THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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48 posts categorized "Literature"

29 August 2019

Tweet, tweet

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Does Twitter have its origins in the medieval period? Well, in a literal sense, no. As far as we are aware, no medieval ships came close to being named BoatyMcBoatFace as a result of a ‘campaign’ of parchment scraps. Medieval people did not write 280-character messages on pieces of parchment or paper, send them to each other or re-send the messages of others. But the imagery of ‘twitter’ and ‘tweet’ does have its origins in the Middle Ages. The modern name ‘Twitter’ was clearly chosen because there is something joyous about chattering birdsong. It implies something playful and social, and perhaps also lively, raucous debate. We can only speculate on whether Twitter’s creators knew that there is a now obsolete meaning of the word ‘twitter’ in English, which means a person who ‘reproaches or upbraids’.

Cropped bas de page from Howard Psalter
Here an owl is being used by a bird catcher to capture other birds, as referred to in The Owl and the Nightingale’, from the Howard Psalter (England, 14th century): Arundel MS 83, f. 14r

With their restless desire to anthropomorphise, humans have long heard birdsong and understood its rhythms and patterns to be akin to human speech. The idea that birds like to get into lively debates is very old. The early Middle English poem, The Owl and the Nightingale, tells the story of a bad-tempered debate between an owl and a nightingale. Each bird is horrified by the other, pouring scorn on their counterpart's song, nesting habits and appearance. But the poem is also a meditation on how to debate. In a revealing passage, the nightingale pauses before she speaks:

An sat sumdel & heo bi þohte

An wiste wel on hire þohte

Þe wraþþe binimeþ monnes red.

('She sat awhile and thought,

Reflecting on her thoughts,

Knowing that wrath robs a man of reason. ') [ll. 939–41]

This poem was written at some point between 1189 and 1216. Although it is anonymous, in the poem the birds resolve to seek the counsel of ‘Maister Nichole of Guldeforde’ (Master Nicholas of Guildford). This little in-joke may indicate that Guildford was the author or was known to them.

The Owl and the Nightingale
The Owl and the Nightingale (England, c. 1250–1300, possibly after 1275): Cotton MS Caligula A IX, f. 239v

While The Owl and the Nightingale imagines the birds as tetchy and sometimes downright rude, they are not always depicted in this way in medieval poetry. At around the time that the Owl and the Nightingale was composed, Farīd al-Dīn Aṭṭār (d. c. 1230) was at work thousands of miles away on The Conference of the Birds منطق الطیر‎, (Maniq-u-ayr). This poem is a work of Sufi mysticism and has a contemplative tone by comparison with The Owl and the Nightingale. It tells the story of a group of birds who gather together to choose a new sovereign. The hoopoe is the wisest of the birds and acts as their leader and guide. He tells them that they must travel on an arduous journey through seven valleys to find their new king. The conclusion of the poem (which we won’t give away) is a moment of realisation for the birds, and it involves a pun ... (You can read more about this manuscript on our Asian and African Studies Blog.)

The Conference of the Birds
The Conference of the Birds (late 15th or early 16th century): Add MS 7735, f. 30v

Perhaps one of the most delightful descriptions of avian debate is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, which was written in the late 14th century. It describes a group of birds gathering together in the early spring — on ‘seynt valentynes day’ — to choose their mates for the year. The poem appears to be the beginning of the tradition that associates Valentine’s Day with lovers. There is nothing in the hagiography (the Life) of St Valentine to suggest an association with lovers. The narrator describes the riot of sound made by the birds:

For this was on Saint Valentines day,

Whan every brid [bird] cometh ther to chese [choose] his make [mate],

Of every kinde that men thinke may;

And that so huge a noise [did] they make,

That erthe and air and tree and every lake

So ful was that unnethe [hardly] was ther space

For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.  [ll. 316–22]

The noble birds — the eagles — are allowed to make their selections first. Three male eagles (tercels) eagerly vie for the hand of the formel (female) eagle, but the other birds soon interrupt, complaining that this is all taking too long. A cacophonous semi-debate ensues.

The Parliament of Fowls
Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls (English, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 7333, f. 129v

If you’re interested in learning more about medieval avian debates, or in Middle English literature more generally, there are a very small number of places remaining on our adult learning course, Discovering Middle English, which starts on 11 September. You’ll get to encounter Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Arthurian legends of Thomas Malory and, of course, Geoffrey Chaucer.

 

Mary Wellesley

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Manuscripts mentioned in this blogpost

Arundel MS 83 (De Lisle Psalter)

Cotton MS Caligula A IX (The Owl and the Nightingale)

Add MS 7735 (The Conference of the Birds)

Harley MS 7333 (Geoffrey Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls)

28 August 2019

The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners

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Diluting wine with water, also known as baptising wine, was a common medieval practice. Taverners (innkeepers) and vintners (wine merchants) were especially associated with this custom. Literary accounts sometimes depicted them as nefarious figures who mixed wine with water in order to maximize their profit. Ironically, at the same period drinking diluted wine was associated with the virtue of temperance; in contrast, the excessive drinking of wine was associated with the deadly sin of gluttony (gula).

Bacchus and his followers
Bacchus and his followers as examples of gluttony, in Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa (France, c. 1410–c. 1414): Harley 4431, f. 106r

While cataloguing the Harley manuscripts, we recently discovered a previously unknown copy of a remarkable Middle French poem that responds to the practice of diluting wine. This poem, known as The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners (Ballade joyeuse des Taverniers), survives only in a few French manuscripts and early printed books. Our copy was added to a flyleaf of a manuscript (Harley MS 512) containing De Proprietatibus Rerum ('On the Properties of Things'), an encyclopedia of natural knowledge compiled by the Parisian scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus (d. 1272).

The manuscript of The Joyful Ballad
The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners (France, 15th century): Harley MS 512, f. 1r

The Joyful Ballad is essentially a catalogue of curses that the poet wished upon taverners who diluted their wine. Although its author is unknown, it has long been associated with François Villon (c. 1431–after 1463), one of the most renowned French poets of the late Middle Ages, but also a murderer, thief and vagabond. Here is a translated stanza in order to give you a taste of the poem:

'Let some great gunshot blow their heads off sheer;

Let thunders catch them in the market-place;

Let rend their limbs and cast them far and near,

For dogs to batten on their bodies base;

Or let the lightning-stroke their sight efface.

Frost, hail and snow let still upon them bite;

Strip off their clothes and leave them naked quite,

For rain to drench them in the open air;

Lard them with knives and poniards and then bear

Their carrion forth and soak it in the Rhine;

Break all their bones with mauls and do not spare

The vintners [or ‘taverners’] that put water into our wine.'

[translation from John Payne, The Poems of Master François Villon of Paris (London, 1892), p. 137].

The Joyful Ballad is perhaps the most vitriolic poem to challenge the practice of mixing wine with water. But this subject was also central to medieval debate poetry, in which personifications of Water and Wine were pitted against each other. In the Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum ('Goliardic Dialogue between Water and Wine'), they are represented by Thetis, goddess of the sea, and Dionysus, god of winemaking and wine. Dionysus argued that God created the grape without mixing it with water, for which reason it was heresy to drink diluted wine.

Manuscript of the Goliardic Dialogue
Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum, (England, 14th century): Cotton MS Titus A XX, f. 66r

Diluted wine was not only disliked by medieval poets. The Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (d. 54 BC) dedicated one of his poems to the subject. (This was well-known in the Middle Ages: the copy in Burney MS 133 is a good example.) Catullus's poem is suitably addressed to his cup-bearer (Ad Pincernam Suum). Here’s a translated extract:

'And get lost, water; off to drier lands,

Wine-spoiler. Fill the cups of prudish hands.

Thyonian [Bacchic] is the only wine for me.'

[translation by Len Krisak from Gaius Valerius Catullus Carmina (Manchester, Carcanet Press, 2014), p. 19]

The poem of Catullus
Catullus, Ad Pincernam (Italy, 1460): Add MS 11915, f. 13r

This is a lesson you may wish to bear in mind the next time you visit your local hostelry. We are sure that your friends may be amused if you recite The Joyful Ballad to them, although we cannot guarantee that the innkeeper or bartender may react in the same fashion.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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Manuscripts cited in this blogpost

Harley 4431 (Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa)

Harley MS 512 (The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners)

Cotton MS Titus A XX (Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum)

Burney MS 133 (Catullus, Ad Pincernam)

Add MS 11915 (Catullus, Ad Pincernam)

17 August 2019

In August, in a high season: the wondrous Pearl

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You may be forgiven (especially if you're currently in London) that it's August, traditionally the time of the harvest and school summer holidays. This also happens to be the moment when Pearl, one of the masterpieces of Middle English literature, is set: 'in Augoste, in a hy seysone'.

The text of Pearl
The opening page of the Pearl poem (f. 43r)

Pearl was composed in the West Midlands region of England at the end of the 14th century. It survives in a single manuscript, held at the British Library, which also contains the unique copies of Patience, Cleanness and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Cotton MS Nero A X/2). You can view all four poems in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and you can also read about Pearl on Discovering Literature: Medieval.

Pearl is a moving work about grief and loss. The narrator, distraught at the loss of his ‘perle’, falls asleep and wakes in a garden with a jewelled stream. Looking across the stream he sees a beautiful maiden in white robes stitched with pearls. After a time, he realises that this woman is his dead two-year-old daughter. They engage in a discussion, as he attempts to reconcile his grief for her. The poem culminates in a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, derived from the Book of Revelation, in which the dreamer sees his daughter as a bride of Christ.

The dreamer
The dreamer in the garden by the stream (f. 41r)
The dreamer
The dreamer beside the stream (f. 41v)

One of the most distinctive features of the manuscript is its cycle of illustrations, which were added to pages which had previously been left blank. The quality of this imagery has often been the subject of adverse comment, since they are not the work of an outstanding artist. We often feel, however, that they lend the poems their own idiosyncratic character, since every person has the same facial features and hairstyle, and the same simple palette of red, green, blue, yellow and white is used throughout.

The dreamer and Pearl
The dreamer sees a vision of Pearl as a grown woman (f. 42r)
The dreamer and Pearl in the garden
The vision of the heavenly Jerusalem (f. 42v)

The Pearl-manuscript is undeniably one of the jewels in the Library's medieval collections. We'd like to think that you might wish to read and re-read it, gazing upon the original handwriting and images, while sitting in your garden, sipping a cool drink, or else (more likely) sheltering indoors from the August rain. A high season indeed!

A text page of Pearl
The second page of the poem (f. 43v)
The text of Pearl
'In Augoste, in a hy seysone' (f. 43v)

Pearl and the other poems are available on Digitised Manuscripts (Cotton MS Nero A X/2).

 

Julian Harrison

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27 July 2019

Writing Wyatt

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Have you ever wondered how a 16th-century poet gathered their works together? A writer with an eye to posterity might have followed the example of Sir Thomas Wyatt (c. 1503–1542), poet, ambassador and rumoured lover of Anne Boleyn. In the 1530s, Wyatt arranged for clear and authoritative copies of his verse to be transcribed into an album under his own supervision. The resulting manuscript, Egerton MS 2711, has stood the test of time. It is one of the earliest examples of an English poet’s collection of their own poems.

A portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt after Hans Holbein, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 1035)

But Wyatt’s collection did not stay tidy for long. Changes in handwriting reveal that the poet himself took over from his scribes (or amanuenses), first to correct and alter some of the poems, and later to compose new works directly into the album. It is thus the only surviving example of Wyatt’s poetry in his own handwriting. Because the manuscript's purpose evolved during his lifetime, Egerton MS 2711 offers a fascinating glimpse of a Tudor poet at work.

A page from a collection of Sir Thomas Wyatt's poetry, showing texts written in the poet's own hand.

The poet Thomas Wyatt's own hand: Egerton MS 2711, f. 54v

The manuscript reveals that Wyatt sometimes had trouble making up his mind. He often tweaked lines in some of his finished poems, and he experimented with alternative rhyme-words when composing new ones. One of the revised poems is the sonnet ‘If waker care, if sudden pale colour’, in which Wyatt imitated six lines of Petrarch’s Sonnet 188. Wyatt’s alterations to the poem can be read in light of his rumoured relationship with Anne Boleyn: the poem contains a reference to a ‘Brunet’ who ‘set my wealth in such a roar’, but the manuscript shows that the line originally read, ‘her that did set our country in a roar’.

A page from a collection of Sir Thomas Wyatt's poetry, showing the text of the sonnet 'If waker care, if sudden pale colour'.

‘If waker care, if sudden pale colour’: Egerton MS 2711, f. 66v

Wyatt’s decision to begin composing poems into the volume may have been related to a journey he made to mainland Europe, as English ambassador to the Spanish court from 1537 to 1539. A satirical poem in the manuscript describes the busy life of a diplomat, who ‘trots still up and down / and never rests but running day and night / From Realm to Realm from city street and town’. When the volume became a working notebook for Wyatt, it also began to reflect his evolving network of colleagues: the handwriting of one scribe who copied verses into the volume has been identified as that of John Brereton, one of Wyatt’s diplomatic secretaries.

As well as providing a place for Wyatt’s poetry to be recorded during his lifetime, the manuscript also became a space for later readers to engage with his work. After Wyatt’s death, the poet Nicholas Grimald made several annotations in the manuscript, such as simple headings like ‘a Sonnett’. Meanwhile, Wyatt’s own son, Thomas, added more of his father’s poems to the collection, and even copied out two letters of paternal advice he had received during his father’s Spanish embassy. (Thomas Wyatt did not necessarily heed his father's advice, since he led an infamous rebellion against Queen Mary, and ended his life on the block at the Tower of London in 1554.)

A page from a collection of the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, showing a letter added into the manuscript by Wyatt's son.

A letter copied into the manuscript by Thomas Wyatt the Younger: Egerton MS 2711, f. 71r

Despite the many hands involved in the creation of this manuscript, early owners and readers were careful to include material that would shed more light on Wyatt’s life and work, and solidify his reputation. As a result, Egerton MS 2711 very much remains a collection of Wyatt’s poems rather than a multi-authored anthology like the Devonshire manuscript (Add MS 17492).

A later owner of the manuscript, John Harington the elder, decided to include a categorisation of the poems by genre, while John Harington the younger entered some of his own paraphrases of the psalms following those made by Wyatt. Also thanks to the Harington family, many of the early pages of the manuscript are covered with copious mathematical notes and diagrams, which sometimes render Wyatt’s words all but illegible.

A page from a collection of poetry by Sir Thomas Wyatt, showing additions and annotations by one of the manuscript's later owners.

Some pages are less easy to read since they are now covered with mathematical notes: Egerton MS 2711, f. 10r

Of course, nowadays we would discourage any further scribbles appearing in Thomas Wyatt's manuscript. But that doesn't mean that you can no longer interact with this important collection of poems. We are delighted to say that Egerton MS 2711 has been digitised, so that modern readers can explore Wyatt's handwriting for themselves. This manuscript can be accessed in full and for free on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

 

Amy Bowles

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21 July 2019

The first man on the Moon

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This weekend, the world is remembering Apollo 11, the first Moon landing, and the two astronauts who first stepped unto the lunar surface on 21 July 1969. Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to walk on another astronomical body, in what was to become one of the most earth-shaking events of the 20th century.

While Armstrong and Aldrin were the first humans on the Moon, there is a figure in medieval literature who may have got there first, around Easter 1300.* In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri describes his fantastical journey down into the nine circles of Hell, upwards on the Mount of Purgatory, and away through the spheres of Heaven: from Inferno to Purgatorio and into Paradiso. Written in Italian in the early 14th century, Dante’s Comedy is one of the most influential poems of all time, a synthesis of medieval culture, science, philosophy, theology, scholarship and political science.

[* Nor should we forget Chang'e 嫦娥, the Chinese goddess of the Moon, who, according to legend, has been living there for some 4,000 years.]

In the Comedy, Dante-the-pilgrim travels through the afterworlds in search of self-knowledge and truth, driven by the desire for union with the divine. Passing through Hell and Purgatory, he is ready to ascend to the stars in Heaven, guided and instructed by the fascinating figure of Beatrice. Dante’s complex Heaven is made out of concentric spheres, each corresponding to a heavenly body in the cosmological system inherited from classical antiquity and modified by Christian thought. Outside the seven planetary spheres (including the Sun in this geocentric model), there is the sphere of the fixed stars, the first mover and the Empyrean, enclosing all the others but lying beyond time and space. To arrive there, the pilgrim must first pass through the sphere of the Moon, located closest to Earth.

A page from an astronomic miscellany, showing a diagram of the structure of the universe.

This diagram shows the structure of the Universe according to the Ptolemaic geocentric model. Earth is surrounded by the nine heavenly circles: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Fixed Stars and First Mover: Harley MS 3647, f. 22v

Dante’s launch from the Earth’s atmosphere opens Paradiso, the third and last section of the Divine Comedy. Comparing his journey upwards to sailing a little ship into the unknown, he explains in classicizing language that he is the first on this kind of mission. In Allen Mandelbaum’s translation:

The waves I take were never sailed before;
Minerva breathes, Apollo pilots me,
and the nine Muses show to me the Bears. (Paradiso, 2.7–9)

A detail from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy, showing an illustration of Dante and Beatrice flying towards the Moon.

Fly me to the Moon: Dante and Beatrice launch towards the Moon in this Tuscan manuscript of the Divine Comedy from around 1444: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 131r

Dante is on his own Apollo mission to the stars. Illustrated manuscripts of the Divine Comedy typically depict his journey as a flight upwards. The Moon is usually identified by its colour and partial phase, to distinguish it from other celestial bodies. In a manuscript painted in Florence in the 1440s (Yates Thompson MS 36), Dante’s lunar mission is remarkably faithful to the poetic text quoted above: the illustration depicts the boat sailing away from familiar, agricultural shores, while Minerva blows from a cloud. The pilgrim is being led by the figure of Apollo, as the chorus-like group of Muses point towards a star (presumably the Northern Star).

Dante’s first stop on the Moon is a giant leap of imagination, but a small step in the traveller’s consciousness, as he instantanously makes a landing:

Beatrice gazed upward. I watched her.
But in a span perhaps no longer than
an arrow takes to strike, to fly, to leave

the bow, I reached a place where I could see
that something wonderful drew me; and she
from whom my need could not be hidden, turned

to me (her gladness matched her loveliness):
“Direct your mind to God in gratefulness,”
she said; “He has brought us to the first star.” (Paradiso 2.22–30)

Propelled by love, Dante’s imaginative mind-capsule lands on the surface of the Moon, whereupon he starts inquiring about the nature of the ‘dark spots’ on the lunar surface. In his own, inquisitive way, Dante-the-traveller is collecting information about the Moon. Armstrong and Aldrin brought 21kg of lunar material back to Earth. Dante gathered information which he took with him to Mercury, his next stop.

A detail from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy, showing an illustration of Beatrice teaching Dante about moonspots.

Beatrice teaches Dante about moonspots; the landscape looks strangely lunar: Egerton MS 943, f. 131r

A detail from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy, showing an illustration of Dante reaching the Moon.

Burning with the desire to know more, Dante reaches the Moon, where the blessed can answer his questions: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 132r

The year before Apollo 11, three astronauts travelled to the Moon, orbited it, and returned safely to Earth. One of them, William Anders, took a famous photograph of the Earth from the lunar orbit known as Earthrise. Dante took no photographs on his interstellar voyage, but he left us a poetic description of Earth from the heaven of the fixed stars, outside the planetary spheres:

And all the seven heavens showed to me
their magnitudes, their speeds, the distances
of each from each. The little threshing floor

that so incites our savagery was all —
from hills to river mouths — revealed to me
while I wheeled with eternal Gemini. (Paradiso 21.148–153)

‘The little threshing floor’, the insignificant dot in the immensity of the cosmos, evokes in the reader of the Divine Comedy the same thoughts as Anders’ Earthrise photograph. The onward and upward quest of discovery and knowledge, whether medieval or modern, concludes with a gaze on ourselves and with an affirmation of responsibility for the future.

 

Cristian Ispir

12 July 2019

Underwater adventures

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The British Library’s current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), investigates the great thinker’s fascination with water. But Leonardo was not the first to send his imagination plunging beneath the waves. Here are some of the ways that medieval people imagined being able to explore underwater.

A page from the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, showing his studies of the River Arno.
Leonardo’s studies of the River Arno: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 149r 

A page from the Beowulf Manuscript, showing the passage in the Old English poem where Beowulf dives into the mere.

Beowulf dives into the mere, Beowulf, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 166r

In the Anglo-Saxon period, underwater exploration belonged to the world of heroic poetry rather than human technology. In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the hero journeys to the bottom of a horrifying mere to fight Grendel’s Mother in her watery lair. He dresses in full war-gear, a mail-shirt and a gold boar-embellished helmet, and arms himself with a precious sword named Hrunting. Then after briefly settling his affairs in case of his death, he dives into the lake:

The man of the Weder-Geats moved briskly, would hardly wait for an answer; the surging water took possession of the war-maker. It was then a good part of the day before he could make out the level bottom (Translation by R. D. Fulk).

In a hall in the depths of the lake, Beowulf and Grendel’s Mother engage in a ferocious fight. For a long time the adversaries seem to be evenly matched, but the decisive moment comes when Beowulf notices an enormous sword that was made by giants in ancient times. He grabs the sword and swings it at the lake-woman, slicing off her head.

The poem makes no attempt to explain how Beowulf is able to survive underwater—he just can. His status as a legendary hero and the strongest man alive places him outside the ordinary limits of human ability. In a world of giants, dragons, magical swords and cursed treasure, the hero is a supernatural figure. Beowulf is up to any challenge, no diving apparatus required.

A detail from a manuscript of Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, showing an illustration of Alexander the Great being lowered into the sea.
Alexander is lowered into the sea, Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 77v

Another of medieval literature’s most memorable underwater adventures is that of Alexander the Great. The ancient Macedonian king and formidable military commander was one of the greatest heroes of medieval romance. One episode associated with Alexander in the romance tradition describes how he travels to the bottom of the sea to explore its wonders.

Unlike Beowulf, Alexander is hampered by the real-world necessity of having to breathe. To solve this, he designs an air-tight barrel made from glass which is lowered on chains from a boat. Inside his proto-submarine, Alexander takes lamps to light his way and two animal companions, a cockerel to tell the time and a cat whose breath purifies the air.

Alexander’s underwater journey shows that medieval people were thinking creatively about how a person could venture safely underwater. That’s not to say that the design would work: for one thing, the barrel would float without ballast; for another, a cat’s breath does not purify air so Alexander would have a very limited air supply.

A detail from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, showing an illustration of Alexander the Great being lowered into the sea.

Alexander is lowered into the sea, Roman d'Alexandre, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v

  A page from a 15th-century Italian sketchbook, showing a design for diving equipment.
Design for diving equipment, a mechanical sketchbook, Add MS 34113, f. 180v

Is not until the 15th-century that people began to design diving apparatus with a view to practical use. This sketchbook, compiled in the 15th-century by an unknown Italian engineer, contains designs for diving suits that might have inspired Leonardo's (you can also see this manuscript in the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, displaying a design for a water wheel).

The diving suits would allow a person freer movement than the barrel, so that the divers can carry out tasks underwater such as loading these baskets with rocks. With the figure on the left, the engineer has attempted to solve the problem of air supply by feeding air through a hose, connected at one end to a float on the surface and at the other to the diver’s mask. This is close to the design that was finally employed in the first successful diving suits, but with one major difference. The Renaissance engineer had not realised that the air supplied to the diver would have to be pressurised to account for the increased pressure underwater.

A page from the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, showing his design for diving apparatus and notes in his mirrored handwriting.

Leonardo’s design for Diving Apparatus, Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

Leonardo’s diving apparatus from the early 16th century follows roughly the same design as the anonymous sketchbook, but adds some improved features. His diving mask is provided with two hoses, one to bring fresh air in and the other to take old air out. He has realised that the hoses will need to be reinforced with metal rings to stop the water pressure from closing them up. The float is also modified to prevent water accidentally spilling into the air supply. But crucially, Leonardo did not think to add an air compressor to the design so in practice the diver would not be able to breathe in deep water.

It was not until the 18th century that the first successful diving suits were made. But from Beowulf to Leonardo, people had long been coming up with creative ways to explore the world beneath the waves. To admire Leonardo’s design for diving apparatus in person, don’t miss the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, at the British Library from 7 June–8 September 2019.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

09 April 2019

The languages of history in the Middle Ages

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Which languages were used to write history in medieval Europe? Who wrote history, for whom, and the history of what? Robert Bartlett will explore these questions in a lecture at the British Library in the Knowledge Centre on Friday 14 June, from 19:30 to 21:00. 

Historical chronicles often recall and illustrate the account of the building of the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis to explain the origins of multilingualism. According to chapter 11, the sons of Adam decided to ‘make a city and a tower, the top whereof may reach to heaven’ in order that they would become famous. But God decided to put a stop to their plans, and ‘there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another's speech’. As a result, the place was called Babel (confusion), ‘because there the language of the whole Earth was confounded: and from thence the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of all countries.’

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a drawing of the construction of the Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel, in Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar: Add MS 25884, f. 80v

The Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar is the earliest compilation of universal history written in French, initially dating from the first decades of the 13th century. At this time French was used in many areas outside France, such as Flanders, England and Italy, and across the Mediterranean (for more on the Histoire ancienne, see our previous blog posts 'A Literary Giant' and 'A Flemish Chronicle Gone Wrong'). In a 14th-century Parisian copy of the Histoire ancienne (Add MS 25884), the Tower of Babel is presented as a complex technological achievement. In the image, the tower is almost complete. Its incredible height and elegant form could be seen to celebrate the collective achievement of the community of builders, before the confusion of languages caused them to abandon the construction.

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of the army of Pyrrhus of Epirus, with mounted soldiers and elephants.

Pyrrus's army with elephants, in Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar:  Add MS 15268, f. 266r

As Latin had long been the language of learning and textual authority, the choice of French prose for writing history suggests that lay aristocratic audiences were increasingly engaged in understanding the past. French language and culture reached all the way to the Holy Land, where it was imported by crusaders and merchants. One of our copies of the Histoire ancienne is from the city of Acre in the eastern Mediterranean (Add MS 15268), where French chronicles were read eagerly by the multicultural and multilingual communities brought together in this cosmopolitan port.

A page from a medieval manuscript, with illustrations of the construction of the Tower of Babel, and the Iranian spiritual leader Zoroaster confronted by two demons.

The Tower of Babel, above, and Zoroaster with two demons, below, in Il Tesoro: Yates Thompson MS 28, f. 51r

Influenced by the flourishing tradition of 13th-century French historical narratives, the Italian notary Brunetto Latini included an historical section in his encyclopedic Livre dou Tresor. His chapter on the Tower of Babel is derived from the version found in the Histoire ancienne. In 1260, Brunetto was exiled in France, where he composed the Tresor in French in order to reach a wider public. This vast encyclopedia is formed of three books, covering a variety of disciplines including theology, physics, astronomy and ethics.

Brunetto’s Tresor was extremely successful, and copies circulated widely across the Mediterranean. By the 14th century, it was translated into other vernaculars, notably Catalan and Castilian. However, one of the earliest translations of the Tresor was made in Brunetto’s home city, Florence, where he returned in 1267. The Italian Tesoro dates back to the 13th century, when the French version was available widely in Italy. This translation illustrates how French works fed into the multilingual literary culture of Italy, in the city of Brunetto’s student Dante, where the language that will be eventually called ‘Italian’ was emerging. A 15th-century Florentine manuscript of the Tesoro (Yates Thompson 28) was copied in 1425 by the scribe Bartolomeo di Lorenzo of Fighine.

The opening page of a medieval manuscript, showing a history of the people of Troy, written in Latin.

Opening page of Guido delle Colonne, Historia destructionis Troiae: Harley MS 176, f. 1r

Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (‘History of the Destruction of Troy’) offers a different example of the movement of historical texts between languages. In 1287, the Sicilian judge and poet composed his Latin prose account of the Trojan War, which is a translation of the 12th-century French Roman de Troie, by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. The Historia Destructionis Troiae was enormously popular across Europe and demonstrates how vernacular culture revitalised contemporary Latin historical writing.

Over 90 copies of Guido’s Historia survive. The success of Guido’s translation also suggests a preference in some circles for Latin as opposed to local languages, even as the local language (in this instance Italian) emerges as a literary language. The work was even popular beyond Italy, as demonstrated in an English copy made around 1400 (Harley MS 176).

Around this time, John Lydgate translated the Historia into English verse. He completed his version in 1420 and gave it the title ‘Troy Book’. This 15th-century illuminated English manuscript contains a particularly fine copy of Lydgate’s Troy Book, compiled with other works by the same author.

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing a small miniature of the Trojan Horse before the Gates of Troy.

The Trojan Horse, in John Lydgate, Troy Book: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 75r

Professor Bartlett’s talk is presented in conjunction with the ‘Narrating History Across Languages in Medieval Europe’ conference at Kings College London, 14-15 June, organised by The Values of French, a research project funded by the European Research Council at King’s College London. The conference will cover a range of geographic and linguistic traditions, including Catalan, Castilian, French, German, Greek, Latin and Sicilian. 

Robert Bartlett, 'The Languages of History in the Middle Ages', The British Library, Friday 14 June, 19:30–21:00.

Kathleen Doyle, Hannah Morcos and Maria Teresa Rachetta (King's College London)

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You can learn more about the use of French in the Middle Ages in The Polonsky Foundation England and France article on the subject, in partnership with

 

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The logo of The Polonsky Foundation.

18 December 2018

A literary giant

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The Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César (‘Ancient History until Caesar’) is a giant of a text. This universal chronicle, originally composed in medieval Flanders at the beginning of the 13th century, covers the ‘history’ of the world from the biblical Creation to Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. There are over 90 manuscripts that contain the Histoire ancienne, including nine at the British Library, making it one of the most popular French texts of the Middle Ages. We do not know for certain the original author, but some have suggested it could be the prolific writer and translator Wauchier de Denain (fl. 1190–1210).

the duel of Hercules and Antaeus

A marginal illustration depicting the duel of Hercules and Antaeus, c. 1330–1340: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 26r

Two exquisite manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César are now on display in the Library's Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery: a copy made in Acre (in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem) in the late 13th century, now Additional MS 15268; and an Italian copy made in Naples in the 1330s, now Royal MS 20 D I. Both are full of fascinating and lavish illuminations, and are gigantic in scope and ambition, containing over 300 folios (or 600 pages). Both of these manuscripts are available to explore on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website, in addition to two other important copies of the Histoire ancienne, Additional MS 19669 and Stowe MS 54.

In the Gallery, you can see the episode where Hercules wrestles the fearsome Antaeus, a mythological giant who could only be defeated once lifted off the ground and strangled in mid-air. While modern observers might think of Hercules as a purely mythological figure, medieval writers and audiences treated him as a historical one. Hercules was viewed as an exemplar of military prowess and superhuman strength, as his marvellous victory over the giant shows. Along with Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, he was, so the text claims, one of the ‘two best knights in the world’.

In the Naples manuscript, we see Hercules grappling with his opponent against a mountainous backdrop, while a crowd of excited onlookers watch fervently from the sidelines. The image in the Acre manuscript stages the scene in two parts. On the left, the two opponents engage in battle; on the right, the moment of Hercules’ victory is captured as he finally succeeds in strangling the giant.

the duel of Hercules and Antaeus

The duel of Hercules and Antaeus, and Hercules’ victory, last quarter of the 13th century: Additional MS 15268, f. 104v

Riotous battles and bloody duels account for a large proportion of the images in both manuscripts. The part that recounts the story of the Amazons, a legendary group of formidable warrior women who kill all their male offspring and let only their daughters survive, is often abundantly illustrated. These women come to the aid of the Trojans in the Trojan War, the ancient conflict between the Greeks and the inhabitants of Troy. In the Acre manuscript we see Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, who charges her female fighters into the Greek soldiers, but is later slain in a one-to-one encounter with Achilles’ son, Pyrrhus. Two other Amazon queens, Marpesia and Lampedo, are described in the text as ‘young women, with beautiful bodies and faces, and courageous hearts’. In the Naples manuscript we see them leading their troops whilst swinging their weapons in a visual cacophony of colour and movement.

battle between the Greeks and the Amazons

The battle between the Greeks and the Amazons (Queen Penthesilea wears the crown): Additional MS 15268, f. 123r

The army of Queens Marpesia and Lampedo in battle

The army of Queens Marpesia and Lampedo in battle: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 23v

The visual appeal of these extraordinary illuminations may well be part of the reason why the Histoire ancienne became so popular the Mediterranean. Not only were copies made in Acre and Naples, but these two manuscripts themselves travelled widely. In an unexpected turn of events, the Naples manuscript probably was sent to Spain by Joanna of Anjou (1326–1382) as part of a ransom payment to secure the release of her third husband, James IV of Majorca (c. 1336–1375). By 1380, the manuscript had arrived in Paris, where its revised version of the text — the so-called ‘Second Redaction’ — would go on to be copied in at least eight different 15th-century manuscripts.

The Naples manuscript contains the earliest known copy of the Second Redaction, which is believed to have originated in this Angevin capital. The Second Redaction fundamentally changes the nature of the historical vision of the Histoire ancienne. In this version of the text, the section based on the Old Testament is omitted, and a much lengthier account of the Trojan war is included instead. This gives it a more secular focus: instead of having biblical figures and divine creation as the starting point for a history of humankind, the Second Redaction places the pagan heroes of the Greek and Roman worlds centre stage.

The fact that this major innovation of the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César took place outside of what is now known as France should lead us to think more carefully about how texts crossed borders and shaped communities in the medieval world. While French was a language of administration, it was also a language of cultural prestige. There were people proficient in French across Europe — in the Holy Land, in Italy, in Spain and elsewhere — who looked back to a shared European past that was communicated through a shared ‘Frankish’ tongue, in a lingua franca. This literary giant may well be a French text, but it was also a distinctly European one.

a Greek fleet

Half-page miniature depicting a Greek fleet: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 66v

Both manuscripts are described in more detail on a new website created as part of the European Research Council–funded project, The Values of French Language and Literature in the European Middle Ages. This website also provides the first complete transcription of the Naples manuscript, Royal MS D 20 I.

As part of the project, there will be an international conference on 14–15 June 2019, exploring how history was told in different languages of the European Middle Ages. To find out more, click here. The keynote lecture, open to the public, will be given at the British Library by Robert Bartlett, Professor Emeritus at the University of St Andrews. More information will be available on the British Library Events page next spring.

For more information about these manuscripts and other copies of the Histoire ancienne, see our previous blogpost. There is a useful introduction to the text on the website of the research project Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside of France (2011–2015).

 

With thanks to Melek Karataş, Matt Lampitt and Henry Ravenhall (King's College London)

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