04 December 2020
Steam engines are heat-operated devices which use the force of steam pressure to generate rotational force. The importance of steam-generated energy for human history can hardly be overestimated. Without steam engines and the machines, trains and ships they powered, industrialisation, globalisation and economic growth would all have taken radically different shape.
The invention of the steam engine is usually ascribed to British engineers of the 17th and 18th centuries. James Watt (d. 1819) is best known for inventing an especially efficient type of the engine in 1786, which was applied first to trains and then in the early 19th century to ships. It is much less known that the engine was invented in the 1st century AD by Greek engineers of Alexandria, more than 1,500 years before Watt. The British Library holds a remarkable collection of Greek manuscripts that describe and illustrate these early steam engines in great detail. More information can be found in Ian Ruffell's article, Greek mechanical texts.
The most important authority in mechanics from Antiquity was Hero of Alexandria, who lived in the 1st century AD. Relying on the work of earlier scientists, Hero compiled a number of treatises on mechanics, physics and war machinery, which were often richly illustrated.
The title-page of a copy of Hero’s Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)
One of Hero's works, entitled Pneumatics after the Greek word (pneuma) for air and gases, contains descriptions of a number of machines and automata that made use of gases and steam in various ways. One of these was a construction that fulfilled exactly how a steam engine should convert steam pressure to rotational force. Fortunately, the manuscripts contain illustrations of the machine Heron described, so we have a reliable image of what this Greek scientist may have had in mind.
Hero’s steam engine from his Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Harley MS 5589, f. 12v (detail)
Hero’s device was very simple. It consisted of a cauldron under which a fire was ignited. The cauldron contained water and was covered by a lid with two bent tubes (marked ξ and μ on the illustration) connecting to a ball (λ), which had two nozzles (θ and κ) pointing in opposite directions. Once heated underneath, the steam went through the pipes into the hollow ball and exited through the two nozzles in opposite directions, resulting in a rotational movement of the ball in order to achieve a steady speed. Hero’s description was so accurate that it has been possible today to recreate a fully operational version.
A modern replica of Hero’s steam engine (credit Wikimedia Commons)
Surprisingly, the ancient scientists do not seem to have recognised the revolutionary potential of their invention. The machine, along with a number of similar constructions preserved in these manuscripts, seems to have served very unpractical purposes. Many of these automata were designed only to entertain and surprise the guests at banquets and feasts, having figures of animals or mythical figures that moved around and had water flowing through them.
Hero’s installation for animating birds in fountains, from a collection of mechanical texts (Venice, 16th century): Burney MS 108, f. 42v (detail)
Hero used some of his automata for cultic and religious purposes. He constructed a special system to open temple doors without any human interaction. In one construction he even designed trumpets to be sounded at the opening of the gates. There were sacrificial pyres that lit up at the sound of the trumpet to praise the power of the gods. Rather than machines to help the production of goods and sustain economic growth, ancient engineers explicitly considered their inventions only as devices which, as the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote in the first century AD, 'show the mighty and wonderful laws of heavens and Nature'.
The design of an animated model of a sanctuary from a copy of Hero's Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 20r (detail)
Hidden in this context, Hero’s designs and illustrations were forgotten and barely copied for centuries until the Renaissance. It was only with the arrival of Greek intellectuals to Florence that manuscripts of Hero’s works, with their rich illustrative tradition, reached Europe, where humanists were amazed by their scientific content.
Marginal annotations in Latin to one of Hero’s designs, comparing it to other ancient scientific sources, from a copy of the Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)
Around this time there arose a great demand for copies of Hero’s works. 15th- and 16th-century illustrated manuscripts of his treatises abound and were soon dispersed across Europe. Hero’s texts were translated into Latin and Italian and printed several times. His designs, originally intended for entertainment and worship, had now become practical guides for further experiments and new discoveries. In the hands of the engineers of the 17th and 18th century, they became the blueprints for a more elaborate and effective steam engine that could be used in factories, trains and ships.
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21 September 2020
Camels are an iconic part of the Egyptian landscape. Called the ships of the desert for their endurance and ability to cope with the heat and lack of water, they are still used for transportation and as a tourist attraction in the shadows of the pyramids.
A man riding a camel in a medieval bestiary (England, possibly Rochester, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 38v (detail)
But has this always been the case? Despite their archaeologically documented presence in North Africa for thousands of years, camels are hardly ever named in Egyptian documents of the Pharaonic period. They are first mentioned as animals used to transport goods and people in much later Greek documents.
One of the first sources to mention how camels were used is a papyrus in the British Library's collection, dating from around 2,280 years ago. This fragmentary piece comes from a Greek account-book, recording the costs of a private businessman who was renting out his camels. Although the papyrus is damaged, it shows that this man may have had at least 60 camels in his possession, and that he regularly rented them to local farmers, whose names are recorded in the document. Two of them, Onnophris and Eudemos, may have been regular customers as their names were recorded on consecutive days, hiring 5, 6 or as many as 10–12 camels at a time.
Fragments from the account-book of a camel agent (Egypt, Philadelphia, meris of Herakleides, 263–229BC): Papyrus 2692 (detail)
Unfortunately, the text does not record what these people used the camels for, but it is interesting to note that these early documents tend to mention the existence of camel agents renting out the animals, rather than camels owned by individuals. Could this be a sign that they were too expensive to own and cheaper to rent?
The camel in a medieval bestiary (England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 24r (detail)
Whatever the truth, this situation seems to have changed significantly within a couple of centuries. From the first and second centuries AD — about 1,800–1,900 years ago — there are far more papyri mentioning camels. Moreover, there is a shift in the way they were kept and used.
Apart from agents having more camels for rent, we find individuals keeping one or two of them for their own use. In a report to the local police from AD 175, the priests of a temple complained that out of their four camels, a nice white female had been stolen, and they asked the authorities to help them get it back.
Fragment of a petition to the local authorities reporting the theft of a white female camel (Pelusion, Egypt, c. AD 175): Papyrus 363
In a letter from about 20 years later, we learn that the prefect of a province ordered two camels for his private use, which were then delivered to him.
A letter from Tithioeis to Irenion mentioning the delivery of some camels for the prefect (Egypt, 3rd century AD): Papyrus 479
Besides these more institutional users, we find an increasing number of contracts attesting that other individuals had started to buy camels. It appears from these documents that camels were around 8 times more expensive than donkeys or mules. Female camels were especially valuable and were often sold with their foals for very high prices. For example, a contract from AD 177 records that a white female camel and two foals were sold for 900 drachmas, while at the same time one could buy a donkey for about 120–150 drachmas.
The beginning of a contract for the sale of a female camel and two foals for at least 900 drachmas (Arsinoite nome, Egypt, October AD 177/178/179): Papyrus 1100
Camels were relatively expensive. This must explain why some documents attest that people often purchased only a part of a camel. A contract from 1,850 years ago records that a woman with her three daughters bought one third of two camels from her own son for 400 drachmas. The document shows not only that the whole camel would have been very expensive (about 600 drachmas) but also how people shared camels between them.
Contract of a sale of a third share in two female camels for a sum of 400 drachmas (Soknopaiou Nesos (Dimeh), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 11 October AD 166): Papyrus 333
It was not only the purchase price of the animal that made it so expensive. Once you owned a camel, you had to register it with the local authorities and pay tax for it, which was higher than the amount charged for other animals. This may explain why in AD 163 Harpagathes was so quick to report to the council that his two camels, registered the previous year, had been requisitioned by the governor to serve in his caravan, so Harpagathes should not pay taxes for them.
Declaration of camels (Soknopaiou Nesos (Dimeh), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt. 29 January, AD 163): Papyrus 328
Apart from taxes, camels incurred other customs duties. Once they entered a city or a specific area, they had to pay a toll at the gates, which was higher than that issued to donkeys. As the surviving receipts attest, camels received a special permit on these occasions with a seal attached to the document.
A receipt acknowledging the payment of customs dues by Abous for exporting vetch on a camel, bearing a seal (Philopator alias Theogenous, meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 2nd century AD): Papyrus 386C
The ancient documents preserved among the Greek papyri at the British Library may look dull at first sight, but they record precious information. They provide a fascinating picture about the increasing use of camels in Egypt over a period of some four to five centuries, as well as giving us an insight into the everyday life of the people who owned or rented them.
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15 September 2020
Identifying people correctly has always been a challenge. Even in ancient times, there were different ways to ensure that a person acting in a legal case, such as a sale, lease, adoption or inheritance, was who they claimed to be.
The most obvious identification is to record the individual's name, but this was not as straightforward as one may think. To avoid confusion of people with the same names, people in ancient Greece had their personal name appended with that of their father. On this 2500-year-old pottery sherd, which an Athenian citizen used to vote for Pericles to be exiled from the city, he identified the right Pericles by putting down his name accompanied by Xanthippos, the name of his father. This practice of recording the person and their father’s name is reflected even in English personal names. If someone is called George Harrison, that would have been read as George who is Harry’s son.
Piece of a pottery dish inscribed with the name of Pericles ('Pericles son of Xanthippus') submitted in a vote to exile him from Athens (Athens, mid-5th century BC): Athens, Agora Museum P 16755 (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
In Egypt, the system was the same but it was often the master whose name was listed after a personal name. This double identification was not always satisfactory. In a simple declaration of camels from AD 146, the declarant accurately identified himself with his own name and that of his father and grandfather: 'I Stotoetis, son of Stotoetis, grandson of Stotoetis'. All three generations had the same name.
Name of the declarant Sotoetis, son of Sototetis, son of Sotoetis, from the upper part of a papyrus sheet (Soknopaiou Nesos, Egypt, AD 146): Papyrus 390 (detail)
The situation was even more complicated if the different parties to the transaction had the same name. In a lease from AD 94, in which Hereius leased a large property to two tenants, these leasees were called Stotoetis of Apynchis and Stotoetis son of Stotoetis. In a sales contract from AD 166, we find women acting together with their families, whose names were all listed. To the probable horror of the clerk, all were called Stotoetis:
'Thases daughter of Stotoetis son of Horus, and her son Stotoetis son of Stotoetis son of Stotoetis, acknowledge that they received 14 silver drachmas as earnest money for a property from Taoues daughter of Stotoetis son of Stotoetis, and her husband Pabous son of Satabous son of Harpagathes.'
The beginning of a sales contract with a list of the parties involved (Neilopolis (Tell el-Rusas), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, AD 166): Papyrus 334 (detail)
Keeping order in such a jungle of names would be easier today. The parties might be asked to provide their passport or photo ID, for instance, each with a unique number allocated to it, making it simpler to identify everyone. In the absence of such an option, ancient clerks reverted to another solution: they gave an accurate description of what the parties actually looked like.
The notary recording the above sale in AD 146 AD described each of the women and their families at their first mention in the document. This is how we know that Thases daughter of Stotoetis son of Horus 'was about 50 years old' (her exact date of birth was probably not recorded) and that 'she had a scar above the left elbow'. Her son Stotoetis son of Stotoetis son of Stotoetis was about 30 and 'had a scar on the right side of his forehead'.
Large fragment from a papyrus sheet, containing a contract of a land sale (Krokodilopolis, Egypt, 107 BC): Papyrus 657 (detail)
In another sales contract from more than 2100 years ago, the two sisters selling the property to a man are described even more accurately: 'Taous, daughter of Harpos, is about 48, medium height, fair skinned, round faced, straight nosed with a scar on her forehead.' Her sister looked very similar: 'she is about 42, medium height, fair skinned, round faced, straight nosed with a scar on her forehead.' Reading these descriptions one can almost visualize the faces of these two ancient women. They may have resembled the face of a lady recorded on one of the portraits found with mummies in the Faiyum Oasis of Egypt.
An even earlier document from 242 BC preserves the will of a man described meticulously for identification: 'He was 65 years old, of middle height, square built, dim-sighted, with a scar on the left part of the temple and on the right side of the jaw and also below the cheek and above the upper lip.'
Fragment from a papyrus sheet preserving the testament of a man (Philadelphia, Egypt, 242 BC): Papyrus 2332 (detail)
This elderly man, in the latter stages of his life, but strong in stature, may have been not unlike this portrait from another coffin in the Faiyum.
Reading these ancient descriptive IDs, one may suppose they were made up on the spot by the clerks themselves. But this may not always have been the case. In another papyrus from more than 2280 years ago, we read about the appointment of new stone-cutters for a project. Before they started their new jobs, the workers were presented to a committee, in order to take down their descriptions.
Fragment from a papyrus sheet, containing a letter concerning stone-cutters (Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 260-249BC): Papyrus 514
The document does not say more about these descriptions and how they were recorded and preserved, but we assume that they could have been used in legal transactions. The accurate descriptions of the parties in various documents, recording distinctive marks and features of the individuals involved, may reflect some kind of archived identification of these people. Whatever the truth, these ancient IDs have preserved unique shots of everyday women, men and children, comparable to the famous Faiyum Portraits.
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14 July 2020
The Greek and Latin papyri, ostraca and tablets of the British Library provide incomparably rich sources for learning about ordinary people, whose lives and words remained otherwise unrecorded for many centuries. One of the most intriguing perspectives these sources reveal is on families and children. We have recently published an article surveying documents that illustrate aspects of the lives of children in Egypt between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD, from their infancy and early school years to their marriage and first jobs.
An especially well-documented phase of the life of children is their schooling from primary to secondary or higher education. There is another aspect of school documents, however, which is just as important and fascinating as that of the children – the teachers.
Notes, methods and even names of teachers survive in surprisingly large numbers in our collection of papyri and writing tablets. These give us intriguing details about how the foundations of literacy and numeracy were laid down thousands of years ago.
The first stage was learning to read. The way to achieve this was simple but not very easy. Similar to modern-day school education, children were first taught to recognise syllables and read them one by one to form the words. The difference between current and ancient practice, however, was that in ancient schools the texts used for this purpose were not easy reads as nowadays, but samples taken from classical authors.
Written with black ink on a whitened board, this 1800-year-old wooden tablet contains 5 lines from Book 3 of Homer’s Iliad copied in the neat hand of a teacher. Compared to the economic layout of texts in contemporary manuscripts where there were usually no spaces left between the words, on this tablet Homer’s words are neatly divided to make it easier to read. Moreover, the teacher placed strokes above the lines to mark the end of the syllables in each word. This practice, unknown in manuscripts designed for advanced readers, shows that the board was probably used to teach children to recognise and read in syllables.
The larger size of the wooden board – about the same as our A4 instead of the more standard A5 format of waxed school tablets – suggests that it was used for demonstration purposes. It may have served either as a blackboard in a classroom or a sample circulated in class. It is not hard to imagine the children holding and studying it, trying to decipher and read out the lines from Homer’s Iliad, ‘Sun, who be-hold-est all things and hear-est all’ (Iliad iii, 276).
Another, slightly different, reading exercise survives on a late 3rd-century papyrus roll that contains the text of Psalms 12-15. The layout of the text on the papyrus is the same as it would be in a standard manuscript with the text arranged in two columns with no space left between the words.
However, the large, circle-shaped marks above the lines, neatly arranged over each of the syllables of the words, suggest that the papyrus roll was also used in school education. It may have been designed for more advanced readers who no longer needed spaces between the words but who would still need some help to recognise syllables to ease reading of the rather complicated text of the Psalms.
Interestingly, the other side of the roll contains a classical text from the 4th-century BC rhetorician Isocrates, which has also been supplied with syllable marks. This shows how classical ‘pagan’ and Judaeo-Christian texts were used together in primary education of the late 3rd to early 4th century.
Another 2nd-century document shows how writing was taught in ancient schools. This little wax tablet, consisting of two parts to be folded up as a booklet, was a star item of the British Library’s recent exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark. Scratched in the upper part of the waxed surface are two lines of a maxim, ‘Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours’, in the beautifully tidy hand of a teacher. The pupil copied it out below, with mistakes and irregularities that are detailed in a separate article.
Wax tablets were perfect for use in schools. Writing in wax was easy to correct because you could erase the words by smoothing the wax with the other end of the stylus. Additionally, the child could place their stylus in the teacher’s deeply scratched lines and follow the letter shapes to learn how to imitate the script. The tablet shows very clearly how the individual hand of a teacher could influence the handwriting of generations in the future.
In addition to actual teaching aids used in class, there are unique survivals of teachers’ private notes. This set of eight little wooden tablets from about 1800 years ago preserves the handy notebook of a teacher who put his name, 'Epaphroditos', on the first tablet to mark his possession. The eight wooden boards would have been fastened together by cords passed through two holes in one of the longer sides of each of the tablets. Each side of the eight boards was neatly numbered on the left to facilitate orientation.
The texts are recorded in the rapid and practised cursive hand of a teacher, neatly organised into units for teaching probably at an elementary school. The left-hand side of page 8, for example, shows the letters of the alphabet with notes placed next to each clarifying whether the letter is a vowel (long or short or both), or a simple (such as K) or compound (such as X) consonant. On the right-hand side there is a list of short riddles in the form of questions and answers such as ‘what makes life sweet – happiness’. These may have been used as writing samples for wax-tablet homework-books like the one above.
The unique collections of papyri and tablets in the British Library show not only the labour of the children learning to read and write but also pay tribute to the generations of teachers, whose tireless educational work ensured that classical and Christian Greek and Latin texts came down to us.
You can find out more about the lives and education of children in Egypt between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD in our article on the Greek webspace.
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18 June 2020
We think we can write on anything: notebooks, phones, touchscreens, walls, blackboards or occasionally even our own hand. But using rubbish from the bin probably sounds a bit much.
In the classical and late antique world this was different. In times when purchasing a sheet of papyrus or parchment was a considerable investment, people had to make alternative arrangements. This is how rubbish started to be recycled for writing.
Ancient rubbish heaps were especially rich in broken pottery dishes. Vases, cups, jars and all kinds of home pottery utensils were widely used and broken all over the ancient Mediterranean. From the early 5th century BC, their sherds were already reused for writing.
In ancient Athens, fragments of painted pottery vases were used to record names of individuals whom the Athenians wanted to send into exile. Names of the unwanted were scratched on pieces of pottery – called ostraca in Greek. Those whose names featured on the most ostraca were then exiled – 'ostracised' – for 10 years from the city.
Over the next centuries as reuse of pottery waste spread across the Mediterranean, the function of ostraca changed. In Egypt, the shape and material of pottery were different. In contrast to the slim Greek dishes, painted shiny and dark, in which inscriptions had to be incised, Egyptian pottery was light or reddish colour with a grainy surface, which could easily be inscribed with just pen and ink.
The benefits of this cheap and accessible writing surface were soon recognised. From the 4th century BC, an ever-growing number of documents in both Greek and Egyptian were recorded on pieces of this reused rubbish, mainly by the fiscal administration of Egypt.
One of the earliest Greek ostraca in the British Library shows this new use of pottery waste by the local authorities. It preserves an ancient fishing permit issued to a certain Pamyt, who duly paid two drachmas for it in 255 BC. This piece from a light-coloured Egyptian dish foreshadows the basic function of ostraca for the next almost 1000 years: to record receipts of tax or other payments. These were short and ephemeral documents, which were needed only for a limited period of time.
Another much later fragment shows that these receipts on ostraca can be much more revealing than one may probably think. This piece of a reddish pottery vase, for example, was reused to record payment for a very specific tax. 1910 years ago, it was issued to a sex-worker called Thinabdella as a proof that she had paid for her work permit 'to have sex with whomever she wishes in the city of Elephantine on the day indicated below'.
Following the official example set by the authorities, the practice of writing on rubbish spread to private households too. This ostracon, which was probably the bottom of an ancient pottery cup, was reused by someone as a memo to record an important date in 369 AD.
The use of recycled household rubbish for writing even extended to food waste, mainly animal bones. This leftover of a meal from about 1800 years ago bears a list of individuals' names and addresses, probably for taxation reasons. Whether these bones were used and archived in a similar way to the pottery fragments is not certain but it is hard to imagine using these as evidence of payment. It is more likely that they served as drafts for the final version of a document.
This use of recycled rubbish for making first drafts or sketches is reflected in a rare example of an illustrated ostracon. This piece of a brownish vase was reused to practise drawing an ornamented endpiece for a manuscript on papyrus or parchment. The text in the centre of a decorative panel, announcing 'here is the end' (ⲧⲉⲗⲟⲥ ⲉⲭⲉⲓ), sounds very similar to closing formulae of manuscript books. See this article on the Greek Manuscripts webspace to discover what ancient books looked like.
It was not only professional scribes who used their rubbish to record drafts. The main market for reused pottery fragments came from schools. Due to their free and almost limitlessly wide availability, ostraca were extremely popular in school education. For more about documents from ancient schools, see this article on children in Ancient Egypt.
Another red-coloured fragment, possibly from an amphora, was first reused to record some names by a more proficient writer, who left the lower part blank. This empty space was later reused again, this time by a child who wrote his name, Paniskos, there. The child also jotted some shaky letters on the back accompanied by his drawing of a human head – maybe of his teacher?
The British Library preserves more than 4000 fragments from ancient vases, cups, jars or bones, bearing various Greek texts from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD. This remarkable trove shows us the economical and sustainable mindset of the ancient world which reused as much rubbish as possible. The reused rubbish is now treasure, providing special glimpses into everyday life that remained rare for many centuries after.
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04 June 2020
The later their date, the lower their quality. This is how some 19th-century scholars approached Greek manuscripts from after 1200. In the quest for the earliest exemplars, hundreds of late medieval and early modern manuscripts were ignored and marginalised as irrelevant late copies.
Despite the many warnings against this view, it was only in 1934 that an Italian scholar, Giorgio Pasquali (1882-1952), finally put it in writing that 'late manuscripts are not bad manuscripts'. They can be important for a number reasons: for the texts they preserve, for the way they present them or, frankly, just for themselves as books of their age.
The exceptional collection of Greek manuscripts in the British Library illustrates the truth of Pasquali’s axiom. The Library holds manuscripts that highlight the role of later Greek manuscripts in the development of printing Greek in the West, and that represent interesting interactions of print and manuscript culture in the 16th century.
Thanks to generous funding we received from the Hellenic Foundation last year, we have been able to digitise seven 18th-century Greek manuscripts which amply demonstate why later manuscripts can be just as fascinating as ancient ones.
Old texts in new manuscripts
The most obvious reason why a later manuscript can be of key importance is if it preserves the only copy of an ancient text. One of the volumes digitised during the project (Add MS 78675) is an example of this.
Written in nice 18th-century Greek cursive, the manuscript contains texts designed to help the reader to write in polished Greek language. The first text is a long unpublished manual of rhetoric in two parts. It consists of a general introduction to rhetoric, followed by a long treatise on how to tackle and refute arguments of opponents at court.
We have not been able to identify the author of this text but we found other copies of it in four manuscripts: two in Paris and two in the British Library (Add MS 39622, ff. 100-196r, and Add MS 18190, ff. 90-151v). Interestingly, the manuscripts are all from the 18th century but the text itself looks older. Analysing its wording and content, the closest parallels are all from 5th/6th-century rhetorical treatises. This suggests that it may be an ancient rhetorical tract which resurfaced in the 17th/18th century and was spread only in later Greek manuscripts. The text would certainly deserve a full study and edition, which the recently digitised manuscripts will surely facilitate.
Ancient and modern in one manuscript
Another reason why later manuscripts are exciting is that they show how texts from classical antiquity came down to us through the medieval and early modern eras. Another newly digitised Greek manuscript (Add MS 39619) presents this remarkably well.
Copied in 1712 somewhere in the region of Arta in north-western Greece, it was acquired by the English traveller Robert Curzon (1810-1873) and bequeathed to the Library by his heirs in 1917. See more about Greek manuscripts from Curzon’s collection.
The volume is a handy collection of texts instructing the reader on how to compose letters. It starts with a 4th-century collection of samples to convince, refute, denigrate or praise others. This text is followed by a similar but updated collection, which replaces the ancient samples with new ones taken from the Gospels (f. 37r) or Byzantine history (f. 44r).
This long series of Byzantine sample texts is followed by some actual examples to show how the theory is to be put into practice. It is illustrated by a selection of letters from a contemporary ecclesiastic, Anastasius Gordius (1654-1720). Anastasius studied in Western Europe and spoke and wrote in Italian as well as in Latin. He lived as a monk in his village and served as a doctor, philanthropist and teacher of rhetoric, and was canonized as a saint in the 18th century. Interestingly, the manuscript was written in his lifetime and is a clear example of how ancient Greek rhetoric stayed alive, transmitted through classical texts and their Byzantine adaptations to be used by Early Modern Greek intellectuals.
Late manuscripts as books
Another recently digitised manuscript (Add MS 78674) shows why these late copies are interesting just for themselves. Copied in 1738 by an unknown scribe, the volume preserves a long commentary on Aristotle’s logical works written by one of the most important Byzantine philosophers of the early 17th century, Theophilus Corydalleus. The volume exhibits a mixture of Eastern and Western layout and decoration, just as the author himself conflated Western philosophical ideas, learned during his education at the best universities in Italy, with Byzantine theological heritage.
The coloured diagrams illustrating the philosophical reasoning seem to go back to earlier Byzantine or even ancient examples. The frequently recurring motif of a vase at the foot of some of these diagrams resembles the decoration of the 5th-century Codex Alexandrinus.
Yet at the same time, the neatly designed table of contents, showing chapters with folio numbers at the end of the volume, looks like a modern Western print.
We are very grateful for the generous support of the Hellenic Foundation which helped us digitise and highlight these later Greek manuscripts. They provide ample illustration that late manuscripts ARE NOT bad manuscripts.
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29 February 2020
This month is an exciting anniversary for us: it has been ten years since the British Library's award-winning Medieval Manuscripts Blog began back in February 2010. It’s a decade that has seen large-scale digitisation, blockbuster exhibitions, exciting acquisitions and fascinating discoveries, and the Blog has been our main way of letting you know about them all. We aim to be inspiring, informative and amusing and above all to share with you the manuscripts love. To celebrate our big anniversary, join us in looking back at some of the Blog's highlights over the years.
Originally started to promote the Library’s Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, the Blog announced the launch of the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site back in September 2010. Over 2,900 digitised manuscripts later, we’re still blogging to keep you updated about our digitisation projects. One of the most ambitious of these was the Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project, a collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in which we digitised 400 manuscripts, produced two new bilingual websites and published an accompanying book. Announcing the project launch was one of our proudest moments.
We may be called the Medieval Manuscripts Blog, but we’re actually the section for Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts. Our blogposts about the Library’s ancient collections are ever-popular, and one of the big hits of 2018 was our post commemorating International Women’s Day, exploring fascinating insights into the lives of women in Roman Egypt from some of our ancient Greek papyri.
The Blog provides us with a great platform for promoting exhibitions such as Royal Manuscripts (2011–12), Magna Carta (2015), Harry Potter (2017–18), and Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (2018-19). We know that our readers loved our series of blogposts accompanying the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. One of the most popular announced that the oldest surviving, complete Latin Bible in the world, Codex Amiatinus, was coming on loan to the British Library. It was the first time that this incredible manuscript, made at the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716, had returned to the British Isles in over 1300 years.
The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is known for making some very important discoveries on 1st April each year. These completely serious and factual discoveries are some of the Blog's perennial favourites. For example, who could forget the time we used specialist imaging to uncover the earliest known picture of the Loch Ness Monster?
By complete coincidence, 1st April was also the date on which we made another of our very exciting discoveries: the long-lost unicorn cookbook. Every year this blogpost receives thousands of page-views from people wanting to learn how medieval cooks prepared this rare delicacy.
One special highlight was when we were named Arts and Culture Blog of the Year in the inaugural UK Blog Awards in 2014. It was a tremendous honour and we were thrilled to bits!
We also use the Blog to share useful information about accessing and caring for our collections. One of our most popular blogposts explains our policy of not wearing gloves to handle manuscripts. There is a widespread view, stemming from films and television, that white gloves should be worn for handling old books. But recent scientific advice suggests that wearing gloves can do more harm than good.
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12 December 2019
For over 3000 years, people have told legends of a long and bloody war between the Greeks and the Trojans, sparked by the abduction of the beautiful Queen Helen of Sparta by Paris, the Trojan prince. In response, a mighty force of Greek heroes laid siege to the city of Troy for ten years. The siege only ended when the Greeks built a giant wooden horse and left it outside the city gates as an offering. The Trojans, not realising that it was a trick, brought the horse into the city. A band of Greek soldiers were hiding inside the horse, and when night fell they crept out. They opened the gates to the rest of the Greek army, who massacred the population and destroyed the city.
The British Library has loaned seven ancient and medieval manuscripts to the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020). We’re going to be exploring how these manuscripts reveal the evolution of the tale of Troy over the centuries, starting with the Greek tradition today and following with a second blog post about the Latin tradition.
However cruel and bloody it may sound today, the siege of Troy was only a rather average-sized case amongst the many brutal battles of classical antiquity. There were several more devastating carnages recorded, for example during the long wars between Rome and the North African Carthage, or between Rome and King Pyrrhus’ forces from the Greek city of Epirus.
What then distinguishes Troy and the Trojan war from other even more horrific and disastrous wars of antiquity? The question was answered by none other than Alexander the Great, another conqueror of the 4th century BC. Upon reaching the tomb of Achilles, one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War, Alexander cried out how lucky Achilles was to have his deeds and memory preserved by the great poet Homer.
The key to the long-standing fame of siege of Troy is the fact that it became the subject of two of the most important and masterful Greek epic poems of Classical Antiquity: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The two poems, presumably pieced together from earlier oral traditions in the 8th century BC and attributed to the blind, prophet-like poet Homer, are iconic pieces of ancient Greek literature.
Read and admired by generations of scholars, poets and artists, the two epic poems were part of the Greek school curriculum all over the Mediterranean. Children and young adults, together with their teachers and instructors, spent hours reading, understanding and memorising Homer’s verses. No wonder that the poems come down to us in hundreds of various formats – from cheap copies for schools to deluxe papyri designed for scholarly use or showing off.
A splendid example of the showy format of deluxe papyri is Papyrus 732. This 1st-century AD copy from Book 13 of the Iliad is written with elegant Greek uncials for wealthy patron, probably a scholar who had even put one annotation to the column on the left.
Papyrus 271 is even more lavishly written, containing portions of the Odyssey from the 1st century AD. It shows the end of Book 3 of the poem with a nice endpiece (colophon) on the right. The annotations in the margins are even more interesting. These little notes explaining the grammar or the content of the ancient text are extracts from ancient commentators of the Homeric epics. They preserve fragments from scholarly works that do not survive anymore and represent centuries of scholarship on Homer.
These scattered notes were later assembled into one almost continuous commentary on Homer’s texts that often accompanied both the Iliad and the Odyssey in later manuscripts. An excellent example of this textual tradition, usually called the school-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, is the Townley Homer.
This manuscript, known after its previous owner, Charles Townley (1737-1805), was probably written in 1059 and contains the text of the Iliad with an extensive array of marginal scholia. An elaborate system of red signs connect the main text of the poem to the lengthier notes on the margins. Between the widely spaced lines of Homer’s text there are several interlinear notes (glosses) explaining difficult words or archaic grammatical features of the text for the reader. All this was designed for a fuller and deeper understanding of the poems. This remarkable manuscript preserves centuries of Homeric scholarship in the form of a handy manual that ensured the transmission of not only Homer and the memory of Troy but also a whole range of other texts, grammars, scientific works, fables, literary and metrical works for the following centuries.
Homer’s Greek epics also inspired Latin writers who reimagined the story of Troy for new audiences and new purposes. Read part two of this blogpost to learn how the Trojans founded Europe, and check out the British Museum’s exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020) where you can see most of these manuscripts on display.
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