THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

68 posts categorized "Ancient"

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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22 April 2018

Lover, sorceress, demon: Circe's transformations

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On 30 April the British Library is hosting the launch of a new novel by the award-winning novelist Madeline Miller, whose book, Circe, revisits the powerful story of this mythological witch known from Homer’s Odyssey.

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The beginning of Circe’s story in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 81v

Circe’s story features in Book 10 of the Odyssey, where Homer describes how the crew of the wandering Odysseus reached Circe’s beautiful island, where they met this powerful sorceress. Circe invited Odysseus’s comrades to a fatal dinner, offering them a potion that transformed them into pigs while retaining their human souls. Arriving slightly later, Odysseus learned about the imminent danger from the god Hermes, who gave him a special drug making him resistant to Circe’s transformative potions. Realising that Odysseus was immune, Circe not only transformed his crew back to men but offered her love to Odysseus and hosted the entire crew for a year of feasting, while instructing them about their journey home. Circe's advice guided Odysseus through the dangers of the seas and the netherworld and finally back home to his wife.

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Circe and her herd of human-beasts with Odysseus’s crew, from the works of Christine de Pizan (Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414): Harley MS 4431, 140r

This strange story of dark magic and unearthly love is full of puzzling details, which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Why does Circe transform the men into beasts so that she is surrounded by a herd of human-minded animals? When she realises that Odysseus is immune to her charms, why does she suddenly agree to help the hero? These questions have intrigued generations of readers and have resulted in many interpretations and retellings of the story, of which Madeline Miller’s book is the most recent.

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Circe as a frivolous lover surrounded by her animals from a French translation of Boccaccio’s work on famous women (Rouen, c. 1440): Royal MS 16 G V, f. 42v

Some people have regarded Circe as a simple prostitute, who charmed her clients and held them captive by desire, and whose ultimate aim may even have been to emasculate her lovers. Other interpretations are more subtle. In a marginal note in one Greek manuscript, Circe is explained as an allegory to unchaste pleasure, that for the sake of short-lived satiety offers a life more pitiful than pigs. Odysseus alone is strong and disciplined enough to resist her pleasures and even his own nature.

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Marginal note from a 13th-century copy of the Odyssey: Harley MS 5674, f. 52r

Another interpretation is preserved in a 16th-century collection of philosophical extracts at the British Library. The text is attributed to Porphyry, a 3rd-century Greek philosopher, and describes Circe’s story as "the most wonderful theory about the human soul". The enchanted men have an animal form but their mind remains as it was before, and so Circe represents the circular journey of the soul, dying in one form and awakening in another, becoming death and rebirth at the same time. According to this manuscript, "This is no longer a myth nor poetry but the deepest truth of nature”.

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An explanation of Circe’s story in a 16th-century philosophical compendium: Harley MS 6318, f. 127r

Re-reading Circe’s story did not stop with the arrival of Christianity. Medieval interpreters regarded her as a demon or an embodiment of fortune or even as the Apocalyptic Whore of Babylon. James Joyce’s Ulysses inherited the age-old understanding of Circe as a prostitute, while Margaret Atwood regarded her as a demon. We are looking forward to hearing Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse, talking about her new book. You can discover more about Circe's world on our Greek manuscripts website.

 

Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse

The British Library

30 April, 19.00–20.30

 

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08 March 2018

The voices of ancient women

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The lives of women from former times often go unrecognised. But here at the British Library we hold a number of ancient private letters, written in Greek on papyri, that preserve glimpses of everyday life from a world long disappeared. For International Women’s Day, we are taking a closer look at some of these stories, which contain the intimate voices of ancient women who would otherwise be unknown.

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A girl serving drinks at a table, from an illustrated copy of the Life of Secundus, the Silent Philosopher: Egypt, 6th century (Papyrus 113 (15c))

One of the earliest British Library papyri to preserve a woman's voice is a petition from 235 BCE. A mother, Haynchis, wrote to an official, asking for assistance in a dispute involving her daughter. Although probably not written by her, but dictated to a professional scribe, the voice resonating from this document is still vivid.

Demetrios the vine dresser deceived my daughter and took her away and keeps her hidden saying that he is going to live with her without me. She was managing my store and supported me, since I am old. But he has a wife and children so he cannot live with a woman he deceived. Please help me, an old woman, to return my daughter back to me.”

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Haynchis’s letter to Zenon to return her daughter to her: Philadelphia, Egypt, 253 BCE (Papyrus 2660)

Possibly the earliest female hand in the collection is preserved in a letter dated 168 BCE. Isias wrote to her husband, who had been away from his family on temple service, and for some reason had failed to return home.

“You have not even thought about coming home, disregarding that I was in need with your child going through hard times and every extremity … I am ill-pleased and so is your mother, so please both for her sake and for ours, return to the city if nothing more pressing holds you back.”

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Isias’s letter to her husband Hephaistion: Memphis, Egypt, 168 BCE (Papyrus 42)

At the very end of the letter, which she probably dictated to a professional scribe, Isias added in her own shaky hand: “Farewell”.

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Isias’s hand-written “farewell” (ἔρρωσθε) to her husband from her letter to Hephaistion (Papyrus 42)

One mother from around 250 CE was particularly concerned about her daughter breastfeeding her new-born, so she wrote to her son-in-law to express her views.

I hear that you are compelling my daughter to nurse. If she wants, let the infant have a nurse, for I do not permit my daughter to nurse the baby.”

Unfortunately, the beginning of the papyrus is lost, but the mother's strong-willed character still emerges in the surviving lines.

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Letter of a woman to her son-in-law: Egypt, second half of 3rd century (Papyrus 951 verso)

Another mother from around 150 CE addressed her henpecked son:

I know your quick temper but it is your wife who inflames you when she says all the time that I do not give you anything. When you came, I gave you a little money … but this month I could not find anything.” In the margin she added one final reproach: “Nobody can love you, for she shapes you to her own will”.

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“No one can love you, for she shapes you at her own will” Mother’s reproach from the margin of her letter to her son Copres: Arsinoe, Egypt, 2nd century CE (Papyrus 1920)

A more formal letter written by a lady called Aureliana (nicknamed Lolliana) in 253 CE preserves a different voice. She wrote to the local authorities to apply for the legal independence granted to women with three children, in accordance with a Roman law issued by Augustus in 18 BCE. Aureliana’s words still touch us today:

“I enjoy the happy honour of being blessed with three children and as I am a literate woman who can write with a high degree of ease so it is with abundant confidence that I appeal to your highness by this application of mine to be enabled to accomplish without any hindrance whatever business I henceforth transact.”

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“I am a literate woman who can write with a high degree of ease”, from Aurelia’s application letter for independence: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 253 CE (Papyrus 2458)

Aureliana’s application was preserved with the official archive of her city, and now it is held with other papyri at the British Library, alongside other papyri which preserve the voices of ancient women. If you'd like to find out more about our Greek collections, please visit our dedicated website.

 

Peter Toth

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