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15 December 2019

Troy story 2

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We recently blogged about the Greek manuscripts that tell the tale of the Trojan War, an ancient conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans which ended in the destruction of the great city of Troy. We learned how this relatively unexceptional conflict was elevated to the stuff of legend through Homer’s masterful Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey (if you haven’t already, catch up with Part 1 of this blog post). Today we are following the tale of Troy through Roman and medieval culture, where we will discover that despite losing the war against the Greeks, the Trojans won the more enduring victory as fundamental heroes of western literature.

These blog posts are written to coincide with the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎), which features seven ancient and medieval manuscripts from the British Library. Check out the exhibition to learn more and to see these manuscripts in person.

A Renaissance manuscript with a large initial 'C' containing a picture of Aeneas, in classical-style armour, carrying a elderly man and leading a little boy by the hand.
A historiated initial showing Aeneas fleeing Troy, carrying his father on his back and leading his young son: Virgil, Aeneid, Rome, 1483-1485, Kings Ms 24, f. 73v

In the first century BC, the tale of Troy was reimagined in one of the greatest works of Latin literature—the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil. This epic poem forms a sequel to the Iliad that transforms the Trojan legend into an origin myth for the Roman Empire. It tells the story of Aeneas, one of the few Trojan heroes to survive the fall of Troy, who managed to escape the burning city carrying his aged father Anchises on his back and leading his young son Ascanius by the hand (depicted above). Aeneas led a large following of Trojan refugees as they wandered around the Mediterranean, beset by constant hardships, searching for a new home. Eventually the Trojans reached Italy, where they were prophesied to flourish. There they fought a brutal war with the native tribe the Rutuli, culminating in Aeneas killing the Rutulan leader, Turnus.

The Aeneid was tremendously admired in the Roman period and the Middle Ages. It was read in schools as the epitome of great poetry, and widely imitated in Latin literature of all kinds. It also had an important legacy in shaping perceptions of European political heritage. Throughout the poem it is foretold that the Trojan kingdom in Italy will one day form the mighty Roman Empire, and the gods prophesy the birth of Julius Caesar from Aeneas' line. In this way, the Aeneid provided an influential model for adapting the Trojan legend to serve contemporary political ends.

Picture from a Renaissance manuscript showing the fight between Aeneas and Turnus. Turnus is on the ground and Aeneas is impaling him through the throat. They are surrounded by warriors watching the duel.
Aeneas killing Turnus: Virgil, Aeneid, Rome, 1483-1485, Kings Ms 24, f. 227v

Just as Virgil created a sequel to the Iliad that claimed the Trojans as founders of the Roman Empire, so Geoffrey of Monmouth created a sequel to the Aeneid that re-cast the Trojans as founders of Britain. In his enormously popular work, History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136-38), Geoffrey set out to fill the gap in people’s knowledge about Britain's pre-Christian past. The tale he recounted is more mythical than it is historically accurate.

Geoffrey explains that after the Trojans settled in Italy, Aeneas' great-grandson Brutus was exiled for accidentally killing his father. Like Aeneas before him, Brutus led a following of displaced Trojans in search of a new land in which to settle. Following the advice of the goddess Diana, they discovered an island named Albion which was inhabited only by giants. They settled, killed the giants, and re-named the island Britain after Brutus. They also built a city called 'New Troy', which was later renamed London. One of the earliest known representations of the city of London appears beneath Geoffrey’s description of ‘New Troy’ in this 14th-century copy of the History of the Kings of Britain.

A text page from a medieval manuscript with a city scape drawn faintly in the lower margin.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History Of The Kings Of Britain: Royal Ms 13 A III, f. 14r

New works on the legend of Troy were composed throughout the Middle Ages, not only in Latin but also in vernacular languages. These texts brought the tale to wider audiences and shaped it for new purposes. John Lydgate composed the extensive Middle English poem Troy Book in 1412-1420 at the request of Prince Henry, later King Henry V. In his prologue, Lydgate praises Henry’s excellent qualities, which he links to his supposed descent from the Trojans through Brutus, calling Henry the worthy prince, ‘To whom schal longe by successioun / for to governe Brutys Albyoun’. This luxurious manuscript of the Troy Book was probably made as a presentation gift to Henry V’s son, Henry VI.

Text page from a medieval manuscript with an elaborate border of foliate and a miniature of knights fighting on horseback
John Lydgate, Troy Book, the opening to Book 3 with a miniature of Hector slaying Patroculus: Royal Ms 18 D II, f. 66v

The legend of Troy also appeared in French versions such as the monumental Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César. This universal chronicle, first composed c. 1208-13, blends biblical, ancient and legendary history from the Creation of the world to Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. In the 1330s, a second version of the text was compiled that cut out the sections on Genesis and Alexander the Great and greatly expanded the account of the Troy legend. This firm shift in focus towards the Trojan War as the defining event of ancient history may have been intended to create a clearer link between the Trojans and the Angevin rulers of Naples for whom the second redaction of the Histoire ancienne was created.

Manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne were often beautifully illuminated. This copy of the second redaction features a two-page miniature of the Greeks attacking Troy from the sea, looking strikingly like a scene of medieval warfare.

A medieval manuscript with a double-page miniature of ships attacking a walled city.
Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (second redaction), the Greeks attacking Troy from the sea: Stowe Ms 54, ff. 82v-83r

From ancient Greece, to ancient Rome, to medieval culture, the epic of Troy has been told countless times. Discover more about this dramatic myth and view these manuscripts in the British Museum’s  exhibition Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎).

Eleanor Jackson

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12 December 2019

Troy story

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For over 3000 years, people have told legends of a long and bloody war between the Greeks and the Trojans, sparked by the abduction of the beautiful Queen Helen of Sparta by Paris, the Trojan prince. In response, a mighty force of Greek heroes laid siege to the city of Troy for ten years. The siege only ended when the Greeks built a giant wooden horse and left it outside the city gates as an offering. The Trojans, not realising that it was a trick, brought the horse into the city. A band of Greek soldiers were hiding inside the horse, and when night fell they crept out. They opened the gates to the rest of the Greek army, who massacred the population and destroyed the city.

The British Library has loaned seven ancient and medieval manuscripts to the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎). We’re going to be exploring how these manuscripts reveal the evolution of the tale of Troy over the centuries, starting with the Greek tradition today and following with a second blog post about the Latin tradition.

Men drag a giant horse statue into a walled city
The Trojan Horse: Italy, 1480s, Kings MS 24, f. 73v

However cruel and bloody it may sound today, the siege of Troy was only a rather average-sized case amongst the many brutal battles of classical antiquity. There were several more devastating carnages recorded, for example during the long wars between Rome and the North African Carthage, or between Rome and King Pyrrhus’ forces from the Greek city of Epirus.

What then distinguishes Troy and the Trojan war from other even more horrific and disastrous wars of antiquity? The question was answered by none other than Alexander the Great, another conqueror of the 4th century BC. Upon reaching the tomb of Achilles, one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War, Alexander cried out how lucky Achilles was to have his deeds and memory preserved by the great poet Homer.

A print of a stone sculpture of the head and shoulders of an elderly man with a thick, curly beard and hair
Engraving of a bust of Homer found at Baiae in 1780: Burney MS 86, f. v verso

The key to the long-standing fame of siege of Troy is the fact that it became the subject of two of the most important and masterful Greek epic poems of Classical Antiquity: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The two poems, presumably pieced together from earlier oral traditions in the 8th century BC and attributed to the blind, prophet-like poet Homer, are iconic pieces of ancient Greek literature.

Read and admired by generations of scholars, poets and artists, the two epic poems were part of the Greek school curriculum all over the Mediterranean. Children and young adults, together with their teachers and instructors, spent hours reading, understanding and memorising Homer’s verses. No wonder that the poems come down to us in hundreds of various formats – from cheap copies for schools to deluxe papyri designed for scholarly use or showing off.

A wooden board inscribed with Greek writing
Eight lines from Homer’s Iliad written on a wooden tablet by a teacher: Egypt, 3rd century AD, Add MS 33293

A splendid example of the showy format of deluxe papyri is Papyrus 732. This 1st-century AD copy from Book 13 of the Iliad is written with elegant Greek uncials for wealthy patron, probably a scholar who had even put one annotation to the column on the left.

A fragmentary piece of parchment with columns of Greek writing in a frame
Book 13 of the Iliad: 1st century AD, Papyrus 732 (3)

Papyrus 271 is even more lavishly written, containing portions of the Odyssey from the 1st century AD. It shows the end of Book 3 of the poem with a nice endpiece (colophon) on the right. The annotations in the margins are even more interesting. These little notes explaining the grammar or the content of the ancient text are extracts from ancient commentators of the Homeric epics. They preserve fragments from scholarly works that do not survive anymore and represent centuries of scholarship on Homer.

A fragmentary piece of parchment with columns of Greek writing in a frame
Book 3 of the Odyssey: 1st century AD, Papyrus 271 (2)

These scattered notes were later assembled into one almost continuous commentary on Homer’s texts that often accompanied both the Iliad and the Odyssey in later manuscripts. An excellent example of this textual tradition, usually called the school-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, is the Townley Homer.

This manuscript, known after its previous owner, Charles Townley (1737-1805), was probably written in 1059 and contains the text of the Iliad with an extensive array of marginal scholia. An elaborate system of red signs connect the main text of the poem to the lengthier notes on the margins. Between the widely spaced lines of Homer’s text there are several interlinear notes (glosses) explaining difficult words or archaic grammatical features of the text for the reader. All this was designed for a fuller and deeper understanding of the poems. This remarkable manuscript preserves centuries of Homeric scholarship in the form of a handy manual that ensured the transmission of not only Homer and the memory of Troy but also a whole range of other texts, grammars, scientific works, fables, literary and metrical works for the following centuries.

Manuscript page in Greek, with lots of notes in the margins and between the lines of text
School-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, the 'Townley Homer': Eastern Mediterranean, probably 1059, Burney Ms 86, f. 240v

Homer’s Greek epics also inspired Latin writers who reimagined the story of Troy for new audiences and new purposes. Watch out for part two of this blogpost to learn how the Trojans founded Europe, and check out the British Museum’s exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎) where you can see most of these manuscripts on display.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

04 December 2019

Medieval bookbindings: from precious gems to sealskin

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This blog tends to focus on the inside of the Library’s collection items, on their varied texts and remarkable illustrations. But the physical outside of a manuscript can be just as intriguing.

Most medieval and early modern manuscripts no longer have their original bindings. The earlier the manuscript, the rarer it is that the binding survives. The binding is a book’s first defence against wear and tear, dirt and water damage. Even if it is kept clean and safe, the frequent opening of a book puts pressure on, and eventually wears out, the binding supports. Additionally, many manuscripts have been rebound in modern times by their later owners, who often wanted their entire collection to have the same bindings. As a result, original or near-contemporary medieval bindings that still survive are rare.

The type of high status binding that would have been the very rarest at the time of production sometimes survives from the early medieval period. These deluxe bindings are known as treasure bindings, because of their lavish and high-quality materials and craftsmanship. Excitingly, several early medieval treasure bindings are among the manuscripts digitised as part of the Polonsky Project. Read all about their decorations of carved ivory, precious metals and gems, in the article about medieval bindings on the Polonsky Project website.

Lower board of a binding made of dark brown wood and with clearly visible cord of lacing in a zig-zag pattern along the right-hand edge.
Lower cover with exposed wooden board: binding of Add MS 37518, 1st quarter of the 9th century.

However, the humbler medieval bindings that still survive can be just as exciting. For example, we have an early binding of a copy from the early 9th century of the so-called Commentarii notarum tironianarum (read more about this manusctipt in a previous blogpost on antique shorthand in Carolingian books). It might not be the original binding, but it was probably made no more than two centuries after the manuscript that it protects.

Spine of a book seen straight-on, with visible endband at the top and three lines of sewing supports, evenly spaced and horizontal across the spine, connecting the gatherings of the text block to the boards also visible.
Exposed spine showing the sewing supports: binding of Add MS 37518, 1st quarter of the 9th century.

The date can be determined because the process of attaching the boards is typical of the Carolingian method, which was popular during the 8th to 12th centuries. For this manuscript, the method of board attachment is visible because the whitish leather that once covered both wooden boards and the spine is partially lost. The exposed lower board and spine makes it easy to study the pattern of the lacing (the cords that are threaded through the inner edges of the wooden boards) and the sewing supports (the way that those cords were attached to the gatherings of parchment that make up the text block). As a result, it provides a good opportunity for studying the otherwise covered parts of an early binding.

Egerton_ms_2951!1_fblefr
Upper part of the former cover for Egerton MS 2951, 4th quarter of the 12th century; now kept separately as Egerton MS 2951/1, 2nd half of the 14th century.

 

Inner cover of parchment binding made from a manuscript leaf, light beige in colour, with the text running perpendicular to the binding, and the now detached leather lacing strips visible in the inner edge and sticking up slightly from the surface of the parchment.
Inside of the lower part of the former cover for Egerton MS 2951, 4th quarter of the 12th century; now kept separately as Egerton MS 2951/1, 2nd half of the 14th century.

Another relatively common – and relatively low-cost – medieval way to cover manuscripts was to reuse leaves from another manuscript no longer considered useful. This is the kind of binding that was used to cover the collection of poems written in late 12th century, now Egerton MS 2951. At some point after the mid-14th century, the collection was given a ‘limp’ parchment binding made from a bifolium of a manuscript of the Gospel of St John written during the latter half of the 14th century. The binding is now removed and kept separately, but the old strips of alum-tawed leather that were used for the lacing are still visible on the insides of the covers.

Upper cover of a binding in dark brown leather with a patch of darker brown fur still visible in the upper third, and with three small metal bosses in the two upper and the lower right corner.
Upper cover with metal bosses: binding for Add MS 63077, 2nd half of the 12th century.

 

Lower cover of binding in dark brown leather with some patches of darker fur visible at the top and in the middle of the bottom half, with two metal bosses in the upper and lower right corners, as well as a copper roundel inscribed with the title of the text in the middle.
Lower cover with metal bosses and a copper roundel inscribed ‘GENESIS GLO[SATUS]’: binding for Add MS 63077, 2nd half of the 12th century. 

Sometimes surviving medieval bindings were made with more unusual materials. For instance, the binding of a 12th-century glossed book of Genesis (Add MS 63077), which is later than the manuscript it protects.  The metal furnishings – the metal bosses still surviving on both covers, and the inscribed copper so-called ‘title window’ of the lower cover – are characteristic of Gothic bindings. Fixtures like these started becoming common by the early 14th century. What is uncommon about this Gothic binding, however, is that the still furry leather used to cover it might be made from sealskin!

Next time you check out a digitised manuscript, don’t forget to scroll to the images of the binding – it might be a rare medieval one.  

Emilia Henderson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

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More information about medieval bookbinding:

‘Medieval Manuscripts: Bookbinding terms, materials, methods, and models’, Special Collections Conservation Unit of the Preservation Department of Yale University Library (2013), see Traveling Scriptorium blog by the Yale University Library: <https://travelingscriptorium.library.yale.edu/2013/07/17/bookbinding-terms-materials-methods-and-models/>

‘Bookbinding – Parts’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOBTrua1eH0, (2016), by Prof. Ana B. Sánchez-Prieto, part of the course ‘Deciphering Secrets: The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe’, by the universities of Colorado (USA) and Complutense of Madrid (Spain), see platform on www.coursera.org

 

23 November 2019

Happy anniversary to the Polonsky Project

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Today is the one-year anniversary of the launch of our collaborative interpretative and digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.  A year ago we met in Paris as part of a three-day international conference to celebrate two new bilingual websites that provide unprecedented access to some of the riches of our two national collections.  Thanks to generous funding from The Polonsky Foundation, each Library digitised 400 manuscripts made in either England or France before the year 1200.  You can view all 800 of them on a website hosted by the BnF, and if you wish, select two or more to examine side by side (view the digitised manuscripts on the BnF website).  

An image from a medieval manuscript, which depicts a robed man sitting at a desk, writing with a quill pen and a knife
A portrait of St Dunstan: Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 12th century, Royal MS 10 A XIII/1, f. 2v

A second website, also fully bilingual, is hosted by the British Library (view the BL's interpretative website).  Here you can read 30 articles on various topics, such as English manuscript illumination, French manuscript illuminationmedicine, or history. Or, watch videos of Professor Nick Vincent discussing law-making in early medieval England or Professor Julia Crick discussing manuscript production after the Norman Conquest. We also commissioned two animated films based on the story of the crane and the story of the whale from a medieval bestiary manuscript.  Some of the most popular films have been those on how to make a manuscript, commissioned from artist and calligrapher Patricia Lovett, with viewers spending an average of nearly 10 minutes on this topic. There’s also a film produced by the BnF, which explains the background to the project.

Taken together, over half a million individual pages have been viewed by people all over the world.  Early English manuscripts have been particularly popular.  We know that you are loyal viewers, too, with over 30% returning for another visit to the interpretative website, and with many of you reporting how you are using the resources in your teaching, or for your own research. We love to hear how you’ve been using the website and which features you’ve particularly enjoyed, so please let us know in the comments field below.  

We’ve received some great press coverage, including this BBC History podcast on the wonders of the Middle Ages, and a review in Hyperallergic. We have also been featured in La Revue Française de généalogie (April 2019), Les Veillées des Chaumières (May 2019), and Femme Actuelle Jeux (May 2019).

A detail from a medieval Bible manuscript, with an image of Christ and the Virgin Mary inside a decorated letter O
Christ in dialogue with the Virgin Mary, from the Chartres Bible: Chartres, 1146-1155, BnF Latin 116, f. 12r

The first printing of our project book by curators Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700-1200, has sold out, and has just been reprinted.  It is also available as Enluminures médiévales: Chefs-d’oeuvre de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library, 700-1200.  Charlotte Denoël and Francesco Siri are currently editing the Paris conference proceedings, and Charlotte Denoël has recently published an article 'Le programme Polonsky France-Angleterre, 700-1200: manuscrits médiévaux de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library: bilan et perspectives', in Bulletin du Bibliophile, 1 (2019), 3-10. 

Cette collaboration entre la BnF et la British Library a permis d’importantes avancées technologiques: désormais, la BnF est en mesure de proposer dans Gallica marque blanche, l’infrastructure numérique utilisée pour le site web du projet, ainsi que pour les nombreux autres sites créés par la BnF pour ses partenaires souhaitant disposer d’une bibliothèque numérique sur le modèle de Gallica, de nouvelles fonctionnalités, comme le visualiseur IIIF et le multilinguisme.

Nous espérons à présent que de nouvelles collaborations et les retours des utilisateurs sur les deux sites permettront d’actualiser et d’enrichir le corpus initial du projet. 

Thanks to all of you who have enjoyed and helped publicise the websites, and happy anniversary!


Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël
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14 November 2019

Classics lost and found

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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 decorated initial in a medieval manuscript, featuring a bird-human hybrid creature.
Beginning of the book on the nature of the birds from Pliny’s Natural History: England, 2nd half of 12th century, Arundel MS 98, f. 85v

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.

A piece of ancient papyrus bearing Greek writing
A book tag (syllibos) with the title of a lost papyrus scroll said to have contained Sophron’s Comedies on Women: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 1-2nd century, Papyrus 801

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.

An ancient wooden tablet bearing a Greek inscription
An example of a classical text surviving through use in school - eight lines from Homer’s Iliad written on a wooden tablet by a teacher: Egypt, 3rd century, Add MS 33293

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.

A medieval manuscript page containing lots of glosses and beginning with a decorated initial C.
A heavily annotated title page from an copy of a grammatical textbook by Priscian, which was widely used in medieval schools: France, 11th century, Harley MS 2763, f. 1r

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.

A medieval manuscript page
An annotated school copy of comedies by Terence: Germany, 11th century, Harley MS 2750,  f. 65r

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.

A damaged fragment of ancient papyrus with Greek writing on.
Papyrus fragment showing the last lines and close (colophon) of Menander’s comedy, The Hated Man: Egypt, Oxyrhynchus, 4th century, Papyrus 3077

Here, you will find more on the Aristotle papyrus, a remarkable medical fragment and some carbonised scrolls from the destroyed city of Herculaneum.

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.

Peter Toth

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05 November 2019

‘Coppie the words but burne this paper’

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So wrote Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton to his friend and confidante, the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, in 1606. The letter appears (at f. 160r) in a wide-ranging volume of Northampton’s letters and papers covering the period from 1567 until his death in 1614 (Cotton MS Titus C VI, from which all references following come).

The Earl of Northampton's letter to Robert Cotton

Northampton's letter to Robert Cotton: Cotton MS Titus C VI, f. 160r

It is always fascinating to historians when letters survive which the recipient was supposed to burn: what indiscreet or seditious words might be revealed? So it at first sight odd that this seems to be about an author objecting to somebody changing the title of a book. But the book in question had a broader significance. A New and Perfecte Relation of the whole proceedings against the late most barbarous Traytors was a full-dress presentation of the government case against the Gunpowder Plotters, and against Henry Garnett, Jesuit Superior in England, who had known about the Plot, and tried to prevent it, but been bound by the seal of the confessional. The tract relates the trials of the Plotters and Garnett, the speeches made at their trials by peers and law officers, and the traitor’s fate inflicted on Garnett.

Northampton, a key figure in the regime, had been chosen — or perhaps chose himself — to produce this statement of the government position (for what follows, see ff. 142r–143v, 150r–160v). He had evidently been considering a book on the subject as early as the Plotters’ trial in late January 1606, at which he was present. He then sent a note to Sir Robert Cotton asking him if he had among his ‘monumentes’ a collection of pre-Conquest laws; if so, he was to let the bearer of this letter bring them to him ‘to good purpose’. The book that followed was written after Garnett’s execution on 3 May 1606.

Portrait of Henry Howard  Earl of Northampton

Portrait of Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton (d. 1614)

Northampton drew heavily on Cotton’s editorial work and assistance: asking him to insert pages, correct mistakes, read over passages, and provide manuscripts and published works. The Earl’s letters to Cotton suggest an easy relationship in which they were close collaborators. Northampton’s biographer, Linda Levy Peck, has highlighted Cotton’s role in producing the work, while suggesting that Cotton may have influenced its central historical argument (Northampton: Patronage and Policy at the Court of James I [London: George Allen and Unwin, 1982], p. 112).    

The book in question had a contentious history. The first part was presented before King James I, who was evidently a strong supporter of it. He backed it then (to the ‘applause’ of ‘the best affected’), overriding the objections of the Lord Admiral, the Earl of Nottingham. The book was then referred to the King’s eldest son, Prince Henry, to report and advise, where Northampton feared a difficult meeting. One objection was that they were giving the Plotters too much of the oxygen of publicity: rather, Northampton believed the text itself provided the ‘medecin for the malady’.

The medicine was partly in Northampton’s speech printed in the volume against the Plotter Sir Everard Digby, denying claims that the King had broken his promise of toleration to Catholics by saying that it was a promise that had never been made. Even more, his speech at Garnett’s trial ballooned into a treatise which combined recent events with patristic and medieval history, denying the power of the Pope to depose monarchs and influence and have a say in the secular sphere. The ‘speech’, which both title-page and publisher’s note admitted was much bigger than had been delivered, was just over 200 pages, slightly under half the book.

As the book was about to go to the King’s printer, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, Lord Treasurer, intervened to change its title; his handwriting is unmistakeable and there is no doubt who Northampton meant when he wrote to Cotton, ‘Worthy knight by theas additions you may find whose eie hath examined this businesse’. Below is the original title with Salisbury’s crossings-out and interlineations (marked \ / and here italicized;  Salisbury crossed out some of his own words):

‘A true and perfecte relation of the whole proceedinges againste the late moste barbarous  Traytors \Garnett a Jesuittt and his confederattes/ together with \containyng/ sondry speaches delyvered and reviewed by the Lordes Commissioners but principally by the right honourable the Earle of Northampton enlarged upon special occasions, at Garnettes arraignement, and lastely all what passed at Garnettes execution \at ther Arraignments for the better satisfaction of amongst the stood standers by those that were hearers as occasion was offred,/

A True and Perfect Relation title page

A True and Perfect Relation of the whole proceedings against the late most barbarous Traitors, Garnet, a Jesuite, and his confederats (London, 1606)

Northampton may have been furious at the demoting of his role in the title, but there is an oddity. What most bothered Salisbury was the phrase ‘reviewed by the Lordes Commissioners’, the peers who sat at the Plotters' trial. Salisbury allowed Northampton to appear in a sub-title which Northampton wrote himself ‘in a kind of distinction and separation from the rest’. The sub-title read, ‘The Earle of Northamptones last speech having bene enlarged upon those growndes which are set downe, and lastely all that passed at Garnettes exegution’. The published title-page is as amended by Salisbury with Northampton’s sub-title.

Northampton’s speech against Garnett was a statement of his Catholic loyalism. He was what historians call a Church papist or a crypto-Catholic: a ‘religious outlook, which accommodated inner commitment to the Roman Catholic church with a later acceptance of the need for outward conformity to the worship of the Church of England’ (Pauline Croft in Oxford DNB). The same volume of Northampton’s papers in which this letter appears includes much devotional writing, including a poem by the Catholic martyr Robert Southwell, ‘Of the blessed Sacram[en]ts of the alter’ (ff. 516r–575v; the poem is ff. 535r–536v). He was perhaps distancing himself from a past when he had been under intermittent suspicion by the Elizabethan regime (arrested five times, gaoled in the Fleet prison and at other times under house arrest). He was also restating his loyalty to James I and the house of Stuart: under Elizabeth he had been a supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots (though, he later claimed, always within the bounds of prudent advice to Mary and loyalty to Elizabeth), and would later write the epitaph for her tomb in Westminster Abbey. As a loyal Catholic, he was distancing himself from traitorous ones. And, as the Venetian ambassador noted, ‘The fact that the author has been and still is reckoned a Catholic is expected to lend the work a greater authority’ (Peck, Northampton, p. 112). That fact was, of course, put at the front of the work in both the original and (thanks to Northampton himself) revised titles, where the reader would see his name even if they were not be able to work though Northampton’s dense prose.

Northampton’s anger perhaps also reflects a certain thin-skinnedness. He was able to take some criticism, and asked Cotton to correct some errors that Salisbury had spotted. But he could also take criticism personally: a sense of himself and Cotton against carping critics. Nottingham he described as beaten by the king’s grave judgment ‘from certain weak sconces to which he fled in distresse’, whilst another critic he described as ‘mad’, ‘vexed’ and ‘a shamelesse brazen face’ (ff. 154r, 154v).

That over-sensitivity perhaps goes back to Northampton’s own past. Lord Henry Howard was the younger son of a great family which had fallen with the execution for treason of his elder brother Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk, in 1572. Howard did not under-estimate his own cleverness (as a reader in Rhetoric in Cambridge in the 1560s the only nobleman to hold a university teaching position in the period), and the 1606 book is a display of his (as well as Cotton’s) scholarship. But he spent many years under Elizabeth on the fringes, suspected by all sides. He expended the time in lengthy treatises and masses of unpublished drafts (such as much of ff. 203r–406v). Although his prospects improved in the 1590s, it was only when James I became king that Lord Henry Howard came into power and position as Earl of Northampton.

Northampton also evidently had a tangled relationship with Salisbury, with whom he had, and continued, to collaborate. But collaboration was not friendship: he later referred to Salisbury as a ‘black sowle’ (f. 134v). This letter shows one great man at Court angry at being told what to do by an even greater one. Northampton may also have resented the kow-towing he had made to Robert Cecil and his father Lord Burghley under Elizabeth — deferential letters enforced by the fall of his ancient house, written to those who had prospered. Northampton’s words against Salisbury explain not only why he was angry but why he wanted the letter destroyed: words against the powerful Lord Treasurer which were fit for his confidante Cotton, but which he did not want falling into the wrong hands.

The Somerset House Conference 19 August 1604

Salisbury and Northampton at the Somerset House conference, 19 August 1604 (Salisbury is on the front right and Northampton next to him)

There was, of course, another reason for the sharpened sensitivity of Northampton and his book. Had the Gunpowder Plot succeeded in blowing up the Parliament House, Northampton — as well as Salisbury, Nottingham, King James, Prince Henry and the MP Sir Robert Cotton — would all have been among the many dead.

 

Tim Wales

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31 October 2019

How to survive Halloween

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On All Hallow’s Eve, also known as Halloween, witches are often said to congregate at Sabbaths. Celtic belief had it that, on the eve of Samhain, the boundary between our world and the Otherworld was at its weakest, allowing evil spirits and fairies to cross over. Just to be on the safe side, we've delved into our manuscripts to find forms of protection against any evil lurking out there.

Image of 2 witches colluding with a demon and then mixing a potion

Witches colluding with a demon (2nd quarter of the 15th century): Cotton MS Tiberius A VII/1, f. 70r

If you encounter a witch of the evil kind, we recommend that you consult Harley MS 3831 (recently re-catalogued as part of our Harley project). It features 16th-century ‘charms’ (spells using elements from prayers and incantations) against witchcraft, containing formulas from the Canon of Mass, divine names, and this prayer against evil:

‘Against witchcrafte:

Hec dona + hec munera + hec sacra sancta sacrificia illibata + hostia sacra sancta + Imemerata + Algramachi + Agla + tetragramaton + homo + natus + nathas + natha + Nathaniell + Barmatha. +

Another for Wi[t]chcr[a]fte:

In the name of Jesus christe be With me and forgive me my synnes / thetarnall god Lorde blesse me and deliver me from all eville [in the] in the name of the father and of the sonne and of the holy ghoste Amen.’  

Charms against witchcraft

Charms against witchcraft (16th century): Harley MS 3831, f. 11r

According to another manuscript, Sloane MS 3824, you might alternatively wear an amulet containing magical seals inscribed with the names of God and the Evangelists, and a binding spell for witches:

‘I binde these Witches […] by the vertue of all these holy Characters herein written, that these Witches […] may have noe power at any tyme or tymes hereafter upon me [Name], The Bearer hereof.’

An amulet designed to ward off witches

An amulet against witches (17th century): Sloane MS 3824, f. 70v

Don’t panic if you are bewitched. Simply follow these instructions provided by Sloane MS 3706: boil your urine over a fire, add to it a pinch of salt, and recite the opening of the Gospel of St John (‘In the beginning was the Word’) over it three times. Three needles should be put in the brew, while invoking the names of God, and reciting a prayer to break the witch’s power:   

‘Against witchcrafte proved and to unwitch the partie bewitched:

Take the parties water greved, and set it over the fier and put into it a Little salte, then reade the gospel of St Jhon for Christmas day .3. times and when the vreu [‘brew’] doth begin to boyle, have in a redines .3. needles, and in puttinge them into the vreu one after another, you must say in putting in the first, you must say, “one in godes name”, in putting in the second, say, “twoe in godes name”, and so for the thirde, say, “three in godes name”. Then say, “In the name of the father, of the sonne, and of the holy ghost”. Amen. Even as this vreu doth waste consume and burne, so may his, hir, or theyer witchecraftes, Inchauntments or sorceries or any other which hath bewitched .N. may returne, and lighte upon themselves againe, and that by the most vertues names of god: “Tetragramaton. Alpha et omega. Messias. Sother. Emanuel. Unigenitus. Vita. Via. Jesus Christus. Amen. By these holie names of god. I drive and curse thee, and swear you from your office and dignitie. I doe drive you by the virtue of them, into the nether pitt of hellfier, there to remaine and burne with unquenchable fier, till the day of Judgment, Excepte that you doe cause that even as this vreu doth waste consume and burne, so may his, hir, or theier witchcraft that bewitched N[ame]. thy servaunt returne again and light upon themselves againe”. Say this three times over and at every time say our Lordes prayer. And at the same hower and time that the praier is said an alteration shalbe in the partie bewitched, and so by godes grace it shall mende afterwardes.’

Instructions for unwitching

Instructions for ‘unwitching’ (late 16th or early 17th century): Sloane MS 3706, f. 23r

Evil spirits, like witches, can also be countered by making amulets against them. Here are some examples from a 17th-century English roll with sixty-three magical seals:

Three magical seals against evil spirits

Magical seals against evil spirits (England, 17th century): Add MS 25311

You should also be wary of elves. English manuscripts as early as the 8th century warned against them. A 15th-century charm in Sloane MS 963 put them on a par with demons and provided a powerful conjuration against them:  

‘I conjure and call upon you elves and all the offspring and seed of the devil and of diabolical deception, through the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, that you, from now on, may not have the power to harm this servant of God [Name].’ 

‘Coniuro vos elfas et contestor et omne genus et semen diabolicum et diabolice fraudis per patrem et filium et spiritum Sanctum ut non habeatis de cetero potestatem nocendi hinc famulo dei N.’

A charm against elves and demons

A charm against elves and demons (15th century): Sloane MS 963, f. 15r

It might be wise to recite a charm against elves and demons from Sloane MS 962 before going to bed. Aside from keeping you safe while awake, it will also protect you against nightmares — often thought to be caused by malign entities such as ‘mares’ and elves. It does so by invoking the names of the Seven Sleepers, who, according to popular legend, were a group of 3rd-century Christians from Ephesus. During the Roman persecution under Emperor Decius, they retreated to a mountain cave to pray. Having fallen asleep, the Romans sealed them inside the cave, but with divine protection they woke up only when the cave was reopened, more than 300 years later. Medieval charms often invoked them for safety during sleep:

‘I conjure you elves and all the nightly or daily troubles of demons, by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit […] and by the intercession of all saints and by the Seven Sleepers whose names are as follows: Malchus, Maximian, Dionysius, John, Constantine, Serapion, Martinian […] that you may not harm or do any evil to or attack this servant of God [Name], neither while sleeping nor waking.’

‘Coniuro vos elves et omnia gravamina demoniorum nocturna sive diuturna per patrem et filium et spiritum sanctum […] et per intercessionem omni sanctorum et per septem dormentes hos quorum nomina sunt hec Malchus Maximianus Dionsisus Johannes Constantinus Seraphion Martinianus […] ut non noceatis neque aliquis mali facitis vel inferatis hinc famulo dei N. neque dormiendo neque vigilando.’

Another charm against elves and demons

A charm against elves and demons (15th century): Sloane MS 962, f. 9v

We hope these charms and amulets will help you ward off any evils on Halloween. Sweet dreams!

 

Clarck Drieshen

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28 October 2019

The Lindisfarne Gospels: Turning over a new leaf

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Fans of the Lindisfarne Gospels will be excited to hear that we have just turned the page, so you can now see a new opening on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery. This time we are showing some of the manuscript's text pages, ff. 82v-83r, which contain the account of Christ’s arrest in the Gospel of St Matthew (Matthew 26:39-55).

A text page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of stately script
The Lindisfarne Gospels, England, around 700: Cotton MS Nero D iv, f. 82v

These pages showcase the Lindisfarne Gospels’ stately script, one of the finest surviving examples of the formal calligraphy used for high status books in England and Ireland in the 7th-9th centuries. This script, known as Insular half-uncial, first developed in Ireland and is shared with masterpieces of Irish book art such as the Book of Durrow and Book of Kells. Insular half-uncial is a large, round, imposing script that could only be written by highly trained scribes. They had to work slowly and meticulously, holding the pen vertically and paying attention to details such as serifs and head strokes.

According to a colophon written in the 10th century, the Lindisfarne Gospels was created by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded around 634 by the Irish missionary St Aidan, who brought to Northumbria the traditions of Irish monasticism and book production. After the Synod of Whitby in 664, Northumbria officially declared allegiance to the Roman Church, but the Irish missionaries left an enduring legacy in the script of manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.    

A text page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of stately script
The Lindisfarne Gospels, England, around 700: Cotton MS Nero D iv, f. 83r

The pages on display also give you the chance to admire the manuscript's ground-breaking Old English translation. Aldred, the 10th-century priest who wrote the colophon, also added an Old English translation above the words of the Latin text, providing the oldest known translation of the Gospels into English. Look carefully at these pages and you might see some words that you recognise. For example, on the second line of the second column on f. 83r, the Latin word 'gladium' is translated as 'suord' (modern English, sword). Or on the fifth-from-last line of the first column on f. 82v, the Latin word 'pater' is translated as 'fader' (modern English, father). 

Come and see the Lindisfarne Gospels and other spectacular manuscripts from our collection for free in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery or explore them online on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

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