Medieval manuscripts blog

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8 posts categorized "Olympics"

03 August 2016

The Olympic Games at the British Library

No, we won’t be competing at the Rio Olympics and there won’t be any games or races at the British Library either! We just wanted to join in the growing anticipation as the 2016 Summer Olympics are about to begin by offering a fresh look at what our manuscripts tell us about the Olympic Games of the ancient world.

It is common knowledge that the Olympic Games are an ancient Greek tradition. But how close were these original games to what will be happening over the coming weeks in Rio? Our evidence for the ancient Olympics is scattered in various fragments, notes and remarks, many of which are held at the British Library.

The Greeks always had a special fascination with games and contests: they celebrated their gods, weddings and even funerals by organising athletic games.


Representation of a game in a circus from the 11th-century Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: Add MS 19352, f. 127r

Every ancient Greek city, such as Delphi, Nemea and Isthmus, had their own festal games to honour their local gods, so those held at Olympia, first recorded in 776 BCE, were part of that tradition. The significance of the Olympia games increased with the fame of the local shrine of Zeus, which was honoured and celebrated by the races held there. The Games in Olympia were held every fourth year until AD 395, when the Emperor Theodosius issued an edict abolishing these last remnants of paganism.

Olympic winners held immense respect, receiving statues, coins and inscriptions dedicated in their names, besides being the recipients of plaudits by the leading poets of the time. Some victors and the sports in which they competed are recorded. It was Pindar (died 438 BCE), one of the most acclaimed Greek poets, who left us the most extensive Olympic poetry celebrating victorious runners, charioteers and wrestlers. However, it is not his subtle poetry but rather the marginal notes on his poems that convey the most precious details about the actual events at the ancient games.


Note on Pindar’s 12th Olympic Ode, 15th century: Harley MS 1752, f. 126r

This little note on Pindar’s 12th Olympic Ode is a short biography of a Cretan runner called Ergoteles. Ergoteles won his event at the 76th Olympics in 472 BCE but, due to some obscure political treachery, he was forced to leave Crete. Re-patriated by the Sicilians, he won another Olympic title in 464 BCE.

In addition to such marginal notes, we also know of several ancient histories and novels that recorded and analysed the history of the games. These writings, like the two-volume history of the Olympic Games by a certain Phlegon or a summary by Aristotle himself, have not survived. Among the British Library's papyri, however, is an exceptional fragment that contains a portion from a similar text.


List of Olympic champions, Egypt, 3rd century CE: Papyrus 1185

This papyrus is an administrative document from Egypt containing a financial account from the 2nd century CE. On the back is a unique list of Olympic winners copied slightly later. We have no idea why this list was added to this papyrus, but it records the names of 80 Olympic champions between 480 BCE and 438 BCE. The names are listed in the rank-order of ancient Olympic sports, according to the sequence when they were added to the Olympic repertoire.

  • running (sprint (c. 200m), mid-distance (c. 400m), long-distance (2000m)
  • pentathlon (comprising the sprint, wrestling, long jump, javelin and discus)
  • wrestling
  • boxing
  • pancration (‘all-force’ combat: a deadly combination of wrestling and boxing)

It is intriguing to find the name of the re-patriated Ergoteles in this list as the long-distance running champion at the 76th Olympics, just as the note in our Pindar-manuscript describes him.


Detail of Papyrus 1185 with details of Ergoteles ('[Ergo]teles of Himera in dolichos (=long distance running')

Even more fascinating, perhaps, is to observe how the list of traditional Olympic contests expands when armoured combat, the four-horse-chariot race and horse-riding suddenly appeared at the 78th Olympics in 468 BCE, which must have been tremendous innovations at that time.


A “four-horse-chariot” (tethrippon) from Add MS 19352, f. 85r

Although many of these ancient Olympic sports, such as pancration and chariot-racing, are not part of the modern Games, it is surprising to see how much is unchanged since Ergoteles won his first title in 472 BCE. Not only are running, the pentathlon, throwing the javelin and discus, boxing and wrestling part of the modern Olympic Games, but glory and failure, political intrigue and intense media attention continue to be enduring themes. The British Library is delighted to be custodians of such surprisingly rich ancient Olympic material, much of which can be viewed online on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Peter Toth


22 May 2013

A Good Walk Spoiled

One of the most charismatic manuscripts in the British Library's collections is the so-called "Golf Book". This Book of Hours was made at Bruges around the year 1540, and is so named because on one page (the calendar for September) it contains a depiction of a game resembling golf.

A miniature of four men playing a game resembling golf, at the bottom of the calendar page for September (London, British Library, MS Additional 24098, f. 27r).

Of course, golf is not to everyone's taste. Mark Twain is accredited with describing the game as "a good walk spoiled"; and, like many sports, it's arguably better fun to play than to watch, notwithstanding the fact that golf is to be introduced to the summer Olympics at Rio 2016. But just what is the game being played below?


At first sight, we can certainly deduce that this game does resemble golf, even down to the cloth caps that some of the competitors are wearing (see the image below). We can clearly see in our miniature three balls, with three of the competitors holding curled sticks, reminiscent of modern golf clubs. One man, wearing a green cloak, is gesticulating to his companion, and may be what we might call a "caddie"; and another is standing at the door of the adjacent building (the "nineteenth hole"). But surely the stance of the player on the right, in the orange-red jerkin, is all wrong. Modern golfers play the game on their feet, rather than on their knees, both to get a better purchase on the ball and for better balance. We think that the current-day authorities would view this player's technique very dimly. Maybe this stance would be outlawed in the same way that the anchoring of putters (don't ask) is to be banned from 2016. Less a good walk spoiled than a good crawl spoiled.

Image courtesy of

You can view the whole of the magnificent Golf Book on our Digitised Manuscripts site. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @blmedieval.

27 July 2012

An Ancient List of Olympic Victors


Over the last few days London has welcomed more than 10,000 athletes from around the world to participate in the 2012 Summer Olympics. At the time of writing, the opening ceremony is just hours away; and during the next weeks many of the spectators will head to the Olympic Park on trains leaving St Pancras station, adjacent to the British Library. But how many of those spectators will realise that among the British Library's collections is a papyrus fragment containing a list of victors at the ancient Olympic Games?

The list is found on the verso of Papyrus 1185, written in the early 3rd century AD, and it includes the names of athletes and the events they won from the 75th to the 78th Olympiads (480 BC-468 BC), and again from the 81st to 83rd Olympiads (456 BC–448 BC). Some of the thirteen events listed will be familiar to modern spectators (boxing, wrestling, sprinting), while others are quite different from the ones we are looking forward to this summer. Wouldn't it be great if chariot racing was reinstated in the programme?! Let's start a petition to introduce the pancration (combined wrestling and boxing) to the modern Games. We guess that Usain Bolt would have been one of the favourites for the stadion had he competed at the ancient Olympiads! 


stadion (192.27 metre sprint)


2 stadia


dolichos (2000 metre)








pancration (combined wrestling & boxing)

παίδων στάδιον

boys’ stadio

παίδων πάλη

boys’ wrestling

παίδων πύξ

boys’ boxing


hoplite (race in armour)


four horse chariot race


courser, horse-riding

On the recto of the papyrus are some money accounts, dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD. The list of Olympian victors on the verso is a fortuitous survival.

09 July 2012

Sport on the Sea (and River)


Detail of a miniature of Louis IX sailing off on his second crusade, from the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, France (Paris), after 1332 and before 1350, Royal 16 G. vi, f. 437v


Sailing and rowing are among the oldest of Olympic events; both have been part of the Games from the beginning of the modern summer Olympics.  The origins of these sports, of course, are much older, and like archery, reach back to a time when they were vital aspects of warfare, as well as necessities for transportation, trade, and exploration.

The images in the British Library's illuminated manuscript collection reflect these ancient uses. Many miniatures of ships show them full of soldiers, heading for war or conquest (as above, depicting Louis IX and his army heading off on his second crusade), or ferrying pilgrims, saints, or explorers (see below, for an historiated initial of Dante setting sail for Purgatory).


Yates Thompson 36, f. 65 c13642-30a

Detail of an historiated initial 'P' of Dante setting sail for Purgatory, by Priamo della Quercia, from Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia, Italy (Tuscany or Siena?), between 1444 and c. 1450, Yates Thompson 36, f. 65


Competitors in the London 2012 sailing events - which was called yachting until 1996 - will take to the open waters at Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbour in Dorset, in a carefully designed venue.  These events will run from 29 July to 11 August, and one would imagine that today's Olympic sailors won't need to be concerned about encountering any of the medieval nautical hazards detailed in our manuscripts (two of which can be seen below).



Miniature of a whale and a sailing boat, from a Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley 4751, f. 69


The first miniature comes from a bestiary (or book of beasts) in an entry about whales.  According to the text, whales were so large that ships occasionally would mistake one for an island, and land on its back.  As soon as the crew built a fire, however, the whale would awaken and dive to the depths; this miniature shows the moment when the whale descends, and the unready (and, strangely, partly unclothed) crew are scrambling with their sails and rigging.  Below is an image of another 'common' maritime danger - a siren.  In this scene, she has seized hold of a ship and collapsed its mast; one crewman tries to close his ears to her song while another grabs hold of an oar to effect an escape.


Harley 4751, f. 47v E043089

Detail of a miniature of a siren, from a Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley 4751, f. 47v

Medieval manuscripts often show rowers in the context of river crossings and trade (when their skills were not necessary to escape a destructive siren).  One of the most famous rivers in the Middle Ages was a mythical one - the river Acheron which was said to form the borders of Hell.  According to myth, Charon was the ferryman designated to carry souls across to perdition and depictions of him doing so were common (see below).


Yates Thompson 36 f. 6 c13641-11a

Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil being rowed by Charon across the river Acheron, by Priamo della Quercia, from Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia, Italy (Tuscany or Siena?), between 1444 and c. 1450, Yates Thompson 36, f. 6


2012 Olympic rowing events will take place in Eton Dorney, Buckinghamshire, near the River Thames, so we were particularly pleased to come across two images of medieval rowers on England's most famous river.  Both of these are from a 15th century version of John Lydgate's Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, and show helpful rivermen returning a fallen infant to its mother, and rescuing a boy who has fallen from London Bridge.



Detail of a miniature of a riverman returning a fallen infant to its mother, from John Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, England (Bury St Edmunds?), between 1461 and c. 1475, Yates Thompson 47, f. 97


Detail of a miniature of a boy, fallen from London Bridge after being pushed by cattle, being rescued by rivermen on the Thames, from John Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, England (Bury St Edmunds?), between 1461 and c. 1475, Yates Thompson 47, f. 94v


06 July 2012

250,000 Page Views: Tell Us Your Favourite Post

Keen readers of this blog may recall that we received our 100,000th page view in January 2012. Less than six months later, we're delighted to report that the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Blog has now been viewed over 250,000 times! We'd like to take this opportunity to thank our readers for sharing our love of the past, for commenting on our activities, and for spreading the news about the British Library's collections.


In the coming weeks we plan to tell you more about our various digitisation projects, and there will doubtless be further posts on the Olympics. We also intend to blog about ongoing research on manuscripts at the British Library, as carried out by our readers (see the entry on Hidden Inscriptions in Arundel 155). If you wish to share your research in this way, please leave a comment at the end of this post.

So, to celebrate reaching 250,000 page views, we thought that we'd ask our loyal readers what has been their favourite post. Send us your comments: there may even be a small prize for the best contribution, as judged by an international panel (us). You can choose from the following list, as nominated by the blog's editors, or make your own suggestions. We look forward to hearing from you -- and please keep your feedback coming, it's what makes writing this blog so enjoyable.

The Coronation of Charles I: A Salutary Tale

Erasing (Thomas) Becket

C13568-92 Stowe 22 f. 25

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

Perugino at the Alte Pinakothek


The Royal Opening

Medieval Booze Cruise

Seal of Approval: A Medieval Mystery

Matrix BL Together

Genealogy of a Royal Bastard

Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts Online

C11375-03 Harley 5710, f. 136

Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library

Bows and Arrows

St Cuthbert Gospel Saved for the Nation

Monkeys in the Margins

C11404-06a Add 18851 f. 13 detail

Wrestling Mania



19 May 2012

Wrestling Mania

Wrestling is pretty unusual among the sports at the Summer Olympics: it has two separate disciplines, Freestyle and Greco-Roman; while Greco-Roman Wrestling is the sole event in which only men compete (women contested Boxing for the first time in 2012). There is a subtle distinction between the two styles. In Greco-Roman Wrestling, holds below the waist are forbidden, resulting in a greater emphasis on throws, since a wrestler cannot attempt to trip their opponent. Freestyle Wrestling, as the name implies, gives the competitors more leeway into how to bring their fellow-contestant to the ground. The ultimate goal of both versions is to pin your opponent to the mat.

A decorated initial with two wrestling men (Oxford, 1st quarter of the 13th century): London, British Library, MS Arundel 157, f. 95v.

Although the name "Greco-Roman" suggests a connection with the Classical past, it's now believed that this form of wrestling was developed by a Napoleonic soldier, Jean Exbrayat (hence another name for the sport, "French Wrestling"). In any case, wrestling is an ages-old pursuit, and not surprisingly it's depicted in many ancient books. Here are some examples for your delectation -- the question is, can you guess whether these are freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestlers?

The wrestling of Hercules and Achelous, in a French translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Netherlands, 4th quarter of the 15th century): London, British Library, MS Royal 17 E. IV, f. 136r.

Image of wrestlers in a copy of Aristotle's Libri naturales (England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century): London, British Library, MS Harley 3487, f. 34r. 

And here is perhaps the most famous wrestling match of them all, Jacob and the angel, depicted in two manuscripts from England and Catalonia (the famous Golden Haggadah). Wrestling fans out there -- can you spot any arm drags, bear hugs or headlocks?

Jacob wrestling with the angel (Oxford, 1st quarter of the 13th century): London, British Library, MS Royal 1 D. X, f. 74v.

Jacob wrestling with an angel, from the Golden Haggadah (Catalonia, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): London, British Library, MS Additional 27210, f. 5r).

Julian Harrison


16 April 2012

Bows and Arrows

Of all the sports in the modern Olympic programme, archery is perhaps the one which most conjures up images of the Middle Ages. (Synchronised swimming, anyone?) Today archery is a recreational activity, introduced to the Olympics at Paris in 1900 and reinstated, after a 50 year hiatus, at Munich in 1972. (Useless fact of the day: Belgium is ranked the third best nation in Olympic competition, behind South Korea and the United States of America.)

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady shooting an arrow at a rabbit, from the Taymouth Hours, England, S. E. (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century: London, British London, MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 68v.

In the past, of course, archery had its origins in hunting and warfare. But archery was first recognised as a sport in 14th-century England, when males aged between 7 and 60 years were required to take part in tournaments, so important was it considered to the defence of the realm. Meanwhile, the first organised "modern" archery contest is reported to have taken place in London in 1583, attended by 3,000 spectators.

Detail of a miniature of the Christian fleet approaching Gaeta with archers poised to defend the city, from the Romance of the Three Kings' Sons, England (probably London), c. 1475 – c. 1485: London, British Library, MS Harley 326, f. 29v.

Most medieval depictions of archery illustrate warfare or hunting, as in the miniature above, taken from Harley 326, a 15th-century English copy of the Romance of the Three Kings' Sons. It's important to remember that the longbow (popularised in England) and the crossbow (invented in France) were both deadly weapons, responsible for the deaths of thousands of men on the battlefield.

Detail of a miniature of a battle with archers and riders in armour, at the beginning of book 7, by the Master of the London Wavrin, from Bellum Gallicum (Les commentaires de Cesar), France (Lille) and Netherlands (Bruges), 1473-1476: London, British Library, MS Royal 16 G VIII, f. 189r.

We are equally amused, however, by medieval depictions of archers in other contexts. The first image in this post is taken from the Taymouth Hours, and shows a noblewoman shooting a rabbit at point-blank range. And here is another comic image, of an ape aiming his arrow at a tortoiseshell butterfly, taken from the margins of a 14th-century French copy of the Estoire del Saint Graal. An unfair contest!


Detail of a marginal miniature of an ape archer aiming at a butterfly above, from the right margin of the folio, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), 1st quarter of the 14th century: London, British Library, MS Royal 14 E III, f. 89r.

This is the second in our series of posts relating to the Olympic games. You can read the first, London Games and "Sicilian Games", here.

26 March 2012

London Games and 'Sicilian Games'

Excitement is building for the London 2012 Olympic Games, which will begin in just over four months (27 July – 12 August 2012, with the Paralympic Games from 29 August to 9 September).  It will be a busy summer for London (a masterful understatement!) and everyone is preparing for the deluge of visitors – including the British Library.  The crowds that will travel through St Pancras station on their way to various Olympic events may not realise, but the British Library holds a wealth of items relating to the history of sport and the Olympic games, and over the coming months we will be highlighting a number of our treasures. 

K019497 King's 24 f. 88 detail

Detail of a miniature of Entellus and Dares wrestling in the nude, with ships weighing anchor behind and the sacrifice of a bull on the shore of Actium, at the beginning of book III of Virgil's Aeneid, Italy (Rome), between 1483 and 1485, King's 24, f. 88

The first such is a manuscript that features an episode of the so-called ‘Sicilian Games’ – a ceremonial competition closely related to the Olympics and described in one of the great epics of western history, the Aeneid.   This manuscript, called the King’s Virgil (King’s 24, from the collection of King George III), was created between 1483 and 1485 in Rome for Ludovico Agnelli, the bishop of Cosenza. It is lavishly illuminated, and contains several texts from Ovid as well as the Aeneid.

Virgil’s Aeneid recounts the story of Aeneas, the legendary ancestor of the kings of ancient Rome. Aeneas, like so many heroic figures in mythology, was part-human and part-divine; he was said to have been the son of Prince Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite.  He features in the Iliad as an ally of Troy, and was one of the few Trojans to survive the fall of the city.  With the help of the gods, Aeneas and his crew (which included his father, son, and a group of warriors) succeeded in escaping the slaughter.

The Aeneads took to the sea, eventually arriving in the kingdom of the Latins after years of wandering. They made several stops along the way – perhaps most famously in the kingdom of Carthage (where Aeneas engaged in a disastrous affair with queen Dido which was the source of unending enmity between the cities of Rome and Carthage). Most importantly for our purposes, though, was the Aeneads’ sojourn on the island of Sicily, where Aeneas’s father Anchises died peacefully.  In honour of his father, Aeneas announced a series of contests for his men, including a boat race, running, wrestling with staffs, archery, and javelin throwing. 

K019498 King's 24 f. 115 detail

Detail of a miniature of the Sicilian games, including a boat race, archery, wrestling with staffs, and racing, and in the background,  the burning of the Trojan fleet, at the beginning of book V of Virgil's Aeneid, Italy (Rome), between 1483 and 1485, King's 24, f. 115

These kinds of competitions (particularly running and wrestling) featured in the earliest Olympic games.  Those lucky enough to have tickets for London 2012 will be able to see very similar events, although without, one hopes, the Trojan fleet burning in the background.

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