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20 August 2019

A medieval guide to predicting your future

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How can you predict the future, interpret your dreams, and protect yourself against harm? Some of the manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project have the answer. Many medieval manuscripts include charms, which seek to influence events through the use of words and ritual actions, and prognostics, which predict what will happen. These were usually created and written down by people who knew the church liturgy well and had a deep understanding of the changes of the Moon and the seasons. You can read more about medieval knowledge of such natural phenomena in our article about medieval science.

Page from a medieval manuscript listing months followed by numbers
'On the bad days and which months they are from', Winchester, 3rd quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII, f. 9r

Some particularly intriguing Old English charms and prognostics appear in the opening leaves of an 11th-century Psalter (Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII). These include a list of ‘bad days’ in every month on which nothing you begin will be ended, which are calculated by counting how many days it has been since the last New Moon (the night on which the Moon is on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, making it invisible).

So in case you have any important projects coming up, the text reveals that in August these are the 8th and 13th nights of the Moon (counting the night of the New Moon as the first), in September they are the 5th and the 9th nights of the Moon, in October they are the 5th and the 15th nights, November the 7th and 9th nights, and in December the 3rd and 13th nights. So for the UK in 2019, these translate into the following calendar dates: 8th and 13th of August, 3rd and 7th of September, 2nd and 7th October, 3rd, 5th and 28th of November, and 8th December. Best not to start your projects on these days!

(You can calculate the unlucky dates for any place and year using an online Moon phases calendar).

A page from a medieval manuscript containing a charm
'On theft', from Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, Winchester, third decade of the 11th century: Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 79v

If one of your treasured belongs has gone astray, you might find this Latin charm from a collection of liturgical, scientific and prognostic texts useful (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI). The charm claims to reveal the identity of a thief: 'If you have lost something, write these letters on a blank sheet and place it under your head in the night when you sleep, and you will see him who has taken it from you'. Then it provides a group of letters and symbols for you to copy out.

But if you dream about something else, the prognostic on f. 9r-v might help. A dream which takes place on the 1st night of the New Moon pertains to joy, a dream on the 11th night will be without danger, and whatever you dream about on the 7th night will happen after a long time.

Prognostics could also foretell the course of a person’s life. A text on ff. 7v-8r claims to tell a person’s future based on how many days after the New Moon they were born. For example, we learn that whoever is born on the 21st night of the New Moon will be an ingenious robber, someone born on the 10th will travel around many places, but someone born on the 2nd will merely be 'mediocris' (average)!

A page from a medieval manuscript containing a charm
'Names to protect against a king or emperor', perhaps written in Bréziers, Southern France, 12th century: Egerton MS 821, f. 59v

Another manuscript in the collection is wholly composed of prognostics and charms (Egerton MS 821). One of these is a list of names that you should think through in your mind when in the presence of a king or emperor to work against his power: ‘in axbidino . henonia . adonay, sabaot iactriel. sa. adonai. eloym. hagai’.

If you wish to foretell the outcome of a fight, f. 40r instructs you to count the letters in the combatants' names, add five to whichever is the longer, and deduct ten. If the resulting numbers are equal, the one with the longer name will win; but if they are unequal, the one with the longer name will be beaten. It’s oddly reminiscent of the games that many of us used to play as children: by counting the number of letters in someone’s name, or by drawing a spiral and counting the number of lines in it, you can find out what your future is. Perhaps those fortune-telling games have been circulating for much longer than we think!

Kate Thomas

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18 August 2019

What is a bestiary?

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As the Getty's wonderful Book of Beasts exhibition draws to close, it's an apt moment to reflect on the medieval manuscripts we know as 'bestiaries'. Elizabeth Morrison, one of the curators of Book of Beasts, has described the bestiary as 'one of the most appealing types of illuminated manuscripts, due to the liveliness and vibrancy of its imagery ... All of us can find something to relate to in the bestiary and its animals' ('Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary').

Lions resuscitating their cubs
The lion bringing its cubs to life (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 6r)

Function and origins

We might regard bestiaries as a kind of medieval encyclopedia relating to natural history, with one notable distinction: each creature was described in terms of its place within the Christian worldview, rather than as a purely scientific phenomenon. The animals were interpreted as evidence of God’s divine plan for the world. This is particularly true of the first animal typically described in the bestiary, namely the lion. One famous bestiary story is that of the birth of lions. Lion cubs were said to be born dead, until on the third day their father breathed upon them, bringing them to life, a reflection of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. 

A page from a bestiary, illustrating a lion
The opening page of a medieval bestiary (Add MS 11283, f. 1r)

The origins of the bestiary can be traced to the Physiologus, a Greek text devoted to natural history from late Antiquity. Around the 11th century, material was added from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, a popular early medieval encyclopedia. Bestiaries themselves became popular in England from the 12th century onwards, but they did not all contain the same descriptions or illustrations, leading to them being divided into different families by modern scholars. As Elizabeth Morrison has pointed out, 'the bestiary was not a single text, but a series of changeable texts that could be reconfigured in numerous ways. The number of animals could vary quite significantly, as well as their order.'

MedievalBestiary4-cats-mice-f36v
Cats and mice in a bestiary (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 36v)

Real and imagined

Bestiaries offer an enticing insight into the medieval mind. Some of the creatures they describe would have been very familiar to their original audience, such as cats, donkeys and owls. Others were more exotic, such as crocodiles and elephants, and this is often a source of amusement for modern readers; normally, the artists were relying upon the text and their own imaginations when depicting such beasts, rather than working from first-hand experience.

An elephant from a bestiary
Men mounted on an elephant (Harley MS 3244, f. 39r)

Likewise, bestiaries contain accounts of animals that we would now identify as mythical, such as phoenixes and unicorns. These fantastic beasts inhabited a special place in the medieval imagination, and beyond. You may recognise the illustration of the phoenix, below, from an English bestiary, as one of the stars of the British Library exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.

A phoenix rising from the flames
A phoenix in a medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751, f. 45r)

Bestiary folklore

Bestiaries abound with tales of fantastic and fabulous proportions. The story of the whale is a case in point. In bestiary tradition, the whale was so large that it could rest on the surface of the water until greenery grew on its back. Passing sailors, mistaking the animal for an island, would set camp on its back and unsuspectingly light a fire. The whale would then dive back into the ocean, dragging its victims with it.

Whale2
Sailors making camp on the back of a whale (Harley MS 4751, f. 69r)

We have reproduced the tale of the whale in this animation, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. You could say, we 'had a whale of a time'.

Surviving manuscripts

Illuminated Latin bestiaries survive in significant numbers. The Getty's exhibition catalogue lists a total of 62 examples, now dispersed across collections in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and the USA. No fewer than 8 are held at the British Library (and we loaned 6 manuscripts in total to Book of Beasts).

Illustration of a dragon
A dragon from an English bestiary (Harley MS 3244, f. 59r)

Here is a list of the illuminated Latin bestiaries in the British Library's collections:

Add MS 11283: England, 4th quarter of the 12th century

Cotton MS Vitellius D I: England, 2nd half of the 13th century

Harley MS 3244: England, after 1236

Harley MS 4751: England, early 13th century

Royal MS 12 C XIX: England, early 13th century

Royal MS 12 F XIII: Rochester, c. 1230

Sloane MS 3544: England, mid-13th century

Stowe MS 1067: England, 1st half of the 12th century

Medieval sheep
Sheep in a bestiary (Sloane MS 3544, f. 16r)
 
A manticore wearing a jaunty hat
A manticore (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 29v)

You can read more about bestiaries in Elizabeth Morrison's article, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

 

Julian Harrison

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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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12 August 2019

Note-worthy connections: antique shorthand in Carolingian books

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How do you find connections between contemporaneous manuscripts produced in different places? Sometimes the distinctive hand of a particular scribe is found in more than one manuscript, or the illustrations are likely to have been made by the same artist. At other times the makers of the manuscripts are unlikely to have been the same individuals, and yet their overall aspects and layout are strikingly similar—so similar that they are likely to be copies of the same exemplar. A connection of this last type between two 9th-century manuscripts – one in the British Library and one in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany – has recently been highlighted as a result of their digitisation.

A page from a medieval manuscript showing decorated symbols
Opening of the Commentaries on Tironian notes (Paris, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, 1st quarter of the 9th century): British Library, Add MS 37518, f. 1r

 

A page from a medieval manuscript showing decorated symbols
Opening of the Commentaries on Tironian notes (Saint-Amand, first half of the 9th century): Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug.4°, f. 1r

Both manuscripts are copies of the late antique text Commentarii notarum tironianarum (Commentaries on Tironian notes). Tironian notes were an ancient Roman system of shorthand which get their name from their attribution to Tiro (b. 94, d. 4 BC), the slave and personal secretary of Cicero (b. 106, d. 43 BC). They are called notes after the Latin nota, but like the shorthand systems still in use today, they consist of abstract symbols which stand for words and syllables.

The British Library’s early-9th-century copy of this text (Add MS 37518) is one of the 800 manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. As increasing numbers of manuscripts become available online, it is easier than ever to compare their pages side by side. This is what happened when Joanna Story (Professor of Early Medieval History at University of Leicester and collaborator on the Library’s recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms-exhibition) recently researched this manuscript. She recognised the layout of its opening page from elsewhere, namely the near-contemporary manuscript, Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug. 4°.

Two pages from medieval manuscripts side by side, showing the same layout of symbols
Comparison of the opening pages of the Commentaries: British Library, Add MS 37518, f. 1r, and Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug.4°, f. 1r

In the opening pages of both manuscripts, the decorated Tironian symbols and their abbreviations are arranged in the same positions in relation to one another. This makes it clear that they follow the same layout, despite the opening page of Add MS 37518 being left unfinished with only the dagger-shaped symbol for ab heavily outlined in black. At least 20 other early medieval guides to Tironian notes survive, but they rarely have this striking arrangement of the first three symbols. An example of a copy of this text with a different layout, included in a recent blogpost on writing systems, has also recently been digitised (Add MS 21164).

A page from a medieval manuscript showing Tironian symbols
'Purpura' section of the Tironian lexicon: Add MS 37518, f. 27r
A page from a medieval manuscript, showing Tironian symbols
'Purpura' section of the Tironian lexicon: Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug.4°, f. 28r


The commentaries contain a lexicon, or list of symbols and their meanings. This part of the text divides the symbols according to either topic or shape. The divisions are signalled by the writing of the first word of a group in capital script. These different groupings tend to begin in almost the same place in both the British Library and Herzog August Library copies (which are of a similar size), which further strengthens the impression that they were copied from a common, or very similar, exemplar.

Despite their roots in Classical antiquity, no antique manuscript examples of the commentaries on Tironian notes or of texts written in Tironian notes survive. Instead, the vast majority of evidence is found in Carolingian manuscripts. The Carolingian dynasty ruled over the territories of the Franks (roughly modern-day France, Belgium, Netherlands and Western Germany) from the mid-8th century, but gradually lost control over these territories throughout the late 9th and 10th centuries.

A winged man holding an open book inscribed with symbols
The Evangelist symbol for St Matthew, holding his Gospel text written in Tironian notes, detail from the Apocalypse miniature in the Moutier-Grandval Bible (Tours, c.830-840): Add MS 10546, f. 499r

The Carolingian interest in shorthand was part and parcel of the revival of learning, art, and book production often known as the Carolingian Renaissance. In the Admonitio generalis (General admonition), an important collection of legislation issued in 789, the most famous Carolingian ruler, Charlemagne (r. 768-814), implored that schools be established for the learning of not only the Psalms, chant, and grammar, but also notae, or ‘written signs’.

Based on the surviving manuscript evidence, certain Carolingian monastic schools took a particular interest in Tironian notes. The scriptorium at Tours seems to have been one of the earliest centres to master this shorthand system, even including it in its famous illustrated pandect Bibles, such as the Moutier-Grandval Bible. Occasionally an entire book might be written in Tironian notes, such as this late 9th-century copy of the Psalms (Add MS 9046), which you can see in the British Library’s current exhibition, Writing: Making your Mark.

A page from a medieval manuscript filled with Tironian notes
Psalm 103 in a Psalter written in Tironian notes (Northeastern France, 4th quarter of the 9th century): Add MS 9046, f. 60v

The schools that produced our two connected manuscripts – Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, and Saint-Amand, in north-eastern France – are c. 200 km apart. That they nonetheless seem to share a common exemplar demonstrates how closely connected Carolingian scholarly communities were.         

Emilia Henderson, with thanks to Joanna Story

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10 August 2019

Summer caption competition

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We hope you're all having a lovely summer, wherever you are. If you're in the mood to unwind and relax, why not take part in our (semi-)regular caption competition? This image is taken from the sensational Silos Apocalypse (Add MS 11695, f. 170r), dating from the turn of the 11th/12th century. You can view it in full and for free online here.

What is going on in this picture? There are no prizes, but you can send your suggestions as a comment at the foot of this post, or by Twitter to @BLMedieval. We always love readibg the witty ideas you come up with!

Add_ms_11695_f170r

04 August 2019

The birds and the bees

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As many of our readers are aware, medieval manuscripts are an invaluable source for illustrations of cats and dogs and knights fighting snails. Some of our favourite images are of elephants, while western European attempts to accurately depict crocodiles and camels always make us smile. In this blogpost, we thought we would delight you with a selection of the charming pictures of birds and bees found in manuscripts in the British Library's collections.

Osprey

The margins of this late 12th or early 13th-century of the Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales are adorned with a number of illustrations, including the dive-bombing osprey (shown above, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 9r) and the kingfishers and stork featured below (f. 9v). An equally famous image in the same book is that of St Kevin, who kept so still that a blackbird nested in the palm of his hand (f. 20r).

King

Kevin

In a much later manuscript, known as the Hours of Dionora of Urbino (Yates Thompson MS 7), is found this border at the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin, containing this rather realistic blue tit and bullfinch separated by a roundel of John the Baptist (f. 14r).

Bull

Another manuscript we often look to for inspiration is Burney MS 97, made in Paris in the 1550s or 1560s. We are particularly fond of the heron (f. 4r), the pelican striking her breast to feed her young with the blood (f. 6r), and this rather fetching pair of owls (f. 10r).

Burney_ms_97_f004r

Pelican

Owls

Talking of owls, this rather important looking specimen is found in the border of the Hours of the Earls of Ormond (Harley MS 2887, f. 29r), at the beginning of the Annunciation. If you look carefully at the same border, you can also see a rather splendid peacock and a bear playing the bagpipes!

Owl

Peacock 2

Peacock

We couldn't resist showing you another peacock, this time alongside other birds, among them a hoopoe and a jay, in a cutting from a gospel lectionary of Pope Gregory XIII (Add MS 21412, f. 110r).

Border

Finally for our birds, how about a little swan-upmanship? This first swan with its noble beak is found in a 13th-century English bestiary (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 39v), and would have surely won the prize were it not for the magnificent illustration of the constellation 'Cygnus', made in 9th-century France (Harley MS 647, f. 5v).

Swan

647

When it comes to bees, we are also spoilt for choice. How about the beehives in an Italian herbal (Sloane MS 4016, f. 57v), with a duck in an English bestiary (Harley MS 3244, f. 57v), or with the bear looking suspiciously like a medieval Winnie the Pooh (Harley MS 3448, f. 10v)?

Hive

Hive1

3448

 

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25 July 2019

Marvellous monsters

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Medieval writers typically relied on Classical texts for their knowledge of the world beyond Europe. The Roman and Greek sources which they consulted informed them that legendary people inhabited distant regions. One of the most influential works was the Natural History of the Roman author Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79). Pliny described people with the heads of dogs (Cynamolgi) and four feet (Artabatiae) in Ethiopia, and with horses’ hooves as feet (Hippopodes) in the Baltic.

Image 1 - Pliny  Naturalis Historia

A hybrid figure in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century): Arundel MS 98, f. 85v

The Classical 'monstrous' people also feature in the Etymologies of the Spanish author Isidore of Seville (570–636). Isidore, who considered such strange beings to be signs of God, claimed that Libya was home to the Blemmyae, a headless people who had their mouths and eyes in their chest, and the Antipodes (‘opposite-footed’), a people whose feet pointed upward. In India, Isidore located the dog-headed people called Cynocephali (‘dog-headed’) and the Cyclopes (‘round-eyed’), a people with one eye in the middle of their foreheads. Ethiopia was supposedly inhabited by the Sciapodes ('shade-footed'), having a single leg with a large foot which they used to shade under during extreme heat.

Image 2 - Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville depicted at the opening of the Etymologiae (France, 4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 15603, f. 1r

Tales of marvellous inhabitants were often included in descriptions of the regions outside Europe. For example, the early 8th-century Cosmography, a fictitious travelogue of a certain ‘Aethicus Ister’, reported that a dog-headed people lived on a northern island above Britain. In Scythia, female warriors known as Amazons reared the cubs of minotaurs (half-man, half-bull) and centaurs (half-man, half-horse) and trained them to fight in war.

Image 3 - Minotaur Cubs in the Cosmographia

‘In solitudinibus catulos minotauros invenisse’ (‘[The Amazons] discovered minotaur cubs in deserted places’, trans. by Michael W. Herren, Cosmography (2011), p. 157), in the Cosmographia (France or England, early 12th century): Harley MS 3859, f. 273r

Testament to the popularity of these tales is a 12th-century Bible from Arnstein Abbey in Germany (Harley MS 2799). On a page that was originally left blank have been drawn seventeen legendary people, including the Cynocephali, Cyclopes, Blemmyae (first row), and Sciapods (third row).

Image 4 - Monstrous Races in the Arnstein Bible

Legendary people added to the Arnstein Bible (Germany, c. 1172): Harley MS 2799, f. 243r

The existence of strange peoples became a popular theme in medieval accounts of Christian conversion. These works signalled that, if even 'monsters' could be taught Christianity, there should be no reason why the entire world could not be converted as well. The so-called Letter of Prester John is an example of this: it purports to be a letter from a priest named John addressed to Manuel of Constantinople and Frederick Barbarossa in 1163. The priest claims to govern a powerful kingdom in India, filled with gold and jewels, and inhabited by strange creatures that have converted to Christianity. The letter claims that the kingdom has:

‘sagitarii, homines agrestes, homines cornuti, fauni, satiri et mulieres eiusdem generis, pigmei, cenocephali, gygantes, quorum altitudo est quadraginta cubitorum, monoculi, cyclopes et a vis, quae vocactur fenix, et fere omne genus animailum, quae sub caelo sunt’.

(‘archers [i.e. centaurs], savage men, horned men, fauns, satyrs and women of the same race, pygmies, dog-headed men, giants whose height is 40 cubits, one-eyed men, cyclopses and a bird which is called ‘phoenix’, and almost every kind of animal which is under heaven’, trans. by Keagan Brewer, Prester John (2015), p. 69)

Image 5 - Monstrous Races in the Letter of Prester John

Unusual races listed in the Letter of Prester John (London, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Add MS 14252, f. 92v

The association between monstrous people and conversion to Christianity perhaps explains why the artist of an early 13th-century English Psalter (Arundel MS 157) chose to paint a figure that looks like a Sciapod at the opening line of Psalm 84:5: ‘Converte nos, Deus salutaris noster’ (‘Convert us, God our saviour’). However, the Sciapod — who appears to be lying upside down in order to find shade under his foot — could also be a pun on the Psalm verse, since the Latin word convertere can be translated both as ‘convert’ and ‘turn upside-down’.

Image 6 - Sciapod in Arundel MS 157

A ‘converted’ Sciapod (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Arundel MS 157, f. 182v

 

Clarck Drieshen

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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.

Figure1

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)

Figure2

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.

Figure3

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

Figure4

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