18 August 2019
As the Getty's wonderful Book of Beasts exhibition draws to close, it's an apt moment to reflect on the medieval manuscripts we know as 'bestiaries'. Elizabeth Morrison, one of the curators of Book of Beasts, has described the bestiary as 'one of the most appealing types of illuminated manuscripts, due to the liveliness and vibrancy of its imagery ... All of us can find something to relate to in the bestiary and its animals' ('Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary').
Function and origins
We might regard bestiaries as a kind of medieval encyclopedia relating to natural history, with one notable distinction: each creature was described in terms of its place within the Christian worldview, rather than as a purely scientific phenomenon. The animals were interpreted as evidence of God’s divine plan for the world. This is particularly true of the first animal typically described in the bestiary, namely the lion. One famous bestiary story is that of the birth of lions. Lion cubs were said to be born dead, until on the third day their father breathed upon them, bringing them to life, a reflection of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.
The origins of the bestiary can be traced to the Physiologus, a Greek text devoted to natural history from late Antiquity. Around the 11th century, material was added from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, a popular early medieval encyclopedia. Bestiaries themselves became popular in England from the 12th century onwards, but they did not all contain the same descriptions or illustrations, leading to them being divided into different families by modern scholars. As Elizabeth Morrison has pointed out, 'the bestiary was not a single text, but a series of changeable texts that could be reconfigured in numerous ways. The number of animals could vary quite significantly, as well as their order.'
Real and imagined
Bestiaries offer an enticing insight into the medieval mind. Some of the creatures they describe would have been very familiar to their original audience, such as cats, donkeys and owls. Others were more exotic, such as crocodiles and elephants, and this is often a source of amusement for modern readers; normally, the artists were relying upon the text and their own imaginations when depicting such beasts, rather than working from first-hand experience.
Likewise, bestiaries contain accounts of animals that we would now identify as mythical, such as phoenixes and unicorns. These fantastic beasts inhabited a special place in the medieval imagination, and beyond. You may recognise the illustration of the phoenix, below, from an English bestiary, as one of the stars of the British Library exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.
Bestiaries abound with tales of fantastic and fabulous proportions. The story of the whale is a case in point. In bestiary tradition, the whale was so large that it could rest on the surface of the water until greenery grew on its back. Passing sailors, mistaking the animal for an island, would set camp on its back and unsuspectingly light a fire. The whale would then dive back into the ocean, dragging its victims with it.
We have reproduced the tale of the whale in this animation, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. You could say, we 'had a whale of a time'.
Illuminated Latin bestiaries survive in significant numbers. The Getty's exhibition catalogue lists a total of 62 examples, now dispersed across collections in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and the USA. No fewer than 8 are held at the British Library (and we loaned 6 manuscripts in total to Book of Beasts).
Here is a list of the illuminated Latin bestiaries in the British Library's collections:
Add MS 11283: England, 4th quarter of the 12th century
Cotton MS Vitellius D I: England, 2nd half of the 13th century
Harley MS 3244: England, after 1236
Harley MS 4751: England, early 13th century
Royal MS 12 C XIX: England, early 13th century
Royal MS 12 F XIII: Rochester, c. 1230
Sloane MS 3544: England, mid-13th century
Stowe MS 1067: England, 1st half of the 12th century
You can read more about bestiaries in Elizabeth Morrison's article, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.
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07 August 2019
Are you looking for something to read over the holiday season? Then look no further than some of the books which have accompanied our major exhibitions, ranging from Writing: Making Your Mark to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.
Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August. The book, featuring contributions by the exhibition curators and other experts, is available from the Library shop (hardback £30).
The exhibition book for Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, edited by guest curator Juliana Barone, is also available from our shop (£20), and is written by leading Leonardo scholars from across Italy, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
The catalogue for our stupendous Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition (which ended earlier this year), edited by Claire Breay and Jo Story, is still available in paperback (£25).
Finally, if Harry Potter is your thing, why not indulge yourself in a copy of the book written especially for Harry Potter: A History of Magic? Published by Bloomsbury in association with the British Library, the version designed especially for younger audiences can be purchased here (£9.99).
Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August 2019.
The run of Leonardo: A Mind in Motion extends until 8 September 2019.
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12 October 2018
Many of you will remember the British Library’s blockbuster exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, which explored the history, mythology and folklore behind the Harry Potter stories. Our North American readers may be excited to know that, like the self-renewing phoenix on the poster, the exhibition has been born again in New York. The new exhibition is now open at the New-York Historical Society, featuring rare books and manuscripts on loan from the British Library.
Here’s a selection of magical manuscripts that you can see in the show. All of these should be on the reading list of any aspiring student of witchcraft and wizardry.
An alchemist: Harley MS 3469, f. 4r
Harry Potter fans will know that the plot of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, centres on the use of alchemy. This beautifully illustrated manuscript, known as Splendor Solis (Splendour of the Sun), was made in Germany in 1582. This image shows an alchemist holding a flask filled with a golden liquid. A scroll fluttering from the flask bears the mystical inscription, ‘Eamus quesitum quatuor elementorum naturas’ (Let us ask the four elements of nature), which reflects the Classical idea that all earthly substances are made up of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Alchemists attempted to imitate the creative processes of nature to transform matter and even to restore life.
A centaur with the plant centaury: Harley MS 5294, f. 22r
Students at Hogwarts School take classes in Herbology to learn about which plants are most useful for potions and medicine. The manuscript shown above is a 12th-century herbal, describing different kinds of plants and their medicinal properties. This page describes the plant centauria minor, the lesser centaury, named after the wise centaur Chiron from Greek mythology. In the picture, Chiron hands some centaury plants to his pupil and foster son Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. The inscription below the snake explains that, ground to a powder or mixed in wine, centaury is a potent remedy against snake bites.
Harvesting a mandrake: Harley MS 3736, f. 59r
One of the most notorious plants listed in medieval herbals was the mandrake. The plant’s roots often resemble miniature humans, which were said to shriek when they were pulled out of the ground. According to ancient and medieval folklore, mandrakes could cure headaches, earaches, gout and insanity, but anyone who heard the mandrake’s scream would die. To harvest the mandrake without succumbing to its fatal shrieking, some herbals recommended a handy trick, as illustrated in this herbal made in the late 15th or early 16th century. You can read more about this process in our blogpost How to harvest a mandrake.
A phoenix rising from the ashes: Harley MS 4751, f. 45r
In the Harry Potter universe, witches and wizards learn about magical creatures by consulting the book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander. Medieval people learned about marvellous creatures by reading a bestiary, or book of beasts. This page in a 13th-century English bestiary describes and illustrates the phoenix. The text explains that this remarkable bird has the ability to resurrect itself in old age. It creates its own funeral pyre from branches and plants, then fans the flames with its own wings until it is consumed by the fire. After the ninth day, the phoenix rises again from the ashes.
The constellation Canis Major: Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r
The names of many characters in the Harry Potter books, such as Sirius Black and Draco Malfoy, were inspired by stars in the night sky. Medieval people also placed great importance on the stars, which they used for navigation, calculating dates and predicting the future. This 12th-century English manuscript contains a copy of Cicero’s Aratea, a Roman book about the stars. The page above shows the constellation Canis Major (the Greater Dog), in which is found Sirius, the 'dog star', the brightest star in the night sky.
The writing inside the dog’s body gives further information about the constellation, including its origin story from ancient Greek mythology. According to the tale, there was once a hound so swift that no prey could escape it, and also a fox so swift that it could never be caught. When the huntsman Cephalus sent the hound to catch the fox, it created such a paradox that the god Zeus had to turn them both to stone. Zeus then placed the hound in the sky where it became Canis Major.
To learn more about these manuscripts, please visit the Harry Potter exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, from 5 October 2018 until 27 January 2019. All the manuscripts described above are also featured on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. There are lots of other ways to learn more about Harry Potter: A History of Magic, including the exhibition book, television documentary and our own pages hosted by Google Arts and Culture.
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11 August 2018
It may be a while since our Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition closed its doors, but there are still plenty of opportunities for you to get your fix of Harry Potter, medieval style. Our friends at Pottermore have just announced the publication of a new audiobook to accompany the exhibition and there are other ventures in the pipeline. Here is a run-down of the many ways you can still learn about the traditions, myths and folklore that lie behind J.K. Rowling's stories.
The audiobook of the exhibition will be published by Pottermore on 4 October. It is narrated by Natalie Dormer, and features contributions by Stephen Fry, Jim Dale, Jim Kay and Olivia Lomenech Gill, as well as the curatorial team.
The two exhibition books, dear reader, were published in the UK by Bloomsbury, where they were no. 1 and no. 5 in last year's non-fiction charts. Worldwide, they have also been translated into languages including French, German, Hungarian, Thai and Vietnamese. One book was aimed at a family audience — Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic — and the other at an adult readership, with essays by contributors such as Tim Peake and Steve Kloves, alongside descriptions by the British Library's curators.
Towards the end of the exhibition's run, a virtual tour was released by Google Arts and Culture. This enables you to see views of each room of the show in London, highlights of some of the exhibits, and commentaries by Jim Kay and the curators. We even made it to the Google homepage. (Don't mention this to anyone, but Harry Potter is the most successful collaboration, in terms of visits, ever undertaken by Google Arts and Culture.)
To accompany the exhibition, the British Library contributed to a major BBC documentary, filming some of the exhibits alongside J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay. The DVD of the documentary is now available and clips can be viewed on the BBC website, such as the time we showed the author the incredible Ripley Scroll.
Finally, our readers in North America may be interested to know that Harry Potter: A History of Magic is due to open this autumn at the New-York Historical Society, where it will run from 5 October until 27 January 2019. We hope that as many of you as possible get the opportunity to see the show: as Ron Weasley said, "When in doubt, go to the library".
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28 February 2018
The British Library’s major exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, has featured a host of fascinating manuscripts, alongside a fire-damaged cauldron, crystal balls and a ‘real’ mermaid. It took several months to choose all the exhibits, but when it came to selecting an image of a medieval phoenix, the choice was relatively simple. We have some gorgeous illustrations of phoenixes in our collections, but the one that really caught the curators’ eye was found in Harley MS 4751, a decorated English bestiary. But choosing the manuscript was only the start. We were planning to digitise this bestiary as part of our digitisation project sponsored by The Polonsky Foundation. This blogpost explores the complexities of that process.
A phoenix collecting twigs (top image) and the phoenix consumed by flames in the funeral pyre (below image), from Harley MS 4751, f. 45r
Some of our readers will already be familiar with our digitisation programme. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, 700-1200: Manuscripts from the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France is a collaborative project between the two national libraries of Britain and France, to digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts. Currently the British Library has made over 100 manuscripts available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. But how does the digitisation process work? Here is a look behind the scenes at the work of the project team, from conservation to the final online publishing of the manuscripts. We are particularly grateful to the generosity of The Polonsky Foundation, which is enabling some of our collections to be made available to view online.
Here we show step-by-step how this beautiful bestiary was digitised. Before any manuscript can be digitised, it may require an additional level of care from staff in the British Library Conservation Centre, in order to safeguard the manuscript during the digitisation process. First, our project conservator, Jessica Pollard, stabilised Harley MS 4751, in order that the manuscript could be photographed securely.
Project conservator Jessica Pollard with Harley MS 4751 in the British Library Conservation Centre
Next, the bestiary was taken to the Library’s Imaging Studios for digitisation. Project photographer Carl Norman is an expert in safely handling rare and historical material like medieval manuscripts, and the studios are equipped with state-of-the-art photographic imaging systems, producing high quality images for use on Digitised Manuscripts. Carl shot images of the bestiary in carefully controlled conditions, with the light and temperature levels being monitored closely to protect the manuscript.
Project photographer Carl Norman digitally captures the phoenix of Harley MS 4751 in the British Library Imaging Studios
After being photographed, the book was examined by our project cataloguers, experts in the study of medieval books. Manuscripts are catalogued through careful study of their texts, decoration and the materials used to make them. Our cataloguers also take to care to describe the history of the book and any known past owners. In this instance, they were able to determine that the bestiary was probably produced in Salisbury in the late 12th or early 13th century.
Finally, when both the photography and cataloguing were completed, our project digitisation officer published the fully digitised manuscript online. The complete process was achieved through the great teamwork of every member of the project, and we’re delighted with the results. You can view them now on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.
Harley MS 4751 contains over 100 fascinating illuminations, ranging from domestic animals such as the goat and donkey to exotic animals such as the tiger and elephant, and mythical beasts such as the basilisk. Here is a small selection, we hope you can find many more to enthral you online.
Miniature of goats in a medieval bestiary (Salisbury?, late 12th or early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 14r
Miniature of a donkey being prompted towards a waterwheel by a man with a stick and a whistle: Harley MS 4751, f. 25r
Miniature of a knight on horseback and a tiger with a mirror, illustrating the text that a tiger can outrun a man on a horse, so in order to steal a cub and escape, the thief should throw down a mirror, and the tigress will stop to look at its own reflection, thinking it is her cub: Harley MS 4751, f. 3v
Miniature of an elephant with a wooden tower on its back, with soldiers with crossbows and other weapons: Harley MS 4751, f. 8r
Miniature of a basilisk: Harley MS 4751, f. 59r
The phoenix, of course, had a legendary ability to rise from the ashes. In its old age, it would create its own funeral pyre, fanning the flames with its own wings, before being reborn after nine days. It takes much, much longer to digitise a medieval manuscript, but we like the idea that, by our digitising our collections, we are giving new life to books made centuries ago.
The Polonsky Project Team
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24 February 2018
Harry Potter: A History of Magic has been a rip-roaring success. Not only has every session of every day of our exhibition sold out (a first for the British Library), and not only did we sell more advance tickets than Tate's Hockney blockbuster, but the accompanying books have been bestsellers both in the United Kingdom and overseas. If you managed to get to London to see the show, you will have noticed that we had a wealth of extraordinary objects on display, from J.K. Rowling's autograph manuscripts and drawings to genuine witches' broomsticks and exploded cauldrons. The exhibition also provided the opportunity for the Library to showcase its own collections relating to the history of magic, across the world and across the ages; and that forms the subject of this blogpost.
You may be aware that Harry Potter: A History of Magic is organised according to certain of the subjects studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Readers of J.K. Rowling's novels will obviously be familiar with Potions, Herbology and Divination, but many of these themes are also rooted in real-life magic, tradition and folklore. This gave the exhibition curators the chance to call upon some of the British Library's world-class holdings of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts. There were so many to choose from. Today we are delighted to feature some of them here, many of which can also be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site. We'd love you to tell us your favourites using the comments field or via our Twitter feed (@BLMedieval).
First up in the exhibition is a room devoted to Potions, followed by another relating to Alchemy. Among the items on display there are these four extraordinary manuscripts, ranging in date from the 10th century to circa 1600, and providing Anglo-Saxon recipes to instructions for making your own Philosopher's Stone.
Potions against poisoning and snake bites, in Bald's Leechbook (England, 10th century): Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 41v
An apothecary’s shop, in a surgeon’s manuscript (France, 14th century): Sloane MS 1977, f. 49v
Splendor Solis (Germany, 1582): Harley MS 3469, f. 4r
How to make the Philosopher's Stone, in the Ripley Scroll (England, 16th century): Sloane MS 2523B
Herbology is one of our favourite rooms, and here are some of the British Library manuscripts to be seen there, alongside, of course, our gnome alone. Previously on this blog, we've provided our readers with guidance on how to harvest a mandrake.
Digging for herbs, in Extracts from an edition of Dioscorides, De re medica, assembled and illustrated by Gherardo Cibo (Italy, 16th century): Add MS 22332, f. 3r
A mandrake being pulled out by a dog, in Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal (Italy or Germany, 16th century): Harley MS 3736, f. 59r
A centaur with centaury (centaurea minor), in a herbal (England, 12th century): Harley MS 5294, f. 22r
A dragon and a serpent, in a herbal (Italy, 15th century): Sloane MS 4016, f. 38r
Visitors to our exhibition will have been charmed to see this papyrus (described in our blogpost 'It's a kind of magic'), as well as an early example of the Abracadabra charm, originally devised as a protection against malaria.
A ring captioned ‘May something never happen as long as this remains buried’, in a Greek handbook for magic (Thebes, 4th century): Papyrus 46(5)
The first recorded mention of the phrase ‘Abracadabra’, as a cure for malaria, in Quintus Serenus, Liber medicinalis (Canterbury, 13th century): Royal MS 12 E XXIII, f. 20r
You cannot be Sirius. The sky's the limit with these manuscripts, which we selected to illustrate the historical study of the night sky. Among them is Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, showing the Sun and Moon rotating round Earth.
Sagittarius, in Cicero’s Aratea (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 37r
Sirius, in a medieval miscellany (Peterborough, 12th century): Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r
Miniature of astronomers on Mount Athos, studying the stars with astrolabes and quadrants, and inscribing strange characters in the dust with sticks, in a set of illustrations for Mandeville’s Travels (Bohemia, 15th century): Add MS 24189, f. 15r
Astronomical notes and sketches, in Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebook (Italy, 16th century): Arundel MS 263, f. 104r + f. 107v
Harry Potter and Ron Weasley were never convinced by the methods they were taught to divine the future. If only they had been shown this 14th-century manuscript, they may have realised that Divination is a long-practised art.
Reading the hands, in a fortune-telling manuscript (England, 14th century): Royal MS 12 C XII, f. 107r
Defence Against the Dark Arts
Beware the basilisk, my friends. A medieval snake charmer, in contrast, could always come in useful.
A basilisk, in Historia animalium (Italy, 1595): Add MS 82955, f. 129r
Image of a snake charmer, in a bestiary (England, 13th century): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 67r
Care of Magical Creatures
And finally, we would like to share with you some of our beautiful unicorns and phoenixes, in the section of the exhibition devoted to Care of Magical Creatures. This unicorn is a very handsome chap, though some of his counterparts, strangely, have two horns.
A unicorn, in Manuel Philes, On the properties of animals (Paris, 16th century): Burney MS 97, f. 18r
A phoenix rising from the ashes, in a bestiary (England, 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 45r
A siren and a centaur, in a bestiary (France?, 13th century): Sloane MS 278, f. 47r
Harry Potter: A History of Magic is completely sold out, sadly (it closes on 28 February); but we hope you've enjoyed this sneak preview into some of the manuscripts that have been on display. And you can read more about them in our exhibition books.
Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)
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17 February 2018
There have been times when everyone has wanted to become invisible. But did you know that there is actually a relatively simple way of achieving this? We say 'simple', because you merely have to pronounce the words found in the text known as The Book of King Solomon called The Key of Knowledge. We have a 17th-century copy of this work on show in our exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic, and up to now you've had to visit London in person to read aloud this charm. But now we are giving everyone who reads this blog the same opportunity. Do let us know if it works. You just have to recite the following words.
Stabbon, Asen, Gabellum, Saneney, Noty, Enobal, Labonerem, Balametem, Balnon, Tygumel, Millegaly, Juneneis, Hearma, Hamorache, Yesa, Seya, Senoy, Henen, Barucatha, Acararas, Taracub, Bucarat, Caramy, by the mercy whitch you beare towardes mann kynde, make me to be invysible.
‘Howe experyments to be invysible must bee preparedd’, in The Book of King Solomon called The Key of Knowledge.
We SO want this charm to be successful. If it didn't work for you first-time round, it may be that you didn't pronounce the words properly. The manuscript was once owned by the writer and scholar, Gabriel Harvey (1552/3-1631), but whether he had the power to become invisible is lost in the mists of time.
You can see this fantastic manuscript (if you are lucky enough to have a ticket) in Harry Potter: A History of Magic, where it is displayed near a real invisibility cloak (honestly), on loan from a private lender.
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13 February 2018
We know that this blog is usually devoted to medieval manuscripts, but we couldn't help featuring this image of a garden gnome. The little chap in question (in actual fact, he's rather large) is currently standing proudly in the British Library's Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. We have borrowed him from our friends at the Garden Museum here in London, and as with our other lenders (among them the British Museum, the Science Museum and the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic) we are indebted to their generosity in allowing him to be part of our show.
When we were researching our exhibits, I made an appointment to visit the Garden Museum to view their collection of historic gnomes. At that time, the Museum was closed for a major renovation programme, and so my first task on meeting Emma House, the curator, was to don a hard hat and a pair of sturdy boots before being allowed inside. I had originally been interested in a group of gnomes that had been hand-carved by German prisoners-of-war, but on closer inspection they turned out to be too small (although beautifully made) to have the impact we desired. Emma then showed me their Disney gnomes (too garish) and their Tony Blair gnome (not everyone's cup of tea); and it was then that we set eyes on this fishing gnome, sitting in one corner of the gallery. He dates from around the year 1900 and was made by Heissner of Germany, the world's foremost maker of garden gnomes. As Emma told me, he was the Garden Museum's oldest and most historically significant gnome. He fitted the bill in so many ways: fans of the Harry Potter novels may recall that Ron Weasley described the Muggle craze for garden gnomes, described as 'fat little Father Christmases with fishing rods' (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).
And so the British Library submitted its loan request. Last October, after all the necessary arrangements had been made and the fishing gnome had been safely packed, he made the short journey across London to our own exhibition.
We don't have any pictures of medieval gnomes among our collections, but one of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts does contain one of the earliest references to elves, and another (Bald's Leechbook) reports that elves could cause pain in domestic animals. You can read about both manuscripts in our blogpost 'Elves and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts'; and you can also see Bald's Leechbook in the Potions section of Harry Potter: A History of Magic.
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Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts
- What is a bestiary?
- Holiday reading matter
- Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the New York Historical Society
- More ways to learn about Harry Potter: A History of Magic
- Rising from the ashes: bringing a medieval manuscript to life
- Harry Potter meets the Middle Ages
- How to make yourself invisible
- Gnome alone
- It's a kind of magic
- The British Museum and Harry Potter: A History of Magic