THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

90 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

16 June 2019

Explore Leonardo's notebooks

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Our major new exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, is open now at the British Library. It features highlights from three of the Reniassance thinker's extraordinary notebooks: the Codex Forster II, on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum; the Codex Leicester, owned by Bill Gates; and the Library's Codex Arundel. The exhibition is on until 8 September, and tickets for adults cost £7 (members and children under 11 enter for free and other concessions are available).

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Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion marks the 500th anniversary of his death

Our exhibition takes the opportunity to to explore the inner workings of Leonardo's complex mind and his fascination with motion — which he considered to be ‘the cause of all life’. Visitors will be able to marvel at his detailed studies of natural phenomena, and to see studies for his painting The Virgin of the Rocks.

You can explore Leonardo's Codex Arundel for yourself on the Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Leonardo described this notebook on the opening page as a 'a collection without order, drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place according to the subjects of which they treat'. It contains pages datable between 1478 and 1518 (though mostly to 1508), and written variously at Florence, Milan, Rome and Amboise in France. Tthis notebook is named after an early owner, Thomas Howard (1585–1646), 2nd earl of Arundel, 4th earl of Surrey, and 1st earl of Norfolk. It was presented by Henry Howard (d. 1684), 6th duke of Norfolk, to the Royal Society in 1667, from whom it was purchased by the British Museum in 1831.

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This image from Codex Arundel, taken using UV light, shows Leonardo da Vinci's studies of limbs from different viewpoints

Our Events programme contains a number of talks connected to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, including Waterways (17 June), Leonardo da Vinci’s Scientific Impact with Domenico Laurenza (2 July), and a curator talk by Juliana Barone (15 July). You can book tickets for all these on our Events pages, and for the exhibition here.

 

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07 June 2019

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion

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On 7 June an exciting new exhibition opens at the British Library. Marking 500 years since his death, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion showcases Leonardo’s manuscript legacy by displaying together — for the first time in the UK — highlights from one of the British Library’s finest treasures, the Codex Arundel, alongside Codex Forster II from the V&A, and a selection of sheets from the Codex Leicester, widely considered to be one of Leonardo’s most important scientific journals and now owned by Bill Gates.

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Observations on the course of the River Arno: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 149r 

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Studies for a perpetual motion wheel: Codex Forster II, ff. 90v–91r © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Studies on the use of obstacles... Seattle  Bill Gates Collection  Codex Leicester  13B (ff. 13v-24r) © bgC3

Studies on the use of obstacles: Seattle, Bill Gates Collection, Codex Leicester, 13B (ff. 13v–24r) © bgC3

The exhibition explores Leonardo’s fascination with motion, which he considered to be ‘the cause of all life’. It reveals the major role he ascribed to motion in his quest to understand the natural world and discover the rigorous laws which govern nature. In particular, it follows his life-long study of water, which for Leonardo was the driving force of nature.

Leonardo’s remarkable notebooks, written in his distinctive mirror writing, are used in the exhibition to illustrate how his detailed studies of natural phenomena — and in particular of water — influenced his work both as an artist and an inventor. With intricate drawings and diagrams crowding every page, visitors will be able to follow Leonardo in his tireless pursuit of knowledge, track his thoughts and experiments, and marvel at his insights into subjects as varied as the formation of waves and air bubbles, river flow, bird flight, and the nature of light and shadow.

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Underwater breathing apparatus: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion is on at the British Library from 7 June to 8 September 2019. The exhibition is in partnership with Automobili Pininfarina and tickets can be purchased here. The exhibition is accompanied by a series of events inspired by the exhibition, including a range of adult learning courses, free family workshops and an audio-description tour for blind and partially sighted visitors. An exhibition book edited by Dr Juliana Barone, associate curator, is available from the British Library shop.

 

 

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31 May 2019

What does a wheelbarrow have to do with Aristotle?

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Visitors to the British Library exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, will no doubt stop to admire a copy of Aristotle’s works on natural sciences, probably made for a medieval student at Oxford University. The careful layout and the perfectly formed gothic handwriting in different styles is impressive, but what will they make of the images on the page?

The page on display shows a decorated letter containing, logically enough, a seated philosopher examining a book and pointing to the heavens. But in the margin there is a man pushing a naked figure in a wheelbarrow, similar to the figures sometimes used to illustrate the fool of Psalm 52, “The fool (insipiens) said in his heart: There is no God” (e.g. in the Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925). What does this scene have to do with Aristotle?

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A philosopher and a man pushing a fool in a wheelbarrow, Aristotle’s Libri naturales, England (Oxford?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Harley MS 3487, f. 22v  

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle were translated into Latin and completely transformed ideas on philosophy and natural science in Western Europe. A number of manuscripts containing works by Aristotle or attributed to him have been digitised in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200 and are referenced in this article https://www.bl.uk/medieval-english-french-manuscripts/articles/medieval-science-and-mathematics.

Despite Church disapproval of the study of ‘pagan’ writings that contradicted its teachings, and the subsequent banning of Aristotle’s works in Paris, they soon became key texts in medieval universities. This book contains a collection of the required reading on the Oxford curriculum, complete with glosses and commentaries in the margins and between the lines of text to provide detailed explanations. But it is the decoration that makes this manuscript unique: it is exceptional for a volume of Aristotle’s works to be so elaborately illustrated at this time. There are 29 historiated initials, one at the beginning of each book or chapter, each representing the text that is to follow. Because there was no earlier tradition of illustrating Aristotle’s texts, the artists had to be innovative. Sometimes they adapted subjects from other genres, and sometimes they invented new ones.

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Books being burned before a king, a friar and others, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 4r

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the initials is the first in the manuscript, on the opening page of Physics. The decorated letter on this page depicts a small child throwing books onto a fire before a king, a friar and other figures.  Scholars have suggested that this scene represents the burning of books of Aristotle’s works in Paris in 1210, while the friar represents the role played by the Franciscans and other preaching orders in teaching Aristotle.

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A windmill and a bird, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 161r

The most well-known image in this manuscript is one of the earliest depictions of a windmill. This is found at the beginning of the book Meteorologica, which includes early accounts of weather phenomena. Here a man is adjusting the direction of a windmill to catch the wind. Beneath, a bird holds a twig in its beak, perhaps referring to the way that birds use the wind in flight.

Now, let’s return to the illustration of a philosopher star-gazing and a fool riding in a wheelbarrow on the page on display in the exhibition. It appears at the beginning of book IV of Physics, which studies the Heavens. A possible interpretation for this image is that it juxtaposes knowledge and foolishness. The seated philosopher inside the letter is looking up at the stars, but above him the fool could be a reminder that too much knowledge leads to madness. But as with many of the marginal images in the manuscript, there are no definite explanations.

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A coat of arms, possibly of a son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford, with one man blowing a horn and another eating, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 216r

This manuscript is an example of the skills that came together in 13th-century Oxford to produce a work that is both educational and entertaining. The thoughtful explanations and interpretations of the text, the remarkable planning and layout, and the innovative decoration and illustration, make it easy and delightful to use. The owner must have been one lucky student, and indeed a likely candidate would be the son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford (fl. c. 1256), member of one of the richest and most powerful families in England at the time.

 

Chantry Westwell

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29 May 2019

Crocodiles rock (never smile at a manuscript)

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Regular readers of our Blog may have noticed that animals are one of our favourite subjects, especially the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the Bestiary. Some of these creatures, like the unicorn or bonnacon, are no longer to be seen; but one of the strangest beasts is still thriving (though please don’t get too close) — the crocodile. The British Library's bestiaries contain a huge variety of images of these creatures, by medieval artists who were compelled to use their imagination  — after all, one rarely encountered a crocodile when fishing for eels in the Essex mud-flats in the 13th century!

A fairly realistic depiction of a crocodile is found in this bestiary, which was in the library of Rochester Priory in the 14th century and may have been made there. This manuscript, as well as two others described in this blogpost (Royal MS 12 C XIX and Harley MS 3244), is currently on display in the exhibition Book of Beasts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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A crocodile in the ‘Rochester Bestiary’, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24r

The crocodile is often accompanied by its enemy, a snake-like beast from the Nile, known as the hydrus. The text describes how, when a crocodile is asleep with its mouth open, the hydrus rolls in the mud to become slippery; it slithers into the crocodile’s mouth before being swallowed. It then begins to eat its way out, killing the crocodile in the process. In the bestiary tradition, animal behaviours are seen as moral allegories; in this case the crocodile’s mouth represents the mouth of Hell, while the hydrus is Christ, who enters through the gate of Hell to redeem lost souls. In this manuscript there are two drawings of crocodiles, one with the hydrus and the other eating fish.

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A beaver with a man blowing a horn, a crocodile swallowing a hydrus, a crocodile eating fish, and a winged hyena (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Stowe MS 1067, ff. 2v–3r

Guillaume le Clerc, a Norman cleric and early compiler of the bestiary, described crocodiles as being shaped ‘somewhat like an ox’. The artist of one bestiary seems to have followed this trend, as their crocodile has long legs and looks more like a horse.

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Bears and a crocodile (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 3544, f. 10v

Later in the same volume, a different artist drew a more plausible shape, although this crocodile's ears are rather dog-like.

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Another crocodile in Sloane MS 3544, f. 43r

All the early writers who described crocodiles, from Pliny to Isidore to Mandeville, were agreed that they are ferocious beasts. Some alluded to their taste for humans, while Mandeville and Bartholomaeus Anglicus mentioned the tears that they cried before swallowing their hapless prey. In this image, a crocodile (labelled 'serpens') is shown swallowing a man who is stabbing him, while a hydra emerges from a hole it has bitten in his side.

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A crocodile swallowing a man (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3244, f. 43r 

For pure invention, the prize goes to these two artists, whose creatures resemble dinosaurs or prehistoric insects.

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A crocodile swallowing a hydrus (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 12v

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A crocodile with a knotted tail (England, early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 62v. This manuscript was digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Bestiaries are not the only manuscripts to contain images of crocodiles. Here are two in the margins of Psalters, one made in Constantinople and the other in England.

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A crocodile in the Bristol Psalter (Constantinople, 11th century): Add MS 40731, f. 92r

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A crocodile in the Queen Mary Psalter (England, between 1310 and 1320): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 102v

So why blog about crocodiles? They are certainly not cuddly creatures like the dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers or owls that we've blogged about before. The idea came to me while I was writing another blogpost on the works of Homer. What do crocodiles have to do with Homer, one might ask? The missing link is the remarkable survival of two Egyptian papyri containing his writings, known as the ‘Harris Homer’, one in roll-form and one in book-form (Papyrus 107 and Papyrus 126).

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The Harris Homer (Egypt, 1st–2nd century): Papyrus 107, f. 1r

The papyrus roll was found in ‘the crocodile pit’ at Ma’abdey, near Monfalat, in Egypt, on 9 December 1849, before being acquired by Mr A. C. Harris. This story has been investigated by Brent Nongbri in his article ‘The Crocodile pit of Maabdeh, Florence Nightingale, and the British Museum's acquisition of the Harris Homers’, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, 54 (2017), 207–17. Apparently the pit was a cave on the banks of the Nile containing thousands of crocodile and human mummies, much visited by 19th-century travellers who wished to experience the thrill of being attacked by bats and encountering the spirits of dead crocodiles.

 

Chantry Westwell

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25 May 2019

How to name a mummy

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The British Library’s landmark exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opened recently. Many unique objects are on display, revealing the uses and ways of writing from the ancient to the modern world. Among them is one small piece encapsulating the story of an entire life.

The item in question is one of the numerous mummy labels housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, who have kindly loaned it to our exhibition.

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The mummy label on loan to our Writing exhibition: UC 28078 © Petrie Museum

The tag, written in Ancient Greek between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the current era, reads ‘Bobastous to the gate of Thermouthiakes of the metropolis of the Arsinoite (district)’. It is the name of a person (Bobastous) and an address in Arsinoe, the capital of a district in Graeco-Roman Egypt, which corresponds to the modern Medinet el-Fayum, in Middle Egypt, on the western side of the Nile. This little wooden label was attached to the mummified corpse of Bobastous, in order to identify the body and to ensure that, after mummification, it was delivered to the right address for burial.

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‘View of Medinet El-Fayoum’ (1868-1870) by Jean-Léon Gérôme: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Mummy labels are well known from Roman Egypt. They were usually made out of various types of wood, but other materials like faience and stone were also used. The tags could have different shapes, ranging from a tiny stela to a little tablet with one or two ‘ears’ (‘tabula ansata’). Standard forms such as the rectangle are also attested, such as the tag from the Petrie Museum in our exhibition.

The labels usually had one or more holes, through which a string was passed to append the tag to the mummy's neck or feet: the label on display in Writing: Making Your Mark even preserves the original cord.

The tag could bear writing on one or both sides, and two languages — usually Greek and Egyptian (Demotic) — were often employed on the same object. The text was normally drawn in black ink, but it could also be carved. In some cases, red ink was used.

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This tag from the Petrie Museum (UC 45635), a tabula ansata with one ansa, belonged to a certain Didyme: the text is carved and also drawn with ink © Petrie Museum

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A tag on limestone from the Petrie Museum (UC 34473) in Demotic script, written in red ink © Petrie Museum

Each label recorded details of the deceased for the purpose of identification. Alongside the personal name, additional information such as the names of the father and mother, the deceased's place of origin, their profession, and sometimes the age at the time of the death, could also be recorded. In rare occurrences, even the cause of death is stated. For example, one tag now held in Berlin (SB I 1209) reads: ‘Apollonius, son of Eusebes and Tamis, died because of a scorpion’s bite’.

Mummy labels served an important function. It was essential to be able to identify the embalmed corpse, because the body had to be transported to the cemetery or returned to the home village of the deceased (if they had passed away elsewhere). Papyri sometimes shed further light on how mummies were transported. For example, in the British Library's collection is a letter from a man complaining that the recipients had failed to collect the body of the deceased (possibly their brother), and that they did not pay for the funeral expenses (520 drachmas) (Papyrus 717). However, they did take his belongings …

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A papyrus describing funeral expenses: Papyrus 717 (P.Nekr. 18)

Besides providing identification and instructions as to the transport and shipping of the body, mummy labels sometimes bear drawings such as the dog Anubis (guardian dog of the cemeteries) and symbols like the ankh (life) or, in a Christian environment, the cross. In other cases, wishes for prosperity, phrases of encouragement and condolence, and maxims (such as ‘nobody is immortal’) were added as a means of commemoration and farewell.

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Anubis holding the key (kleidouchos) to the Underworld and a burning torch in a mummy tag from the Liverpool Museum

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A Petrie Museum label (UC 45656) for Socrate, daughter of Cyrillus, featuring the ankh, the symbol of life © Petrie Museum

The majority of mummy labels published to the present day are collected in a database with the wonderful name Death on the Nile. If you want to see one of them in person, we'd love you to visit our exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, which is open at the British Library until 27 August.

 

Federica Micucci

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22 May 2019

Book of Beasts at the Getty

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Bestiaries are one of the most popular medieval texts, describing the characteristics and habits of beasts real and imagined. We are delighted to say that the British Library has loaned six manuscripts to an exciting new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Book of Beasts, curated by Elizabeth Morrison and Larisa Grollemond, explores the wonders of the medieval bestiary tradition, drawing together manuscripts, tapestries and paintings, as well as a variety of other objects.

Two of these British Library loans are magnificent 13th-century English bestiaries. The first (Royal MS 12 C XIX) contains over 80 illustrations of beasts, birds and fish, painted in gold and bright colours. This bestiary is accompanied by several theological works, including extracts from the Book of Genesis and the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636), as well as a number of medical recipes. In the page illustrated here, it tells us that the camel can endure thirst for three days, and that it prefers to drink muddy water.

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A bestiary made in England (c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 33r (detail)

The second manuscript (Royal MS 12 F XIII) is now known as the Rochester Bestiary, because it belonged to the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester. This manuscript includes 55 finished illustrations, although there were spaces left for 126 in total, some with added instructions in Frecnch to an illuminator. The bestiary is followed by a lapidary (an account of the properties of precious stones), written in Anglo-Norman French.

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The lion (the king of the beasts) is usually the first animal to be described in a bestiary, as found in the Rochester Bestiary (c. 1230): Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 4r

Medieval bestiaries were produced in many different forms. Another of the manuscripts on loan to the Getty contains an illustrated aviary (or text about birds) by Hugh of Fouilloy (Sloane MS 278). It is combined with the Dicta Chrysostomi, which survives in very few manuscripts from this period and contains only a small number of accounts of animals, discussed across 27 chapters. Although the title of this text — The Words of John Chrysostom on the Nature of Beasts — suggests that its author was St John Chrysostom, who lived during the 4th century, it was actually written in France around the year 1000.

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A watchful crane raises its foot, in a bestiary with Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium (northern France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 278, f. 27r (detail)

Another bestiary is featured in the theological miscellany pictured below (Harley MS 3244). Made in the middle of the 13th century, the volume is a compilation of texts intended for a Dominican friar, who is depicted kneeling before Christ on f. 27r. Many of its 133 illustrations have unique designs; it includes more images of fish and insects than most other bestiaries that survive from this period, as well as a number of additions to the text itself.  

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An elephant with a ‘castle’ on its back (England, c. 1236–c. 1250): Harley MS 3244, f. 39r (detail)  

The Getty Museum's exhibition examines how artists adapted the stories and images of the bestiary for use in other medieval manuscripts and artworks. For example, we have also loaned an illustrated collection of treatises on heraldry, compiled around 1494 by a certain Adam Loutfut, a Scottish scribe in the service of Sir William Cummyn of Inverellochy (Harley MS 6149). One of its treatises describes the animals that most commonly appear on medieval coats of arms, many of which derive from the bestiary tradition.

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A page from a heraldic treatise by Adam Loutfut, including images of a modewarp (mole), tiger, horse and a bear (Scotland, c. 1494): Harley MS 6149, f. 17r

The final volume in this selection is known as ‘The Northern French Miscellany’ (Add MS 11639), a lavishly illustrated manuscript containing a variety of biblical and theological texts in Hebrew. Numerous inhabited initial-word panels appear throughout the book, some featuring vibrant images of birds and beasts, whose designs are stylistically very similar to the illustrations of bestiary manuscripts.

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An eagle lands upon an unsuspecting duck in this inhabited initial-word panel, from the Northern French Miscellany (southern Germany or France, 1277–1324): Add MS 11639, f. 107r

To explore more of the stories from the medieval ‘book of beasts’, check out our animations about the lives of the Crane and the Whale, both based on accounts and illustrations from another early illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). Our own website also features an article written by Beth Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

Book of Beasts is on at the Getty Center until 18 August. We'd love you to catch it if you're in California this summer.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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12 May 2019

Homer in London

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Currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library are these two images of Hercules, one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. They are found in manuscripts of the Histoire Universelle, a medieval history in French of the ancient world from Genesis to the Romans. The Histoire also features the legends of Ulysses and the Trojan wars, which were very popular in the Middle Ages and were widely adapted, translated and illustrated for medieval audiences. (You can read more about this subject in our previous blogpost about the legend of Troy.)

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Meeting between Hercules and the Queen of the Amazons, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Naples, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 D I, f. 25v

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Battle between Hercules and Antaeus, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Acre, 1275–1291): Add MS 15268, f. 104v

Our Greek manuscripts website includes this video of Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Kings College London, talking about the importance of the Iliad and the Odyssey from Antiquity to the early modern era. The works of Homer are also the focus of two courses being held in London this July, one at the British Library and the other at University College London. Both courses will use digitised manuscripts of Homer’s works to explore how classical works were  transmitted during the Middle Ages.

Writing the Greek Classics at the British Library: 19 June, 26 June and 3 July, 10 July, 17 July (14.00–16.00)

This five-week course will examine the long-documented history of the Greek language and its writing systems, and of Greek classical texts including Homer, which have been part of the education and literary production of the West for centuries.

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A text page with marginal annotations, in the ‘Townley Homer’: Burney MS 86, f. 3r

The British Library has 11 manuscripts of the Iliad (see our previous blogpost, Hooray for Homer). They include the Townley Homer, an 11th-century copy of the Iliad with extensive marginal and interlinear notations or scholia, which show how earlier scholars studied and interpreted the text. The manuscript's former owner, Charles Townley (1737–1805), even had an engraving of a bust of Homer (as well as one of himself) inserted at the beginning of the manuscript.

 

UCL Summer School in Homer 2019: 22–26 July 2019

A palaeography course, introducing the history of Latin scripts from ancient Rome to the invention of printing, will be taught as one of the modules of the University College London’s summer school on Homeric language and literature. Classical texts, especially Homer and related works like Virgil’s Aeneid will be used for transcription.

The British Library has one of only 15 surviving manuscripts of the Ilias Latina, a short Latin summary of the Illiad, attributed to one Publius Baebius Italicus in the time of the emperor Nero. This work, which omits or elaborates many of the Homeric episodes, became part of the medieval school curriculum and had a significant impact on the history and transmission of the Trojan story.  

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A diagram of the Wheel of Fortune illustrating Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, in a collection of works from late Antiquity that includes the Ilias Latina: Add MS 15601, f. 49v 

This copy of the Ilias Latina, from the late 10th or early 11th century, is written in Caroline minuscule. It was owned in the 15th century by the wealthy and prestigious monastery of the Celestines in Avignon.

A much later Greek copy of the Odyssey, the 15th-century Harley MS 5673, has marginal translations and annotations in Latin on some of its pages. This manuscript was bought by Edward Harley, the Georgian collector, for his magnificent library, described by Samuel Johnson as ‘excelling any’, and it entered the British Library as part of the Harley manuscript collection.

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The Odyssey with marginal notes in Greek and Latin: Harley MS 5673, f. 8r

You may also like to know that a variety of ancient scripts, including manuscripts of the classical authors, Aristotle and Cicero, are on display in our new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, open throughout the summer, until 27 August, 2019.

 

                                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 May 2019

How many alphabets?

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The exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, exploring 5,000 years of writing across the globe, is on at the British Library until 27 August. But how many different ways of writing were there?

The manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project were mostly written in medieval Latin, English and French, and in the Roman alphabet; but we have found all kinds of alphabets and sign systems among their leaves, including ciphers, monastic sign language, and many more.

Many Christian scholars in early medieval western Europe might not have been able to read Greek and Hebrew, but they were aware of their importance as the original languages of the Bible. (You can read more about their understanding of Hebrew in this article.) Certain scribes attempted to copy out these alphabets. One such example is found in an 11th-century compilation of scientific works by writers such as Hrabanus Maurus and Isidore of Seville. The scribe copied approximations of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, with the letter names in Latin, but apparently didn’t understand them, as the two alphabets are mixed up with each other.

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A version of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets from Salisbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 45r

Another, somewhat more accurate, example is found in a collection called Scutum Bede, compiled by Geoffrey of Ufford in the 12th century, and made up of historical and grammatical treatises, including lists of kings, a biblical world history, and a trilingual list of animals, plants and stones. This page gives the Hebrew and Greek alphabets together with their names in Latin.

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The Hebrew and Greek alphabets in the Scutum Bede collection of historical and grammatical works, perhaps from Peterborough, c. 1154: Stowe MS 57, f. 3r

Biblical knowledge was not the only source of alternative alphabets. Before Latin literacy was common in England, the runic alphabet was sometimes used for writing inscriptions. The runic letters þ (th) and ƿ (w) were subsequently added to the Roman alphabet, as they were necessary for writing the sounds of English. The 11th-century scientific compilation already mentioned includes three different versions of a runic alphabet, followed by the words ‘pax vobiscum et salus pax’ ('peace and health be with you, peace').

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Three runic alphabets, in a manuscript from Salisbury: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 65r.

Another ancient alphabet is Ogham, used for inscribing stone monuments, usually in Old Irish. The scribe of the Scutum Bede had a go at this: each sign is shown alongside runic letters.

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Ogham-style signs and runic letters, perhaps from Peterborough: Stowe MS 57, f. 3v.

Another writing system was specifically designed for the manuscript page. Tironian notes were attributed to Tiro, the slave and personal secretary to Cicero, and were a kind of shorthand for representing different Latin letters and words. Some of these symbols ended up being used in place of common words in Latin: for example, the symbol ‘7’ was adopted in Old English to mean ‘and’. But there were entire lexicons full of Tironian symbols, including these two manuscripts digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

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A lexicon of Tironian notes from western France, 10th century: Add MS 21164, f. 3r.

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Another lexicon of Tironian notes from central France, 9th century: Add MS 37518, f. 27r

If a scribe had enough knowledge of Tironian notes, they could copy out the entire Psalter in them. This image is from the opening of Psalm 50, ‘Miserere mei Deus’ (‘Have mercy on me, O God’), which, as the rubric in the Roman alphabet explains, was attributed to David after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba. You can see the manuscript in Writing: Making Your Mark.

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A Psalter written in Tironian notes, from north-eastern France, 4th quarter of the 9th century:  Add MS 9046, f. 24v.

Finally, there is the list of symbols found in the Cosmographia, an 8th-century work supposedly by  Aethicus Ister, which describes a journey around the world. One 12th-century copy of the text ends with an alphabet attributed to Aethicus Ister, but it is not one which is known to have been used. So even an entirely fictional alphabet can be found in a manuscript from medieval England.

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The alphabet of Aethicus Ister, with the letter names written out in the Roman alphabet, England, mid-12th century: Cotton MS Appendix LVI, f. 90r.

 

Kate Thomas

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