10 February 2018
Have you ever lost something and were searching for it desperately, wishing for an easy way to locate it? Have you ever been anxious, seeking for a way to avoid a particular thing happening? Have you ever hoped for a miracle to find true love? You are not alone: people in the ancient world had exactly the same problems, but they may have been less reluctant than us to make use of a special tool – magic.
The Ibis spell from a handbook of magic, Egypt, 3rd century: Papyrus 121(2)r
The British Library’s blockbuster exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, gives an excellent insight into how people in the past applied magic to solve their problems. Essentially, magic provided the practitioner with a chance to influence fate and the gods.
St Anthony commanding demons from the Theodore Psalter, executed in Constantinople, 1066: Add MS 19352, f. 151r
Egyptian papyri written in the Greek and Coptic languages preserve unique survivals of ancient magical practices, long thought to have been destroyed or lost after the advent of Christianity. A number of these 3rd to 6th-century documents attest to a significant use of magic in the already Christianised province of Egypt.
Image of the crucifixion from a 6th-century Coptic magical text: Or 6796 (4)
The British Library owns one of the finest collections in the world of these Greek magical papyri. Complete manuscripts, in book format and also on long scrolls of almost 2 metres in length, are preserved here. Some of these documents are handbooks probably used by professional magicians in the 3rd to 4th centuries. They collected charms and related instructions for a variety of purposes, such as to predict the future, locate lost or stolen property, or to catch thieves.
A spell to catch a thief: 'As long as I strike this eye with this hammer, let the eye of the thief be struck and swell up until it betrays him', from a handbook of magic, Egypt, 4th century: Papyrus 46, f. 2v
Other, shorter papyrus manuscripts contain only one or two specific charms with a short guide on how to use them. These may have been sold to individual customers by the magicians.
A charm to get your enemies destroyed by demons, Egypt, 4th century: Papyrus 123
A common feature of all these spells is that they are not supplications and prayers, but rather commands to spiritual, demonic entities to serve the users and complete their orders. Commanding otherworldly beings to obey a mortal man had two basic requirements: knowledge of the demon’s full and exact name, and a physical way to ensure that the demon would perform the request. The magical formulas on the papyri are always careful to include the long and complicated names of the demons being evoked.
'The name of power of the great god KMEPHIS CHPHYKIS IAEO IAEOBAPHRENE', written inside a serpent biting its tail, from a handbook of magic, Egypt, 3rd century: Papyrus 121(2)r
The other important way to harness the demon's power was to connect them physically with the victim. A 4th-century Greek magical handbook, Papyrus 46, currently on display in Harry Potter: A History of Magic, provides an excellent illustration of how this might be achieved. This handbook records detailed instructions on how to compel the demons to bind someone not to do something, by using an iron ring to establish a physical bond with the target of the magic. The curious recipe reads as follows:
'Take a papyrus and an iron ring, put the ring on the papyrus and draw the outlines of the ring with a pen, inside and outside. On the area outside the ring write the name and invocation of the demon, on the inside the following: “Let whatever I wish not take place OR let so-and-so not get married forever”. Then put the ring on its outline, wrap it up with the papyrus until it is completely covered. Bind the package with cords and throw it into an unused well or dig it into the grave of someone untimely dead and say the following, “Spirit of the dead …”'
The magic ring, from a handbook of magic, Egypt, 4th century: Papyrus 46, f 5v
We don't know anyone who has ever tried this spell, and we can't guarantee its success. It's fascinating, nonetheless, to see this practical application of 4th-century magic. The papyrus itself is presently on view in London, and you can also read more about it in the book which accompanies the exhibition. You can also currently see the beautiful Theodore Psalter, featured above, in our free Treasures Gallery, besides reading more about the British Library's Greek manuscripts on our dedicated website.
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24 January 2018
One of the most exciting moments when curating our current exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, came when the British Museum kindly agreed to lend us some of their own magical items. The Library and Museum have a long-standing relationship. Apart from having a shared history dating back to 1753 and once occupying the same home at Bloomsbury, we frequently support each others' exhibitions. You may recall, for example, that in 2015 we blogged here about the British Museum's loans to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. We were equally delighted when news came through that the Museum was willing to lend us no fewer than five magnificent items for our Harry Potter show, numbering an astrolabe, some divination cards, a kappa netsuke, a genuine mermaid and the wonderful Battersea Cauldron.
I have to say that we could not help punching the air when we heard that the mermaid and cauldron, in particular, might be wending their way to our exhibition. All five items complement the Library's own books and manuscripts and the other items on display, helping to engage, entertain and educate our visitors in equal measure. We'd like to go on record here to thank the Trustees of the British Museum for their generosity in lending their items to us, and for helping to make our show so spectacular.
Fans of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels will be familiar with Harry's encounter with the merpeople in The Goblet of Fire. We have a genuine specimen of a mermaid in our exhibition, courtesy of the British Museum. It was presented to the Museum by Princess Arthur of Connaught in 1942, and had allegedly been caught in Japan some 200 years previously. We often say that it is reminiscent of Edvard Munch's The Scream. Somewhat disappointingly, we have to reveal that this mermaid was made by fusing together the upper body of a monkey and the tail of a fish, and is evidence of an East Asian trend in the 1700s for fabricating merpeople. We have placed it on show in the room devoted to Care of Magical Creatures, alongside medieval illustrations of phoenixes and printed images of two-horned unicorns.
Astrolabes were probably invented by the Greeks 2000 years ago. They provide a two-dimensional map of the heavens, and could be used to identify the stars and planets and for determining latitude. In the Islamic world, they are also used to find the direction of Mecca, which Muslims face when they pray. This finely decorated example, on loan from the British Museum, is made of brass inlaid with silver, and can be dated to the 1200s. The Library's curators have chosen to place it alongside a manuscript from medieval Bohemia, depicting astronomers and astrologers on Mount Athos.
The kappa takes its name from the Japanese words for ‘river’ (kawa) and ‘child’ (wappa). They were mischievous creatures, and reputedly pulled people into the lakes and rivers in which they dwelt. This seated example of a kappa is in the form of a netsuke, a small sculptural object that is part of traditional Japanese dress. Netsuke frequently took the shape of mythical beasts and could function as talismans. Carved of wood, the kappa’s head has a distinctive hollow to contain the fluid vital to its strength. We made the decision to place this netsuke in Defence Against the Dark Arts, a room which is also dedicated to basilisks, werewolves and snake magic.
Cartomancy is a form of divination that uses cards to predict the future. This pack from the 1700s is reputedly the earliest designed specifically for divination. The 52 cards follow an unusual procedure. The kings prompt questions that are answered in the form of enigmatic rhyming phrases. Each card was inscribed with the name of a famous astronomer, seer or magician, such as Merlin, Doctor Faustus and Nostradamus. Other items on display in Divination include Chinese oracle bones owned by the British Library and crystal balls loaned by the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.
Cauldrons are one of the most potent symbols of witchcraft. They were used historically for many different purposes, including preparing potions. This particular example was found in the River Thames at Battersea in 1861, and had perhaps been deposited as an offering to the gods. It is almost 3000 years old and was created by riveting together seven plates of sheet bronze. Visitors to the exhibition can view it in the Potions room, alongside the oldest printed item of witches with a cauldron, dating from 1489, and the 10th-century Bald's Leechbook.
Harry Potter: A History of Magic has proved hugely popular, and thousands of people have visited it in London since it opened last October (it closes on 28 February). We are extremely grateful to the British Museum and all our other lenders for their gracious support, and for helping us to enthral all our visitors, young and old.
Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)
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16 January 2018
One of the great thrills of curating our blockbuster exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, has been choosing the exhibits and revisiting some of our favourite manuscripts. When we were planning the show, I often used to impress people by mentioning certain of the books and objects we were intending to display: medieval manuscripts, Chinese oracle bones and, oh yes, something written by somebody called Leonardo da Vinci, "you may have heard of him?" At this point heads always turned, and I knew we'd captured everyone's attention.
So what exactly was I talking about, when I mentioned that Leonardo's writings would be featured in the exhibition? You may be aware that Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), the great inventor, scientist and artist, made copious notes throughout his career. These were gathered into a series of notebooks, one of which is today preserved at the British Library in London, where it is known as the ‘Codex Arundel’ (after a former owner, the Earl of Arundel): its shelfmark is Arundel MS 263 and it can be viewed in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The notes are written in Italian, and if you examine the writing closely, you immediately recognise that they are in Leonardo's characteristic mirror handwriting, reading from right to left.
Leonardo da Vinci's notebook (Italy, c. 1506-08): Arundel MS 263, f. 104r
One page from Leonardo's notebook seemed particularly appropriate to show in the Astronomy room of Harry Potter: A History of Magic, alongside objects such as an Arabic astrolabe and the oldest surviving manuscript which charts the night sky (made in China around the year AD 700). The diagram shown here describes the reflection of light, according to the alignments of the Sun, Moon and Earth. Leonardo da Vinci’s illustration shows the Sun and Moon revolving round the Earth, accepting the theory popularised by the Greek astronomer, Ptolemy (d. c. AD 170), that the Earth occupied the centre of the universe. Leonardo was writing, of course, approximately 100 years before the invention of the telescope.
A detail of Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, showing the reflection of light: Arundel MS 263, f. 104r
On the right-hand side of this page are two diagrams showing the Earth and Moon. The second of these supports Leonardo's belief that the Moon was covered with water, and that its surface would operate like a convex mirror, reflecting light. We may no longer believe this to be true (everyone knows that the Moon is made of cream cheese) but it's always fascinating to get a first-hand insight into the mind of a genius such as Leonardo da Vinci. Placing his notebook on display in our Harry Potter exhibition has enabled more of our visitors to come face-to-face with this intriguing document. Maybe we will have inspired some of the astronomers and scientists of the future, who have been coming to see the exhibition in their thousands.
The Earth and Moon in Leonardo da Vinci's notebook: Arundel MS 263, f. 104r
Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on show at the British Library in London until 28 February 2018. There has been a huge demand for tickets, so we strongly urge you to book in advance of your visit.
Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)
26 December 2017
Fans of a certain boy wizard will be familiar with Sirius Black, Harry Potter’s beloved godfather. In the Harry Potter books, Sirius Black was an Animagus, with the ability to turn into a shaggy-haired black dog. This is no coincidence, as his name was inspired by Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which lies in the constellation known as Canis major (The Greater Dog). The British Library's exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic explores the history, mythology and folklore behind the Harry Potter stories, and we are delighted that it features a wonderful 12th-century astronomical treatise (Cotton MS Tiberius C I), containing an elaborate illustration and description of the constellation Sirius.
The constellation of Sirius the Dog Star, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r
This manuscript was produced at the Benedictine abbey of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew in Peterborough, sometime in the early decades of the 12th century. The astronomical treatise it contains is known as the Aratea, being a Latin translation (by Marcus Tullius Cicero) of the Phaenomena by Aratus of Soli. The description of each constellation is accompanied by a pen-drawing of either human or animal figures, with red dots representing the stars. In this instance, the constellation Sirius takes the shape of a dog, with the words written in black ink.
The body of Sirius (and the other figures in this manuscript) is infilled with an account of the origins and history of each constellation. They comprise quotations from the Astronomica written by Hyginus, an astronomical source-book. Sirius, from the Greek seirios aster, meaning ‘scorching star’, was thought to have been named by the Egyptian goddess Isis, because the star shone more brightly than any other. The dog days of summer were so-called because the hottest days of the year traditionally coincided when the Dog Star ascended to rise before the Sun, from late July until August.
The constellation of Orion, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 27v
Sirius was also said to be the hunting dog of Orion. The constellation Orion is portrayed in the same manuscript as a man inside a house. According to the Astronomica of Hyginus, Orion was accidentally slain by the goddess Diana, as the result of a challenge that she could not hit him with one of her hunting arrows. To mourn his death, she placed him among the constellations. Bellatrix, meaning ‘female warrior’, is the third brightest star in the Orion constellation. Other figures in the night sky include the Hare, the Eagle, the Swan and the Centaur. The last-named was believed to be highly skilled in augury, that is, the interpretation of omens.
The centaur was highly skilled in the interpretation of omens: the Centaur constellation, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 31v
Would you like to stargaze more? This illustrated Aratea has been digitised by the Polonsky Foundation England and France, 700-1200 project. It is now available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Two other copies of the Aratea can also be seen in full there, one made in 9th-century France and later taken to Canterbury (Harley MS 647) and the other made at Fleury around the year 1000 (Harley MS 2506).
Meanwhile, the wonderful manuscript illustrated above is currently on display in the Astronomy section of the British Library’s major exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. Tickets can be purchased online, but they are selling extremely fast. The show has to end on 28 February, so catch it while you can.
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
20 December 2017
The blockbuster exhibition at the British Library this winter is magical in more ways than one. Harry Potter: A History of Magic features not only original items from J.K. Rowling's own archive and some of the Library's precious manuscripts, but also a number of items borrowed from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic at Boscastle. We are indebted to the Museum of Witchcraft for their generosity in lending us real witches' cauldrons, broomsticks and wands, alongside crystal balls and a scrying mirror. All of these magical objects help to contextualise the principal theme of this exhibition: that the Harry Potter novels are founded upon centuries of historical tradition, mythology and folklore.
This broomstick is one of our favourite exhibits. It belonged to Olga Hunt, of Manaton in Devon. So the story goes, Olga used to delight in riding her broomstick on Haytor Rocks on Dartmoor every Full Moon, jumping out on unsuspecting campers and courting couples.
A broomstick belonging to the 20th-century witch, Olga Hunt (©The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)
This serpentine wand is also in the exhibition, thanks to the kindness of the Museum of Witchcraft. In magical tradition, snakes represent the duality between good and evil (and if you were going to own a wand, what better than having a wand in the shape of a snake?). We have placed it next to one of the British Library's own medieval manuscripts, showing a 'wizard' charming a serpent.
A serpentine wand (©The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)
This medieval bestiary describes several mythological snakes, including the cerastes (a horned serpent) and the scitalis (with incredible markings on its back). It then focuses on the emorroris, a type of asp so-called because its bite causes haemorrhages; the victim sweat outs their own blood until they die. The manuscript goes on to explain that the asp can be caught if a conjurer sings to it in its cave, making it fall asleep. This allows the snake charmer (shown holding what seems to be a wand) to remove the precious stone that grows on the asp’s forehead.
A snake charmer, in a bestiary (England, 13th century): British Library Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 67r
Another impressive object in Harry Potter: A History of Magic is this cauldron. According to the Museum of Witchcraft, it exploded when three witches were attempting to conjure up a spirit on the beach. They fled in terror, and the cauldron was only later retrieved from where it had landed on the rocks.
An exploded cauldron (©The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)
There are a number of Museum of Witchcraft items in the Divination section of the exhibition, including a scrying mirror, which once belonged to the witch, Cecil Williamson (d. 1999). He warned that, if you gaze into it, ‘and suddenly see someone standing behind you, whatever you do, do not turn around’. Also in the same room is this palmistry hand, which accompanies a 14th-century treatise on chiromancy. On the right hand of this medieval manuscript, a vertical line running across the palm reads, ‘this line represents love’. A vertical line running between the middle and index finger has a less fortunate meaning: ‘This line signifies a bloody death and if the line reaches unto the middle of the finger it signifies a sudden death.’ Other lines predict ailments and diseases, such as eye problems and the plague, and mental traits, such as courage, humility and infidelity.
A palmistry hand (©The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)
A fortune-telling manuscript (England, 14th century): British Library Royal MS 12 C XII, f. 107r
Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the British Library until 28 February 2018. We are extremely grateful to our partners (The Blair Partnership, Pottermore, Bloomsbury Publishing, Google Arts and Culture) for their support, as well as to our many lenders for helping to make the exhibition so magical.
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07 December 2017
As a general rule, we don't normally give gardening advice on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. It's just possible, however, that you may have been contemplating the best way to harvest a mandrake. And so here we provide you with some handy tips on cultivating this most notorious of plants, based on manuscripts in the British Library's collections.
A cure for insanity
In the Middle Ages, it was believed that mandrakes (mandragora) could cure headaches, earache, gout and insanity. At the same time, it was supposed that this plant was particularly hazardous to harvest, because its roots resembled the human form; when pulled from the ground, its shrieks could cause madness.
The root of a mandrake, carved to resemble a tiny human, loaned from the Science Museum to the British Library's exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic
Identify your mandrake
You would think this was simple, but it was long believed that there were two different sexes of mandrake (which we have always been tempted to call the 'mandrake' and 'womandrake'). This beautiful 14th-century manuscript was on show in the British Library's Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. It contains an Arabic version of De materia medica, originally written in Ancient Greek by Pedanius Dioscorides, who worked as a physician in the Roman army. Dioscorides was one of the first authors to distinguish (mistakenly) between the male and female mandrake, as depicted here. In fact, there is more than one species of mandrake native to the Mediterranean, rather than two sexes of the same plant.
This mandrake, on the other hand, is quite clearly (ahem) the male of the species ...
Below are two mandrakes, one male, one female, drawn in the lower margin of the Queen Mary Psalter — hanging upside down, their blood is clearly rushing to their heads.
It's also advisable not to confuse your mandrake with a gonk, with an elephant (yes, they are elephants), or with a dragon.
Bring a dog
Medieval plant-collectors devised an elaborate method to harvest mandrakes. The best way to obtain one safely was to unearth its roots with an ivory stake, attaching the plant to a dog with a cord. A horn should then be sounded, drowning out the shrieking while at the same time startling the dog, causing it to drag out the mandrake. This medieval mandrake looks resigned to its fate.
While this mandrake is blushing with shame at the prospect of being pulled out of the ground ...
This Anglo-Saxon hound has yet to be tied to the mandrake (is that a ball that has distracted it attention?).
Stuff your ears with earth
Another trick was to stuff your ears with clods of earth before attempting to pull the mandrake from the ground. The gentleman in the red cap below has done exactly this, and is blowing resoundingly upon his horn: perfect technique!
You can read more about magical mandrakes in our online exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, in partnership with Google Arts and Culture.
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The manuscripts featured in this post
Or 3366: Baghdad, 14th century
Sloane MS 4016: Herbal, Lombardy, 15th century
Royal MS 2 B VII: The Queen Mary Psalter, England, 14th century
Sloane MS 278: Bestiary, France, 13th century
Harley MS 1585: Herbal, Southern Netherlands, 12th century
Sloane MS 1975: Medical and herbal miscellany, England or Northern France, 12th century
Cotton MS Vitellius C III: Herbal, England, 11th century
Harley MS 3736: Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal, Southern Germany(?), 15th century
29 November 2017
If you're in London over the next few weeks, you may wish to pop into the British Library to attend some of our Harry Potter-themed events. They accompany our current major exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, and they cater for medievalists of all ages (and all tastes).
The phoenix as imagined by Jim Kay, the exhibition poster for Harry Potter: A History of Magic
The next talks in our series of Hogwarts Curriculum lectures are Care of Magical Creatures with Patrick Aryee on Sunday, 3 December, and Alchemy with our friends from the Science Museum on Tuesday, 12 December. They both promise to be huge fun. Patrick Aryee will be talking about the weird and wonderful animals he's met on his travels, while the Science Museum will reveal the real history of alchemy and the magical effects that can be achieved through science, and there will be a small dose of alchemic science live on stage (have Health and Safety been informed?). In between, on Tuesday, 5 December, the journalist Anita Anand will be chairing an event entitled Women, Witches and Witch Trials, with a descendant of the Salem Witch Trials on the panel.
In January, Julian Harrison, Lead Curator of Harry Potter: A History of Magic, will disclose some of the secrets behind curating the exhibition (22 January), and there are two series of classes organised by the British Library's Learning team, Picturing Magic (beginning on 23 January) and Medieval Magic and Astrology (beginning 24 January). Maybe you know someone who'd love to come along?
The Ripley Scroll, providing instructions on how to make the Philosopher's Stone, on display until 28 February 2018 in Harry Potter: A History of Magic
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24 November 2017
Books make great presents — just ask Charlemagne, Alcuin, Anne of Burgundy, Henry VI, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, all of whom gave or received manuscripts for Christmas or New Year. So, now that the Christmas shopping season is upon us, we would like to recommend some of our colleagues' wonderful recent publications as gifts for the historian/art-lover/calligrapher/bibliophile in your life.
This year saw the publication of Andrea Clarke’s fantastic Tudor Monarchs: Lives in Letters. This book contains transcriptions and translations, images and discussions of dozens of original documents. These include letters from Wolsey to Cromwell, a letter jointly written by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Wolsey, and the draft of Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech (‘I have the heart and stomach of a king ...’). For everyone who is interested in the Tudors, this beautifully written book is a wonderful way to get to know the people behind the portraits. It is an indispensable guide to some of the most significant surviving documents from the Tudor period, and you can buy it here.
For art lovers, there is Kathleen Doyle’s and Scot McKendrick’s The Art of the Bible. This gorgeously illustrated book explores 1,000 years of history. It examines the diverse ways in which scribes and artists from Iraq to Northumbria to Ethiopia have presented sacred texts. Each page is breath-taking. This book is also available in French, German, Dutch and Italian. Buy it here.
Our other recent publications are the books associated with the exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic. One of these is intended for children (Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic) and the other for a general audience (Harry Potter: A History of Magic). Buy them here.
And don’t just take our word for it — the Guardian has recommended Harry Potter: A History of Magic as one of the top 10 books to buy this holiday season. Harry Potter: A History of Magic is currently the best-selling item in the British Library shop, so order it soon!
A range of other books relating to medieval manuscripts and magic are available in the British Library shop, including Sophie Page’s Magic in Medieval Manuscripts and Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts. There are also postcards and even Oyster Card holders featuring medieval manuscripts in the British Library's shop. So whether you are transfixed by the Tudors, enthralled by illuminations or fascinated by phoenixes, there is something for everyone this Christmas.
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