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91 posts categorized "Ancient"

18 June 2020

A load of rubbish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Toth

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04 June 2020

Late manuscripts, bad manuscripts?

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

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

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

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

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

Old texts in new manuscripts

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

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

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

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

Ancient and modern in one manuscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late manuscripts as books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Toth

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12 May 2020

Papyrus horoscopes: stars, planets and fortunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federica Micucci

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06 May 2020

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

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

Detail of a miniature of Alexander and the Wheel of Fortune

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

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

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

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

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

Miniatures of Alexander the Great and his army fighting blemmyae

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

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

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

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

Applicants

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

Stipend

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

Duration

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

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

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

 

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30 April 2020

A history of the book in seven objects

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

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

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

1.) Books carved in stone

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

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

2.) Books inked on pottery

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

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

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

3.) Books written on scrolls

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

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

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

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

4.) Booklets of tablets

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

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

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

5.) A composite: booklets of papyri

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

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

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

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

6.) Parchment

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

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

7.) The book

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Toth

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12 March 2020

Puppets and papyri

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What's the connection between puppets and papyri? You can find out in person on 17 March, when the British Library is hosting an event entitled Fragments: A Journey Through Papyri.

An image of a fragmentary papyrus of a play by Euripides

A section from Euripides’ lost play Cresphontes, which has inspired the new show. The papyrus dates from the 3rd century AD and is a fragment of an actor’s copy of the script which he would have used to learn his lines. This scene comes from the start of the play, where the young hero first returns from exile to avenge his murdered father: British Library Papyrus 3041 (P.Oxy. XXVII 2458)

 

This evening of discussion and performance is presented in association with Potential Difference, a theatre company which brings together writers and theatre-makers with academics and specialists to tell stories inspired by science, philosophy and technology. Their next production, Fragments, will be presented in Spring 2020; our event will include puppetry sequences from the upcoming show to evoke the journey of the papyri through time.

Fragments is a collaboration between Potential Difference and puppetry director Jess Mabel Jones with Dr Laura Swift (Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University) and specialist conservators. In addition to the puppetry sequences, our event on 17 March will combine a talk from a papyrus conservator about their work, together with a discussion with the creative team, who will share how they have drawn on these ancient artefacts to develop an evocative language of shadow puppetry.

Tickets for this event can be purchased from the British Library Box Office.

 

Fragments: A Journey Through Papyri

The British Library

17 March, 19:15–20:30

 

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29 February 2020

10 years of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog

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This month is an exciting anniversary for us: it has been ten years since the British Library's award-winning Medieval Manuscripts Blog began back in February 2010. It’s a decade that has seen large-scale digitisation, blockbuster exhibitions, exciting acquisitions and fascinating discoveries, and the Blog has been our main way of letting you know about them all. We aim to be inspiring, informative and amusing and above all to share with you the manuscripts love. To celebrate our big anniversary, join us in looking back at some of the Blog's highlights over the years.

10. Launch of The Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project

Medieval manuscript miniature of the Adoration of the Magi
The Adoration of the Magi from an illuminated Psalter, London, 1220s: Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8v

Originally started to promote the Library’s Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, the Blog announced the launch of the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site back in September 2010. Over 2,900 digitised manuscripts later, we’re still blogging to keep you updated about our digitisation projects. One of the most ambitious of these was the Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project, a collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in which we digitised 400 manuscripts, produced two new bilingual websites and published an accompanying book. Announcing the project launch was one of our proudest moments.

9. The voices of ancient women

Papyrus with a drawing of a girl
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)

We may be called the Medieval Manuscripts Blog, but we’re actually the section for Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts. Our blogposts about the Library’s ancient collections are ever-popular, and one of the big hits of 2018 was our post commemorating International Women’s Day, exploring fascinating insights into the lives of women in Roman Egypt from some of our ancient Greek papyri.

8. The first voyage of Codex Amiatinus

The Codex Amiatinus
Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

The Blog provides us with a great platform for promoting exhibitions such as Royal Manuscripts (2011–12), Magna Carta (2015), Harry Potter (2017–18), and Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (2018-19). We know that our readers loved our series of blogposts accompanying the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. One of the most popular announced that the oldest surviving, complete Latin Bible in the world, Codex Amiatinus, was coming on loan to the British Library. It was the first time that this incredible manuscript, made at the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716, had returned to the British Isles in over 1300 years.

7. Loch Ness Monster found at the British Library

A photoshopped image of a medieval manuscript with a picture of the Loch Ness monster capsizing a boat with a monk looking on
An artist's reconstruction of the Loch Ness Monster (Sarah J Biggs, 2013)

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is known for making some very important discoveries on 1st April each year. These completely serious and factual discoveries are some of the Blog's perennial favourites. For example, who could forget the time we used specialist imaging to uncover the earliest known picture of the Loch Ness Monster?

6. Unicorn cookbook found at the British Library

A photoshopped image of a medieval manuscript with a picture of a man cooking a unicorn on a grill
Detail of a unicorn on the grill in the Unicorn Cookbook

By complete coincidence, 1st April was also the date on which we made another of our very exciting discoveries: the long-lost unicorn cookbook. Every year this blogpost receives thousands of page-views from people wanting to learn how medieval cooks prepared this rare delicacy.

5. Medieval Manuscripts at the UK Blog Awards

A photo of Julian and Sarah at the Blog Awards
Julian and Sarah triumphant at the UK Blog Awards

One special highlight was when we were named Arts and Culture Blog of the Year in the inaugural UK Blog Awards in 2014. It was a tremendous honour and we were thrilled to bits!

4. White gloves or not white gloves

A photo of a hand wearing white gloves

We also use the Blog to share useful information about accessing and caring for our collections. One of our most popular blogposts explains our policy of not wearing gloves to handle manuscripts. There is a widespread view, stemming from films and television, that white gloves should be worn for handling old books. But recent scientific advice suggests that wearing gloves can do more harm than good.

3. Hwæt! Beowulf online

The opening words of the Beowulf manuscript
The opening words of Beowulf, beginning "Hwæt" ("Listen!"): London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r

On the Blog we provide regular updates on which manuscripts are available to view online. It’s especially exciting when our favourites go online, and over the years we have announced the digitisation of star manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Old English Hexateuch, Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen, the Luttrell Psalter and more. But the announcement that received the greatest attention was the 2013 digitisation of the Beowulf manuscript, the most famous poem in the Old English language.

2. St Cuthbert Gospel saved for the nation

The front cover of the Cuthbert gospel, featuring tooled leather with interlace and plant designs
The front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, Wearmouth-Jarrow, late 7th century: Add MS 89000

The Blog is also where we announce new acquisitions. The most thrilling of these was when we acquired the St Cuthbert Gospel following the most successful fundraising campaign in the Library's history. Created in the early 8th century in the North-East of England and placed in St Cuthbert's coffin in Durham Cathedral, this is the earliest intact European book. Since 2010 we’ve also welcomed into the collection treasures such as the Mostyn Psalter-Hours, the Southwark Hours, the Percy Hours and a leaf from an Anglo-Saxon benedictional.

1. Knight v Snail

Medieval manuscript depiction of a knight fighting a snail
Knight v Snail in the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324: Add MS 49622, f. 193v

Our number one is our most viewed blogpost of all time: the phenomenally popular Knight v Snail. In 2013, a trip to the manuscripts store room to look at some medieval genealogical rolls resulted in a blogpost about the ultimate adversaries of the medieval margins. Why do knights fight snails in medieval manuscripts? No one knows for sure but, as our viewers have demonstrated, it certainly makes for great entertainment.

There are so many blogposts we haven't been able to mention here — Lolcats of the Middle Ages, anyone? Crisp as a poppadom, Shot through the heart and you're to blame, A medieval rainbow, New regulations for consulting manuscripts, Help us decipher this inscription — suffice to say, this is our 1,299th blogpost, and in the last 10 years the Blog has attracted over 5.25 million views from almost 200 countries ... more than enough to pass a rainy day.

Thank you so much to our talented writers and loyal readers — you’re all brilliant. Editing the blog is such a wonderful experience and we're incredibly grateful to everyone who has made it possible. Here’s to the next ten years!

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

01 January 2020

New year, new manuscripts

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Long-term readers of this Blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts (our last list was published in June 2019). As a special treat to celebrate the New Year, today we are releasing a new update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for you to explore our amazing digitised treasures.

The aftermath of a jousting scene in which the knight Jean de Saintré has knocked his opponent from his horse. Lords and ladies watch the joust from separate pavilions.
Jean de Saintré beats his opponent Enguerrand in a joust, from an illustrated copy of Antoine de La Sale’s French romance Le Petit Jean de Saintré, 4th quarter of the 15th century, Paris: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 40r 

There are now over 2900 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on our Digitised Manuscripts website and more are being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this PDF: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-dec-2019. This is also available as an Excel spreadsheet: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-dec-2019 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

An illustration of a lion
The zodiac sign Leo (Lion) depicted in an illustrated astrological treatise, Georgius Fendulus, Liber astrologiae (Book of astrology), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century, France or Southern Netherlands: Sloane MS 3983, f. 40r

The Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever over the last 6 months, working to make more manuscripts available online. All the images included in this blogpost are from manuscripts that we have digitised since June 2019. To admire our most recent additions to the Digitised Manuscripts site, take a look at this list of manuscripts published since June 2019. PDF: Download Digitised_mss_jun_2019_dec_2019. Excel: Download Digitised_mss_jun_2019_dec_2019.

On the left-hand side, demons torture the souls of the dead in Hell. On the right-hand side, the Egyptian Pharaoh and his soldiers drown in the Red Sea.
Illustrations of the punishments of Hell (left) and the drowning of Pharaoh and the Egyptian army in the Red Sea (right), from a 15th-century copy of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis (Mirror of Human Salvation), England, S. E. (London): Harley MS 2838, f. 44r

You can find out how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts in this previous blogpost. Many images of our manuscripts are also available to download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

An illustration of the Annunciation, showing the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, with a cat and a dog playing in the centre of the image and borders filled with birds, plants, and the figures of infants.
An illustration of the Annunciation at the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin Mary, early 15th-century Book of Hours, France: Add MS 29433, f. 20r


We hope you have a very Happy New Year and enjoy exploring Digitised Manuscripts!

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine, monastic libraries and more.

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