Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

04 December 2020

Ancient steam engines

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 manuscript of Hero's Pneumatics

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.

Image 2

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 replica of Hero's steam engine

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.

A manuscript illustration showing Hero’s installation for animating birds in fountains

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'.

A manuscript illustration showing the design of an animated model of a sanctuary

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.

An annotated manuscript of Hero's Pneumatics

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.

 

Peter Toth

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29 November 2020

Sherborne Missal on the radio

Earlier this summer we digitised one of our greatest medieval treasures, the Sherborne Missal. Now this stunning illuminated manuscript is the subject of an episode of Moving Pictures radio programme, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 30th November 2020 at 4pm. You can also listen to the programme on the BBC website shortly after broadcast.

Moving Pictures is a radio series that offers listeners the chance to take a long, slow look at great artworks, photographed in incredible detail. You're invited to view a high-resolution image on Google Arts & Culture while presenter Cathy FitzGerald and a group of experts talk you through the details. The speakers on the Sherborne Missal episode are Kathleen Doyle (the British Library), Eleanor Jackson (the British Library), Alixe Bovey (the Courtauld Institute of Art), Paul Binski (the University of Cambridge) and Patricia Lovett (professional scribe and illuminator).

The richly decorated page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal
The page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216

Made in the early 14th century for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, the Sherborne Missal is a particularly impressive example of a book containing the texts for the Mass. In the Moving Pictures programme, we will be focusing on the page for Easter Sunday, the most important feast of the Christian year.

The feast of Easter commemorates the Resurrection of Christ, which is the subject of the page’s glorious initial letter:

Decorated initial letter ‘R’ containing a scene of the Resurrection of Christ
Decorated initial letter ‘R’ containing a scene of the Resurrection of Christ, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

Lower down the page, the patrons of the manuscript, Bishop Mitford and Abbot Brunyng, and the craftsmen, John Whas and John Siferwas, pay their respects:

Details of portraits of the patrons and craftsmen of the Sherborne Missal
The patrons Bishop Mitford and Abbot Brunyng (left), and the scribe and artist, John Whas and John Siferwas (right), from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (details)

And scenes from the Old Testament provide theological parallels, or types, for the Resurrection:

Details of small scenes showing Jonah and the whale, and Sampson and the lion
 Jonah and the whale (left), and Sampson and the lion (right), from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (details)

But why are these hairy men fighting?

Detail of two hairy wodewoses fighting
Wodewose fight, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

And is that a bittern?

Detail of a bittern
Probable bittern, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

To find out, tune in to Moving Pictures on BBC Radio 4, 30th November 2020 at 4pm, or listen on the BBC website afterwards!

Eleanor Jackson
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25 November 2020

900 years since the White Ship disaster

900 years ago today a tragedy took place which would dramatically alter the course of British history. On the evening of the 25th November 1120, a recently renovated ship of the finest construction set sail from the port of Barfleur on the Normandy coast. The White Ship, as it was named, had on board around 300 people, including an a-list of English nobles and the only legitimate son of King Henry I of England, the 17-year-old William Adelin. But when the sun rose the next day, the fishermen of Barfleur found that only a few pieces of floating wreckage and one clinging survivor were all that remained of the White Ship.

A page from a manuscript of Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, showing an illustration of a grief-stricken King Henry I and the White Ship.
Illustration of King Henry I and the White Ship from Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle: Royal MS 20 A II, f. 6v

What happened?

There are many accounts of the sinking of the White Ship, many of them written long after the event. One of the earliest and most detailed accounts is in William of Malmesbury’s History of the English Kings, the first surviving version of which is thought to have been written around 1126. William of Malmesbury paints a vivid picture of the young prince, showered with every privilege, the great hope for the kingdom’s future, who was tragically cut off before his prime.

A detail from a manuscript of William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the English Kings, showing an account of the White Ship disaster.
Account of the White Ship disaster by William of Malmesbury in Gesta regum Anglorum, Cotton MS Claudius C IX, f. 98r

William of Malmesbury tells how Henry I and his followers were returning from a trip to France, during which William Adelin paid homage to King Louis VI of France and was made Duke of Normandy. King Henry’s ship departed first and reached England safely. But William Adelin, with ‘almost all the young nobility flocking around him’, led a second vessel, the White Ship. The young nobles, left to their own devices, started drinking and partying. The sailors also joined the fun, and after a few drinks too many they started boasting that they would overtake the king’s ship. When the White Ship launched after dark, the crew rowed as fast as they could, ‘swifter than an arrow’, straight into a rock offshore.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of the White Ship.
Detail of the White Ship, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 45v.

The White Ship instantly began to sink. In a bid to save the prince, the crew launched a small boat and set William Adelin inside it. He would have escaped had he not heard the cries of his half-sister, Matilda, countess of Perche, still on board the sinking vessel. William ordered the oarsmen to go back for her, at which the small boat was overwhelmed by frightened people trying to clamber aboard and sank as well. The only survivor, a ‘rustic’, managed to cling to the floating mast all night.

A significant proportion of the English royal household and aristocracy died that night, and most of the bodies were never recovered. As William of Malmesbury famously summed it up, 'no ship ever brought England so much misery'.

Other accounts provide additional details. Most notably, Orderic Vitalis, writing around 20 years after the event, reported that priests had tried to bless the travellers before they set sail, but the rowdy company had laughed and driven them away. He adds that a number of people, including Stephen of Blois, were due to board the White Ship but decided against it when they saw the state of inebriation of them all. The sole survivor was identified by Orderic as a butcher from Rouen named Berold, who lived for a further 20 years. He also described how the captain of the ship, Thomas Fitzstephen, deliberately allowed himself to drown to avoid facing King Henry’s anger. Apparently, no one dared tell the king the news and, when he finally learned of it from a boy, his grief was immense.

A detail from a manuscript of Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, showing an illustration of King Henry I wringing his hands in grief at the death of his son.
Detail of King Henry I wringing his hands in grief, from Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle: Royal MS 20 A II, f. 6v

Was it murder?

The sinking of the White Ship has been the focus of several conspiracy theories. The idea that the ship was deliberately sabotaged was suggested by the novelist Ken Follett in Pillars of the Earth (1989), and by the scholar Victoria Chandler in her article ‘The Wreck of the White Ship: A Mass Murder Revealed?’ (1998).

None of the medieval sources imply that there was anything suspicious about the disaster. It’s difficult to imagine that such an act of mass murder could have been committed without raising any suspicions at the time, and any intrigue would almost certainly have been reported by the chroniclers. It’s also questionable how the ship could have been effectively sabotaged without the saboteurs themselves dying, and who stood to clearly gain from the disaster.

A medieval manuscript page with an illustration of Henry I and the White Ship
Henry I and the White Ship, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 45v.

What were the consequences?

While the sinking of the White Ship was a personal tragedy for those involved, it was also a political disaster which caused a succession crisis and civil war in England, a period known as the Anarchy. The death of William Adelin on the White Ship left King Henry I without a legitimate male heir. Although he remarried soon afterwards, Henry was unable to have any more children. As a result, he declared his daughter, Matilda, as his heir. But on Henry’s death in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois seized power. Matilda fought back, and period of long and devastating civil war ensued. Peace was only achieved in 1153, when Stephen agreed to recognise Matilda’s son as his heir, the future King Henry II.

A detail from a genealogical roll, with roundels featuring portraits of King Henry I, Queen Matilda, their children William Adelin and Matilda, their nephew Stephen and Henry II.
Detail of the royal family tree from Henry I to Henry II, showing King Henry I, his wife Matilda of Scotland, their children William Adelin and Matilda, Henry’s nephew Stephen, and Matilda’s son, Henry II, from a Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings: Royal MS 14 B V, Membrane 5 (image 'f. 5r')

Ultimately, the White Ship disaster is a reminder of how one tragic event could change the course of history. On the 900th anniversary of the event, spare a thought for the victims of the disaster, both the people who died on the ship and the many thousands who suffered in the civil war that followed.

Eleanor Jackson

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