11 January 2022
Marcus Tullius Cicero (b. 106 BC) is one of the best-known ancient Roman authors. A formidable speaker at court trials and political debates as well as a prolific theorist of rhetoric and philosophy, he influenced generations of scholars and students. It is less known, however, that through his striking and often beautifully illustrated work the Aratea, he was also responsible for introducing many a medieval and early modern reader to the Classical constellations.
In addition to his many prose works, Cicero was also a poet. However, his reputation as a poet was tarnished somewhat by an infamous work he wrote about his own political genius, The history of my own consulate, which is now lost. Nevertheless, other examples of his poetic texts are preserved, including his translation of an epic poem by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus.
Aratus was asked by the Macedonian king Antigonus Gonatas (320 – 239 BC) to compile a handbook on stars and constellations. The resulting work, entitled Phaenomena (Appearances on the Sky) is in hexametric verse and presents an overview of the entire astronomical knowledge of Aratus’s time in polished poetic language. It was highly esteemed, and survives in many copies, often with commentaries. An early example is a fragment of a 4th-century papyrus codex that contained the poem with notes on the right-hand margin.
The popularity of this work is also demonstrated by the fact that the Phaenomena is the only pagan poetic text that is explicitly referred to in the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul speaks to the Athenians on the Areopagus, his speech begins with a quotation from ‘one of the poets’ of the Greeks. The unnamed poet was in fact Aratus. Paul cites from line 5 of his Phaenomena claiming that ‘we are all offspring’ of a supreme God (Acts 17: 28).
It was perhaps this wide-reaching popularity of Aratus’s poem that attracted Cicero to translate it into Latin at the very beginning of his career. His translation became known as the Aratea, after the original Greek poet. Unfortunately, Cicero’s translation does not survive in its entirety; the prologue and several other portions of the work are now lost and less than half of the original text has eventually come down to us. However, what the manuscripts did preserve is the illustrative tradition of the text, which may date from Late Antiquity.
One of the earliest and fullest copies of Cicero’s Latin translation of Aratus’s poem is a manuscript made in the early 9th century (Harley MS 647). The manuscript preserves a carefully edited text: Cicero’s Latin verses are arranged in blocks copied on the lower half of the page in Caroline minuscule. Above, there are lavish coloured illustrations, which contain explanatory notes written in old-fashioned Roman rustic capitals inside the images. The work, therefore, is both useful and beautiful, as is apparent in the section on the constellation Cygnus the swan.
This early layout comprising text, illustration and commentary proved very successful. It had a long afterlife surviving in a number of later manuscripts, such as a deluxe copy produced at a Benedictine abbey in Peterborough around 1122. This adaptation of Cicero’s Aratea shows a similar layout to the manuscript 300 years earlier but the illustrations are now drawn in pen, without colours except for red dots marking the stars of the constellation.
Manuscript copies of Cicero’s Aratea were produced up until the end of the 15th century when they were replaced by printed copies retaining the illustrative tradition of the earliest manuscripts on the printed pages. This longstanding history of the textual and illustrative tradition of the Aratea shows not only the success of Cicero’s poetical skills in translating Aratus but also the wide-reaching influence of ancient literature and scientific thought on the evolution of science through the manuscripts and their illustrations. You can read more about medieval astronomical manuscripts in our article Medieval science and mathematics on the Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website.
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
14 August 2020
The old saying calling for careful preservation of fragments originally comes from the Bible and refers to the collection of the breadcrumbs remaining after the miraculous multiplication of loaves (John 6:12). Renaissance scholars reinterpreted it as a call to search for and rescue remnants of the past, especially of classical literature and scholarship. The saying could equally apply to fragments of ancient manuscripts which, carefully collected and preserved, are still providing new discoveries.
Written heritage can become fragmented for multiple reasons. Sometimes disasters such as fire and wars devastated collections of books. A well-known and sad case is the 1731 fire in Ashburnham House, near Westminster school, where Robert Cotton’s extraordinary collection of manuscripts was held. Although the efforts of librarians and many others saved a large number of manuscripts from the fire, there are some sorrowful and often-lamented losses. The remarkable 5th-century illuminated copy of the Book of Genesis, for example, which was still complete in Robert Cotton’s time, came out of the fire in a handful of charred fragments.
Apart from such disasters, the most common reasons for the fragmentation of books were age and obsolescence. As decades and centuries passed, books fell out of use. There were new copies of the same text, easier to read and handier to use. Previous copies, often worn, damaged or even unbound, were left on library shelves to disintegrate further.
In exceptional cases librarians did recognise the inherent value in ancient manuscripts and saved and treasured them in various ways. A fragment of a 6th-century copy of Pope Gregory the Great’s homilies on papyrus was found and framed in a beautifully illuminated parchment sheet in the 15th century.
Similarly, it was probably a librarian in a monastery on Mount Athos who found these astonishing fragments of a 6th-century Greek gospel-book illuminated with gold. In order to rescue the treasure, he bound them in a later manuscript, which resulted in trimming the originally much larger sheets to the size of the volume. Nevertheless, his actions preserved three remarkable survivals of early Byzantine book illumination.
The majority of the forgotten volumes, however, were not this lucky: their sheets were usually reused either for flyleaves or binding supports in later volumes.
Studying and collecting such fragments from manuscript and printed volumes started as early as the 17th century. Flyleaves and pastedowns were often removed from books, mounted on paper sheets and bound together in large volumes to serve as palaeographical specimens to illustrate script and writing in various times and traditions. We have blogged about one of the most famous and prolific producers of such collections, John Bagford (1650-1715) previously.
Cataloguing such collections is a fascinating challenge. One can easily come up with no result and unable to identify the fragmented pieces, but sometimes an unexpected find emerges from the fragmentary sheets. Add MS 70516 was such an endeavour. The volume, which may have been part of the personal collection of the learned librarian of the Harley Collection, Humphrey Wanley (1672-1726), contains 90 fragments in various languages and scripts. The earliest are probably the two thin Greek fragments, foliated as folios 84-85 today, whose characteristic script can be dated to the early 9th century.
The fragments are from the lower part of a double-sheet (bifolium) from a lost-9th century manuscript. As shown by their folding marks, they were reused as binding support in an unknown volume. The sheets were previously described as containing remnants of a Greek monastic text. Further research has now confirmed this hypothesis and identified the text as the life of the 4th-century founder of monastic communities, St Pachomius of Egypt.
Despite his significance as the inventor of monasteries around 323 in Upper Egypt, exact details of the life of St Pachomius are unclear. One of the most important sources, the earliest version of his Greek biography, a text written in rather clumsy and unpolished Greek, came down to us in one single copy, a truncated 11th-century Greek manuscript now in Florence.
Closer inspection has confirmed that the 9th-century fragments contain portions of this particular text – the earliest version of the Greek Life of St Pachomius, hitherto known from only one much later manuscript. What this new find means for the history of the text and how it complements the information about the earliest abbot still awaits exploration, but the identification of the two sheets neatly confirms the old axiom that such “fragments should be collected and not be allowed to perish”.
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For a detailed presentation, see P. Toth, “Wisdom in Fragments: The Earliest Manuscript of the First Greek Life of St Pachomius”, in Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Thomas Arentzen, Henrik Rydell Johnsén and Andreas Westergren (eds.), Wisdom on the Move: Late Antique Traditions in Multicultural Conversation (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 13-34.
14 July 2020
The Greek and Latin papyri, ostraca and tablets of the British Library provide incomparably rich sources for learning about ordinary people, whose lives and words remained otherwise unrecorded for many centuries. One of the most intriguing perspectives these sources reveal is on families and children. We have recently published an article surveying documents that illustrate aspects of the lives of children in Egypt between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD, from their infancy and early school years to their marriage and first jobs.
An especially well-documented phase of the life of children is their schooling from primary to secondary or higher education. There is another aspect of school documents, however, which is just as important and fascinating as that of the children – the teachers.
Notes, methods and even names of teachers survive in surprisingly large numbers in our collection of papyri and writing tablets. These give us intriguing details about how the foundations of literacy and numeracy were laid down thousands of years ago.
The first stage was learning to read. The way to achieve this was simple but not very easy. Similar to modern-day school education, children were first taught to recognise syllables and read them one by one to form the words. The difference between current and ancient practice, however, was that in ancient schools the texts used for this purpose were not easy reads as nowadays, but samples taken from classical authors.
Written with black ink on a whitened board, this 1800-year-old wooden tablet contains 5 lines from Book 3 of Homer’s Iliad copied in the neat hand of a teacher. Compared to the economic layout of texts in contemporary manuscripts where there were usually no spaces left between the words, on this tablet Homer’s words are neatly divided to make it easier to read. Moreover, the teacher placed strokes above the lines to mark the end of the syllables in each word. This practice, unknown in manuscripts designed for advanced readers, shows that the board was probably used to teach children to recognise and read in syllables.
The larger size of the wooden board – about the same as our A4 instead of the more standard A5 format of waxed school tablets – suggests that it was used for demonstration purposes. It may have served either as a blackboard in a classroom or a sample circulated in class. It is not hard to imagine the children holding and studying it, trying to decipher and read out the lines from Homer’s Iliad, ‘Sun, who be-hold-est all things and hear-est all’ (Iliad iii, 276).
Another, slightly different, reading exercise survives on a late 3rd-century papyrus roll that contains the text of Psalms 12-15. The layout of the text on the papyrus is the same as it would be in a standard manuscript with the text arranged in two columns with no space left between the words.
However, the large, circle-shaped marks above the lines, neatly arranged over each of the syllables of the words, suggest that the papyrus roll was also used in school education. It may have been designed for more advanced readers who no longer needed spaces between the words but who would still need some help to recognise syllables to ease reading of the rather complicated text of the Psalms.
Interestingly, the other side of the roll contains a classical text from the 4th-century BC rhetorician Isocrates, which has also been supplied with syllable marks. This shows how classical ‘pagan’ and Judaeo-Christian texts were used together in primary education of the late 3rd to early 4th century.
Another 2nd-century document shows how writing was taught in ancient schools. This little wax tablet, consisting of two parts to be folded up as a booklet, was a star item of the British Library’s recent exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark. Scratched in the upper part of the waxed surface are two lines of a maxim, ‘Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours’, in the beautifully tidy hand of a teacher. The pupil copied it out below, with mistakes and irregularities that are detailed in a separate article.
Wax tablets were perfect for use in schools. Writing in wax was easy to correct because you could erase the words by smoothing the wax with the other end of the stylus. Additionally, the child could place their stylus in the teacher’s deeply scratched lines and follow the letter shapes to learn how to imitate the script. The tablet shows very clearly how the individual hand of a teacher could influence the handwriting of generations in the future.
In addition to actual teaching aids used in class, there are unique survivals of teachers’ private notes. This set of eight little wooden tablets from about 1800 years ago preserves the handy notebook of a teacher who put his name, 'Epaphroditos', on the first tablet to mark his possession. The eight wooden boards would have been fastened together by cords passed through two holes in one of the longer sides of each of the tablets. Each side of the eight boards was neatly numbered on the left to facilitate orientation.
The texts are recorded in the rapid and practised cursive hand of a teacher, neatly organised into units for teaching probably at an elementary school. The left-hand side of page 8, for example, shows the letters of the alphabet with notes placed next to each clarifying whether the letter is a vowel (long or short or both), or a simple (such as K) or compound (such as X) consonant. On the right-hand side there is a list of short riddles in the form of questions and answers such as ‘what makes life sweet – happiness’. These may have been used as writing samples for wax-tablet homework-books like the one above.
The unique collections of papyri and tablets in the British Library show not only the labour of the children learning to read and write but also pay tribute to the generations of teachers, whose tireless educational work ensured that classical and Christian Greek and Latin texts came down to us.
You can find out more about the lives and education of children in Egypt between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD in our article on the Greek webspace.
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04 July 2020
Long-term readers of our Blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in January 2020. With the arrival of summer, 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 online.
An historiated initial 'D'(eus) with a man watching the sunrise, from a Book of Hours, c. 1260-70 (England, Oxford or West Midlands?): Egerton MS 1151, f. 38r (detail)
There are now over 3,600 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of July 2020:
Excel: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-jun-2020 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).
St Michael the Archangel defeats the dragon and rescues a soul from its mouth, from the Prayer-book of Archbishop Arnulph II of Milan (998–1018): Egerton MS 3763, f. 104v
During this period of Covid-19 lockdown, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available online. All the images included in this blogpost are from manuscripts that we have digitised since January 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions published over the last 6 months:
A petition of soldiers, complaining to their commander about pay (Diospolis Parva (Hiou), Egypt, 169–168 BC): Papyrus 638, f. 1r
A print of the Colosseum in Rome from the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (Italy, 1538): Cotton MS Augustus III/2, f. 53r
You can also read about some of the most significant items that have been published online in the following blogposts:
- The St Albans Benefactors' Book: precious gifts and colourful characters (Cotton MS Nero D VII)
- An atlas fit for a Tudor queen (Add MS 5415 A)
- Henry VIII: the possessions of a Tudor monarch (Harley MS 1419/1 and Harley MS 1419/2)
- Surveying Lord Burghley’s Atlas (Royal MS 18 D III)
- The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick (Cotton MS Julius E IV/3)
- Did Henry VIII believe in unicorns? (Sloane MS 1047)
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.
The arrival of Ulysses and Diomedes at Scyros, from an illustrated manuscript of Statius’ Thebais and Achilleis (Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century): Burney MS 257, f. 239v
We hope you enjoy exploring our digitised manuscripts!
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30 April 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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15 December 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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12 December 2019
For over 3000 years, people have told legends of a long and bloody war between the Greeks and the Trojans, sparked by the abduction of the beautiful Queen Helen of Sparta by Paris, the Trojan prince. In response, a mighty force of Greek heroes laid siege to the city of Troy for ten years. The siege only ended when the Greeks built a giant wooden horse and left it outside the city gates as an offering. The Trojans, not realising that it was a trick, brought the horse into the city. A band of Greek soldiers were hiding inside the horse, and when night fell they crept out. They opened the gates to the rest of the Greek army, who massacred the population and destroyed the city.
The British Library has loaned seven ancient and medieval manuscripts to the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020). We’re going to be exploring how these manuscripts reveal the evolution of the tale of Troy over the centuries, starting with the Greek tradition today and following with a second blog post about the Latin tradition.
However cruel and bloody it may sound today, the siege of Troy was only a rather average-sized case amongst the many brutal battles of classical antiquity. There were several more devastating carnages recorded, for example during the long wars between Rome and the North African Carthage, or between Rome and King Pyrrhus’ forces from the Greek city of Epirus.
What then distinguishes Troy and the Trojan war from other even more horrific and disastrous wars of antiquity? The question was answered by none other than Alexander the Great, another conqueror of the 4th century BC. Upon reaching the tomb of Achilles, one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War, Alexander cried out how lucky Achilles was to have his deeds and memory preserved by the great poet Homer.
The key to the long-standing fame of siege of Troy is the fact that it became the subject of two of the most important and masterful Greek epic poems of Classical Antiquity: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The two poems, presumably pieced together from earlier oral traditions in the 8th century BC and attributed to the blind, prophet-like poet Homer, are iconic pieces of ancient Greek literature.
Read and admired by generations of scholars, poets and artists, the two epic poems were part of the Greek school curriculum all over the Mediterranean. Children and young adults, together with their teachers and instructors, spent hours reading, understanding and memorising Homer’s verses. No wonder that the poems come down to us in hundreds of various formats – from cheap copies for schools to deluxe papyri designed for scholarly use or showing off.
A splendid example of the showy format of deluxe papyri is Papyrus 732. This 1st-century AD copy from Book 13 of the Iliad is written with elegant Greek uncials for wealthy patron, probably a scholar who had even put one annotation to the column on the left.
Papyrus 271 is even more lavishly written, containing portions of the Odyssey from the 1st century AD. It shows the end of Book 3 of the poem with a nice endpiece (colophon) on the right. The annotations in the margins are even more interesting. These little notes explaining the grammar or the content of the ancient text are extracts from ancient commentators of the Homeric epics. They preserve fragments from scholarly works that do not survive anymore and represent centuries of scholarship on Homer.
These scattered notes were later assembled into one almost continuous commentary on Homer’s texts that often accompanied both the Iliad and the Odyssey in later manuscripts. An excellent example of this textual tradition, usually called the school-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, is the Townley Homer.
This manuscript, known after its previous owner, Charles Townley (1737-1805), was probably written in 1059 and contains the text of the Iliad with an extensive array of marginal scholia. An elaborate system of red signs connect the main text of the poem to the lengthier notes on the margins. Between the widely spaced lines of Homer’s text there are several interlinear notes (glosses) explaining difficult words or archaic grammatical features of the text for the reader. All this was designed for a fuller and deeper understanding of the poems. This remarkable manuscript preserves centuries of Homeric scholarship in the form of a handy manual that ensured the transmission of not only Homer and the memory of Troy but also a whole range of other texts, grammars, scientific works, fables, literary and metrical works for the following centuries.
Homer’s Greek epics also inspired Latin writers who reimagined the story of Troy for new audiences and new purposes. Read part two of this blogpost to learn how the Trojans founded Europe, and check out the British Museum’s exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020) where you can see most of these manuscripts on display.
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14 November 2019
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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