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95 posts categorized "Ancient"

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

15 December 2019

Troy story 2

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We recently blogged about the Greek manuscripts that tell the tale of the Trojan War, an ancient conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans which ended in the destruction of the great city of Troy. We learned how this relatively unexceptional conflict was elevated to the stuff of legend through Homer’s masterful Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey (if you haven’t already, catch up with Part 1 of this blog post). Today we are following the tale of Troy through Roman and medieval culture, where we will discover that despite losing the war against the Greeks, the Trojans won the more enduring victory as fundamental heroes of western literature.

These blog posts are written to coincide with the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎), which features seven ancient and medieval manuscripts from the British Library. Check out the exhibition to learn more and to see these manuscripts in person.

A Renaissance manuscript with a large initial 'C' containing a picture of Aeneas, in classical-style armour, carrying a elderly man and leading a little boy by the hand.
A historiated initial showing Aeneas fleeing Troy, carrying his father on his back and leading his young son: Virgil, Aeneid, Rome, 1483-1485, Kings Ms 24, f. 73v

In the first century BC, the tale of Troy was reimagined in one of the greatest works of Latin literature—the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil. This epic poem forms a sequel to the Iliad that transforms the Trojan legend into an origin myth for the Roman Empire. It tells the story of Aeneas, one of the few Trojan heroes to survive the fall of Troy, who managed to escape the burning city carrying his aged father Anchises on his back and leading his young son Ascanius by the hand (depicted above). Aeneas led a large following of Trojan refugees as they wandered around the Mediterranean, beset by constant hardships, searching for a new home. Eventually the Trojans reached Italy, where they were prophesied to flourish. There they fought a brutal war with the native tribe the Rutuli, culminating in Aeneas killing the Rutulan leader, Turnus.

The Aeneid was tremendously admired in the Roman period and the Middle Ages. It was read in schools as the epitome of great poetry, and widely imitated in Latin literature of all kinds. It also had an important legacy in shaping perceptions of European political heritage. Throughout the poem it is foretold that the Trojan kingdom in Italy will one day form the mighty Roman Empire, and the gods prophesy the birth of Julius Caesar from Aeneas' line. In this way, the Aeneid provided an influential model for adapting the Trojan legend to serve contemporary political ends.

Picture from a Renaissance manuscript showing the fight between Aeneas and Turnus. Turnus is on the ground and Aeneas is impaling him through the throat. They are surrounded by warriors watching the duel.
Aeneas killing Turnus: Virgil, Aeneid, Rome, 1483-1485, Kings Ms 24, f. 227v

Just as Virgil created a sequel to the Iliad that claimed the Trojans as founders of the Roman Empire, so Geoffrey of Monmouth created a sequel to the Aeneid that re-cast the Trojans as founders of Britain. In his enormously popular work, History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136-38), Geoffrey set out to fill the gap in people’s knowledge about Britain's pre-Christian past. The tale he recounted is more mythical than it is historically accurate.

Geoffrey explains that after the Trojans settled in Italy, Aeneas' great-grandson Brutus was exiled for accidentally killing his father. Like Aeneas before him, Brutus led a following of displaced Trojans in search of a new land in which to settle. Following the advice of the goddess Diana, they discovered an island named Albion which was inhabited only by giants. They settled, killed the giants, and re-named the island Britain after Brutus. They also built a city called 'New Troy', which was later renamed London. One of the earliest known representations of the city of London appears beneath Geoffrey’s description of ‘New Troy’ in this 14th-century copy of the History of the Kings of Britain.

A text page from a medieval manuscript with a city scape drawn faintly in the lower margin.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History Of The Kings Of Britain: Royal Ms 13 A III, f. 14r

New works on the legend of Troy were composed throughout the Middle Ages, not only in Latin but also in vernacular languages. These texts brought the tale to wider audiences and shaped it for new purposes. John Lydgate composed the extensive Middle English poem Troy Book in 1412-1420 at the request of Prince Henry, later King Henry V. In his prologue, Lydgate praises Henry’s excellent qualities, which he links to his supposed descent from the Trojans through Brutus, calling Henry the worthy prince, ‘To whom schal longe by successioun / for to governe Brutys Albyoun’. This luxurious manuscript of the Troy Book was probably made as a presentation gift to Henry V’s son, Henry VI.

Text page from a medieval manuscript with an elaborate border of foliate and a miniature of knights fighting on horseback
John Lydgate, Troy Book, the opening to Book 3 with a miniature of Hector slaying Patroculus: Royal Ms 18 D II, f. 66v

The legend of Troy also appeared in French versions such as the monumental Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César. This universal chronicle, first composed c. 1208-13, blends biblical, ancient and legendary history from the Creation of the world to Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. In the 1330s, a second version of the text was compiled that cut out the sections on Genesis and Alexander the Great and greatly expanded the account of the Troy legend. This firm shift in focus towards the Trojan War as the defining event of ancient history may have been intended to create a clearer link between the Trojans and the Angevin rulers of Naples for whom the second redaction of the Histoire ancienne was created.

Manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne were often beautifully illuminated. This copy of the second redaction features a two-page miniature of the Greeks attacking Troy from the sea, looking strikingly like a scene of medieval warfare.

A medieval manuscript with a double-page miniature of ships attacking a walled city.
Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (second redaction), the Greeks attacking Troy from the sea: Stowe Ms 54, ff. 82v-83r

From ancient Greece, to ancient Rome, to medieval culture, the epic of Troy has been told countless times. Discover more about this dramatic myth and view these manuscripts in the British Museum’s  exhibition Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎).

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

14 November 2019

Classics lost and found

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Works written by ancient Greek and Roman authors have made a major impact on the world’s culture and society. They profoundly shaped medieval thought, as you can discover in Cillian O’Hogan’s article The Classical Past on the Polonsky England and France 700-1200 project website. Compared to their afterlife and significance, however, the number of classical writings that have actually survived is surprisingly low. Why were some works lost while others survived, and where can you find them?

A decorated initial in a medieval manuscript, featuring a bird-human hybrid creature.
Beginning of the book on the nature of the birds from Pliny’s Natural History: England, 2nd half of 12th century, Arundel MS 98, f. 85v

A large number of classical texts do not survive at all. For example, we have only about a third of the works of Aristotle. His famous treatise on laughter and comedy – desperately sought in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – has not come down to us. Some highly acclaimed pieces of ancient Greek lyrical poetry, such as Sappho’s poems, have also disappeared.

Many ancient plays, both in Greek and Latin, are only known by name. Various works of epic poetry, such as Cicero’s famous poem on his own historical significance, humbly titled On my own consulship, do not survive. Nor is there any trace of a substantial proportion of scientific and historical writings by ancient Greek and Roman authors. Sometimes we have hints of works only, such as this parchment book tag which used to serve as a 'title page' to a scroll containing Sophron’s Comedies on Women from the 5th century BC, now lost.

A piece of ancient papyrus bearing Greek writing
A book tag (syllibos) with the title of a lost papyrus scroll said to have contained Sophron’s Comedies on Women: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 1-2nd century, Papyrus 801

Traditionally, barbarian invasions and Christian monks have been blamed for intentionally destroying works of the classical past. The image of burning books and libraries is often evoked in scholarship, fiction and films alike. While this may have occasionally occurred, the biggest deciding factor for the survival or disappearance of classical texts is actually likely to be their use in medieval school education.

The reason for this is that works that made it onto school curricula tended to be copied more, so medieval scribes preserved them in large numbers. Texts that proved to be too difficult or unsuitable for use in schools were more prone to being lost. For example, of the 142 books of Livy’s exceptionally long work, The History of Rome from its Foundation, from the 1st century BC, only 35 books have survived intact, with the rest preserved only in extracts abridged for school use.

An ancient wooden tablet bearing a Greek inscription
An example of a classical text surviving through use in school - eight lines from Homer’s Iliad written on a wooden tablet by a teacher: Egypt, 3rd century, Add MS 33293

School curricula also explain why ancient grammatical literature was transmitted in surprising quantities across medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, including educational material for the study not only of Latin but also of ancient Greek. Popular texts, such as Priscian’s 5th-century Institutes of Latin Grammar, survive in large numbers, sometimes annotated with glosses or notes added in classrooms, as in this example from 11th-century France.

A medieval manuscript page containing lots of glosses and beginning with a decorated initial C.
A heavily annotated title page from an copy of a grammatical textbook by Priscian, which was widely used in medieval schools: France, 11th century, Harley MS 2763, f. 1r

Although schools filtered the classical tradition rather heavily, omitting a number of texts that we would now be eager to read, the ancient schoolmasters had a surprisingly broad literary grasp. We have works on ancient mythology such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and encyclopaedic works such as Pliny’s Natural History. The works of Homer in the Eastern Mediterranean and Virgil, Cicero, Horace and Ovid in the West all survived thanks to their inclusion in late antique and medieval secondary education.

This key role of schools in the transmission of the classical past sheds a special light on other surviving texts, too. Ancient Roman plays, for example, have come down to us not as scripts for theatrical performances but rather as school manuals. They were used to teach students how to find the right words, tone and style to use in various situations, from speeches at courts to creative writing, as in this copy of the plays by the 2nd-century BC playwright, Terence.

A medieval manuscript page
An annotated school copy of comedies by Terence: Germany, 11th century, Harley MS 2750,  f. 65r

But besides medieval manuscripts, there is another source which reveals additional clues about classical texts: the papyri preserved in the sand of Egypt. The large number of papyrus fragments excavated at various sites in Egypt have already filled many of the gaps in our knowledge of the Classics. They have supplied us with lost works by Aristotle (The Constitution of Athens), almost complete comedies (such as The Hated Man by the 4th-century BC Menander), and unique fragments from Sappho, alongside remarkable survivals of ancient science. Many of these amazing finds are in the British Library’s collections and are presented in articles on our Greek Manuscripts website.

A damaged fragment of ancient papyrus with Greek writing on.
Papyrus fragment showing the last lines and close (colophon) of Menander’s comedy, The Hated Man: Egypt, Oxyrhynchus, 4th century, Papyrus 3077

Here, you will find more on the Aristotle papyrus, a remarkable medical fragment and some carbonised scrolls from the destroyed city of Herculaneum.

Whether preserved in medieval libraries or in archaeological sites, the works of the classical past continue to inspire us. As work on the British Library’s collection of ancient texts continues worldwide, we hope that there are many more discoveries to come.

Peter Toth

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23 August 2019

Ancient recycling: writing on potsherds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9780712352536 Writing Making Your Mark

 

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16 August 2019

The longest papyrus

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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