in full on Digitised Manuscripts.

04 July 2019

What inspires you?

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The British Library's Medieval Manuscripts Blog is about to reach a major milestone. Sometime in the next few weeks we are likely to receive our 5 millionth lifetime view — not bad for a blog devoted to ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts.

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The Gorleston Psalter, early 14th century: Add MS 49622, f. 194v

So this got us thinking. Which manuscripts in the British Library's collections have most inspired you? Have you written a thesis or article about one or more of them? Are there particular items that you go back to look at again and again? How has modern technology, such as digitisation and multispectral imaging, benefitted your research? Have you ever had an inspirational moment with a British Library manuscript, either online or in the Reading Room? If you had to pick, which of our manuscripts is your favourite?

We would love to hear your stories. Please send them to us as a comment using the box below, or drop us a line via Twitter (@BLMedieval). We'd like to publish the best ones on this Blog.

Lol

Cats in a medieval English bestiary, early 13th century, digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Harley MS 4751, f. 30v

 

From the people who brought you the Unicorn Cookbook, Knight v Snail, Lolcats of the Middle Ages and much, much more.

@BLMedieval

29 May 2019

Crocodiles rock (never smile at a manuscript)

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Regular readers of our Blog may have noticed that animals are one of our favourite subjects, especially the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the Bestiary. Some of these creatures, like the unicorn or bonnacon, are no longer to be seen; but one of the strangest beasts is still thriving (though please don’t get too close) — the crocodile. The British Library's bestiaries contain a huge variety of images of these creatures, by medieval artists who were compelled to use their imagination  — after all, one rarely encountered a crocodile when fishing for eels in the Essex mud-flats in the 13th century!

A fairly realistic depiction of a crocodile is found in this bestiary, which was in the library of Rochester Priory in the 14th century and may have been made there. This manuscript, as well as two others described in this blogpost (Royal MS 12 C XIX and Harley MS 3244), is currently on display in the exhibition Book of Beasts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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A crocodile in the ‘Rochester Bestiary’, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24r

The crocodile is often accompanied by its enemy, a snake-like beast from the Nile, known as the hydrus. The text describes how, when a crocodile is asleep with its mouth open, the hydrus rolls in the mud to become slippery; it slithers into the crocodile’s mouth before being swallowed. It then begins to eat its way out, killing the crocodile in the process. In the bestiary tradition, animal behaviours are seen as moral allegories; in this case the crocodile’s mouth represents the mouth of Hell, while the hydrus is Christ, who enters through the gate of Hell to redeem lost souls. In this manuscript there are two drawings of crocodiles, one with the hydrus and the other eating fish.

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A beaver with a man blowing a horn, a crocodile swallowing a hydrus, a crocodile eating fish, and a winged hyena (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Stowe MS 1067, ff. 2v–3r

Guillaume le Clerc, a Norman cleric and early compiler of the bestiary, described crocodiles as being shaped ‘somewhat like an ox’. The artist of one bestiary seems to have followed this trend, as their crocodile has long legs and looks more like a horse.

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Bears and a crocodile (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 3544, f. 10v

Later in the same volume, a different artist drew a more plausible shape, although this crocodile's ears are rather dog-like.

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Another crocodile in Sloane MS 3544, f. 43r

All the early writers who described crocodiles, from Pliny to Isidore to Mandeville, were agreed that they are ferocious beasts. Some alluded to their taste for humans, while Mandeville and Bartholomaeus Anglicus mentioned the tears that they cried before swallowing their hapless prey. In this image, a crocodile (labelled 'serpens') is shown swallowing a man who is stabbing him, while a hydra emerges from a hole it has bitten in his side.

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A crocodile swallowing a man (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3244, f. 43r 

For pure invention, the prize goes to these two artists, whose creatures resemble dinosaurs or prehistoric insects.

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A crocodile swallowing a hydrus (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 12v

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A crocodile with a knotted tail (England, early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 62v. This manuscript was digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Bestiaries are not the only manuscripts to contain images of crocodiles. Here are two in the margins of Psalters, one made in Constantinople and the other in England.

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A crocodile in the Bristol Psalter (Constantinople, 11th century): Add MS 40731, f. 92r

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A crocodile in the Queen Mary Psalter (England, between 1310 and 1320): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 102v

So why blog about crocodiles? They are certainly not cuddly creatures like the dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers or owls that we've blogged about before. The idea came to me while I was writing another blogpost on the works of Homer. What do crocodiles have to do with Homer, one might ask? The missing link is the remarkable survival of two Egyptian papyri containing his writings, known as the ‘Harris Homer’, one in roll-form and one in book-form (Papyrus 107 and Papyrus 126).

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The Harris Homer (Egypt, 1st–2nd century): Papyrus 107, f. 1r

The papyrus roll was found in ‘the crocodile pit’ at Ma’abdey, near Monfalat, in Egypt, on 9 December 1849, before being acquired by Mr A. C. Harris. This story has been investigated by Brent Nongbri in his article ‘The Crocodile pit of Maabdeh, Florence Nightingale, and the British Museum's acquisition of the Harris Homers’, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, 54 (2017), 207–17. Apparently the pit was a cave on the banks of the Nile containing thousands of crocodile and human mummies, much visited by 19th-century travellers who wished to experience the thrill of being attacked by bats and encountering the spirits of dead crocodiles.

 

Chantry Westwell

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25 May 2019

How to name a mummy

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The British Library’s landmark exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opened recently. Many unique objects are on display, revealing the uses and ways of writing from the ancient to the modern world. Among them is one small piece encapsulating the story of an entire life.

The item in question is one of the numerous mummy labels housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, who have kindly loaned it to our exhibition.

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The mummy label on loan to our Writing exhibition: UC 28078 © Petrie Museum

The tag, written in Ancient Greek between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the current era, reads ‘Bobastous to the gate of Thermouthiakes of the metropolis of the Arsinoite (district)’. It is the name of a person (Bobastous) and an address in Arsinoe, the capital of a district in Graeco-Roman Egypt, which corresponds to the modern Medinet el-Fayum, in Middle Egypt, on the western side of the Nile. This little wooden label was attached to the mummified corpse of Bobastous, in order to identify the body and to ensure that, after mummification, it was delivered to the right address for burial.

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‘View of Medinet El-Fayoum’ (1868-1870) by Jean-Léon Gérôme: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Mummy labels are well known from Roman Egypt. They were usually made out of various types of wood, but other materials like faience and stone were also used. The tags could have different shapes, ranging from a tiny stela to a little tablet with one or two ‘ears’ (‘tabula ansata’). Standard forms such as the rectangle are also attested, such as the tag from the Petrie Museum in our exhibition.

The labels usually had one or more holes, through which a string was passed to append the tag to the mummy's neck or feet: the label on display in Writing: Making Your Mark even preserves the original cord.

The tag could bear writing on one or both sides, and two languages — usually Greek and Egyptian (Demotic) — were often employed on the same object. The text was normally drawn in black ink, but it could also be carved. In some cases, red ink was used.

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This tag from the Petrie Museum (UC 45635), a tabula ansata with one ansa, belonged to a certain Didyme: the text is carved and also drawn with ink © Petrie Museum

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A tag on limestone from the Petrie Museum (UC 34473) in Demotic script, written in red ink © Petrie Museum

Each label recorded details of the deceased for the purpose of identification. Alongside the personal name, additional information such as the names of the father and mother, the deceased's place of origin, their profession, and sometimes the age at the time of the death, could also be recorded. In rare occurrences, even the cause of death is stated. For example, one tag now held in Berlin (SB I 1209) reads: ‘Apollonius, son of Eusebes and Tamis, died because of a scorpion’s bite’.

Mummy labels served an important function. It was essential to be able to identify the embalmed corpse, because the body had to be transported to the cemetery or returned to the home village of the deceased (if they had passed away elsewhere). Papyri sometimes shed further light on how mummies were transported. For example, in the British Library's collection is a letter from a man complaining that the recipients had failed to collect the body of the deceased (possibly their brother), and that they did not pay for the funeral expenses (520 drachmas) (Papyrus 717). However, they did take his belongings …

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A papyrus describing funeral expenses: Papyrus 717 (P.Nekr. 18)

Besides providing identification and instructions as to the transport and shipping of the body, mummy labels sometimes bear drawings such as the dog Anubis (guardian dog of the cemeteries) and symbols like the ankh (life) or, in a Christian environment, the cross. In other cases, wishes for prosperity, phrases of encouragement and condolence, and maxims (such as ‘nobody is immortal’) were added as a means of commemoration and farewell.

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Anubis holding the key (kleidouchos) to the Underworld and a burning torch in a mummy tag from the Liverpool Museum

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A Petrie Museum label (UC 45656) for Socrate, daughter of Cyrillus, featuring the ankh, the symbol of life © Petrie Museum

The majority of mummy labels published to the present day are collected in a database with the wonderful name Death on the Nile. If you want to see one of them in person, we'd love you to visit our exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, which is open at the British Library until 27 August.

 

Federica Micucci

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12 May 2019

Homer in London

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Currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library are these two images of Hercules, one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. They are found in manuscripts of the Histoire Universelle, a medieval history in French of the ancient world from Genesis to the Romans. The Histoire also features the legends of Ulysses and the Trojan wars, which were very popular in the Middle Ages and were widely adapted, translated and illustrated for medieval audiences. (You can read more about this subject in our previous blogpost about the legend of Troy.)

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Meeting between Hercules and the Queen of the Amazons, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Naples, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 D I, f. 25v

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Battle between Hercules and Antaeus, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Acre, 1275–1291): Add MS 15268, f. 104v

Our Greek manuscripts website includes this video of Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Kings College London, talking about the importance of the Iliad and the Odyssey from Antiquity to the early modern era. The works of Homer are also the focus of two courses being held in London this July, one at the British Library and the other at University College London. Both courses will use digitised manuscripts of Homer’s works to explore how classical works were  transmitted during the Middle Ages.

Writing the Greek Classics at the British Library: 19 June, 26 June and 3 July, 10 July, 17 July (14.00–16.00)

This five-week course will examine the long-documented history of the Greek language and its writing systems, and of Greek classical texts including Homer, which have been part of the education and literary production of the West for centuries.

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A text page with marginal annotations, in the ‘Townley Homer’: Burney MS 86, f. 3r

The British Library has 11 manuscripts of the Iliad (see our previous blogpost, Hooray for Homer). They include the Townley Homer, an 11th-century copy of the Iliad with extensive marginal and interlinear notations or scholia, which show how earlier scholars studied and interpreted the text. The manuscript's former owner, Charles Townley (1737–1805), even had an engraving of a bust of Homer (as well as one of himself) inserted at the beginning of the manuscript.

 

UCL Summer School in Homer 2019: 22–26 July 2019

A palaeography course, introducing the history of Latin scripts from ancient Rome to the invention of printing, will be taught as one of the modules of the University College London’s summer school on Homeric language and literature. Classical texts, especially Homer and related works like Virgil’s Aeneid will be used for transcription.

The British Library has one of only 15 surviving manuscripts of the Ilias Latina, a short Latin summary of the Illiad, attributed to one Publius Baebius Italicus in the time of the emperor Nero. This work, which omits or elaborates many of the Homeric episodes, became part of the medieval school curriculum and had a significant impact on the history and transmission of the Trojan story.  

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A diagram of the Wheel of Fortune illustrating Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, in a collection of works from late Antiquity that includes the Ilias Latina: Add MS 15601, f. 49v 

This copy of the Ilias Latina, from the late 10th or early 11th century, is written in Caroline minuscule. It was owned in the 15th century by the wealthy and prestigious monastery of the Celestines in Avignon.

A much later Greek copy of the Odyssey, the 15th-century Harley MS 5673, has marginal translations and annotations in Latin on some of its pages. This manuscript was bought by Edward Harley, the Georgian collector, for his magnificent library, described by Samuel Johnson as ‘excelling any’, and it entered the British Library as part of the Harley manuscript collection.

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The Odyssey with marginal notes in Greek and Latin: Harley MS 5673, f. 8r

You may also like to know that a variety of ancient scripts, including manuscripts of the classical authors, Aristotle and Cicero, are on display in our new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, open throughout the summer, until 27 August, 2019.

 

                                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

08 May 2019

Keep taking the (wax) tablets

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The British Library's new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, celebrates all forms of writing over the last 5,000 years. It focuses not only on the very outcome of the act of writing, the written document itself, but more broadly on the various tools used to create the written word.

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Image of a writing desk from a Byzantine gospel book (Constantinople, 12th century): Burney MS 19, f. 1v

Besides the various types of pens, quills and pencils, one of the earliest and most popular writing tools, used for more than five millennia, is the stylus. The name comes from the Latin word stilus, meaning 'a stake'. It refers to a small, pointed instrument made of metal, wood or bone, used by the Romans for writing upon wax tablets.

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Tablets of the Ten Commandments in Laurent d'Orléans, La Somme le Roi (Paris, c. 1295): Add MS 54180, f. 5v

The term 'tablet' can cover a variety of writing materials. One perhaps thinks of a stone with writing carved onto it, such as the two tablets of the Ten Commandments said to have been carved by God. However, it was not only iconic pieces of inscribed stones that were employed in this way in Antiquity, since tablets made of wood or wax were more commonly in use.

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Zachariah writing on a tablet in the Benedictional of Æthelwold (England, 963–984): Add MS 49598, f. 92v

The earliest surviving wooden writing tablet was recovered from a 3,500-year-old shipwreck near KaÅŸ, in modern Turkey, in 1986. They were not in common use until about 715BC with the Neo-Assyrians in Mesopotamia. In the 7th century BC, the Greeks set up a community in Egypt from where the next oldest tablet was found, although it does not appear that the Egyptians themselves actually used such tablets. They became more common in the Roman Empire, surviving in considerable quantities from Egypt to Britain. Wooden tablets would have been written on with pen and ink, similar to a sheet of papyrus or a page of parchment.

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The alphabet in a teacher’s notebook (Egypt, 2nd century AD): Add MS 37533 (4)

Documents on wooden tablets were usually ephemeral in nature. Pieces written for or at school are the most common survivors, such as teachers' notebooks, children's homework or private letters (such as the famous Vindolanda tablets excavated from Hadrian’s Wall).

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A student’s Greek shorthand notes in wax (Egypt, 2nd century): Add MS 33270

The earliest documented use of wax tablets dates from Italy in the 7th century BC. The Etruscans used them not only for writing but also as amulets. Their wider use started with the Greeks, who were great beekeepers and had plenty of beeswax at their disposal. For a short period, there was a ban on the export of papyrus from Egypt, meaning that wax tablets were in regular use. Styluses would have been employed to scratch letters in the smooth wax.

Most tablets were made from the sandarac tree (Tetraclinis articulata, a member of the cypress family) or from boxwood. A flat, rectangular block would have been hollowed out and filled with wax, often black or natural or with a sooty coating, so that the lighter colour showed through when written on.

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A Greek writing exercise from Egypt, 2nd century AD: Add MS 34186

Wax tablets were used in similar contexts as their wooden counterparts. Cheap and easy to re-use, wax tablets were ideal for teaching children to write. The item shown here, approximately the size of a modern iPad, is a homework-book used about 1,800 years ago at a Greek school in Egypt. The teacher wrote out two lines of a maxim on the top of the tablet, which were to be copied out by the child at home. The pupil tried their best but made several mistakes: the first letter in the first line ('C') was missed out twice, the last letter of the line ran over the margin, and the last line became compressed.

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(1) A Roman bronze stylus found in the River Fleet; (2) a Roman stylus with a separate greenstone writing point and bronze eraser (the wooden shaft is modern); (3) a Roman bronze stylus with five gold bands found in the Roman Senate in the mid-19th century (photos courtesy of the Museum of Writing Research Collection, University of London)

Thanks to a generous loan from the Museum of Writing Research Collection of the University of London Senate House, Writing: Making Your Mark displays the tools children may have used to do their homework 2,000 years ago. The sharp end of an iron stylus was used to write, while the blunt end was heated over a flame and used to erase mistakes or smooth the wax for reuse. The styluses were often stored with the tablets themselves: the last part of a set of tablets often contained a little groove in which to store the stylus.

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The last part of a set of bound wax tablets with a groove to store the stylus (Egypt, 2nd century): Add MS 33270 (9)

How would words be erased from a wax tablet? Alan Cole, the consultant of the Museum of Writing Research Collection, has experimented as follows: 'I used original, Roman metal styli and an original Roman lamp. I held the stylus in my thumb and forefinger about a centimetre and a quarter from the flat end and held it in the tip of the flame until I began to feel the warmth.  It was then at the optimum temperature to erase a few characters. This worked for iron and bronze. Not advisable for silver, gold, wood or bone! To erase a whole tablet of characters, hold the tablet upside-down, just above the tip of the flame, and gently move the wax over it until the surface is about at melting point and then remove it from the flame and with the tablet wax side up either move the tablet in a slight see-saw movement or gently go over the surface with a warmed stylus. Personally, I use a blow-torch!'

On 20 May the British Library is hosting a one-day conference featuring the latest research on our tablets and the different kinds of things people wrote on wood, wax and metal, from homework to charms and letters. You can register to attend here.

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August.

 

Peter Toth and Alan E. Cole (Hon Consultant, Museum of Writing Research Collection, University of London)

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25 April 2019

Writing the story of writing: a new exhibition

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On 26 April a new landmark exhibition opens at the British Library. Its theme is broad but it is also personal and intimate: Writing: Making Your Mark traces the incredible story of how we write.

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Writing on a page: a portrait of St Luke the Evangelist from a 12th-century Byzantine gospel-book: Add MS 5112/1

Jotting notes, sending texts, typing emails — all are part of our daily lives. Writing surrounds us. It lets us communicate with people we don’t see and may never meet. It allows our great-grandparents to talk to us from the past through their handwritten letters and postcards. Through it, we can leave messages to future generations which they may or may not read. We take all this for granted without necessarily being aware that, with every single letter we put down, we are part of the 5000-year story of writing.

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Hieroglyphs from the back of a 2nd or 3rd-century Greek papyrus: Papyrus 2

Writing: Making your Mark is an opportunity to think about this amazing human invention and the incredible journey made by writing worldwide in the last 5 millennia. From ancient cuneiform tablets, carved hieroglyphs, long papyrus scrolls and gold-blazed parchment leaves to printed and typewritten pages or computer screens, we reflect on how writing has changed they ways we think, feel and see the world.

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One of the oldest attestations of an alphabetic system survives on the base of this sphinx, with the ancestors of our letter 'M' (as water on the right) and 'a' (as the ox-head) next to it (Sinai, 1800 BCE): British Museum EA 41748 (courtesy of the British Museum)

Writing: Making Your Mark is a remarkable opportunity to display some of our ancient and medieval treasures in a new light and in a global context, surrounded by examples from other periods and cultures.

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A Greek wax tablet with a child’s homework, written in Egypt in the 2nd century AD: Add MS 34186(1)

A 2,000-year old Greek homework-book illustrates the humble beginnings of a career in writing. A prosaic document, recording the sale of only a twelfth part of a land and house in Ravenna, is the longest intact papyrus in the British Library. Its script, written at times rather carelessly by a notary called John, shows letter-forms developed by the Roman imperial administration, which mark the beginnings of our lower-case letters and are direct predecessors of the characteristic insular script of early medieval England.

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Detail from the Ravenna Papyrus, AD 572, with the scribe recording his name ('scribsi ego Johannis') using the 'lower-case' letters of the New Roman cursive: Add MS 5412

One of the earliest examples of the new script developed in the court of Charlemagne in the late 8th century shows us the roots of the New Roman typeface, that went on to the printed page in the early 16th century and then on to our screens as Times New Roman.

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An example of Carolingian minuscule from a manuscript of Theodulf of Orléans, De Spiritu Sancto, made between 809 and 816: Harley MS 3024, f. 33r

The exhibition concludes by looking at the future of writing, asking how humankind will make its mark in the coming years. Come and join us on this amazing journey.

Writing: Making Your Mark will be open at the British Library from 26 April to 27 August 2019. Tickets can be purchased here.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval