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120 posts categorized "Greek"

17 February 2019

When love comes knockin’ at your door

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To the joy and relief of some, the magic of Valentine’s Day has now vanished, taking heart-shaped chocolates and romantic cards with it. A different perspective of love is offered by a motif popular in the Classical world: the so-called paraclausithyron.

This term, used by Plutarch (Moralia 753B), refers to a song of lament and despair sung by an ‘excluded lover’ (amator exclusus) at the firmly shut door of their beloved. The lover usually carries a garland and has walked at night by torchlight to reach their beloved’s house, where they plead to be admitted without success.

In Greek literature, the motif occurs in different genres. An illustrious example is found in Theocritus’ Idyll 3, where the lover, a goatherd, begs his mistress Amaryllis to let him come into her cave. He laments in despair:

Just look: there’s such pain in my heart. If only I could turn into a buzzing bee and come into your cave through the ivy and fern that hide you! Now I know what love is: he’s a cruel god. Truly he was suckled by a lioness, and his mother gave birth to him in a thicket: he’s making me smoulder with love and torturing me deep in my bone. (translated by N. Hopkinson)

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The beginning of Theocritus, Idyll 3 (15th century): Add MS 11885, f. 12r

A number of surviving epigrams relate to the scene of the closed door. This one, by the poet Asclepiades of Samos from the 3rd century BC, emphasises the lover's sorrow at not being admitted into the house:

Abide here, my garlands, where I hang ye by this door, nor shake off your leaves in haste, for I have watered you with my tears — rainy are the eyes of lovers. But when the door opens and ye see him, shed my rain on his head, that at least his fair hair may drink my tears. (translated by W. R. Paton)

Another poem by Meleager of Gadara, written roughly 2,100 years ago, contains several elements typical of the motif:

O stars, and Moon, lighting well the way for those disposed to love, and Night, and you, my instrument that accompanies my revels — will I gaze upon my wanton one, still awake on her bed, singed often by her lamp? Or does someone share her bed? I will take off my suppliant garland, douse it with tears, and fix it on her porch, inscribing on it just this: “Cypris, to you Meleager, the initiate in your revels, hung up these spoils of love. (translated by Paton)

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Detail of a heart (15th century): King's MS 322, f. 1r

It is not only male lovers who might be excluded. The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’ (Papyrus 605 verso) relates the lament of an ‘excluded woman’.  The motif of the ‘abandoned woman’ is well-known in Classical mythology: one thinks immediately of poor Ariadne, deserted by Theseus, or Medea who, left by Jason for another woman, killed her own children to punish him.

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Medea killing her children (c. 1450–1460): Harley MS 1766, f. 33r

The text of this papyrus was copied by Dryton, a cavalry-man, after 10 October 174 BC. His family archive is now dispersed across the world. A small fragment in the Sackler Library, Oxford, supplies a few more words of the second column of the British Library papyrus.

The poem has a complex metrical scheme, although its language is simple. It starts abruptly, with the woman remembering the old promise of love, having Aphrodite as a security (all translations by P. Bing):

Our feelings were mutual, we bound ourselves together. (ll. 1–2)

The tender memories of the past torture her, because her lover has proven to be an ‘inventor of confusion’ (l. 7). An invocation to the stars and night begins her journey to the house:

O beloved starts and lady Night, companions in my desire, take me even now to him. (ll. 11–12)

The trip is lightened not by a torch, but by the fire that enkindles her soul:

My guide is the potent torch that’s ablaze in my soul. (ll. 15–16)

The woman pleads to be admitted in a vortex of feelings, being mad, jealous and ready to submit to her beloved. After all, ‘if you devote yourself to just one, you will just go crazy’ (l. 31), she explains. She has a ‘stubborn temper’ when she gets in a fight (ll. 33–34), yet she now seeks reconciliation. Unfortunately, the second column of the papyrus is fragmentary.

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The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’: Papyrus 605 verso

Ancient authors had different views on these lovers’ practices. Plato considered that imploring one's beloved and sleeping on doorsteps was a form of slavery (Symposium 183A), whereas Plutarch thought that serenading and decorating the beloved’s threshold with garlands might bring some ‘alleviation that is not without charm or grace’ (De cohibenda ira 455B–C).

We should add a word of warning. Should you plan to serenade your lover, make sure that the right person is listening. In Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, two young lovers exchange love songs. One of them invokes his beloved to open the door, but the person who opens it is not exactly whom the young man was hoping for …

 

Federica Micucci

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09 February 2019

Easy as ABC?

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Do you know your ABC? How about your ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚱ ᚳ ? Or your ᚁ ᚂ ᚃ ?

The inhabitants of the British Isles in the first millennium spoke many different languages and wrote in several alphabets. Variant writing systems identified from early Anglo-Saxon England — some of which can be viewed in our stellar Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — include runes, ogham and Greek, and even attempts at replicating Hebrew and Arabic letters.

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The back of the Harford Farm Brooch includes a runic inscription which says ‘Luda repaired [or makes reparations by] this brooch’ (England, c. 610–650): Norwich Castle Museum 1994.5.78

Runes were used to represent the earliest Germanic languages, including early forms of Old English and the Scandinavian languages. The earliest surviving examples of these angular letters were incised into metal, stone, wood or ceramics. We know that each of these runes had a name, taken from a noun that started with that rune: for example, (n) was called nyd (need), while (th) was called thorn (thorn), perhaps because the symbol itself looks slightly like a branch with thorn. In the 10th century, someone added the names to a runic alphabet on the back of a copy of the Old English version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

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Runes copied in the 10th century, with their names added in the 11th century: Cotton MS Domitian A IX, f. 11v

Even though the Latin alphabet was eventually adapted to write English, runes did not cease to be used in Anglo-Saxon England. Several objects from the 7th to the 11th centuries feature runic inscriptions. Some surviving blades and scabbards feature the names of their early owners in runes or cryptic, talismanic inscriptions.

The Ruthwell Cross features the ‘Dream of the Rood’ poem inscribed in runes around its sides. Even when writing in Latin letters, the Anglo-Saxons used runes to represent sounds in their language which were not present in the Roman alphabet, such as æ, th (represented by þ or the adapted Latin letters Ð, ð), and w (Ƿ). Some of these letters are still used in Icelandic and Faroese spelling to this day.

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A scribe from 10th-century England practised his alphabet in the margins of this 9th-century copy of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, f. 117v 

Another non-Latin alphabet known in England in the first millennium was ogham. This writing system is formed of lines carved at different angles around a central line. Examples of ogham inscriptions have been found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and beyond. On display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is a knife inscribed with ogham that was found in South-West Norfolk.

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A knife with an ogham inscription, from Norwich Castle Museum

Ogham script was certainly known to Byrhtferth of Ramsey in the late 10th or early 11th century, and by the scribes who copied his work in the 12th century. Ogham occurs in a 12th-century copy of his diagram (in Oxford, St John’s College, MS 17), although not in the version in Harley MS 3667. Perhaps the scribe of the Harley manuscript omitted the symbols because he did not understand them.

Alphabets from other parts of the world were known to certain Anglo-Saxons. Greek letters appear in some early medieval English manuscripts. Knowledge of Greek in Anglo-Saxon England may be associated with the school run by Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian in Canterbury in the late 7th and early 8th century. Theodore was from the Greek-speaking part of the Mediterranean and became archbishop of Canterbury in 668. Bede used the Greek alphabet in mathematical calculations and recommended it for creating codes. Some early medieval scribes also tried to imitate Hebrew letters, with somewhat less success. 

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Greek letters, in red, spelling the Latin phrase ‘Deo Gratias’: Harley MS 5431, f. 106v

One incredible survival featured in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is a coin of King Offa (d. 796) that imitates the Arabic script on a dinar of Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (AH 136–58/ AD 754–75). The Mercian moneyer who made the coin did not copy the letters correctly and clearly could not read Arabic.

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Gold dinar of Offa of Mercia: British Museum, CM 1913,1213.1

You can see many of these alphabets for yourself in the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which is open until 19 February. We recommend that you check availability before you travel as many time-slots are already full.

 

Alison Hudson

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21 January 2019

Cataloguing Greek papyri at the British Library: new PhD placement position

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According to conventional estimates, the British Library holds some 3,136 glazed Greek and Latin papyri. This may well convey the exact number, but the actual figure is potentially much more, given that certain glass frames may contain several unrelated papyrus fragments (for example, Papyrus 113(9)).

The Library's papyri cover all phases of the ‘Greek millennium’ of Egypt’s history and many areas of the country. They were digitised in 2016–2017, thanks to the joint efforts of staff from Western Heritage Collections, the Library's Conservation Centre and and our Imaging Studios, producing images of extremely high resolution. The project itself might be compared to one of the labours of Heracles, given the number of papyri and the size of some of them. This first stage was presented at the ‘Third Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting’ held at Cambridge University Library in 2017.

Following digitisation, the papyri are now being catalogued: this phase started exactly one year ago and since then the Library's online catalogue has already been enriched with some 300 records. The high resolution images have been added to our Digitised Manuscripts site, while some of the papyri have been published in a new viewer, as the example below shows.

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Hyperides' Pro Lycophrone and Pro Euxenippo (P.Lond.Lit. 132): Papyrus 115

Many important papyri held at the Library are now available online. They include literary texts such as Pindar’s Paeans (Papyrus 1842); the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia (Papyrus 1843); and Bacchylides’ Epinician Odes and Dithyrambs (Papyrus 733), as well as interesting documents that shed light on administration and everyday life in Egypt during the Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine periods.

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Columns 8-10 of Bacchylides: Papyrus 733(1)

The first results of this cataloguing project were presented at the ‘Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting’, which took place at the British Library in June 2018. If you want to read more about this gathering of scholars and specialists from all over the world, read our blogpost Reunion and reunification.

Collaborations with other institutions have contributed to enriching the British Library's online catalogue. Attendees of the ‘2018 Heidelberg Research Webinar on BL Greek Papyri’ have studied and produced metadata for a number of published and unpublished texts, now available on Digitised Manuscripts. The PLATINUM project (Papyri and LAtin Texts: INsights and Updated Methodologies) has also contributed to the cataloguing of our Latin papyri, recently discovering a unique piece written in Arabic but with Roman characters (Papyrus 3124).

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A drawing in Papyrus 123, catalogued by the participants of the Heidelberg Webinar

These achievements combine with exciting projects in the near future. A new training and development opportunity as part of the British Library's PhD research placement scheme has arisen for doctoral students focusing on Greek papyri. The student will join a lively team for three months (or part-time equivalent), gaining first-hand experience in working with the Library's papyri. They will contribute towards the cataloguing associated with this project, enabling the digitised images to be described and published on the Library’s online catalogue and viewer. The placement student will also contribute to blogposts, and will support other Library activities to promote the collection and its international importance.

The deadline for applications is Monday, 18 February 2019. Full details on how to apply and the placement profile are available here.

 

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28 September 2018

Breaking news ...

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It is always exciting to announce acquisitions of new manuscripts by the British Library, but in this case the relevance is doubled: the title of the newly-acquired piece is itself “Breaking News”.

At a recent auction, the British Library was successful in acquiring an 18th-century Greek manuscript. Written in a neat hand on paper, this thin volume bears its title on the first page: “Breaking news from Europe – October 1740”.

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Title page of “Breaking News”: Add MS 89320, f. 2r

This manuscript is a collection of political reports from various parts of Europe, submitted possibly to the patriarch of Constantinople, Paisius II, perhaps by his agents and spies. The main focus is reports on Russia and the Hapsburg Empire, but the volume contains material from many parts of the world, including Germany, London and India.

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A report from London, 15 September 1740: Add MS 89320, f. 3r

Having been under Ottoman Rule for almost 300 years, the patriarchal court in 18th-century Constantinople was very keen to secure foreign support for its endeavours against the Ottoman Empire. Its main attention was directed towards Russia, from where they hoped to gain financial and military support to liberate Constantinople from the Ottomans, by relying on their shared orthodox faith.

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A report from St Petersburg: Add MS 89320, f. 14v

It is no wonder that the “breaking news” collected in this little volume includes detailed reports from St Petersburg. The Russian political situation at this time was rather complicated. The ruler, the Tsaritsa Anna, had died in 1740, leaving a two-month-old baby, Ivan VI, as her legitimate heir. Ivan was enthroned in October of the same year as this manuscript was made.

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“Copy of the report of the Longobard Imperial Surgeon" on the Death of Empress Anna of Russia

The patriarch of Constantinople was obviously interested in these events. “Breaking News” contains a fresh Greek translation of the medical report on the Empress’s death and a copy of the new Emperor’s manifest, followed by a short evaluation of the current political situation of the Empire.

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Armorial bookplate of Sir Frederick North on the inner side of the front board with "No 20" inscribed in ink

Reports by spies are always fun to read. Doubtless Patriarch Paisius II of Constantinople himself enjoyed flipping through this booklet in 1740, but so did others. Early in the 19th century, the manuscript was already in the collection of one of the most famous English collectors of Greek books and manuscripts, Frederick North, later Earl of Guilford.

Sir Frederick was an obsessed philihellenic: he read, collected and lived the Hellenic culture. He was the founder of the Ionian Academy in 1817 and later converted to Greek orthodoxy. His main interest was not only in ancient and Byzantine culture but even more in contemporary Greek literature, politics and religion. He collected an extraordinary amount of primary sources in Greek and Turkish alike for the history of the Greek Orthodox Church under the Ottomans, of which this manuscript was a part. “Breaking News” is already listed in the hand-written catalogue of his Greek manuscripts.

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The “Breaking News” in Sir Thomas Phillipps’s collection (Catalogus librorum manuscriptorum in bibliotheca D. Thomae Phillipps, Typis Medio-Montanis, 1837, p. 109. No. 7242)

His collection was so large that, after his death in 1827 it was sold at a series of auctions held in London. More than 600 of these manuscripts were purchased by the British Museum in 1830, one of its largest early purchases. “Breaking News”, however, was not amongst them, since it had been acquired by another even grander collector of manuscripts, Sir Thomas Phillipps, as MS 7242 in his collection.

After the dispersal of the Phillipps manuscripts through a century of various sales, “Breaking News” has finally found its way back to its original collection. It is now part of the largest single holding of Lord Guilford’s Greek manuscripts. Acquisitioned, catalogued, digitised and published online as Add MS 89320, the “Breaking News” from 1740 has made it into the news again.

15 August 2018

New papyrus position at the British Library

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The British Library is delighted to be able to offer a full time papyrus cataloguing and researcher post to work on our world-famous collection of Greek and Latin papyri. This one-year, fixed-term position will be based in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Library’s Western Heritage Collections department in London.

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Drawing from a collection of magical spells, Egypt (Hermopolis), 5th century: Papyrus 122

The British Library holds one of the world's most important collections of Greek papyri. Its diverse holdings comprise unique witnesses of Greek classical literature, early biblical fragments, magical papyri and an extensive corpus of Greek documentary papyri. This collection of more than 3000 items is now being fully digitised and published online. Newly created images, accompanied with new catalogue entries, will be accessible on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site as well as in a new viewer with additional functionalities to enhance further research.

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The Constitution of Athens, Papyrus 131, in our new Universal Viewer

The post-holder will contribute towards the cataloguing associated with this digitisation project. They will create and enhance catalogue entries for the newly-digitised items and will oversee the processing of digital images. Using their specialist knowledge of Greek papyrology and expertise in Ancient Greek and Latin, the cataloguer will be expected to promote the papyrus collection to a wide range of audiences using the Medieval Manuscripts Blog and Twitter feed, as well as participating in events at the Library.

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A 6th-century Latin papyrus fragment of a homily by Gregory the Great: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

This post provides the opportunity for someone with a strong background in Greek papyrology to join a dynamic and diverse team to support the full digitisation and online presentation of one of the world’s greatest collections of Greek papyri.

To apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers. Full details of the position (reference 02248) can be found here.

Closing date: 9 September 2018

Interviews will be held on: 19 September 2018

24 July 2018

Reunion and Reunification: The Fourth Annual Meeting of Papyrus Curators and Conservators

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It has become a summer tradition that curators and conservators of papyrus collections from across the UK meet every June to share their experiences of working with Ancient Egyptian and Greek papyri. After the first two meetings hosted by the British Museum, and the third one at Cambridge University Library, the fourth gathering was held here at the British Library.

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The end of Book 4 of Homer’s Iliad in a 1st-century Greek papyrus: Papyrus 136(3)

During its first three years the meeting expanded considerably. In addition to representatives from collections in the UK and Ireland, colleagues from Germany, France, Austria and even Australia attended this year's conference. This provided an excellent opportunity to discuss various aspects of collection management, cataloguing and conservation, sometimes with startling results.

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Conference programme of the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting at the British Library

This year’s presentations began by highlighting the British Library's recent programme to digitise, catalogue and publish its papyri online: a full list of those already available can be downloaded here. After a session on online papyrus databases, the following international collections introduced their holdings: the Petrie Museum, London; the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin; Trinity College Dublin; Oxyrhynchus Collection, Oxford; Papyrussamlung, Berlin; University Library Leipzig; the National Library of Austria; and the Macquarie University, Sydney.

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Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens (Papyrus 131) on the British Library’s new image viewer

One of the most important lessons we continue to learn is the benefit of co-operation. A collaboration between the British Museum and the British Library to digitise and share the Museum's archival records will support the cataloguing of the 4,146 Greek ostraca held at the British Library. Co-operation with the Berlin-based Elephantine project, collecting and making an inventory of all written and artefact sources from the Egyptian town of Elephantine, has contributed to the discovery of 100 new ostraca from that site, and will result in the imaging and online publication of more than 250 Greek ostraca from the Library's collection.

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Great Doxology in Greek from the 6th century Ostracon 5878 captured in 3D

The most revelatory part of the gathering was when not only colleagues but also collection items met each other. A great example occurred when two parts of a long papyrus roll, one in Berlin and the other in London and both previously considered to be separate fragments, turned out to complement each other, providing us with a complete roll from the 4th century.

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Image of the join of the British Library’s Papyrus 47 and Berlin Staatliche Museen P 5026

This recent discovery by a Greek scholar has now been physically tested. A printout of the Berlin fragment (P 5026), presented by colleagues from the Papyrussammlung, was attached to the British Library piece to reveal how neatly the two portions match. Lines broken at the end of the Library's roll continue on its Berlin counterpart. This creates a long scroll containing magical spells, evoking a gruesome headless demon to reveal secrets to the sorcerer.

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Marginal note in the lower right margin of the British Library’s Papyrus 47 running over to the left margin of Berlin Papyrussamlung P. 5026.

We may never discover how the roll became separated, but we hope that discussions and reunions like we saw this year will lead to further discoveries and reunifications. To be continued at the next meeting in the Chester Beatty Library in 2019 ...

 

Peter Toth

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12 June 2018

The Serres Gospels goes online

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In this spectacular portrait, Jacob, bishop of Serres (b. 1300, d. 1365), humbly presents his Gospel-book to Christ. He is shown at the end of a copy of the Four Gospels in Old Church Slavonic, known as the Serres Gospels. This book is now completely digitised, and is available to view online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

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Portrait of Jacob of Serres: Add MS 39626, f. 292v

Jacob lived in turbulent times. He rose to prominence through the patronage of Stefan Dušan, who became king of Serbia in 1331 and thereafter expanded his territories. Dušan initially appointed Jacob as the first abbot of his newly-built monastery of the Holy Archangels near Prizren, which eventually became Dušan’s burial place. He then promoted Jacob to the position of bishop of Serres after conquering the city in 1345.

Perhaps acknowledging the exceptional circumstances that led to its creation, the Serres Gospels contains a lengthy inscription explaining that it was made for Jacob at the Metropolitan Church of St Theodore in Serres, in 1354, in the time of Tsar Stefan Dušan, his wife Helena, their son Kral Uros, and the Patriarch Joanikije (who died on 3 September 1354, providing the latest possible date for the manuscript). At the end of the inscription, the scribe signed his name in the shape of a cross as Kallist Rasoder. Rasoder is an epithet referring to ragged clothes, suggesting Kallist’s commitment to a life of humble austerity.

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End of the colophon with the scribe's signature: Add MS 39626, f. 293v

In contrast to its austere scribe, the Serres Gospels is gloriously lavish. Throughout the manuscript, headings, initial letters and punctuation marks are written in gold, and each of the four books of the Gospels begins with a panel of ornament (a headpiece) painted in gold and rich colours.

Most impressive of all is the manuscript’s only full-page picture, the portrait of Jacob making his donation (pictured above). Unusually, it was made by gilding the entire surface within the frame, and then painting over the top of the gold. Where the paint has worn away, you can see the gold shining through underneath. This difficult and expensive technique makes the picture brilliantly luminous.

Jacob is depicted in his clerical robes standing in a supplicant posture with his bejewelled manuscript before him — a self-reference to the Serres Gospels. The inscription beside him supplies his speech: ‘This tetraevangelion (Gospel-book) I am offering to Thee, Christ, my Lord’. Jacob’s face is delicately painted and expressive, and he gazes imploringly at the viewer with deep blue eyes. In the top right, Christ emerges from the heavens to receive his gift.

The inscription in the roundel above contains a poetic prayer from the vespers service of the Sunday before the Great Lent: ‘While the Judge is sitting and angels standing before [Him], while the trumpet is sounding and the flame is burning, what will you do, o my soul brought to judgement? Then thy evil deeds will be brought before [Him] and thy secret sins will be revealed. But before the end, beseech Christ the Lord: God make me pure and save me’.

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Opening to the Gospel of Matthew: Add MS 39626, f. 5r

Despite Stefan Dušan’s death in 1355, Jacob maintained his office as bishop of Serres until his own death in 1365. His manuscript continued to be treasured, and today survives as testament to the spiritual devotion and artistic magnificence of its age.

 

Eleanor Jackson

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09 June 2018

Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts added to Memory of the World register

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We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation. 

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A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.

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A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

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The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r

The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.

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Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r

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The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83

Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.

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In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. You can read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide here.

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The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r 

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Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v

You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.

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Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

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Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. The full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register can be accessed here.

Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.

 

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