23 November 2020
Today is the two year anniversary of our launch of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200, in which we collaborated with the Bibliothèque nationale to digitise and make available 800 medieval French and English manuscripts from our two collections.
We have two websites: one, hosted by the Bibliothèque nationale, in which you can view all 800 manuscripts in an International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) viewer, and a curated website hosted by the British Library on which you can read articles, view individual manuscript descriptions and watch videos and animations. Both are bilingual, in English and French.
We recently participated in an online seminar sponsored by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) that celebrated five digitisation projects sponsored by the Polonsky Foundation, some completed and others ongoing. The seminar was oversubscribed, so the presentations were recorded and may be watched here:
(Note: videos of the six presentations will automatically play in sequence, one after the other. Alternatively, you can click the 'playlist' button near the top right to select individual videos to play).
The Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website has been very well received, with over 150,000 individual users from all over the world. The majority of those are from the UK and the US, but there are thousands of viewers from France, Canada, Australia, Italy, Brazil, the Philippines, Spain and Italy making up the top ten countries by use.
So far, the most popular article is on how to make a medieval manuscript, in which you can watch seven videos on different aspects of manuscript production, such as parchment preparation, ink, pigments and applying gold leaf. Viewers spend an average of eleven minutes on this article. Other popular articles are featured in the Science and Nature theme, including those on mathematics, medicine, bestiaries and calendars. Articles discussing the use of Latin, Anglo-Norman French and Old English are also popular.
If you haven’t yet checked it out, or if you are amongst the 30% returning users, do explore the website. You may be interested in watching Professor Nick Vincent discussing law-making in early medieval England or Professor Julia Crick discussing manuscript production after the Norman Conquest. Or perhaps you'll enjoy the animated features on the whale and the crane from the bestiary. The project book has just been reprinted, too, if you would like to buy a copy.
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
20 May 2020
This week we are looking back at the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which opened to the public in October 2018. By the time the exhibition closed four months later, the enigmatic figure of ‘Spong Man’ had greeted over 108,000 visitors.
‘Spong Man’, on loan from Norwich Castle Museum (1994.192.1)
Excavated in Norfolk about 40 years ago, Spong Man is the ceramic lid of a cremation urn, who had travelled from his current home in Norwich Castle Museum to London for the exhibition. Sitting with his head in his hands, he looked visitors straight in the eye and welcomed them to his 5th-century world. While Spong Man sat alone, some of the most memorable moments in the exhibition were manuscripts brought together for display alongside each other, thanks to the generosity of so many lenders. Here is a reminder of just a few.
Just behind Spong Man was a single exhibition case containing the St Augustine Gospels, perhaps brought from Rome by St Augustine in 597, the Moore Bede, probably the earliest copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the Textus Roffensis, which contains the first piece of English law and the earliest datable text written in English.
The St Augustine Gospels, on loan from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (MS 286) © Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
The Moore Bede, on loan from Cambridge University Library (MS Kk.5.16) © Cambridge University Library
Textus Roffensis, on loan from Rochester Cathedral Library (MS A. 3. 5)
The Book of Durrow, on loan from Dublin, Trinity College Library (MS 57) © Trinity College Dublin
The Echternach Gospels, on loan from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (MS lat. 9389)
In the same room were the Durham Gospels next to the Lindisfarne Gospels and, at the far end, two manuscripts made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century were reunited when the pocket-sized St Cuthbert Gospel, acquired by the British Library in 2012, was displayed next to the giant Codex Amiatinus, which had returned from Italy to Britain for the first time in over 1300 years.
The St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library, Add MS 89000)
Codex Amiatinus, on loan from Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (MS Amiatino 1)
The Lichfield Angel, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral
Gold dinar of King Offa, on loan from the British Museum (CM 1913,1213.1) © Trustees of the British Museum
The Alfred Jewel, on loan from Oxford, Ashmolean Museum (AN1836 p.135.371)
The Pastoral Care, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Hatton 20)
The section on languages and literature was dominated by a replica of the Ruthwell Cross with its extracts from the poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’.
The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery
Nearby the cases containing the Four Poetic Codices, brought together for the first time Beowulf, the Vercelli Book (containing the whole text of ‘The Dream of the Rood’), the Exeter Book and the Junius Manuscript.
The Four Poetic Codices on display in the exhibition: Beowulf (British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV); The Vercelli Book, on loan from Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare (MS CXVII); The Junius Manuscript, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Junius 11); The Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library (MS 3501)
Further on, the jewelled binding of the Gospels of Judith of Flanders was displayed in the centre of the room containing eight highlights of the manuscript art from the late 10th- and 11th-century kingdom of England.
The Judith of Flanders Gospels, on loan from New York, Morgan Library (MS M 708) © The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York
Towards the end of the exhibition the Domesday surveyors’ questions and part of the Exon Domesday survey were displayed with Domesday Book itself, showing the vast amount of evidence it reveals about the landscape, organisation and wealth of late Anglo-Saxon England.
Great Domesday Book, on loan from The National Archives (E/31/2/2)
Finally, and several hours later for some dedicated visitors, the exhibition ended with the Utrecht Psalter, the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter, which drew together key themes in the exhibition: the connections between Europe and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the movement of manuscripts, and the development and continuity of the English language.
The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek (MS 32) © Utrecht University Library
The Harley Psalter, British Library Harley MS 603
The Eadwine Psalter, on loan from Cambridge, Trinity College (MS R.17.1)
Although the exhibition closed in February 2019, you can continue to explore exhibits through the collection items and articles featured in our Anglo-Saxons website, and the exhibition catalogue is available from the British Library online shop.
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18 May 2020
Early in the 1400s, Ulrich von Pottenstein (c. 1360–1417), a clerk and chaplain to Duke Albert IV of Austria, translated into German a collection of Latin fables. Known in their expanded version as Das Buch der natürlichen Weisheit ('The Book of Natural Wisdom'), these fables describe the interactions between animals, humans, plants and the natural elements in order to teach moral lessons to their readers. One of the finest illustrated copies of this work, found in Egerton MS 1121, has recently been digitised. This manuscript, containing more than 70 fables, can teach us much about wisdom, beginning with:
(1) Listen to your sense of reason.
When the animals gather to choose the wisest, they divide into two factions. The land animals nominate the Fox and the birds elect the Raven. But the Monkey intervenes, explaining that they have chosen not with reason but with carelessness and poor judgement. They have allowed themselves to be misled, mistaking the cunning of the Fox and Raven for wisdom.
The Fox and Raven are chosen as the wisest animals: Egerton MS 1121, f. 4v
(2) Question things that appear to be certain.
The Fox plays dead in order to catch the Raven, who is sitting in a tree. The scavenging bird comes closer but, knowing the Fox’s cunning, inspects the ‘carcass’ from a safe distance. When the Raven notices that the Fox’s heart is beating, he drops a stone on his head and calls him out as a deceiver. The Fox, in turn, drops his charade.
The Fox and the Raven: Egerton MS 1121, f. 7v
(3) Choose your company carefully.
The Fox has remorse for his sins and decides to go on a pilgrimage. En route, the Dog, Donkey, Bear, Lion, Wolf, Swine and Peacock try to join him, but the Fox considers them imprudent and shakes them off. Instead, he chooses wiser animals as his fellow pilgrims: the Ant, Tracking Dog, Ox, Hedgehog, Hare, Lamb, Monkey and (multi-coloured) Panther. The Fox explains that, if you keep company with the wise and holy, you will become wise and holy as well.
The Pilgrim Fox chooses his company: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r
(4) Listen to good advice.
The Monkey decides to follow a sailor into the mast of a ship. The Raven warns against it, but the Monkey ignores the advice, falls down and hurts himself. He then sits on a king's throne, ignoring the warning of the Fox. Only when he is thrown off and bitten by dogs does he realise that he should listen to sound advice.
The Monkey ignores the advice of the Raven and the Fox: Egerton MS 1121, f. 48v
(5) Don’t put yourself above others.
A Cloud, newly born from the Earth, leaps high up into the air. Her mother, Earth, implores her to return. But the Cloud answers that she wants to raise herself above all the things in the natural world. The Earth then teaches her that those who exalt themselves will fall deep. Even the Sun, which raises itself high into the sky, goes down. It is better to be humble. As a reminder of this, Nature has placed the human heart and feet, that keep the entire body going, below the head. The Cloud is persuaded and lets herself fall back to Earth.
The new-born Cloud leaps up from the Earth: Egerton MS 1121, f. 58v
(6) Use your powers wisely.
A fish with razor-sharp teeth tells the Swordfish that he would like to have a sword as well, in order to rob others. The Swordfish replies that it would be best if the other fish doesn’t have a sword or even teeth: corrupted hearts always take the opportunity to use the good things they have for evil purposes, turning their own luck into unhappiness.
The ‘Toothfish’ and the Swordfish: Egerton MS 1121, f. 67r
(7) Greed leads to more loss than gain.
Having devoured yet another prey, the gluttonous Crocodile lies sleeping with its jaws open. The bird ‘Scrofilus’ seizes its opportunity, crawls inside the Crocodile’s mouth, and mortally wounds him from the inside. The Crocodile wakes up and asks why the bird has injured him. Scrofilus explains that those who always desire more always lose more than they gain. Alexander the Great, who conquered the whole world, always wanted to possess more lands; he was never satisfied and became poor in heart as a result.
Scrofilus mortally wounds the sleeping Crocodile: Egerton MS 1121, f. 97v
(8) Wealth always comes with a price.
The Monkey wants to grow a long tail like that of the Fox. But he then meets the Elephant who has removed his tusks to avoid being used in battle; the Swallow whose stomach has been cut open for the precious ‘swallow stone’ (Chelidonius); the Beaver who has removed his testicles to escape hunters looking for his castoreum; and the Peacock whose shiny tail has been cut off. The Monkey realises that wealth always comes with suffering and forgets about the tail.
The Monkey with the Fox and the tuskless Elephant: Egerton MS 1121, f. 102r
(9) Good things take time.
The Gourd is proud to have reached the same height as the 100-year-old Palm within only a few summer days. The plant thanks Nature for allowing him to grow so quickly. But the Palm hears the Gourd’s boast and replies that what grows quickly will also wither quickly. The Palm gives the example of the quick-growing fish ‘Effimer’ (Ephemeral) that only lives for one day, and the slow-growing elephant that lives for 300 years.
The Palm Tree and the Gourd: Egerton MS 1121, f. 121v
(10) Seek treasure inside yourself.
A Youth wants to get rich by visiting the ‘Golden Mountains’ in India. Upon reaching the emerald-covered mountains of pure gold, an Old Man warns him that all visitors are killed by griffins, fabulous creatures with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The Youth is downcast but the Old Man explains that he already carries the greatest treasure inside his own heart. If he listens to his heart — and not greed — he will only seek pure goodness and not gold. Because gold only leads to vice, the peaceful Brahmani (‘Bragmani’) dispose of their gold in deep lakes and Nature hides it from mankind deep inside the Earth. The Youth thanks the Old Man for helping him find true treasure and no longer desires material wealth.
The Old Man warns the Youth about griffins in the Golden Mountains: Egerton MS 1121, f. 114v
Follow your voice of reason, avoid bad company and tricksters, listen to good advice, stay humble, live a measured life, take time to grow, and look inside your own heart. That’s the path to Natural Wisdom.
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26 March 2020
One of the many gems of the British Library is the Harleian collection, founded by Robert Harley, Lord High Treasurer and 1st Earl of Oxford, and his son, Edward (1689–1741), 2nd Earl of Oxford. It's the largest intact 18th-century manuscript collection in the world, containing more than 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls. While we are re-cataloguing the manuscripts, we thought we'd take the opportunity to pay tribute to the collection's early Library-Keeper, Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726).
Wanley was appointed as Library-Keeper for the Harleian Library in 1705 after he successfully negotiated the acquisition for Robert Harley of the 660 manuscripts of the late antiquary Sir Simonds D’Ewes (1602–1650). Wanley — who had previously been employed as Assistant at the Bodleian Library, cataloguer of the library of Hans Sloane (his catalogue survives in Sloane MS 3972 B), and inspector of the library of Robert Cotton (1586–1631) — continued to expand the Harleian Library with thousands of manuscripts.
Thomas Hill, portrait of Humfrey Wanley in the Harleian Library holding his notebook open at his own facsimile copy of the 10th-century Greek Covel Gospels, and with the so-called Guthlac Roll of about the year 1200 on his desk (1711): courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of London
Among Wanley’s most significant acquisitions for the Harleian Library are the more than 300 manuscripts of Edward Stillingfleet (d. 1699), late Bishop of Worcester; over 200 heraldic manuscripts from the Randle Holme arms-painters of Chester; and about 125 manuscripts of the clergyman Robert Burscough (1650/51–1709). Simultaneously, he used Continental agents to purchase manuscripts from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and monasteries in the Levant. He also sold his own collection of manuscripts to the Library. A 14th-century French Psalter in the Harleian collection (Harley MS 3978), for example, bears his ownership inscription: ‘Liber Humfredi Wanley’.
The Adoration of the Magi in a Psalter (above) and the ownership inscription of Humfrey Wanley (below), North-Eastern France, 2nd half of the 14th century: Harley MS 3978, f. 15v and f. 1*recto
The Harleian Library also acquired manuscripts composed and copied by Wanley himself. It features a parchment volume with facsimile copies of medieval charters (Harley MS 7505) that a young Wanley made around 1689–1691 from local archives in Warwickshire. These reveal his skills as both a palaeographer and calligrapher.
Humfrey Wanley’s copy of a mid-14th-century charter of Richard Fitzalan (c. 1313–1376), 3rd Earl of Arundel: Harley MS 7505, f. 2r
Wanley meticulously recorded his acquisition activities in his diary (Lansdowne MSS 1716-1718), but also kept a notebook (Lansdowne MS 677) with a ‘wish-list’ of manuscripts owned by other collectors he hoped to acquire for the Harleian Library (‘Things proper for the Library in the Hands of Particular Persons’). It includes both the Warwickshire charters and the manuscripts of Hans Sloane with which he had previously worked.
Humfrey Wanley offering a reward for returning his notebook to him: ‘Whoever brings this Book to Mr Humfrey Wanley at the Right Honourable the Earl of Oxford’s [Lord Harley’s House] in Dover-street, Westminster; shall receive one Guinea Reward’: Lansdowne MS 677, f. 1v
In acquiring manuscripts, Wanley showed a level of integrity that was unusual for his time. When a bookseller of a 9th-century manuscript containing the four Gospels written in gold ink (Harley MS 2797) insisted that Wanley should erase a 17th-century ownership inscription of the abbey of Sainte Geneviève in Paris because it was bought through a ‘private seller’, Wanley refused to do so, stating that ‘I do not love to putt a pen-knife upon an old Book in order to erase’ (The Diary of Humfrey Wanley (1996), vol. 2, pp. 359–60).
The un-erased ownership inscription of the abbey of Sainte Geneviève in Paris: ‘Ex Libris S. Genovefae Parisiensis’ (Northern France, 3rd quarter of the 9th century): Harley MS 2797, f. 1r
Wanley considered ownership inscriptions as one of the most important features that should be mentioned in manuscript catalogues. He gave much thought to manuscript cataloguing, since he considered it to be one of his principal tasks at the Harleian Library. In a letter he wrote following his inspection of the Cottonian library in 1703, he recommended that the textual and artistic contents of manuscripts be catalogued to a high level of detail:
‘That every Book & Tract be particularly described [...] whether it [be] written upon Parchment or Paper; whether the Language be English, Saxon, Latin, French etcaetera. Particular Notice also might be taken of such books as are remarkable for their Beauty, for being written Correctly, or in very Good or very Bad Hands; [or] remarkable for their Antiquity. And when the Age of the Book or Tract or Name of the Scribe that wrote it, of any Eminent Person that owned it; or old Library to which it did formerly belong does appear; it should be carefully noted, because by these Marks Posterity will be sure that these are the individual Books now described; and no Original or Antient Copie can be changed for a New one, but the Cheat may be discovered’ (Harley MS 7055, f. 19r).
Wanley first demonstrated his meticulousness in cataloguing Hans Sloane’s manuscripts and in producing a monumental catalogue of Old English manuscripts in 1705. Subsequently, he wrote catalogue entries for over 2,400 Harleian manuscripts in a ‘Catalogus Brevior’ (Additional MSS 45701–45707) — completed and published by the British Museum almost a hundred years later — and hundreds of records for a ‘Catalogus Maior’ (Additional MSS 45699–45700). In addition, he began a subject catalogue for the entire collection (Lansdowne MS 815), wrote an index to the Harleian charters (Add MS 45711), and a catalogue of heraldic manuscripts in the Harleian Library (Add MS 6052).
The frontispiece of Humfrey Wanley’s catalogue of Old English manuscripts, printed at Oxford at the Sheldonian Theatre in 1705
Wanley is an example to modern cataloguers. We certainly hope to follow in his footsteps as we re-catalogue the Harleian collection to modern standards and make records of the Harley manuscripts accessible in our online manuscripts catalogue.
You can read more about Humfrey Wanley here:
The Diary of Humfrey Wanley 1715-1726, ed. by Cyril Ernest Wright and Ruth C. Wright, 2 vols (London: Bibliographical Society, 1966).
Deirdre Jackson, 'Humfrey Wanley and the Harley Collection', Electronic British Library Journal (2011), article 2 [pp. 1–20].
Michael Murphy, 'Humfrey Wanley on How to Run a Scholarly Library', The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 52:2 (1982), 145–55.
Cyril Ernest Wright, ‘Humfrey Wanley: Saxonist and Library-Keeper’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 46 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), pp. 99–129.
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27 February 2020
We have recently published a new selection of manuscripts online. They contain a variety of swashbuckling tales, mischievous furry creatures, and ever more glorious images. Which is your favourite?
Petit Jean de Saintré and Floridan and Elvide (Cotton MS Nero D IX)
This book contains two little-known romances. The first, by Antoine de La Sale, tells the adventures of the hero, Jean, at the court of King John of France. His lady, the Dame des Belles Cousines, teaches him how to become the perfect knight. Following this is the tragic story of Floridan et Elvide, a French prose romance about a young couple who elope in order to avoid an arranged marriage. They are waylaid at an inn by a group of rascals, who first murder Floridan, then attack Elvide, who is forced to take her own life to avoid dishonour. A not so happy ending.
A knight kneeling at court, from Petit Jean de Saintré: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 2r
Floridan is attacked while Elvide watches, from Floridan and Elvide: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 109r
Le Roman de Renart (Add MS 15229)
We recently blogged about this collection of tales of one of the world’s most famous tricksters. Tibert the cat is the only one of the animals who is the match of the cunning fox, Renard, and manages to avoid falling victim to his wicked schemes.
Renard and Tibert the cat, seated, looking at the moon: Add MS 15229, f. 53r
Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia (Add MS 19587)
This manuscript, with coloured drawings showing Dante on his remarkable journey, was copied in Naples around 1370. It has the coats of arms of the Rinaldeschi family and the Monforte family, Counts of Biseglia (Naples), with on the final page are found entries of births and deaths in the family between 1449 and 1483.
Dante and Virgil are in a barren wood, with the harpies perched on top of thorny trees, representing the souls of suicides; hounds tear the bodies of the profligates; Virgil breaks off a twig and the wounded tree drips blood, from Inferno, Canto 13: Add MS 19587, f. 21r
The Pilgrimage of the Soul (Egerton MS 615)
This allegory of life as a pilgrimage was translated from the French work by Guillaume de Deguileville. As in the well-known Pilgrim’s Progress, the protagonist, assisted by his guardian angel, undergoes various trials and overcomes temptation on a long journey that ends in Paradise. This manuscript was copied and illustrated somewhere in eastern England.
The pilgrim and his guardian angel, unbaptized souls in a band of darkness, devils torturing a soul and a mock court scene with Satan and a devil: Egerton MS 615, f. 46v
The Mirror of Human Salvation, made for a royal owner (Harley MS 2838)
The Mirror of Human Salvation draws parallels between episodes and prophesies in the Old and New Testaments, historical and natural events, and saints' Lives. This copy was made for King Henry VII (1485–1509), founder of the Tudor dynasty. The royal arms of England with the motto 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' are found on the first folio.
The Virgin Mary, holding the instruments of the Passion, banishes the devil; Judith holds the head of Holofernes: Harley MS 2838, f. 32v
Aldobrandino of Siena, Le Régime du corps; Gautier of Metz, L'Image du monde (Sloane MS 2435)
This 13th-century volume contains Aldobrandino’s handbook on health, composed for Beatrice of Savoie (1220–1266). Its contents are based mainly on Latin translations of Arabic medical texts. It is followed by a poem by Gautier of Metz about the Earth and the universe. The first text includes a section on sleep as part of a healthy lifestyle, with an illustration of a situation that is all-too-familiar.
Illustration of a treatise on sleeping and waking; above, a person is sleeping peacefully; below, two people absorbed in a game that is keeping them awake: Sloane MS 2435, f. 7r
The Romance of the Three Kings’ Sons (Harley MS 326)
This Middle English romance concerns three young princes, Philip of France, Humphrey of England, and David of Scotland, who set off to battle the Turks. The illustrations in this manuscript are unique, as it is a rare surviving illustrated copy of the story.
The coronation of the Emperor: Harley MS 326, f. 98v
Fribois, Abrege de Croniques de France (Add MS 13961)
This 15th-century manuscript contains an abbreviated chronicle of France, from the destruction of Troy to the death of Louis de Mâle, Count of Flanders, in 1383. It was composed in 1459 by Noel de Fribois, counsellor to King Charles VII of France, and was written and painted for Etienne Chevalier, secretary to the king.
The decorated opening page of the chronicle: Add MS 13961, f. 2r
You can explore all these manuscripts in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site, alongside other gems from the British Library's collections.
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14 November 2019
Works written by ancient Greek and Roman authors have made a major impact on the world’s culture and society. They profoundly shaped medieval thought, as you can discover in Cillian O’Hogan’s article The Classical Past on the Polonsky England and France 700-1200 project website. Compared to their afterlife and significance, however, the number of classical writings that have actually survived is surprisingly low. Why were some works lost while others survived, and where can you find them?
A large number of classical texts do not survive at all. For example, we have only about a third of the works of Aristotle. His famous treatise on laughter and comedy – desperately sought in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – has not come down to us. Some highly acclaimed pieces of ancient Greek lyrical poetry, such as Sappho’s poems, have also disappeared.
Many ancient plays, both in Greek and Latin, are only known by name. Various works of epic poetry, such as Cicero’s famous poem on his own historical significance, humbly titled On my own consulship, do not survive. Nor is there any trace of a substantial proportion of scientific and historical writings by ancient Greek and Roman authors. Sometimes we have hints of works only, such as this parchment book tag which used to serve as a 'title page' to a scroll containing Sophron’s Comedies on Women from the 5th century BC, now lost.
Traditionally, barbarian invasions and Christian monks have been blamed for intentionally destroying works of the classical past. The image of burning books and libraries is often evoked in scholarship, fiction and films alike. While this may have occasionally occurred, the biggest deciding factor for the survival or disappearance of classical texts is actually likely to be their use in medieval school education.
The reason for this is that works that made it onto school curricula tended to be copied more, so medieval scribes preserved them in large numbers. Texts that proved to be too difficult or unsuitable for use in schools were more prone to being lost. For example, of the 142 books of Livy’s exceptionally long work, The History of Rome from its Foundation, from the 1st century BC, only 35 books have survived intact, with the rest preserved only in extracts abridged for school use.
School curricula also explain why ancient grammatical literature was transmitted in surprising quantities across medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, including educational material for the study not only of Latin but also of ancient Greek. Popular texts, such as Priscian’s 5th-century Institutes of Latin Grammar, survive in large numbers, sometimes annotated with glosses or notes added in classrooms, as in this example from 11th-century France.
Although schools filtered the classical tradition rather heavily, omitting a number of texts that we would now be eager to read, the ancient schoolmasters had a surprisingly broad literary grasp. We have works on ancient mythology such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and encyclopaedic works such as Pliny’s Natural History. The works of Homer in the Eastern Mediterranean and Virgil, Cicero, Horace and Ovid in the West all survived thanks to their inclusion in late antique and medieval secondary education.
This key role of schools in the transmission of the classical past sheds a special light on other surviving texts, too. Ancient Roman plays, for example, have come down to us not as scripts for theatrical performances but rather as school manuals. They were used to teach students how to find the right words, tone and style to use in various situations, from speeches at courts to creative writing, as in this copy of the plays by the 2nd-century BC playwright, Terence.
But besides medieval manuscripts, there is another source which reveals additional clues about classical texts: the papyri preserved in the sand of Egypt. The large number of papyrus fragments excavated at various sites in Egypt have already filled many of the gaps in our knowledge of the Classics. They have supplied us with lost works by Aristotle (The Constitution of Athens), almost complete comedies (such as The Hated Man by the 4th-century BC Menander), and unique fragments from Sappho, alongside remarkable survivals of ancient science. Many of these amazing finds are in the British Library’s collections and are presented in articles on our Greek Manuscripts website.
Whether preserved in medieval libraries or in archaeological sites, the works of the classical past continue to inspire us. As work on the British Library’s collection of ancient texts continues worldwide, we hope that there are many more discoveries to come.
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16 August 2019
There are lots of fabulous things to see in our exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, ranging from an early homework book (on a wax tablet) to an entire manuscript written in Tironian notes. One of our star exhibits is also one of the largest, namely the Ravenna Papyrus, the longest intact papyrus held at the British Library.
Measuring 224 cm (long) by 20 cm (wide), the Ravenna Papyrus (Add MS 5412) records a sale of land in the 7th year of the reign of Justin II the Younger (AD 572) by Domninus, a hayward (agellarius) from Cesena, to a court officer named Deusdedit. Domninus agreed to sell five-twelfths of a small estate called Custinis and two-twelfths of a farmhouse called Bassianum, for the price of five gold solidi. Five witnesses signed the deed, that is, Pascalis, Eugenius, Moderatus, Andreas and Vitalis, while the notary (forensis) was named Flavius Iohannis. The document can be viewed in its glorious entirety on the Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.
One significant feature of this papyrus, aside from its great length, is its handwriting. Flavius Iohannis, the notary, wrote a professional and rapid form of the script known as New Roman Cursive. This was the administrative script of Late Antiquity, first attested in the late 3rd century, and characterised by the introduction of lower-case forms and time-saving devices such as loops. The five witnesses also wrote in the same script: the handwriting of Pascalis and Moderatus is upright and slow in execution, while that of Eugenius is more rapid and rounded. Andreas’s hand is equally rapid but inclined to the right; Vitalis used a more rough form of this script.
In the Middle Ages this document was held in the archbishop’s archive at Ravenna. At the beginning of the 18th century it came into the hands of Giusto Fontanini of Rome (d. 1736), and after his death it passed to Ludovico Zucconi of Venice from whom it was bought for the Pinelli Library in Venice. On the occasion of the sale of the Pinelli library on 2 March 1789, it was acquired for the British Museum Library. We are delighted that so many visitors have been able to examine it in person this summer in Writing: Making Your Mark, and we hope that you also enjoy the opportunity to view it online.
Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August 2019.
The Ravenna Papyrus (Add MS 5412) is available in full on Digitised Manuscripts.
30 July 2019
Earlier this year, the British Library was delighted to acquire a leaf of an Anglo-Saxon benedictional (a service book used by a bishop). At the time we reported that, despite its fragmentary nature, this manuscript was of great significance for the study of 10th-century English political and religious culture. In particular, we observed that its script pointed to an early date of production, and that it was related textually to other benedictionals from Anglo-Saxon England, most notably the Benedictional of St Æthelwold.
We are pleased to announce that this manuscript (Add MS 89378) is now on display in our Treasures Gallery, in a display case devoted to new acquisitions. This gallery is free to visit and is open seven days a week. The benedictional leaf can be viewed in the same room as other iconic treasures, such as Magna Carta, the Shakespeare First Folio, the Beatles' lyrics, and a letter of the 19th-century computing pioneer, Ada Lovelace.
Given that this display coincides with the Library's major temporary exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, we thought it might be worth making a few remarks on the handwriting of the benedictional leaf. Most unusually, when compared with other surviving Anglo-Saxon benedictionals, it is written in English square minuscule. This script gained currency in 10th-century England during the reigns of King Athelstan (924–939) and his successors. It is characterised by its 'square' letter-forms, as shown, for instance, by the shape of a, c, d, e, g. We reproduce both pages here (the recto, above, is on show in Treasures) to give a flavour of this unusual script.
Our readers may also be interested to know that two leaves of the same benedictional (separated in the 1970s) are now in collections in the USA (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library, Typ 612; New Haven, CT, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Takamiya MS 89). In time we hope that they can be digitally re-united, and that researchers will be able to learn more about their production and usage.
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