21 November 2017
Bushy hair, writing furiously — why, it must be Hermione! But this is not an early image of Hermione Granger. This is the Hermione of Greek mythology. She features in Greek and Latin writings about the Trojan War, from Homer’s Odyssey to the plays of Euripides and the poems of Ovid.
Hermione writing a letter, from a copy of a French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, made in Paris at the end of the 15th century: Harley MS 4867, f. 60v
In classical mythology, Hermione was said to be the daughter and only child of Helen of Troy and Menelaus, king of Sparta. She was only a young girl when her mother ran off with (or was kidnapped by) Paris, starting the Trojan War. Hermione’s love life became just as complicated as her mother’s. She was initially engaged to Orestes, the son of Agamemnon. In some versions of the story she even secretly married him. However, Hermione’s oblivious father married her to Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, also known as Pyrrhus. This wedding is one of the first events in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus’s son Telemachus travels to Sparta to ask Menelaus if he has heard any news about the missing Odysseus and
found [Menelaus] in his own house, feasting with his many clansmen in honour of the wedding of his son, and also of his daughter, whom he was marrying to the son of that valiant warrior Achilles … [Menelaus’s] son, Megapenthes, was born to him of a bondwoman, for heaven vouchsafed Helen no more children after she had borne Hermione, who was fair as golden Venus herself (translated by Samuel Butler).
Beginning of Book IV in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 26r
There is magic in some of the stories about the mythological Hermione. After the sack of Troy, Hermione’s husband Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus was given Andromache, the widow of Hector, as a concubine. In Euripides’s play Andromache, Hermione accuses Andromache of putting a spell on her so she is unable to bear children. She tries to persuade her father, Menelaus, to kill Andromache and her child while her husband is away, but Andromache is protected by Neoptolemus's grandfather, Peleus.
Meanwhile, Hermione's ex-fiancé Orestes arrives. He has killed Neoptolemus. Orestes declares that he is still in love with Hermione and takes her back to his kingdom.
Andromache flees with her child while Hermione talks to Pyrrhus, from a copy of Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, made in Naples, c. 1330–1340: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 187r
The love of Orestes and Hermione also inspired the Roman writer Ovid. She is one of the heroines of Ovid’s poems known as the Heroides. These 15 poems take the form of letters written by mythological heroines to the men in their lives who have let them down. Ovid portrayed Hermione as a woman who, against her will, had been dragged off by Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus. She writes to Orestes, begging him to come and rescue her.
Pyrrhus … holds me
prisoner here, contrary to the laws of both gods and men ...
Deafer to [my pleas] than the sea, he dragged me into his palace,
as I tore my hair in grief and shouted your name …
When the Greeks won the war and set wealthy Troy on fire,
they didn’t maltreat Andromache as badly as this ...
Follow my father’s example of claiming back an abducted wife …
[But] don’t muster a thousand ships with swelling sails
Or an army of Greek warriors — come yourself!’
(Ovid’s Heroides translated by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves and Sarah Parker, pp. 89–90).
The sense of these verses is similar in the later medieval French translation, see in the first image in this post. This translation was made by Octavien de Saint-Gelais for King Charles VIII between 1490 and 1493.
Paris and Helen writing to each other, from a copy of a French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, made in Paris at the end of the 15th century: Harley MS 4867, f. 115r
In Ovid’s poem, Hermione then wonders whether the women in her family have been struck with a curse ‘that makes all us female descendants of Tantalus ripe for the ravishing’, citing the examples of her mother Helen and her grandmother Leda. Ovid’s Hermione is not entirely sympathetic to her mother, however. Part-way through the letter, Hermione addresses her mother directly, allowing Ovid to give a haunting, child’s eye-view of the start of the Trojan War:
‘I tore my girlishly short hair and kept on shouting:
“Are you going away without me, mother?” …
I went to meet you when you came home, and — honestly —
I didn’t know what my mother’s face looked like.
I realized you were Helen because you were so beautiful.’
(Ovid’s Heroides translated by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves and Sarah Parker, p. 92).
Hermione was a fascinating character who continued to inspire writers, musicians and artists in the Middle Ages and beyond, as Greek and Latin texts were recopied, rewritten and reintepreted. The manuscripts featured here are only a small sample of the books that feature the original Hermione.
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11 November 2017
There are some stunning medieval manuscripts in the British Library's current exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. We have spent the last year searching our collections for items that relate in some way to the magical subjects studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and we've made some incredible discoveries along the way. But no exhibition of this magnitude is complete without the assistance and generosity of other institutions. Visitors to the show will recognise instantly that our books are complemented by a wealth of fascinating objects, many of which have kindly been loaned by our friends at the Science Museum in London. We would like to record here our gratitude to the assistance provided by both the Science Museum and the Wellcome Trust in enabling us to borrow these items, which have helped to make our exhibition such a magical experience. Which is your favourite? The mandrake root, perhaps, or the unicorn shop sign?
We are also delighted to announce that, on 12 December, Roger Highfield and Sophie Waring of the Science Museum will be delivering one of our Hogwarts Curriculum Lectures on the subject of Alchemy. You can book your tickets here. It promises to be a very special evening. Roger has also contributed a wonderful essay on Potions and Alchemy to the exhibition book, published by our friends at Bloomsbury. That's well worth a read, though we'd love you to be able to make it to the exhibition in London as well. It closes on 28 February, and tickets need to be purchased in advance.
A mandrake root: this mandrake root dates from the 16th or 17th century, and it has been carved to resemble the figure of a human. The mandrake's resemblance to the human form has prompted many cultures over the centuries to attribute special powers to the plant. In reality, the mandrake’s root and leaves are poisonous and it can induce hallucinations.
A real bezoar stone: a corruption of the Persian word pādzahar (pād, expelling; zahar, poison), bezoars were first introduced into medieval Europe by Arabic physicians and reputedly provided a powerful antidote to poison. Wealthy owners (including kings and popes) spent considerable sums on acquiring the stones (digested by goats and similar animals), and often kept them in elaborate cases.
Apothecary jars: we love these apothecary jars, which were possibly made in Spain in the 17th century. The jar labelled ‘Vitriol Coerul’ contained copper sulphite, ‘Ocul. Cancr’ stored ‘crabs eyes’ — particles from the guts of putrefied crayfish, used to cure indigestion — while the jar named ‘Sang. Draco.V.’ contained ‘Dragon’s Blood’, a potent red resin that still has medical uses today.
An apothecary's sign: the blood, hair and horn of the unicorn have been traditionally believed to possess powerful medicinal properties. This sign would have stood outside an apothecary’s
shop in the 1700s. The horn is made from the tusk of a narwhal, otherwise known as the ‘unicorn of the sea’.
A miniature orrery: an orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system, often used for teaching. This miniature orrery was made in London in the 18th century by the mathematical instrument maker, John Troughton. It displays the movement of Earth in relation to the Moon and two other planets.
The British Library, London
until 28 February 2018
Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)
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09 November 2017
Harry Potter: A History of Magic, the British Library's new blockbuster exhibition, is currently on show (until 28 February 2018). It's definitely worth making a special visit to London. There is an array of beautiful books and artefacts on display — the Evening Standard has described it as 'a cornucopia of magical and mysterious items' — including medieval manuscripts, cauldrons and Chinese oracle bones.
We're delighted to say that two books have also been published by our friends at Bloomsbury to accompany the exhibition, one entitled Harry Potter: A History of Magic and the other aimed at a family audience, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic. They are incredibly well researched and written, and beautifully illustrated (says someone who wrote, edited, reviewed and proofed them!). The 'adult' version contains essays by Lead Curator, Julian Harrison, together with astronaut Tim Peake, naturalist and television presenter Steve Backshall, the Rev Richard Coles, Lucy Mangan and others; while the family version contains lots of fun activities for younger people.
Both books are available online or from the British Library shop, as well as from other major retailers. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed writing them!
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02 November 2017
How many horns does a unicorn have? It's the kind of trick question you might encounter when watching the British television series QI. One, I hear you say — everyone knows that. Unicorns only have ONE horn (the clue is in the name). And that's what I used to think too, but it seems we’ve all been duped. Sometimes a unicorn can have TWO horns. I know, right? Whatever next?
A lion-like unicorn: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 18r
I first came across the infamous two-horned unicorn when selecting the objects for the British Library's new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic (#BLHarryPotter). The printed book illustrated below, on show in the show, has a diagram featuring five different species of unicorn. It was published in Paris in 1694 and is the work of Pierre Pomet, a French pharmacist. Apart from realising that you discover something new every day — it's incredible to learn that so many species of unicorn have been identified — your eye is also drawn to the beast in the lower, left-hand corner. It clearly has a pair of horns. That's cheating, surely?
On closer inspection, I learned that the mysterious unicorn in question is known as a pirassoipi. We might be inclined to call it a bicorn. Delving deeper, we learn that it was described as being as large as a mule and as hairy as a bear. But our story then takes a rather distressing turn. Pomet noted that unicorn horn was ‘well used, on account of the great properties attributed to it, principally against poisons’. Unicorns, in other words, were valued for their body parts. The rather grisly image below, taken from a study of the unicorn by Ambroise Paré, published in 1582, depicts in the background the killing and skinning of a pirassoipi. Paré was surgeon to the French Crown and he had a keen interest in strange phenomena (his book also contains chapters on mummies and poisons). In his commentary, he admitted uncertainty whether the body parts of the unicorn would have any medicinal effectiveness.
An Italian unicorn, in Discours d’Ambroise Paré, Conseiller et Premier Chirurgien du Roy. Asçavoir, de la mumie, de la licorne, des venins, et de la peste (Paris, 1582): British Library 461.b.11.(1.), f. 27r
Let's have another look at the unusual unicorn illustrated at the beginning of this blogpost. It's found in a 16th-century Greek manuscript, accompanying a poem by Manuel Philes called On the properties of animals. According to the poem, the unicorn was a wild beast with a dangerous bite: it had the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion. Distinctly un-unicorn-like, isn't it?
The unicorn with the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion: Burney MS 97, f. 18r
The unicorn is not the only beast illustrated in this manuscript. Its pages are filled with drawings of herons and pelicans, a wolf and a porcupine, and even a cuttlefish. One of my favourites is the illustration of the mythical centaur: it has a pair of over-extended human arms serving as its front legs. The scribe of this manuscript is named as Angelos Vergekios, a Cypriot who had made his home in France, and the illustrator is said to have been his daughter. Here is a selection of those images to whet your appetite. (A few years ago we completed the digitisation of all the British Library's Greek manuscripts thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation: the whole manuscript can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.) We'd love you to take a look at all of them and to tell us your favourites (please use Twitter or the comments form below).
A heron: Burney MS 97, f. 4r
Owls: Burney MS 97, f. 10r
A lioness: Burney MS 97, f. 16v
A centaur: Burney MS 97, f. 19v
A porcupine: Burney MS 97, f. 26v
Is is safe to go back into the water? A swordfish, narwhal, hammerhead shark and whale: Burney MS 97, f. 31v
A cuttlefish: Burney MS 97, f. 41v
And this returns us neatly to the theme introduced at the beginning of this blogpost. It is a central premise of our exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, that there are lots of things about the real world that we don't properly understand or don't even know about. When the curators started their research a couple of years ago, I could never have imagined that we would have encountered a unicorn with two horns, and that our journey would introduce us at the same time to such a beautifully illustrated manuscript. And now you can show off to your friends too, whenever someone asks "how many horns does a unicorn have?".
Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on display at the British Library in London until 28 February 2018.
Julian Harrison, Lead Curator Harry Potter: A History of Magic and Medieval Historical Manuscripts
We'd love you to follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval.
If you tweet about the exhibition, don't forget to use the hashtag #BLHarryPotter.
28 October 2017
If you like Harry Potter and/or you're interested in the history of magic, you're in for a real treat this Saturday, 28 October. A documentary focusing on the British Library's new exhibition is to be broadcast on BBC2, at 21:00. It features the Library's curators, famous actors, wandmakers and a certain well-known author, and it's called, just like the exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. (The documentary is now also available on the BBC iPlayer.) We think you just might want to watch it, and hopefully you'll be eager to see the exhibition afterwards.
The artwork of the British Library exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, showing Jim Kay's fantastic illustration of a phoenix
Here, to give you a taster of the television programme, are two short clips, including an introduction to a rather special scroll and the story behind the incantation 'Abracadabra'.
Harry Potter, as illustrated by the brilliant Jim Kay, whose original artwork is on display in the British Library exhibition
Saturday, 28 October
The British Library, London
until 28 February 2018
Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter Exhibition and Medieval Historical Manuscripts)
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
22 October 2017
As a general rule, we don't like to start our blogposts with the words, 'We are delighted to announce'. But there's always an exception, and this is it! We are delighted to announce that the British Library's amazing new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic is now officially open to the public.
Our exhibition celebrates the 20th anniversary of the first publication in the United Kingdom of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, originally released in 1997. But, in a new departure, the exhibition also examines the history, mythology and folklore that lie at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. As well as original drafts and drawings loaned by J.K. Rowling herself, alongside artwork by Jim Kay (who is illustrating the Harry Potter books for Bloomsbury), you'll find on display a range of glorious items from the British Library's own collections, including Chinese oracle bones, papyri and a host of medieval manuscripts.
The Ripley Scroll, dating from around 1600, and explaining how to make your very own Philosopher's Stone. The entire manuscript, all 5.9 metres of it, is on display in the exhibition.
Tickets are selling fast — this Potter thing might just catch on one day — but we'd love you to visit London to see the show in person between now and its final day, 28 February. In the meantime, here is a sneak preview of some of the manuscripts you'll be able to see.
Harvesting a mandrake, medieval style (so that's how you do it!)
A phoenix plucking twigs to make its own funeral pyre, before rising from the flames (please don't try this at home)
How to protect yourself against malaria? Write out the word 'abracadabra' repeatedly on a piece of parchment (it's obvious when you think about it).
Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the British Library from 20 October 2017 to 28 February 2018. Tickets can be purchased here. The exhibition has been staged by the British Library in partnership with The Blair Partnership (representing J.K. Rowling) and Bloomsbury Publishing, with the kind assistance of Pottermore and Google Arts and Culture, and the generosity of numerous lenders.
The exhibition books Harry Potter: A History of Magic and a version designed especially for younger people, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic, are available to buy through the British Library's online shop. (They're quite good, really: note to reader, I helped to write them.)
You may also like to join our online conversation about the exhibition, using the hashtag #BLHarryPotter, with tweets by @britishlibrary, @BLMedieval and the exhibition curators. Even J.K. Rowling has joined in! Hope to see you in London soon.
Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Medieval Historical Manuscripts and
Harry Potter: A History of Magic)
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
The British Library, London
20 October 2017–28 February 2018
01 April 2017
In 1932, one of the most sensational discoveries of modern times took place in a country house just outside Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire. A local antique dealer, Marmaduke Snodgrass, had been taking afternoon tea with the owner, known to posterity as 'the Barking Baronet', when he spotted an old parchment book wrapped in a pair of flannel pyjamas. Realising this book's huge significance, Snodgrass took it to the British Museum Library in London, where experts identified the manuscript as containing the only surviving copy of the semi-legendary De bestiis ridiculosis.
This manuscript remains in private hands, having been inherited by the Barking Baronet's descendants. The British Library is delighted to be able to issue today the first images of what is now known as the Chipping Sodbury Bestiary. De bestiis ridiculosis is a remarkable text, describing a range of mythical beasts that are rarely found in other medieval bestiaries.
An ape-like creature related to the Yeti and native to jungle regions of the Indian sub-continent. The 14th-century writer Jordanus of Moronicus noted that this creature only emerged from its hidden den on nights of the gibbous moon, in order to gather carambola, also known as starfruit. This line drawing shows a female Gibbous carrying her young.
The Horned Groundsnoort
Commonly used by farmers in southern France and Tuscany to snuffle out truffles, the Horned Groundsnoort is a beast with a vicious temper when provoked. The anonymous author of this bestiary prescribes that the farmer should always maintain a safe distance from the Groundsnoort, using a 'snoort-rod' if one is at hand.
The Golden Ass
Most asses are a dull grey or brown in colour, but occasionally a golden mutant is born. The Golden Ass has an exaggerated sense of its own self-worth, and refuses to be steered or ridden unless bribed with the famed golden turnip.
A musical bird native to Timbuktu. During the summer months, the male BoJangle performs popular show tunes on musical instruments as part of an intricate mating ritual to attract females. Here is depicted the male BoJangle holding what seems to be a tambourine.
The Legend of Holyfield
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that, in the year 873, King Alfred the Great of Wessex defended his kingdom from attack by a 'fire-spewing dragon' (OE: fyrdraca), using only his bare fists. The encounter took place near the village of Holyfield, and is commemorated to this day by the drinking of prodigious amounts of 'fire-water' every Friday night. Despite losing his left ear in this battle, Alfred left the field victorious.
When startled by a hunter, the quonk will lay a pair of eggs, which hatch around the full moon. Quonks are described in De bestiis ridiculosis as among the most noble of beasts, and impossible (and undesirable) to tame.
Half-dog, half-weasel, dweezils have an almost unique ability to smell with their tongues, a feat they share today with the wombat and the spiny echidna. Older readers of this Blog may be familiar with the arcane proverb, 'A dweezil in the hand gathers no moss'.
The Tree Hedgehog
Now extinct over most of its former range, the tree hedgehog was much prized as a delicacy in Roman times. Pliny the Elder was reputedly dining on tree hedgehogs and egret tongues, washed down with bull's milk, when he watched Mount Vesuvius erupting in AD 79.
The Dancing Crane
Not to be confused with its more common cousin, the Skating Crane, the Dancing Crane is notorious for breaking out into intricate stepping routines whenever it gets excited. Some ornithologists have compared its dance technique to the Macarena.
The Giant Bee
One of the most unpredictable beasts is the Giant Bee of South America. Bee keepers in the foothills of the Andes tell terrible tales of their encounters with these winged creatures, which have the ability to lift a man from the ground before depositing him in a dunghill.
The Hebridean Half-Whit
Sightings of the Half-Whit are becoming increasingly rare, no doubt due to global warming and tighter regulation of the local licensing laws. The Half-Whit is distinguished by having two heads (one in the usual place, the other at the end of its tail), and by its unorthodox mating call, likened by experts to the sound of bagpipes crossed with the scratching of nails on a chalkboard.
All images of the Chipping Sodbury Bestiary are courtesy of the descendants of the Barking Baronet. We are extremely grateful to them for kindly giving permission for us to feature this beautiful bestiary on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter (@BLMedieval) for more manuscript discoveries.
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