14 March 2020
Pilgrimage by proxy
A recent addition to our digitised collections is a unique 15th-century guidebook for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Almost like a late medieval Lonely Planet guide for a prospective pilgrim, it contains an illustrated narrative of the journey, a detailed itinerary with distances, and practical instructions for prospective pilgrims.
The main text is a detailed account of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Mount Sinai, originally written in Italian by the Franciscan friar Niccolò da Poggibonsi (fl. 1345–1350), and known as Libro d’Oltramare (Book of Outremer). Our manuscript (Egerton MS 1900) is the only known copy of the German translation of this text.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem; Southern Germany (Nürnberg?), c. 1465: Egerton MS 1900, f. 12v
The genre of written pilgrimage accounts to the Holy Land has its origins in the 4th century. Such texts were aimed at readers who were unable to physically make such a long and difficult journey. By reading descriptions of the actual locations mentioned in the Bible, they could instead go on a mental pilgrimage, envisaging the places as they read.
Niccolò’s mid-14th-century text revolutionised this genre in several ways, making it easier than ever before for a European reader to visualise the cities, churches and places of veneration. Firstly, his account was the first pilgrimage guidebook written in the vernacular. Moreover, it is a first-person narrative based on his first-hand experiences, whereas most previous accounts were derived from much older texts. Moreover, it seems that Niccolò planned from the beginning to incorporate illustrations of the places and marvels he encountered into the text.
Golden Gate, Jerusalem: Egerton MS 1900, f. 51r
Unsurprisingly, the text describes the many important churches and sites in Jerusalem in the most detail. These passages are illustrated with no fewer than 40 drawings. They mainly portray important buildings and churches, such as the Golden Gate (f. 51r), the complex of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (ff. 12v, 14r, 15r, 18v, 19v, 20v, 23v, 26r), the Chapel of the Ascension (f. 44r), and the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount (f. 52v).
The place of the Last Supper: Egerton MS 1900, f. 36r
More specific locations associated with important events from the Bible are also included, such as ‘the place where our Lord ate his evening meal with his Disciples' (der stat do unnser herr sein abent essen aß mit seinem Jungern). Although the perspective is slightly confusing, the illustration of the place of the Last Supper shows a wooden trestle table on a colourful mosaic floor.
Nazareth and ‘St Gabriel’s well’: Egerton MS 1900, f. 75v
Numerous locations of important biblical events elsewhere in the Biblical Levant and the Sinai Peninsula are also portrayed. For instance, under the heading ‘Saint Gabriel’s well’ is a nearly full-page drawing of a well or a fountain with the city of Nazareth in the background. This was the well where, according to tradition, the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary during the Annunciation.
The tree of the apples of Paradise: Egerton MS 1900, f. 139r
Another site mentioned towards the end of the text, as the narrator is travelling through Sinai, is the tree of ‘the apples of Paradise’. This seems to refer to the very Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, the fruit of which tends to be depicted as an apple in western Christian art.
The mountain where the body of St Catherine was found: Egerton MS 1900, f. 132r
Another category of important places in the pilgrimage account is locations related to the veneration of early Christian martyrs. For example, there are several illustrations of sites connected to St Catherine of Alexandria (d. c. 305). The most unusual among them is perhaps the drawing of ‘the mountain where St Catherine was first found’ (Der perg do Sant Katrey am ersten funden wart). It shows a mottled brown mound with the incorrupt body of the saint, dressed in a red dress and a golden crown, lying on the top.
Detail of pyramids: Egerton MS 1900, f. 116v
A smaller category of illustration is that of various marvels that were curious to a medieval European traveller. Shown above are the small drawing of four pyramids, most likely representing the pyramids at Giza. The heading testifies to the late-medieval belief that, instead of monumental tombs, they were in fact the ‘granaries of the Pharaohs’ (korn kasten kunig pharaonis).
Giraffe: Egerton MS 1900, f. 110v
Interrupting the sequential narrative of the journey is a small series of exotic animals encountered by Niccolò, including the elephant, a local goat breed big enough to ride, and the ostrich. More unusually for a medieval illustration, the fourth exotic animal is the giraffe. The text is based on an eyewitness encounter, but the artist is unlikely to have seen an actual giraffe. While they included the characteristic long neck, they seem to have based the other features of this giraffe — such as the cow-like head and the shaggy grey coat — on domesticated animals closer to home.
Why not check out the rest of this wonderful manuscript and go on a mental pilgrimage of your own? You can read more about it in this article by Kathryn Blair Moore: ‘The Disappearance of an Author and the Emergence of a Genre: Niccolò da Poggibonsi and Pilgrimage Guidebooks between Manuscript and Print', Renaissance Quarterly, 66 (2013), 357–411.
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20 May 2019
Mehmed the Conqueror, scourge of the world
The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 brought Turkish politics closer to western Europe. The Italian merchant cities already had commercial ties with the Ottomans across the Mediterranean, but after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, western Europeans became increasingly more interested in — and often worried by — their new eastern neighbours.
It was not only scholars, manuscripts and ideas that flowed from East to West. In the wake of the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire, the reputation of Mehmed II (1432–1481), commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror, spread throughout Western Europe. Reports travelled of his military genius, political astuteness and cultural refinement.
A portrait of Mehmed II in Kiyafet ül-insaniye, a description of the first twelve Ottoman sultans: Add MS 7880, f. 45v
A celebrity of the 15th century, Mehmed mesmerised his contemporaries, particularly Italian humanists and artists. Gentile Bellini was even invited to paint Mehmed’s portrait. The humanists’ fascination with the Ottoman sultan may be gauged through an epitaph for Mehmed, which started circulating soon after the sultan’s death in 1481. Previously attributed to Leonardo Griffi (1437–1485), friend of the renowned Italian humanist Francesco Filelfo (1398–1481), but now considered to have been composed anonymously, the epitaph extols Mehmed’s virtues and conquests.
An early copy of the epitaph known as ‘the epigram of the great Turk’ (epigrama magni teurci [sic]) survives in Harley MS 2455, a late-15th century manuscript written probably in Milan. The volume also contains works by Terence and Ovid and a copy of the 14th-century epitaph for Giovanni Visconti, archbishop of Milan (d. 1354), composed by Gabrio Zamorei. As Zamorei’s epitaph occurs in many other manuscripts produced in Milan, it is likely Harley 2455 may have also been written there.
This copy of the epitaph for Mehmed II is written in a clear humanistic script: Harley MS 2455, f. 90r
The epitaph for Mehmed brings together the humanists’ fascination for the Ottoman sultan and their enthusiasm for classical antiquity. In flowing elegiac couplets, the sultan is described as the ‘dread of the world’ (timor orbis), having conquered countless peoples, kingdoms and cities. Mehmed’s conquest of Constantinople was followed by that of other major Greek cities as well as that of the Genovese colony in Crimea. He is not an equal to Alexander the Great or Hannibal, the text explains, but stands well above them.
In good humanistic tradition, the poet censures ‘proud Italy’ (superba Italia), whom the sultan would have conquered had the fates not conspired against him. Mehmed may have the whole world, but in the face of death, the poet concludes, human pride, magnificence, empires and gold perish without a trace.
Portrait of Mehmed II by Gentile Bellini, in the collections of the National Gallery, London
The British Library has recently started to upgrade the catalogue records of the Harley manuscripts, including Harley MS 2455. You can read an introduction to this project here.
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07 June 2018
Two in one: a newly-identified bilingual papyrus
A newly-identified papyrus in Latin and Arabic has recently been discovered in the British Library’s papyrus collections. In the course of the Library’s collaboration with a Naples-based research project, Dario Internullo has identified an unique document: a private letter from 7th- to 9th-century Egypt written in two languages.
The first page of Sati’s letter in Papyrus 3124
The first language of this letter is Latin, a very lively Latin, in which the sender, whose name is 'Sati' (Sāṭi‘), greets the recipient, his friend 'Iohannes', and asks after his health.
The beginning of Sati’s greetings to Iohannes from Papyrus 3124r
'In the name of the Lord, I, Sati, write this letter to you, Iohannes. How are you? How is it going? I greet you, my dear friend, and your brothers with friendship, in the name of the Lord. How are you? How is it going? May God, our Lord, keep you safe and sound forever. A letter about your good health reached me: I thank God, because you are safe.'
A new section then starts. The script remains the same, using the Roman alphabet, but the language has switched: it is now in Arabic that Sati continues to address Iohannes. Here he mentions another friend 'Custantin', and some business relating to linen with which they are all involved.
The second part of Sati’s letter where he starts writing in Arabic using the Roman alphabet
Documents written in an alphabet different from the one that is commonly used for that language are not uncommon, but this particular combination — Arabic written in the Roman alphabet — is rather unusual. This document has an immense significance as it provides one of the earliest continuous texts to register Arabic consonants and vowels, enlarging the corpus of sources for early Arabic. The language of the papyrus is Middle Arabic transcribed on the basis of phonetic principles and free from the influence of Classical Arabic orthography.
As for the contents, the letter is linked to some kind of business — possibly the trading of linen — and it contains a general request for news. The onomastic data seems to point toward Egypt, where Latin imperial names were used in at least two regions (the Theban west bank and Aphrodito). The letter was probably dictated by the sender, Sāṭi‘, to a scribe with a graphic and linguistic education in Latin.
The back of Sati’s letter recording the sender’s name in Arabic written in the Roman alphabet as 'From Sāṭi‘, House of Ibn Manṣūr', Papyrus 3124v
The newly deciphered Papyrus 3124 compellingly combines two different cultures often considered as opposites, while elucidating a social network stretching from Egypt to Palestine. It also leads us to reflect in a more articulated way on the survival of Latin in the East long after the hegemony of Greek in the 6th and 7th centuries AD.
The text of this papyrus has been edited by Dario Internullo and Arianna D’Ottone Rambach, in One Script for Two Languages: Latin and Arabic in an Early Allographic Papyrus, in Palaeography Between East & West. Proceedings of the Seminars on Arabic Palaeography held at Sapienza University, edited by A. D’Ottone Rambach, Supplement no. 1 to the Rivista degli Studi Orientali, n.s. 90 (2017), pp. 53–72. For further information, see the article by Dario Internullo, 'Un unicum per la storia della cultura. Su un papiro latinoarabo della British Library (P.Lond. inv. 3124)', Mélanges de l’École Française de Rome. Moyen Âge, 128/2 (2016).
To learn more about the British Library's acquisitions of Greek and Latin papyri since 1956, please see this previous blogpost.
Dario Internullo (Università degli Studi Roma Tre/Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II)
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29 March 2017
Medieval depictions of the Crusades
The Levantine Crusades, military campaigns with the avowed purpose of capturing Jerusalem and the Christian holy sites in the Near East, took place between 1095 and 1272 or 1291. Long after the Crusader states fell, however, they loomed large in the imaginations of medieval writers and artists, who widely copied and illustrated accounts of the Crusades.
Crusaders at the walls of Antioch, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 101v
The British Library holds a series of manuscripts created in areas controlled by the Crusaders. The Crusaders established four kingdoms in the Holy Land, one of which, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was ruled over by a series of descendants of the first ruler, the Frankish knight, Godfrey of Bouillon. From 1131–1143 the Kingdom was ruled jointly by Fulk and Melisende, for whom the gorgeous Melisende Psalter was probably made.
The Wedding of Fulk and Melisende, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 224v
The Library also possesses a missal, a sacramentary and a copy of the Histoire universelle, all of which may have been made in Acre, the Crusaders' last stronghold in the Levant. It is worth focusing on depictions of the Levantine Crusades in later manuscripts. Two later manuscripts with vernacular accounts of the Crusades have recently been digitised: Royal MS 15 E I and Egerton MS 1500. These show how the Crusades continued to capture the imagination of western writers and artists.
Heraclius brings back the true Cross to Jerusalem, with full borders incorporating the royal arms of England surmounted by a crowned helm and encircled by the Garter; a banner with the royal arms of England and a badge of the rose-en-soleil with the Yorkist motto 'Dieu et mon droit', from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 16r
Royal 15 E I, from which the preceding images are taken, contains over 50 miniatures, illustrating the Histoire d’Outremer. Outremer was the name given to the Holy Land and the Crusader states established there. It is a French version of the 12th-century Latin chronicle of William of Tyre (c. 1130–1186), who was born into a Crusader family in Jerusalem, educated in Europe and later became Archbishop of Tyre, in what is now Lebanon.
A monk, perhaps Peter Bartholemew, handing over the spear used to pierce Christ's side, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 98v
The Loss of the True Cross, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 433v
This manuscript is believed to have been made for King Edward IV of England in Bruges in 1479–80. It illustrates key events in the narrative. These include Pope Urban II preaching in 1095, which was credited with inspiring the First Crusade; the discovery of the relic of the Holy Lance; and even the fictional depiction of the loss of the True Cross in a battle against Saladin’s armies.
Almanac page for the 2nd half of the 11th century, from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, f. 44v
While William of Tyre's text and its translations exist in various copies, Egerton MS 1500 is unique in the British Library collections. It contains the Abreviamen de las Estorias in old Occitan or Provençal (the medieval dialect of southern France), and was copied in Avignon between 1321 and 1324. Each page consists of synchronic tables with images of emperors, kings, dukes and popes. The page above, covering the period of the First Crusade, includes the Emperors Michael Bringas and Isaac Comnenos who ruled from 1056 to 1059, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (r. 1057–1084), King Philip I of France (r. 1052–1108) and Duke Vitale Faliero of Venice. The King of England is ‘Hernold Nepos’ (King Harold, killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066), followed by ‘Guillelmus I’ (William the Conqueror), and his sons William II and Henry I (r. 1100–1135). On the right under the rubric Pasazia et auxilia terre sancta is an image of Peter the Hermit, who was credited with leading thousands of mostly paupers on the ‘Peoples’ Crusade’ at the end of the 11th century.
'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, f. 46r
Folios 45v–53v contain an account of the First Crusade, 'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', inserted between the tables. Each paragraph of the text is accompanied by an image of Crusader knights on horseback, mostly led by churchmen. There is a plan of the walled city of Antioch, with the royal line of the Crusader King Baldwin beside it.
Map of Antioch from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, f. 47v
The account of the Crusades ends with a description of the reigns of Godfrey, who was styled protector of the Holy Sepulchre, and Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, and a map of the Holy City. On the following page the almanac continues, including the rulers of the Crusader states, Roger and Tancred.
‘Explicato[n]es de Regib[us] Jer[usa]l[e]m’ and a plan of Jerusalem, from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, ff. 48v, 49r
Later depictions of the Crusades are already online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. These include a copy of Jean de Vignay's Merveilles de la terre d'outremer, made in Paris between 1333 and c. 1340 (Royal MS 19 D I), and a copy of Chroniques abrégées des Anciens Rois et Ducs de Bourgogne, made in Bruges around 1485–1490 (Yates Thompson MS 32).
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25 March 2016
Kassia: A Bold and Beautiful Byzantine Poet
It’s Women’s History Month and to celebrate we are running a series of posts about medieval women. Today’s focus is an enigmatic poet who lived in 9th-century Constantinople. Kassia (b. 805/810, d. 843x867) was courageous, highly educated and beautiful. She was so beautiful, in fact, that the Emperor of Constantinople - Emperor Theophilus (d. 842AD) - wanted her as his wife. Not taken with the idea of becoming Empress, Kassia rejected his advances and chose instead to become an abbess and poet.
Kassia came from a noble family and was well-educated. In a letter to her, Theodore the Studite (d. 826) - one of the most important theologians of the 9th century - wrote that he was ‘astonished’ by her erudition, especially in one so young. He went on, ‘the fair form of your discourse has far more beauty than a mere specious prettiness’.
Theodore the Studite (right) from the Theodore Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean, 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 27v
Yet it was her prettiness that caught the eye of the Emperor in the year 830 CE. In this year, according to a number of Byzantine chroniclers, Kassia appeared in a ‘Bride Show’. These were events in which commissioners were sent throughout the empire to find possible wives for the Emperor and would bring them back to Constantinople to be displayed (some historians dispute whether they actually happened). According to the chroniclers, at one such show, Theophilus saw Kassia and, struck by her beauty, remarked ‘Ach, what a flood of base things come through woman’. Kassia, surefooted, replied, ‘but also from woman better things spring’. Her response – both witty and candid – espouses the Christian idea that through the Virgin Mary, Jesus brought redemption to mankind.
After rejecting the hand of the Emperor, Kassia became a nun at a convent in Xerolophos, Constantinople’s seventh hill. There she became a prolific poet and composer. Of the hundreds of hymn composers from the Eastern Church, only four women can be positively identified and only one of these – Kassia -- had her works incorporated into official service books for use in church worship. She also wrote secular works. The British Library holds a collection of her epigrams. In it she displays her sharp mind and sharp wit. She speaks disparagingly of thoughtlessness, writing, ‘There is absolutely no cure for stupidity.’ She went on, ‘knowledge in a stupid person is a bell on a pig’s snout’.
Kassia's Epigrams from Works of Demetrius Cydones and others, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th Century, Add MS 10072, f.94r
Kassia was also courageous. 9th-century Constantinople was rocked by fierce debate over the legitimacy of religious images, but just as she was unafraid to reject the advances of the Emperor, so too Kassia stood up to defend the veneration of the icons. In one of her verses she writes, ‘I hate silence when it is time to speak’. And her courage was not only demonstrated in her writing, but in her actions too. In another of his letters to her, Theodore thanks Kassia for helping one of his disciples who has been imprisoned by the authorities for his defence of icon-worship.
An image of the destruction of icons from the Theodore Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean, 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 88r
Kassia’s best known and most popular work is a hymn for Holy Wednesday, in which she gives voice to a nameless woman from the gospels. The woman appears in an episode in the gospels, whereby Christ, dining in the house of a wealthy man, is anointed by a woman (Matthew 26: 6-13; Mark 14: 3-9), whom Luke describes as having led a sinful life (Luke 7: 36-50).
The anointing of Christ's feet from Xanthopulus and Ephraem the Syrian, Eastern Mediterranean, 4th quarter of the 14th Century, Egerton MS 3157, f. 45v
A fine copy of Kassia’s poem survives in a 16th-century manuscript held by the British Library, where Kassia imagines the woman’s lament.
Kassia's Hymn for Holy Wednesday, from a collection of Hymns and Canons, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th century, Add MS 39618, f. 8v
The text reads as follows:
Woe is me, for the love of adultery surrounded me with darkness:
A lightless night of sin.
Accept the springs of my tears,
As you who disperse the waters of the sea From the clouds.
Bow down to the sighs of my heart,
As you bent the heavens, by your inapprehensible incarnation.
I kiss your purest feet and wipe them with my own tresses.
I kiss your feet whose tread Eve heard in Paradise
Where, frightened, she hid herself in fear.
Who can count the multitude of my sin and the depths of your judgment?
Wherefore, O my Saviour and the Redeemer of my soul
Do not turn away from your handmaiden, as your mercy is boundless.
(Translation modified and adapted from Anne M. Silvas, cited below.)
Hear what Kassia’s poem probably sounded like in this video. Happy Women’s History Month!
Anna M. Silvas, ‘Kassia the Nun c.810-865: an Appreciation’, in Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200, ed. Lynda Garland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 17-39.
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