30 January 2023
Our amazing exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, closes on 19 February 2023 – have you had time to come to see it? Or perhaps it is distance rather than time that is thwarting you? Fear not! We have you covered.
We have made a mini-version of the exhibition and put it online especially for you. It’s free to access and it features over 30 of the items that are displayed in the gallery, as well as newly-commissioned articles by the curatorial team. We've also included interviews with creators featured in the gallery, an interview with one of the curators, and a free to download game.
Screenshot taken from the free downloadable interactive
So, that’s the good news … but even better is that the website is going to continue growing after the exhibition closes. We’ll be adding more images of each of the collection items and more items from the exhibition, as well as new video content and new articles. Digital Alexander is the gift that keeps on giving! You can find the online exhibition at bl.uk/alexander-the-great. Don't forget to keep coming back to see the new additions.
Screenshot of the Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth website. These are just a few of the articles featured on the website.
We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.
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09 January 2023
Alexander the Great has fascinated historians and storytellers throughout the ages. Alongside our major exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, the British Library is hosting a variety of Alexander-related events, including talks and performances by authors and artists. Details of some of these events are highlighted below.
Alexander driving off elephants with pigs and musical instruments: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 57r
The Unbuilt Room: Alexander the Great is part-performance, part-game, an interactive journey where people create stories, and stories create people. This new edition of Seth Kriebel’s acclaimed ‘exploration game’ has been written especially to accompany the exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Inspired by choose-your-own-adventure stories and early text-adventure computer games, The Unbuilt Room: Alexander the Great combines the inventiveness of contemporary gaming with the simplicity of bare-bones storytelling. There are four performances in total: the first performance is on Wednesday 18 January (19.00-20.00); the second performance is on Wednesday 25 January; the third performance is on Wednesday 1 February; the fourth and final performance is on Wednesday 15 February 2023.
On Friday 27 January (19.30-20.30) the British Library is hosting Alexander: Between Fantasy and History with Robin Lane Fox. This lecture is being given by renowned historian and author Robin Lane Fox, biographer of Alexander the Great. He was the historical advisor for Oliver Stone's epic film Alexander, and took part in many of its most dramatic re-enactments.
Alexander the Great: Between Dreams and Imagination is a journey through words, live music and images into the world of Alexander the Great, through the dreams of the philosopher Aristotle. Alexander the Great: Between Dreams and Imagination is inspired by a modern epic poem by Stamatis Filippoulis. Readings by a cast of leading actors are accompanied by original music by Stamatis Spanoudakis, one of the most prominent Greek composers of his generation, and by rich imagery directed by Paul Benney. There are three performances in total: the first performance is on Thursday 2 February (19.45-21.15); the second performance is on Friday 3 February (19.45-21.15); the third performance will take place on Saturday 4 February (19.45-21.15).
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09 September 2021
The 14 September 2021 will be the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, author of one of the greatest works of medieval poetry, the Divine Comedy. This epic poem in Italian recounts Dante’s visionary journey through the realms of hell, purgatory and heaven to reach God.
The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the 14th century right up to the present day. To discover more about these fascinating items and celebrate the anniversary, join us for our online event, Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven on Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30. The event will feature two lectures by leading Dante scholars Alessandro Scafi (Warburg Institute; who has previously blogged for the British Library about Maps of Paradise) and Elisabeth Trischler (University of Leeds). Their original research focuses on the cartographic and architectural aspects of the Divine Comedy and is inspired by our medieval manuscripts and early printed editions.
You can also come to the British Library to see the Divine Comedy manuscript Yates Thompson MS 36, which is currently on display in The Sir John Ritblat: Treasures Gallery. You can read more about Dante and his amazing Divine Comedy in our blogpost on the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante.
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12 March 2020
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.
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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13 September 2019
Today's episode of BBC Radio 4' popular Gardeners' Question Time (repeated on Sunday at 14:00) was recorded here at the British Library.
If you listen carefully, as well as hearing Bob Flowerdew, Anne Swithinbank and James Wong discussing the size of someone's melons, you may catch our curators Julian Harrison and Maddie Smith introducing some of the nation's favourite herbals. Julian showed presenter Matt Biggs pages from the Old English illustrated herbal (Cotton MS Vitellius C III). Sadly, this manuscript was badly damaged by fire in 1731, but Matt and Julian discussed how it contains an important record of early plant lore. Some of the plants it illustrates were not native to early medieval England, indicating that this book was based on earlier texts compiled around the Mediterranean. Matt was fascinated in particular with the accuracy of the drawings: he recognized this depiction of brassica without being able to read the original Old English text.
A plant of the brassica family in the Old English illustrated herbal: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 56v
Julian also showed Matt this early 16th-century German herbal (Harley MS 3736), which has a series of idiosyncratic illustrations. You may have come across the manuscript before as it was open (on the mandrake page) in our exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic. The page shown here depicts what was once thought to be the Emperor Charlemagne (died 814) kneeling in front of a plant pierced by an arrow. The plant is named 'Carlina' and the caption explains that an angel advised him to eat it in order to be purged of poison. Since the recording, we have realised that the genus 'Carlina' was actually named in honour of Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519–1556), and this helps us to date the manuscript with more accuracy.
The Emperor Charles and 'Carlina' in Giovanni Cadamasto's herbal: Harley MS 3736, f. 20r
Maddie presented the story of Elizabeth Blackwell's A Curious Herbal, made in the 1730s in order to fund her husband's release from a debtors' prison. You can read more about the story of Elizabeth Blackwell on our Treasures pages.
Gardener's Question Time is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, 13 September (15:00), repeated on Sunday, 15 September.
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29 August 2019
Does Twitter have its origins in the medieval period? Well, in a literal sense, no. As far as we are aware, no medieval ships came close to being named BoatyMcBoatFace as a result of a ‘campaign’ of parchment scraps. Medieval people did not write 280-character messages on pieces of parchment or paper, send them to each other or re-send the messages of others. But the imagery of ‘twitter’ and ‘tweet’ does have its origins in the Middle Ages. The modern name ‘Twitter’ was clearly chosen because there is something joyous about chattering birdsong. It implies something playful and social, and perhaps also lively, raucous debate. We can only speculate on whether Twitter’s creators knew that there is a now obsolete meaning of the word ‘twitter’ in English, which means a person who ‘reproaches or upbraids’.
With their restless desire to anthropomorphise, humans have long heard birdsong and understood its rhythms and patterns to be akin to human speech. The idea that birds like to get into lively debates is very old. The early Middle English poem, The Owl and the Nightingale, tells the story of a bad-tempered debate between an owl and a nightingale. Each bird is horrified by the other, pouring scorn on their counterpart's song, nesting habits and appearance. But the poem is also a meditation on how to debate. In a revealing passage, the nightingale pauses before she speaks:
An sat sumdel & heo bi þohte
An wiste wel on hire þohte
Þe wraþþe binimeþ monnes red.
('She sat awhile and thought,
Reflecting on her thoughts,
Knowing that wrath robs a man of reason. ') [ll. 939–41]
This poem was written at some point between 1189 and 1216. Although it is anonymous, in the poem the birds resolve to seek the counsel of ‘Maister Nichole of Guldeforde’ (Master Nicholas of Guildford). This little in-joke may indicate that Guildford was the author or was known to them.
While The Owl and the Nightingale imagines the birds as tetchy and sometimes downright rude, they are not always depicted in this way in medieval poetry. At around the time that the Owl and the Nightingale was composed, Farīd al-Dīn Aṭṭār (d. c. 1230) was at work thousands of miles away on The Conference of the Birds منطق الطیر, (Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr). This poem is a work of Sufi mysticism and has a contemplative tone by comparison with The Owl and the Nightingale. It tells the story of a group of birds who gather together to choose a new sovereign. The hoopoe is the wisest of the birds and acts as their leader and guide. He tells them that they must travel on an arduous journey through seven valleys to find their new king. The conclusion of the poem (which we won’t give away) is a moment of realisation for the birds, and it involves a pun ... (You can read more about this manuscript on our Asian and African Studies Blog.)
Perhaps one of the most delightful descriptions of avian debate is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, which was written in the late 14th century. It describes a group of birds gathering together in the early spring — on ‘seynt valentynes day’ — to choose their mates for the year. The poem appears to be the beginning of the tradition that associates Valentine’s Day with lovers. There is nothing in the hagiography (the Life) of St Valentine to suggest an association with lovers. The narrator describes the riot of sound made by the birds:
For this was on Saint Valentines day,
Whan every brid [bird] cometh ther to chese [choose] his make [mate],
Of every kinde that men thinke may;
And that so huge a noise [did] they make,
That erthe and air and tree and every lake
So ful was that unnethe [hardly] was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place. [ll. 316–22]
The noble birds — the eagles — are allowed to make their selections first. Three male eagles (tercels) eagerly vie for the hand of the formel (female) eagle, but the other birds soon interrupt, complaining that this is all taking too long. A cacophonous semi-debate ensues.
If you’re interested in learning more about medieval avian debates, or in Middle English literature more generally, there are a very small number of places remaining on our adult learning course, Discovering Middle English, which starts on 11 September. You’ll get to encounter Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Arthurian legends of Thomas Malory and, of course, Geoffrey Chaucer.
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Manuscripts mentioned in this blogpost
Arundel MS 83 (De Lisle Psalter)
Cotton MS Caligula A IX (The Owl and the Nightingale)
Add MS 7735 (The Conference of the Birds)
Harley MS 7333 (Geoffrey Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls)
21 August 2019
On 9 September, the author and broadcaster Dan Jones is speaking at the British Library about the Crusades. We're delighted to have a pair of tickets for one of our lovely readers. To have a chance of winning, simply answer the question at the end of this blogpost.
Drawing on his new book Crusaders, Dan Jones will tell a tale soaked in Islamic, Christian and Jewish blood, peopled by extraordinary characters, and characterised by low ambition and high principle. These are events that have left an enduring imprint on relations between the Muslim world and the West.
Dan Jones is a broadcaster, award-winning journalist and pioneer of the resurgence of interest in medieval history. He is the bestselling author of Summer of Blood, The Plantagenets, Magna Carta, Realm Divided and The Templars.
To have a chance of winning 2 tickets to see this event, answer the following question by using the comments box at the end of this blogpost. One pair of tickets is available. The winner will be drawn at random on 4 September from all the entries, and will be notified the same day. You must be able to make your own way to the event and there is no cash alternative.
Question: Which Pope was responsible for preaching the First Crusade?
Closing date for entries: 3 September, midnight (GMT).
Dan Jones: Crusaders is at the British Library Knowledge Centre, St Pancras (London), on 9 September (19:00–20:30). Tickets cost £15 (concessions are available).
23 July 2019
Students of the Old English epic poem Beowulf (which survives uniquely in Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) may be familiar with the fight between our hero and Grendel’s monstrous mother, and the part played in that encounter by a marvellous sword. As the pair tussle, Beowulf stumbles and falls to the floor. His opponent stabs him with a knife, and he is only saved by his chain mail. Beowulf then sees a sweord eotenisc (a sword of giants, l. 1558), which he grabs and uses to kill Grendel’s mother. Seeing Grendel’s corpse, Beowulf uses the same sword to cut the monster’s head from his body. As soon as Grendel’s blood touches it, the blade melts away like ice and only the hilt is left intact.
Later, when Beowulf returns to Heorot — the hall of the Geatish people — the sword hilt is examined by Hrothgar, their king:
Hroðgar maðelode, hylt sceawode,
Ealde lafe, on ðæm wæs or writen
fyrngewinnes, syðþan flod ofsloh,
gifen geotende, giganta cyn (ll. 1687–90)
('Hrothgar spoke, the hilt he examined,
— the ancient relic — where was written
of that primordial war, when the flood slew,
with raging waves, the race of giants')
A page from Beowulf describing the marvellous sword: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 170r
The poet goes on to describe this strange sword in more detail.
Swa wæs on ðæm scennum sciran goldes
Þurh runstafas rihte gemearcod,
geseted ond gesæd hwam þæt sweord geworht,
irena cyst, ærest wære,
wreoþenhilt ond wyrmfah. (ll. 1694–98a)
('On those guards of shining gold
were runic staves, rightly marked
Their set-down shapes told a tale: for whom that sword was wrought,
best of irons, in bygone days,
with twisted hilt and serpent patterns.')
Beowulf is not easy to translate, but there are examples of ‘hypermetric lines’ in many Old English poems, including at ll. 1705–07 of Beowulf. What is important is that the sword is described as gemearcod (marked) with runstafas (runic staves). These markings gesetod ond gesæd, literally ‘set-down and said’ or ‘established and told’, the story of the sword’s original commissioner. This is quite a sword! It tells the story of the flood that killed the giants — usually thought to be a reference to the Biblical flood — and also the story, in snaking patterns and runic staves, of its own creation.
What kind of sword was the poet imagining? What was the significance of runes for the poet? What, indeed, are runes? The runic alphabet was used to write Germanic languages before the Latin alphabet arrived along with Christian missionaries. Runes are generally straight sided, hard-lined beasts. There are no round shapes in the letters as traditionally formed, probably because this made them easier to carve into wood and stone. The runic alphabet and the Latin alphabet were used in tandem in Anglo-Saxon England, and they were on friendly terms — two runic letters routinely appeared in Old English texts written in the Latin alphabet. The first was Þ (lowercase þ), which makes a ‘th’ sound. Runic letters also have names — this one is called thorn, which means ‘thorn’ in Modern English. The second runic letter was Ƿ (lowercase ƿ), which equates to a modern ‘w’. Its name is wynn, which means ‘joy’ (whence we get Modern English ‘winsome’).
These two runes appear most commonly in Old English texts written in the Latin alphabet (although the ƿ is often changed to ‘w’ in modern editions). But they weren’t the only runes that made their way into texts written in the Latin alphabet. In fact, runes crop up quite frequently in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The poet Cynewulf (one of the very few named poets from the Anglo-Saxon period) embedded runic signatures in his works, some of the riddles of the Exeter Book contain runes, and they also appear in the Beowulf manuscript, on the very same folio where Grendel’s sword hilt is described.
Runes in the Beowulf manuscript: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 170r
On this folio you can see an abundance of the commonly occurring runic letters, ƿ and þ, but 8 lines from the bottom, on the tattered, right-hand edge of the folio, you can see something quite unusual in this manuscript — ᛟ the ethel rune. Ethel means estate or homeland and here the scribe used it as an abbreviation for the first element in the compound ethelweard, meaning guardian of the homeland (weard means ‘guardian’ giving us Modern English ‘warden’).
Runstafas and the ethel rune: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 170r
Why did the scribe chose the runic abbreviation at this point? Were they prompted by the reference to runstafas a few lines earlier? This brings us back to the sweord eotenisc, the sword of giants. In considering what kind of sword the poet was imagining, archaeology provides some clues. Those of you lucky enough to visit our recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition may remember the Seax of Beagnoth, also known as the Thames Scramasax, a 10th-century Anglo Saxon seax (a long, single-edged knife) on loan from the British Museum. On its blade the seax boasts the only complete carved Anglo-Saxon futhorc, or runic alphabet, as well as the name ‘Beagnoþ’ ᛒᛠᚷᚾᚩᚦ, who is assumed to be its commissioner or creator.
The Seax of Beagnoth: British Museum 1857,0623.1
This seax does not contain a narrative of the kind described in Beowulf. As yet, no weapons have been discovered that have a narrative inscribed on them, and it’s hard to imagine one having enough space to tell such a story. Perhaps, in describing these runstafas, the poet was not imagining a written text as we would know it today. Perhaps the runes on the sword hilt weren’t meant to be read, but more to prompt the recollection of a particular story. Maybe the runes made by giants were more than just letters — they conveyed something powerful. Maybe the first scribe of Beowulf (only the first of the text’s two scribes used the ethel rune) echoed that power as only a scribe could, by including their own runic abbreviation just a few lines later.
If you’re intrigued by any of these questions, then why not book a place on the Library’s Adult Learning course: Writing in Medieval England, 3–4 August. There are only a few places left, so get your ticket now! Meantime, don’t forget to visit our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, which closes on 27 August.
Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts
- Digital Alexander
- Alexander the Great: events at the British Library
- Dante in the British Library online event
- Puppets and papyri
- Gardeners' Question Time
- Tweet, tweet
- Win tickets to see Dan Jones: Crusaders
- Reading the runes in Beowulf (so seaxy)
- Audio description tour of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms
- Manuscripts à la mode: Nabil Nayal's new collection