THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

91 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

23 August 2019

Ancient recyling: writing on potsherds

Add comment

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

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 August 2019

What is a bestiary?

Add comment

As the Getty's wonderful Book of Beasts exhibition draws to close, it's an apt moment to reflect on the medieval manuscripts we know as 'bestiaries'. Elizabeth Morrison, one of the curators of Book of Beasts, has described the bestiary as 'one of the most appealing types of illuminated manuscripts, due to the liveliness and vibrancy of its imagery ... All of us can find something to relate to in the bestiary and its animals' ('Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary').

Lions resuscitating their cubs
The lion bringing its cubs to life (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 6r)

Function and origins

We might regard bestiaries as a kind of medieval encyclopedia relating to natural history, with one notable distinction: each creature was described in terms of its place within the Christian worldview, rather than as a purely scientific phenomenon. The animals were interpreted as evidence of God’s divine plan for the world. This is particularly true of the first animal typically described in the bestiary, namely the lion. One famous bestiary story is that of the birth of lions. Lion cubs were said to be born dead, until on the third day their father breathed upon them, bringing them to life, a reflection of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. 

A page from a bestiary, illustrating a lion
The opening page of a medieval bestiary (Add MS 11283, f. 1r)

The origins of the bestiary can be traced to the Physiologus, a Greek text devoted to natural history from late Antiquity. Around the 11th century, material was added from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, a popular early medieval encyclopedia. Bestiaries themselves became popular in England from the 12th century onwards, but they did not all contain the same descriptions or illustrations, leading to them being divided into different families by modern scholars. As Elizabeth Morrison has pointed out, 'the bestiary was not a single text, but a series of changeable texts that could be reconfigured in numerous ways. The number of animals could vary quite significantly, as well as their order.'

MedievalBestiary4-cats-mice-f36v
Cats and mice in a bestiary (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 36v)

Real and imagined

Bestiaries offer an enticing insight into the medieval mind. Some of the creatures they describe would have been very familiar to their original audience, such as cats, donkeys and owls. Others were more exotic, such as crocodiles and elephants, and this is often a source of amusement for modern readers; normally, the artists were relying upon the text and their own imaginations when depicting such beasts, rather than working from first-hand experience.

An elephant from a bestiary
Men mounted on an elephant (Harley MS 3244, f. 39r)

Likewise, bestiaries contain accounts of animals that we would now identify as mythical, such as phoenixes and unicorns. These fantastic beasts inhabited a special place in the medieval imagination, and beyond. You may recognise the illustration of the phoenix, below, from an English bestiary, as one of the stars of the British Library exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.

A phoenix rising from the flames
A phoenix in a medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751, f. 45r)

Bestiary folklore

Bestiaries abound with tales of fantastic and fabulous proportions. The story of the whale is a case in point. In bestiary tradition, the whale was so large that it could rest on the surface of the water until greenery grew on its back. Passing sailors, mistaking the animal for an island, would set camp on its back and unsuspectingly light a fire. The whale would then dive back into the ocean, dragging its victims with it.

Whale2
Sailors making camp on the back of a whale (Harley MS 4751, f. 69r)

We have reproduced the tale of the whale in this animation, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. You could say, we 'had a whale of a time'.

Surviving manuscripts

Illuminated Latin bestiaries survive in significant numbers. The Getty's exhibition catalogue lists a total of 62 examples, now dispersed across collections in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and the USA. No fewer than 8 are held at the British Library (and we loaned 6 manuscripts in total to Book of Beasts).

Illustration of a dragon
A dragon from an English bestiary (Harley MS 3244, f. 59r)

Here is a list of the illuminated Latin bestiaries in the British Library's collections:

Add MS 11283: England, 4th quarter of the 12th century

Cotton MS Vitellius D I: England, 2nd half of the 13th century

Harley MS 3244: England, after 1236

Harley MS 4751: England, early 13th century

Royal MS 12 C XIX: England, early 13th century

Royal MS 12 F XIII: Rochester, c. 1230

Sloane MS 3544: England, mid-13th century

Stowe MS 1067: England, 1st half of the 12th century

Medieval sheep
Sheep in a bestiary (Sloane MS 3544, f. 16r)
 
A manticore wearing a jaunty hat
A manticore (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 29v)

You can read more about bestiaries in Elizabeth Morrison's article, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

16 August 2019

The longest papyrus

Add comment

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.

07 August 2019

Holiday reading matter

Add comment

Are you looking for something to read over the holiday season? Then look no further than some of the books which have accompanied our major exhibitions, ranging from Writing: Making Your Mark to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.

Writing

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August. The book, featuring contributions by the exhibition curators and other experts, is available from the Library shop (hardback £30). 

Leo

The exhibition book for Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, edited by guest curator Juliana Barone, is also available from our shop (£20), and is written by leading Leonardo scholars from across Italy, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Ask

The catalogue for our stupendous Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition (which ended earlier this year), edited by Claire Breay and Jo Story, is still available in paperback (£25).

Hpbook

Finally, if Harry Potter is your thing, why not indulge yourself in a copy of the book written especially for Harry Potter: A History of Magic? Published by Bloomsbury in association with the British Library, the version designed especially for younger audiences can be purchased here (£9.99).

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

The run of Leonardo: A Mind in Motion extends until 8 September 2019.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 August 2019

One Library, two exhibitions

Add comment

This summer, unusually, we have not one but two major exhibitions open at the British Library. Writing: Making Your Mark and Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion both have on display items cared for by the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team, alongside star objects loaned by other institutions and owners. They're definitely both worth a visit, before 27 August in the case of Writing, while Leonardo continues until 8 September.

Leonardo-da-vinci-a-mind-in-motion

In Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, three of the great Renaissance thinker's notebooks are shown together for the first time. Alongside the Library's own Codex Arundel (Arundel MS 263) is the Codex Forster II, on loan from the V&A, and the Codex Leicester, owned by Bill Gates. These manuscripts reveal Leonardo's observations on subjects such as water in motion, since he considered motion to be 'the cause of all life'.

Writing-making-your-mark-oldest-item-tony-antoniou

Writing: Making Your Mark examines the evolution of writing, one of mankind's greatest achievements, from hieroglyphs to emojis. The roll-call of the objects and books on display is astonishing, from a Mayan monument (AD 647) to the Gutenberg indulgence (c. 1454) and the longest intact papyri in the Library's collections (AD 572). We have previously blogged about some of our favourite items, such as the labels used to identify Egyptian mummies and a schoolchild's homework preserved on a wax tablet.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion is on at the British Library in London until 8 September. Writing: Making Your Mark closes on 27 August.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

30 July 2019

New Anglo-Saxon acquisition on display

Add comment

Earlier this year, the British Library was delighted to acquire a leaf of an Anglo-Saxon benedictional (a service book used by a bishop). At the time we reported that, despite its fragmentary nature, this manuscript was of great significance for the study of 10th-century English political and religious culture. In particular, we observed that its script pointed to an early date of production, and that it was related textually to other benedictionals from Anglo-Saxon England, most notably the Benedictional of St Æthelwold.

We are pleased to announce that this manuscript (Add MS 89378) is now on display in our Treasures Gallery, in a display case devoted to new acquisitions. This gallery is free to visit and is open seven days a week. The benedictional leaf can be viewed in the same room as other iconic treasures, such as Magna Carta, the Shakespeare First Folio, the Beatles' lyrics, and a letter of the 19th-century computing pioneer, Ada Lovelace.

Leaf1

Given that this display coincides with the Library's major temporary exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, we thought it might be worth making a few remarks on the handwriting of the benedictional leaf. Most unusually, when compared with other surviving Anglo-Saxon benedictionals, it is written in English square minuscule. This script gained currency in 10th-century England during the reigns of King Athelstan (924–939) and his successors. It is characterised by its 'square' letter-forms, as shown, for instance, by the shape of a, c, d, e, g. We reproduce both pages here (the recto, above, is on show in Treasures) to give a flavour of this unusual script.

Our readers may also be interested to know that two leaves of the same benedictional (separated in the 1970s) are now in collections in the USA (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library, Typ 612; New Haven, CT, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Takamiya MS 89). In time we hope that they can be digitally re-united, and that researchers will be able to learn more about their production and usage.

Leaf2

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 July 2019

Art and science in Renaissance Italy

Add comment

Here at the British Library we’re big fans of Renaissance art and science. It’s the subject of our current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), and we also have a display about it in our permanent free exhibition space, The Treasures Gallery. Here’s a sneak peek of some of the beauties you can see in the Treasures display.

Early Renaissance Italy witnessed a remarkable flowering of the arts and sciences. Humanist scholars looked to medieval libraries to discover works from the past, which they copied, studied and developed in new ways. They were particularly interested in discovering classical works of ancient Greek and Roman culture, building on the movement to recover classical texts that had been taking place since the 12th century. But they were also stimulated by works of medieval science, both from the Latin and Arabic traditions.

Add_ms_41623_f035v36r

Codex Bellunensis, North-East Italy, early 15th century: Add MS 41623, ff. 35v–36r

The increased study of plants during the Renaissance lead towards the development of the modern field of botany. In medieval Europe, knowledge about plants and their medicinal properties was transmitted in illustrated manuscripts known as herbals. They were based on ancient Latin and Greek sources, compiled and updated by medieval scholars. In the Renaissance, people started to revise herbals based on first-hand examinations of plants. This manuscript, known as the Codex Bellunensis, is largely an adaptation of the ancient work on medicinal plants, De Materia Medica by the Greek physician Dioscorides. But it also includes observations of local flora, in this case from the lower Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy. On the left is the earliest known representation of the plant edelweiss, shown alongside eupatorium, agrimony and valerian.

Royal MS 12 G VII

De aspectibus, a Latin translation of Ibn al-Haytham’s Kitāb al-Manāẓir, Italy, late 14th century: Royal MS 12 G VII, ff. 36v–37r

Renaissance scholars also looked to the Arabic world as a source of knowledge. This manuscript contains De aspectibus, a Latin translation of Kitāb al-Manāẓir (Book of Optics) by the 11th-century Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, known in Latin as Alhazen. This work was the first to systematically demonstrate that vision is the result of light reflecting off objects and entering the eye. The book also includes ‘Alhazen's problem’, a mathematical problem concerning the reflection of light from spherical mirrors that was not solved algebraically until 1965. Translated into Latin around 1200, the work was carefully studied by western thinkers such as Roger Bacon (c.1219/20–c.1292) and Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519). The pages shown here examine the subject of binocular vision, with the diagrams illustrating how the visual axes of the two eyes, labelled ‘a’ and ‘g’, intersect.

Add MS 15819 f 6r

Aratea, a Latin translation by Germanicus of Aratus’ Phaenomena, Florence, 1465–1475: Add MS 15819, ff. 5v–6r

The Aratea is a poem about the ancient constellations and their mythological origins. It was originally written in Greek by the ancient poet Aratus in the 3rd century BC. This particular Latin translation was made in around AD 14–19 by the Roman general Germanicus, who was the nephew of the emperor Tiberius, the father of Caligula and the grandfather of Nero, no less. The poem was an important source for the study of astronomy throughout the Middle Ages, but the humanist interest in rediscovering authentic classical texts led to a surge in its popularity in 15th-century Italy. This copy belonged to Francesco Sassetti of Florence (1421–90), a prominent banker for the Medici family. The pages on display describe and illustrate the constellations closest to the north celestial pole, Ursa Major (the Great Bear), Ursa Minor (the Lesser Bear), and Draco.

To see these manuscripts in person, come and visit the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. To learn even more about Renaissance achievements in art and science, don’t miss our current exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion at the British Library from 7 June until 8 September 2019.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

12 July 2019

Underwater adventures

Add comment

The British Library’s current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), investigates the great thinker’s fascination with water. But Leonardo was not the first to send his imagination plunging beneath the waves. Here are some of the ways that medieval people imagined being able to explore underwater.

Arundel_ms_263_f149r
Leonardo’s studies of the River Arno: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 149r 

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f166r

Beowulf dives into the mere, Beowulf, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 166r

In the Anglo-Saxon period, underwater exploration belonged to the world of heroic poetry rather than human technology. In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the hero journeys to the bottom of a horrifying mere to fight Grendel’s Mother in her watery lair. He dresses in full war-gear, a mail-shirt and a gold boar-embellished helmet, and arms himself with a precious sword named Hrunting. Then after briefly settling his affairs in case of his death, he dives into the lake:

The man of the Weder-Geats moved briskly, would hardly wait for an answer; the surging water took possession of the war-maker. It was then a good part of the day before he could make out the level bottom (Translation by R. D. Fulk).

In a hall in the depths of the lake, Beowulf and Grendel’s Mother engage in a ferocious fight. For a long time the adversaries seem to be evenly matched, but the decisive moment comes when Beowulf notices an enormous sword that was made by giants in ancient times. He grabs the sword and swings it at the lake-woman, slicing off her head.

The poem makes no attempt to explain how Beowulf is able to survive underwater—he just can. His status as a legendary hero and the strongest man alive places him outside the ordinary limits of human ability. In a world of giants, dragons, magical swords and cursed treasure, the hero is a supernatural figure. Beowulf is up to any challenge, no diving apparatus required.

A80011-06a
Alexander is lowered into the sea, Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 77v

Another of medieval literature’s most memorable underwater adventures is that of Alexander the Great. The ancient Macedonian king and formidable military commander was one of the greatest heroes of medieval romance. One episode associated with Alexander in the romance tradition describes how he travels to the bottom of the sea to explore its wonders.

Unlike Beowulf, Alexander is hampered by the real-world necessity of having to breathe. To solve this, he designs an air-tight barrel made from glass which is lowered on chains from a boat. Inside his proto-submarine, Alexander takes lamps to light his way and two animal companions, a cockerel to tell the time and a cat whose breath purifies the air.

Alexander’s underwater journey shows that medieval people were thinking creatively about how a person could venture safely underwater. That’s not to say that the design would work: for one thing, the barrel would float without ballast; for another, a cat’s breath does not purify air so Alexander would have a very limited air supply.

E071077

Alexander is lowered into the sea, Roman d'Alexandre, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v

  Add_ms_34113_f180v
Design for diving equipment, a mechanical sketchbook, Add MS 34113, f. 180v

Is not until the 15th-century that people began to design diving apparatus with a view to practical use. This sketchbook, compiled in the 15th-century by an unknown Italian engineer, contains designs for diving suits that might have inspired Leonardo's (you can also see this manuscript in the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, displaying a design for a water wheel).

The diving suits would allow a person freer movement than the barrel, so that the divers can carry out tasks underwater such as loading these baskets with rocks. With the figure on the left, the engineer has attempted to solve the problem of air supply by feeding air through a hose, connected at one end to a float on the surface and at the other to the diver’s mask. This is close to the design that was finally employed in the first successful diving suits, but with one major difference. The Renaissance engineer had not realised that the air supplied to the diver would have to be pressurised to account for the increased pressure underwater.

Arundel_ms_263_f024v crop

Leonardo’s design for Diving Apparatus, Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

Leonardo’s diving apparatus from the early 16th century follows roughly the same design as the anonymous sketchbook, but adds some improved features. His diving mask is provided with two hoses, one to bring fresh air in and the other to take old air out. He has realised that the hoses will need to be reinforced with metal rings to stop the water pressure from closing them up. The float is also modified to prevent water accidentally spilling into the air supply. But crucially, Leonardo did not think to add an air compressor to the design so in practice the diver would not be able to breathe in deep water.

It was not until the 18th century that the first successful diving suits were made. But from Beowulf to Leonardo, people had long been coming up with creative ways to explore the world beneath the waves. To admire Leonardo’s design for diving apparatus in person, don’t miss the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, at the British Library from 7 June–8 September 2019.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval