Medieval manuscripts blog

103 posts categorized "Ancient"

01 September 2021

Defying the emperor: the ‘Acts of Appian’ in London and New Haven

When a text on papyrus is fragmentary, there is always hope that further portions of it may turn up at some point, perhaps in a collection on the other side of the world. In one of our previous blog posts, we digitally re-united two halves of a papyrus from the collections of the British Library and Columbia University, New York. Today we will share another story of virtual re-unification and collaboration among institutions focusing on the story of Appian, an Alexandrian ambassador who stood up to the Roman Emperor against injustices.

Back of a papyrus roll bearing portions of five columns of Greek writing
Back of a papyrus roll preserving part of the ‘Acts of Appian’ from the early 3rd century: Papyrus 2435 verso, P.Oxy. I 33

Papyrus 2435 is a fragmentary roll bearing a register of contracts from the late 2nd century on the front-side. The roll was later reused and on the back another text was written, known as the ‘Acts of Appian’ (Acta Appiani), assigned to the first half of the 3rd century. This is the latest piece that has come down to us from a collection of texts on papyrus named the ‘Acts of the Alexandrians’ (Acta Alexandrinorum), written by unknown authors over the first three centuries AD. The surviving texts follow the format of the official minutes of legal proceedings (acta), from which their title derives.

The ‘Acta’ promote Alexandrian patriotism and anti-Roman feelings, recounting hearings of some prominent Greek citizens of Alexandria sent as envoys to the court of the emperors in Rome. These hearings usually concern conflicts between Greek and Jewish communities in Alexandria. As the emperors tend to appear hostile to the Greek delegates, the hearings become proper trials, and often end with the execution of the envoys, who are killed as martyrs of the Alexandrian cause. It is difficult to discern what is historical and what is literary fiction in these texts, but the authors of the Acta may have relied on official documents of the hearings.

Marble sculpture of the head of Emperor Commodus
Marble head from a statue of the Emperor Commodus, c. 185-190. British Museum 1864,1021.9 © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The ‘Acts of Appian’ recount the hearing of an Alexandrian ambassador called Appian, trialled before the Emperor Commodus (176-192), although the emperor is never named in the surviving portion. Appian is sentenced to death twice, but is surprisingly recalled on both occasions. He accuses the emperor of making illegal profit from the trade of Egyptian grain, hoarding it with the aim of selling it at high prices. After being called back from execution, Appian continues to defy the emperor, accusing him of avarice, dishonesty and lack of education, contrasting him to his father Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher, who was fit to rule as an emperor. After this attack, Appian is condemned to death once again, though he is granted the right to die in his robes, as a symbol of his noble status. On his way to execution, he invites the citizens of Rome to watch the show of his death. Following the complaints of the crowds in Rome, the emperor recalls him again. At this point, however, when Appian starts another argument, the papyrus suddenly breaks off leaving the narrative fragmentary.

Back of a papyrus fragment with parts of three columns in Greek; only the second is well preserved
The fragment now in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University preserving further parts of the ‘Acts of Appian’. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

In 1933 a fragment entered the papyrus collection of Yale University, and was identified as belonging to the roll containing the ‘Acts of Appian’ now in the British Library. The fragment preserves a few letters from the first column of the British Library papyrus as well as bits of the two preceding columns, providing some missing portions from the earlier part of the account. At this point of the narrative, after having accused the emperor, Appian is being led away to execution for the first time, when he sees a dead body on the way and talks to a certain Heliodorus, who is unable to help but encourages him to face his death: dying for his fatherland will bring him glory.

Thanks to a collaboration between curatorial teams at the British Library and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, high-resolution images of the two portions have been made available and the fragments have now been joined again, virtually.

A papyrus roll consisting of two fragments housed in two collections, now joined
The fragments re-united: on the left, the portion from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; on the right, the British Library piece

We are also happy to announce that the British Library papyrus is now displayed in the new Universal Viewer, compatible with the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF).

The account of Appian’s trial is still incomplete, and we do not know whether the Alexandrian was eventually sentenced to death, but we hope that new fragments may come to light in the future to reveal the conclusion of the story.

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

26 July 2021

A letter of recommendation split between two continents

How many of us have ever needed a letter of recommendation to apply for university or to seek employment, to rent a flat or to consult a special manuscript in a reading room? Well, in using these letters we are following a practice that was already in use thousands of years ago.

Letters of recommendation are well attested in the Classical world. They feature as one of the twenty-one types of letters recorded in a letter-writing manual mistakenly attributed in the manuscript tradition to the 4th-century BC orator and statesman Demetrius of Phalerum. 

Page from a manuscript dating from 1712, containing the beginning of a letter-writing treatise attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum
Beginning of the treatise entitled ‘Epistolikoi Typoi’ (‘Types of Letters’) attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum, preserved in a manuscript of 1712: Add MS 39619, f. 116r

A passage from the sixth book of Homer’s Iliad testifies to a rather treacherous use of a letter of ‘recommendation’, quite the opposite of what is expected. King Proetus writes a letter for Bellerophon asking his father-in-law, the king of Lycia, to kill Bellerophon, who is bearing the folded tablet containing the message.

St Paul also mentions recommendation letters, commenting: ‘Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as some others, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, which is known and read by all men’ (2 Corinthians 3:1-2).

The Greek papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt offer several examples of recommendations, dating from the 3rd century BC onwards. The letters usually display a consistent format: the author greets the recipient and recommends the bearer of the message, asking the addressee to offer whatever help the recommended person may need. Sometimes letters request even more, asking for loans, job offers, and assistance with taxes or legal issues. The person recommended would usually be introduced as someone close to the writer, often a friend or relative, whose preferential treatment would be considered as a personal favour to the writer.

Among the British Library holdings is a letter of recommendation forming half of a papyrus sheet (Papyrus 2553).

Left-hand portion of a papyrus sheet
Left half of a letter of recommendation on papyrus: Papyrus 2553

Many details about this letter would have been unclear had the right-hand half of the papyrus not been identified in a fragment (P. Col. VIII 211) now held in the papyrus collection of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in New York. The two papyrus halves join perfectly, as Antonia Sarri recognised in an article published in 2014 in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies

The full letter, dated 16 February 6, concerns a dispute between Isidorus, a farmer from the village of Psophthis, in the Memphite district, and Tryphon, governor (strategus) of a different district, the Arsinoite. 

Two perfectly joining papyrus fragments preserve a full letter of 6 CE
Full papyrus sheet, consisting of the British Library fragment on the left and the Columbia fragment on the right

Isidorus appears to have been detained and compelled by the governor’s agents to swear that he would cultivate a plot of land located on the estate of the empress Livia, wife of Augustus, in the village of Philadelphia, in the Arsinoite district. However, because Isidorus was formally registered in another district, he shouldn’t have been obliged to perform this work. Several influential people took Isidorus’s side in this affair, one of whom is Proclus, author of another letter from the archive.

In this letter, Proclus instructs Asclepiades, a local official, to investigate the matter and cooperate with Isidorus, a member of his household. Moreover, Asclepiades is reminded not to forget in the future that Isidorus is recommended by Proclus. From the tone of the letter, it can be surmised that Proclus’s social standing was rather high.

In the postscript, Proclus adds ‘… do everything for Isidorus, for I am concerned about him.’

Conclusion of a letter on papyrus, containing the postscript in a different hand
Postscript in a second hand added at the end of the letter, after the date

Despite being thousands of miles apart, the two fragments can now be joined virtually thanks to the advanced technologies and the combined efforts of the curatorial teams at the British Library and Columbia University. The British Library fragment has now been displayed in the new IIIF Univeral Viewer, and the Columbia portion will made available on their current platform for IIIF, Columbia's Digital Library Collections (DLC), in the coming months. We’ll be sharing further examples of fragments that can be reunited in the coming weeks, so look out for further updates. 

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 July 2021

Miniature books

Medieval manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes: handy books for personal reading, mid-size volumes for the library or classroom, staggeringly huge tomes for the choir or lectern. But manuscripts that are extra tiny are especially rare and fascinating. Miniature books wow us with the skilfulness of their delicate script and puzzle us with the question of "why so small?". What motivated people to make books with pages so petite that they take all your dexterity to turn, and script so minute that you have to strain your eyes to read? Inspired by the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition, we thought we'd explore some of our teeny tomes.

A papyrus leaf, a frame containing nine parchment leaves, a book in a red binding, a book in a gold binding, and a walnut
A scale image of some of the manuscripts included in this blogpost next to a walnut: Papyrus 2556, Papyrus 120 (3), Add MS 58280, Stowe MS 956

Definitions vary, but books measuring under 3 or 4 inches (76 or 101 mm) on their longest side are generally considered miniature. The earliest books of these dimensions in the British Library are leaves which once formed part of miniature codices from Roman Egypt, written in Greek. A papyrus example, dating from the 3rd century and containing a fragment of the Psalms, measures 73 x 56 mm (Papyrus 2556). Discussing why miniature books appealed to Christian owners in the late Roman Empire, scholars have suggested that they might have been particularly useful for carrying on travels, or for wearing close to the body as religious amulets, or for discretely hiding in times of persecution.

A page from a papyrus miniature codex
A fragment of the Psalms from a miniature codex. Egypt, 3rd century. 73 x 56 mm. Papyrus 2556

Nine parchment leaves, each measuring about 68 x 45 mm, once formed a complete codex from 6th century-7th century Egypt (Papyrus 120 (3)). These diminutive pages of Greek writing contain a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Its small dimensions, short length and texts which were believed to have particular potency suggest that it may have been used as an amulet.

Nine parchment leaves from a miniature codex
Nine leaves from a miniature codex containing a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Egypt, 6th-7th century. 68 x 45 mm. Papyrus 120 (3)

Miniature books had a novelty value, prompting writers to comment on them as marvels. For example, Pliny the Elder, citing Cicero, reports in his Natural History (AD 77) that there was a copy of Homer's Iliad written on a piece of parchment so small that it could fit inside a walnut shell. Later scribes were inspired to try and match this ancient achievement, including the 16th-century English calligrapher Peter Bales. A note written in 1586/7 describes ‘A most strange and rare piece of worke brought passe by Peter Bales, an Englishman, a Clerke of the Chauncery of the proofe and demonstracioun of the Whole Bible to be written by hym everie word at length within an English Wallnut no bigger then a hennes egg’ (Harley MS 530, f. 14v). Sadly Bales’ tiny Bible doesn’t survive. None of our miniature books can rival these impressive walnut-sized feats (see the image at the top of this blogpost).

A note in a manuscript describing a miniature manuscript written by Peter Bales
A note describing a Bible manuscript that could fit inside a walnut written by Peter Bales. England, 1586/7. Harley MS 530, f. 14v.

Display of scribal skill might have motivated the creation of an illuminated 15th-century Book of Hours measuring only 54 x 40mm (Add MS 58280). Unusually, the scribe, Roger Pynchebek, signed his name at the end of the book: 'Scriptori merita mater pia redde Maria. Amen. Nunc finem feci. Da mihi quod merui. Quod Rogero Pynchebek þe writer of þis boke. In þe yere of our lorde MoCCCC.lxx iiiio' (Affectionate Mother Mary, give to the writer his just reward. Amen. Now I have made an end, give me what I deserve. That is, Roger Pynchebek the writer of this book. In the year of our Lord 1474). Perhaps with this tiny volume, Roger Pynchebek hoped to advertise his impressive scribal skills to prospective clients.

An inscription naming Roger Pynchebek as the scribe
Scribal note by Roger Pynchebek, in a Book of Hours. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, f. 373v
 

Miniature Book of Hours held open on an illuminated page
An opening from the Book of Hours written by Roger Pynchebek, with a miniature of Christ as Man of Sorrows. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, ff. 323v-324r

In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world. They are sometimes included in medieval portraits of the period, such as that of Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth.

Portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book by Hans Eworth
Hans Eworth, portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book, c. 1553. The Fitzwilliam Museum, PD.1-1963

A girdle book made in Paris around 1520 which belonged to a lady at the court of King Henry VIII of England measures a dainty 35 x 20 mm (Sloane MS 116). The book, which contains devotional texts, even includes tiny painted pictures the size of postage stamps, here showing St George slaying the dragon.

Girdle book held open on the page with a picture of St George slaying the dragon facing a prayer
St George and the Dragon, from a girdle book. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116, ff. 69v-70r
 
Girdle book shown closed with elaborate metal openwork cover over red velvet
Girdle book with elaborate metal openwork cover over velvet. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116

A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree that measures a diminutive 40 x 30 mm (Stowe MS 956). It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning. The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.

Girdle book held open on the page with Henry VIII's portrait
Portrait of Henry VIII, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r

 

Girdle book shown closed with gold filigree cover
Elaborate gold filigree covers, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956

The tradition of miniature books continued into the modern era and up to the present day. You can visit the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition for free in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The exhibition includes Sloane MS 116 described above, displayed alongside other miniature manuscripts and printed books from the Library’s historical collections, as well as books created especially for the project by contemporary children’s authors and illustrators, and miniature books submitted by children in response to the British Library's lockdown callout. You can also find out more in the British Library's online event The Magnificent World of Miniature Books (Thursday 22 July 2021, 19:30 - 20:30 BST).


Eleanor Jackson
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 February 2021

Love spells in the Greek Magical Papyri

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

A ‘fetching’ love spell

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

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

Securing eternal love

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

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

An ‘excellent love charm’

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

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

Invoking deities

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

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

Over a cup…

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

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

Magical drawings

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

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

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

‘Unmanageable’ targets

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

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

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

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

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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

13 January 2021

Over 4,500 manuscripts now online

Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 16th-century grant of arms, showing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick within a letter O.
A historiated initial ‘O’(mnibus) containing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick (b. c. 1510, d. 1584), Officer of Arms of the College of Arms, London: Add MS 89166, f. 1r detail

There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:

PDF: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021
Excel: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

The upper cover of the Basikilon Doron, an autograph manuscript of the text with a purple velvet binding.
The velvet binding of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron, handwritten by King James I: Royal MS 18 B XV, upper cover.

During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:

PDF: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021
Excel: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021(this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms
A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms: Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.

Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.

A framed papyrus, featuring the text of Book II of Homer's Iliad.
The first frame of the ‘Harris Homer Codex’, containing Homer’s Iliad, Bk. II, ll. 101-149: Papyrus 126 (1) recto.

In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.

A letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, bearing her signature.
An original letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her ambassador in Scotland, concerning the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, dated 27 July 1567: Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.

A miniature of the Crucifixion from the Sherborne Missal
The Crucifixion, from the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 380

Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.

Astronomical tables and diagrams from the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript
Astronomical tables and diagrams from an autograph manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, pp. 30-31.

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines
A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines: Harley MS 3450, ff. 5v-6r

Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

15 December 2020

An ancient ‘happy family’

Papyrus documents often provide unique glimpses into the everyday lives of individuals as well as entire families. As the festive season is approaching, in today’s blog post we have decided to tell a story of family affection and fondness from over 1,800 years ago, preserved on a sheet of papyrus recently catalogued and now fully available online.

Two letters on a papyrus sheet from the late second century written in Ancient Greek.
Two letters on a papyrus sheet from the archive of Saturnila and her sons, late 2nd century: Papyrus 2102

Papyrus 2102 is part of the archive of a woman called Saturnila and her sons. It is also known as the ‘Happy Family Archive’, because of the affectionate tone in which the members of the family address each other. This archive consists of eight papyri containing twelve letters, now held in collections across Europe and America. The correspondents are members of a family of Roman citizens living in the Fayum (Middle Egypt), perhaps in the village of Karanis. On palaeographical grounds, the papers, written in Ancient Greek, have been dated to the late 2nd century, when Egypt was part of the Roman empire.

The key figure is Saturnila, mother of at least five and probably seven children; she was presumably a widow as no mention of a husband is made in the documents. Most of the letters preserved are addressed to her, and one of these is Papyrus 2102, which contains two letters written on the same sheet.

Letter from Sempronius to his mother Saturnila
The first letter, from Sempronius to Saturnila

In the first letter, Sempronius, apparently the eldest of the brothers and undoubtedly a very caring son, writes to his mother, as he often does. He is frequently away from home, and is presumably staying in Alexandria. As usual in his letters, he expresses anxiety over Saturnila’s welfare, for whom he makes daily supplications to the god Serapis. He is also concerned about her silence, and urges her to reply to the numerous letters that he had sent her:

‘How many letters have I sent you and not one have you written me in reply, though so many people have sailed down! I beg you, my lady, be not slow to write me news of your welfare that I may live in less anxiety; for your welfare is what I pray for always’.

Letter from Sempronius to his brother Maximus.
The second letter, from Sempronius to Maximus

The second letter, on the other hand, is addressed to Maximus, one of the oldest brothers (perhaps the second oldest), who seems to have acted as the head of the household in Sempronius’ absence, and who features as the addressee of many letters. We learn from other missives that Maximus was married, had daughters, but lost his wife, whose passing he deeply mourned.

In this letter from Sempronius, the tone of brotherly affection is vivid, but the message contains a heavy reproach:

‘I have been informed that you serve our mother and lady grudgingly. I beg you, sweetest brother, do not grieve her in anything; and if any of our brothers gainsays her, you ought to cuff them; for you ought now to take the name of father. I know that without my writing you are able to humour her, but do not be offended by my letter of admonition; for we ought to revere our mother as a goddess, especially one so good as ours. This I have written to you, brother, because I know how sweet a possession our revered parents are.’

Sempronius’ words recall the Greek concept of ‘gerotrophia’, that is, the caring for an elderly parent, which was considered a moral duty in return for everything the child had received during their upbringing. Already in Hesiod’s myth of the ‘Five Ages’, for example, people dishonouring their aged parents and not repaying them for the care they received were considered a sign of human degradation.

The verso of the papyrus containing the address
The verso of the papyrus containing the address: ‘Deliver to Maximus from his brother Sempronius’

Although one of the letters is for Saturnila, Maximus features as the only recipient in the address on the back of the papyrus. Saturnila is not mentioned, and nor does she feature in the address on the other letters for her. She may have been illiterate, as many women were at that time. It has also been argued that in this way the information reaching Saturnila’s ears could be kept under control by her sons. Saturnila’s correspondence was probably read out loud to her by one of them, and this could also explain why two letters were written on the same sheet. Or was perhaps Sempronius a very parsimonious man?

Although more than a millennium has passed, Sempronius’ love for his family is still vivid: thanks to the papyri, we can still be moved by his words, share his concerns, and reflect on his advice.

Federica Micucci

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Translations by Arthur S. Hunt and Campbell C. Edgar, Select papyri. Vol. 1, Private affairs (London: W. Heinemann, 1932), no. 121.

04 December 2020

Ancient steam engines

Steam engines are heat-operated devices which use the force of steam pressure to generate rotational force. The importance of steam-generated energy for human history can hardly be overestimated. Without steam engines and the machines, trains and ships they powered, industrialisation, globalisation and economic growth would all have taken radically different shape.

The invention of the steam engine is usually ascribed to British engineers of the 17th and 18th centuries. James Watt (d. 1819) is best known for inventing an especially efficient type of the engine in 1786, which was applied first to trains and then in the early 19th century to ships. It is much less known that the engine was invented in the 1st century AD by Greek engineers of Alexandria, more than 1,500 years before Watt. The British Library holds a remarkable collection of Greek manuscripts that describe and illustrate these early steam engines in great detail. More information can be found in Ian Ruffell's article, Greek mechanical texts.

The most important authority in mechanics from Antiquity was Hero of Alexandria, who lived in the 1st century AD. Relying on the work of earlier scientists, Hero compiled a number of treatises on mechanics, physics and war machinery, which were often richly illustrated.

The title-page of a manuscript of Hero's Pneumatics

The title-page of a copy of Hero’s Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)

One of Hero's works, entitled Pneumatics after the Greek word (pneuma) for air and gases, contains descriptions of a number of machines and automata that made use of gases and steam in various ways. One of these was a construction that fulfilled exactly how a steam engine should convert steam pressure to rotational force. Fortunately, the manuscripts contain illustrations of the machine Heron described, so we have a reliable image of what this Greek scientist may have had in mind.

Image 2

Hero’s steam engine from his Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Harley MS 5589, f. 12v (detail)

Hero’s device was very simple. It consisted of a cauldron under which a fire was ignited. The cauldron contained water and was covered by a lid with two bent tubes (marked ξ and μ on the illustration) connecting to a ball (λ), which had two nozzles (θ and κ) pointing in opposite directions. Once heated underneath, the steam went through the pipes into the hollow ball and exited through the two nozzles in opposite directions, resulting in a rotational movement of the ball in order to achieve a steady speed. Hero’s description was so accurate that it has been possible today to recreate a fully operational version.

A replica of Hero's steam engine

A modern replica of Hero’s steam engine (credit Wikimedia Commons)

Surprisingly, the ancient scientists do not seem to have recognised the revolutionary potential of their invention. The machine, along with a number of similar constructions preserved in these manuscripts, seems to have served very unpractical purposes. Many of these automata were designed only to entertain and surprise the guests at banquets and feasts, having figures of animals or mythical figures that moved around and had water flowing through them.

A manuscript illustration showing Hero’s installation for animating birds in fountains

Hero’s installation for animating birds in fountains, from a collection of mechanical texts (Venice, 16th century): Burney MS 108, f. 42v (detail)

Hero used some of his automata for cultic and religious purposes. He constructed a special system to open temple doors without any human interaction. In one construction he even designed trumpets to be sounded at the opening of the gates. There were sacrificial pyres that lit up at the sound of the trumpet to praise the power of the gods. Rather than machines to help the production of goods and sustain economic growth, ancient engineers explicitly considered their inventions only as devices which, as the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote in the first century AD, 'show the mighty and wonderful laws of heavens and Nature'.

A manuscript illustration showing the design of an animated model of a sanctuary

The design of an animated model of a sanctuary from a copy of Hero's Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 20r (detail)

Hidden in this context, Hero’s designs and illustrations were forgotten and barely copied for centuries until the Renaissance. It was only with the arrival of Greek intellectuals to Florence that manuscripts of Hero’s works, with their rich illustrative tradition, reached Europe, where humanists were amazed by their scientific content.

An annotated manuscript of Hero's Pneumatics

Marginal annotations in Latin to one of Hero’s designs, comparing it to other ancient scientific sources, from a copy of the Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)

Around this time there arose a great demand for copies of Hero’s works. 15th- and 16th-century illustrated manuscripts of his treatises abound and were soon dispersed across Europe. Hero’s texts were translated into Latin and Italian and printed several times. His designs, originally intended for entertainment and worship, had now become practical guides for further experiments and new discoveries. In the hands of the engineers of the 17th and 18th century, they became the blueprints for a more elaborate and effective steam engine that could be used in factories, trains and ships.

 

Peter Toth

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21 September 2020

All about ancient camels

Camels are an iconic part of the Egyptian landscape. Called the ships of the desert for their endurance and ability to cope with the heat and lack of water, they are still used for transportation and as a tourist attraction in the shadows of the pyramids.

An image from a medieval bestiary of a man riding a camel

A man riding a camel in a medieval bestiary (England, possibly Rochester, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 38v (detail)

But has this always been the case? Despite their archaeologically documented presence in North Africa for thousands of years, camels are hardly ever named in Egyptian documents of the Pharaonic period. They are first mentioned as animals used to transport goods and people in much later Greek documents.

One of the first sources to mention how camels were used is a papyrus in the British Library's collection, dating from around 2,280 years ago. This fragmentary piece comes from a Greek account-book, recording the costs of a private businessman who was renting out his camels. Although the papyrus is damaged, it shows that this man may have had at least 60 camels in his possession, and that he regularly rented them to local farmers, whose names are recorded in the document. Two of them, Onnophris and Eudemos, may have been regular customers as their names were recorded on consecutive days, hiring 5, 6 or as many as 10–12 camels at a time.

Fragments from the account-book of a camel agent

Fragments from the account-book of a camel agent (Egypt, Philadelphia, meris of Herakleides, 263–229BC): Papyrus 2692 (detail)

Unfortunately, the text does not record what these people used the camels for, but it is interesting to note that these early documents tend to mention the existence of camel agents renting out the animals, rather than camels owned by individuals. Could this be a sign that they were too expensive to own and cheaper to rent?

The camel in a medieval bestiary

The camel in a medieval bestiary (England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 24r (detail)

Whatever the truth, this situation seems to have changed significantly within a couple of centuries. From the first and second centuries AD — about 1,800–1,900 years ago — there are far more papyri mentioning camels. Moreover, there is a shift in the way they were kept and used.

Apart from agents having more camels for rent, we find individuals keeping one or two of them for their own use. In a report to the local police from AD 175, the priests of a temple complained that out of their four camels, a nice white female had been stolen, and they asked the authorities to help them get it back.

Fragment of a petition reporting the theft of a camel

Fragment of a petition to the local authorities reporting the theft of a white female camel (Pelusion, Egypt, c. AD 175): Papyrus 363

In a letter from about 20 years later, we learn that the prefect of a province ordered two camels for his private use, which were then delivered to him.

A letter from Tithioeis to Irenion mentioning the delivery of some camels for the prefect

A letter from Tithioeis to Irenion mentioning the delivery of some camels for the prefect (Egypt, 3rd century AD): Papyrus 479

Besides these more institutional users, we find an increasing number of contracts attesting that other individuals had started to buy camels. It appears from these documents that camels were around 8 times more expensive than donkeys or mules. Female camels were especially valuable and were often sold with their foals for very high prices. For example, a contract from AD 177 records that a white female camel and two foals were sold for 900 drachmas, while at the same time one could buy a donkey for about 120–150 drachmas.

The beginning of a contract for the sale of a female camel and two foals

The beginning of a contract for the sale of a female camel and two foals for at least 900 drachmas (Arsinoite nome, Egypt, October AD 177/178/179): Papyrus 1100

Camels were relatively expensive. This must explain why some documents attest that people often purchased only a part of a camel. A contract from 1,850 years ago records that a woman with her three daughters bought one third of two camels from her own son for 400 drachmas. The document shows not only that the whole camel would have been very expensive (about 600 drachmas) but also how people shared camels between them.

Contract of a sale of a third share in two female camels

Contract of a sale of a third share in two female camels for a sum of 400 drachmas (Soknopaiou Nesos (Dimeh), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 11 October AD 166): Papyrus 333

It was not only the purchase price of the animal that made it so expensive. Once you owned a camel, you had to register it with the local authorities and pay tax for it, which was higher than the amount charged for other animals. This may explain why in AD 163 Harpagathes was so quick to report to the council that his two camels, registered the previous year, had been requisitioned by the governor to serve in his caravan, so Harpagathes should not pay taxes for them.

A declaration of camels

Declaration of camels (Soknopaiou Nesos (Dimeh), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt. 29 January, AD 163): Papyrus 328

Apart from taxes, camels incurred other customs duties. Once they entered a city or a specific area, they had to pay a toll at the gates, which was higher than that issued to donkeys. As the surviving receipts attest, camels received a special permit on these occasions with a seal attached to the document.

A receipt acknowledging the payment of customs dues

A receipt acknowledging the payment of customs dues by Abous for exporting vetch on a camel, bearing a seal (Philopator alias Theogenous, meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 2nd century AD): Papyrus 386C

The ancient documents preserved among the Greek papyri at the British Library may look dull at first sight, but they record precious information. They provide a fascinating picture about the increasing use of camels in Egypt over a period of some four to five centuries, as well as giving us an insight into the everyday life of the people who owned or rented them.

 

Peter Toth

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