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22 February 2019

Through the looking glass

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If you came to our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, you may have seen the Guthlac Roll, made in the late 12th or early 13th century. Look here and you'll notice that two figures in this roll seem to be wearing spectacles. It is very unlikely that these spectacles were part of the original design: exploring how spectacles are represented in medieval manuscripts suggests that both they and the plume rising from the seated figure's cap were added in the early modern period. 

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Roundel of Beccelm speaking with St Guthlac’s sister Pega: Harley Roll Y6, roundel 15

One of the first concrete references to spectacles dates from the early 14th century. On 23 February 1305, Giordano da Rivalto, a Dominican friar from Pisa, delivered a sermon that partly celebrated the ingenuity of mankind. Giordano stated, ‘It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making spectacles (Italian: occhiali)'. Although it is doubtful that spectacles were invented in a single eureka moment, Giordano’s bold claim suggests that spectacles were certainly in use in some areas from the late 13th century.

The earliest surviving artistic depictions of spectacles date to the 14th and 15th centuries. This 15th-century Book of Hours, produced in northern Italy, includes a detail of monks singing a requiem, with one member of the group wearing spectacles.

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Detail of a miniature of monks singing a requiem, with the celebrant wearing spectacles, at the beginning of the Office of the Dead: Harley MS 2971 f. 109v

An extremely clear illustration of spectacles can be found in another 15th-century Book of Hours, produced in central France, perhaps Tours. In this image, St Mark holds spectacles to his eyes as he reads a book, while his evangelist symbol, the lion, looks on eagerly from the side.

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Detail of a miniature of Mark reading a book and holding spectacles to his eyes: Yates Thompson MS 5, f. 12r

Ancient and medieval texts, many of them pre-dating the surviving artistic depictions, also occasionally refer to transparent materials being used as visual aids. One of the earliest descriptions is found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, completed shortly before his death in AD 79. Pliny shared an anecdote recalling how the emperor Nero used to watch gladiator fights with the assistance of a mineral called a smaragdus. According to Pliny, a smaragdus could be concave to ‘concentrate the vision’ or laid flat to ‘reflect objects just as mirrors do’. It is unclear whether Pliny thought that Nero used the smaragdus as a reflective device or to enhance his vision. Pliny also described how a smaragdus was a green mineral, perhaps emerald, malachite or the green varieties of jasper. It is certainly tempting to suggest that Nero used emeralds to enhance his view of the gladiators. 

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Detail of a miniature in colours and gold showing Pliny writing in his study and a landscape with animals, rivers, the sea, Sun and Moon: Harley MS 2677, f. 1r

In some early texts, scholars explained the scientific principles behind the use of corrective lenses. In the 2nd century, Ptolemy wrote on the topic in his Optics. Two Arabic authors from the 10th and 11th centuries, Ibn Sahl and Alhazen, later expanded on Ptolemy’s explanation. The English friar Roger Bacon also addressed the topic in his Opus Majus (c. 1266), during his time in Paris.

Robert Grosseteste also described the process in his De Iride (‘On the Rainbow’), composed between 1220 and 1235. Grosseteste described how ‘we can make objects at very long distance appear at very close distance’, perhaps describing an early telescope. Grosseteste further remarked how lenses could make small things larger when observing them at close distances, so that it is ‘possible for us to read the smallest letters at incredible distance, or count the sand, or grain, or grass, or anything else so minute’.

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Detail of an historiated initial 'A'(mor) of Robert Grosseteste: Royal MS 6 E V, f. 6r

Perhaps the lenses described by these authors were more akin to modern magnifying glasses rather than spectacles. A 15th-century French translation of Vincent of Beauvais’s Le Miroir Historial contains a possible depiction of such a lens. This manuscript detail depicts Vincent of Beauvais, sitting at a desk and writing his book. It is possible that the glass object in the background was intended to be a kind of lens that may have been used as a reading aid. Of course, it is also possible that this shows a mirror, in reference to the title of the text, rather than a magnifying lens.

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Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais sitting at a desk and writing his book: Royal MS 14 E I, f. 3r

We might not know exactly when the spectacles were added to the Guthlac Roll, but the history of medieval spectacles is certainly looking a little clearer …

 

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Quotations taken from D.E. Eichholz, trans., Pliny: Natural History X (Cambridge, 1962), pp. 212–15, and A.C. Sparavigna, ‘Translation and discussion of the De Iride, a treatise on optics by Robert Grossetste’, International Journal of Sciences (2013), 2:9, pp. 108–13.

 

15 February 2019

New records of slavery from Anglo-Saxon Cornwall

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In the past twenty years, there have been some fantastic archaeological discoveries that date to the Anglo-Saxon period. Gold treasure, such as the Staffordshire Hoard and the Winfarthing Pendant, and stone sculpture, such as the Lichfield Angel, have all been unearthed since the year 2000. At the same time, recent scientific developments have enabled new discoveries to be made on the pages of certain medieval manuscripts. One such technique, known as multispectral imaging, has revealed previously erased additions to a 9th-century gospel-book, known as the Bodmin Gospels. These additions, known as manumissions, record the freeing of medieval slaves.

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The beginning of the Gospel of St Mark, in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 50r

The Bodmin Gospels was made in Brittany, but by the end of the 10th century we know that it had reached the priory of St Petroc at Bodmin, in Cornwall. Between the years 950 and 1025, records of public manumissions at the high altar of the church of St Petroc were added to its pages, and these mention at least three bishops of Cornwall (Comoere, Wulfsige and Burhwold). Some of these records remain visible, as we reported in a previous blogpost, but others have been erased, making them either invisible or difficult to read.

As part of the preparations for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, and in order to facilitate research being conducted by Dr David Pelteret, the British Library's Imaging Scientist, Dr Christina Duffy, photographed a page from the Bodmin Gospels using multispectral imaging. This is a non-invasive, non-destructive form of computational photography which can enhance difficult-to-read text using an extended light spectrum. Christina then processed the data stack using an iterative statistical method known as Principal Component Analysis, which isolates patterns in the data. The results were hugely impressive.

The page shown below (f. 49v) was originally a list of capitula (chapter headings) of the gospel-book. Its text was later erased and five manumission records were added. These were also later erased so that only ‘h’ and a cross are just about visible with the naked eye.

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The now-erased manumissions, before and after multispectral imaging and data processing: Add MS 9381, f. 49v

The results of the multispectral imaging reveal some of the text from these previously-erased Latin manumissions. The second text can be translated as follows:

+This is the name of that woman, Guenenguith, and her son whose name is Morcefres, who[m] Bishop Comoere freed on the altar of St Petroc for the redemption of his soul in the presence of these witnesses: Beorhtsige priest, Mermen priest, Athelces priest, Saithred cleric, Cenmen cleric, Heden deacon, Ryt deacon.

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Canon tables with records of manumissions added in a later hand: Add MS 9381, f. 13r

Another manumission in the Bodmin Gospels, still visible, was copied in Latin into the arches of a canon table:

This is the name of a woman, Medguistyl, with her offspring, Bleiduid, Ylcerthon and Byrchtylym, who were freed by the clerics of St Petroc on the altar of St Petroc for the souls of King Eadred and for their souls, before these witnesses, Comuyre the priest etc …

Another manumission in the Bodmin Gospels, written in Old English, describes how a man named Aelsig bought a woman named Ongynedhel and her son and then freed them straight away. He bought them specifically so that he could free them.

Fleeting references to slaves in Anglo-Saxon documents suggest that they were an integral part of Anglo-Saxon society. People could enter slavery through several different routes. For example, Bede's Ecclesiastical History (IV.22) records how an Anglo-Saxon nobleman, Imma, was captured after a battle and was sold to a Frisian at a slave market in London.

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A drawing illustrating Psalm 122, showing a female slave and her mistress (centre) and a master holding up a sword to two male slaves (left), in the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 65r

References to slaves are also found in the law-codes of King Æthelberht of Kent (d. 616). These laws are preserved in a compilation made at Rochester in the 12th century, known as Textus Roffensis. They mention women who were ‘grinding slaves’, and state that the fine for ‘highway robbery of a slave is to be three shillings’.

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The law-code of King Æthelberht of Kent: Rochester, Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5, f. 1r

When the Anglo-Saxon noblewoman, Wynflæd, wrote her will in the 10th century, she included instructions regarding the fate of her slaves. The will specified that, 'at Faccombe, Eadhelm and Man and Johanna and Sprow and his wife … and Gersand and Snel are to be freed'. However, Wynflæd did not free two of her seamstresses, Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu), instead bequeathing them to another woman called Eadgifu.

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Detail of the names of Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu) in the will of Wynflæd: Cotton Ch VIII 38

The new manumissions in the Bodmin Gospels, uncovered with the aid of multispectral imaging, are incredibly exciting. They are important sources of information for slavery in early medieval Britain and for daily life in early medieval Cornwall. This manuscript has been in the national collection since 1833, but only know are some of its many secrets being revealed. Hopefully, as new technologies develop, we may be able to make even more discoveries on the pages of our age-old manuscripts.

 

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

28 November 2018

A spoonful of sugar

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Today, the mention of sugar evokes reports about the harmful health effects of increased sugar consumption, and counter-actions such as the recently introduced UK ‘sugar tax’. But sugar is also a universally used inactive ingredient in many medications. As Mary Poppins was aware, it helps less pleasant ingredients go down. When sugar was first introduced to Europe, and for several centuries afterwards, it was regarded as an active — and curative — medical ingredient in its own right.

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Illustration of a sugarcane plant in a collection of medical texts, Italy (Salerno), c. 1280–1350: Egerton MS 747, f. 106r

One of the earliest mentions of sugar in England is found in a manuscript containing a collection of medical recipes, written in the mid-to-late 11th century (Sloane MS 1621). Although made in what is now the Low Countries or northern France, this manuscript was brought soon afterwards to the abbey of Bury St Edmunds in England. Perhaps it came with Baldwin (d. c. 1097), originally from Chartres in France and physician to King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066), who was made abbot of Bury St Edmunds in 1065.

At Bury, numerous scribes added medical recipes to the book throughout the later decades of the century, suggesting it was valued and frequently consulted. Sugar is found in the ingredients lists of two of these added recipes, showing that Bury St Edmunds had access to the most current medical literature available in Latin. The close study of this manuscript, which led to the discovery of the recipes mentioning sugar, has been facilitated by its digitisation for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

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Starting on line 6, the Rosatum tertiani febris ('A conserve of roses for tertian fever') lists zuccari and siruppo albo (white syrup) as its ingredients, England (Bury St Edmunds), c. 1075–1100: Sloane MS 1621, f. 63r

Sugar is one of several exotic ingredients from the Far East that were largely unknown to the authors of the Greco-Roman sources that formed the core of medieval medical texts. These ingredients were not brought to Europe until the rise of the Arab-Muslim empire from the 7th to the 12th centuries. The Persian Sasanid Empire was among the first territories to be conquered, along with knowledge of cultivating sugarcane. This is demonstrated by the history of the word sugar itself, which reached English via the Medieval Latin zuccarum/saccarum derived from Arabic sukkar, which in turn stems from Persian šakar.

Sugar seems to have been among the later Arabic medical ingredients to reach Europe, as it is hardly ever mentioned in pre-11th century sources. Other Far Eastern ingredients brought to Europe by Arab merchants were definitely known sooner. Some were so well-known to the writers of Anglo-Saxon medical texts that they were adapted into Old English. For instance, two recipes in the work known as Lacnunga (Healings) list sideware (zedoary, from Persian zadwār) and gallengar (galangal, from Arabic ḵalanjān). The Latin versions of the words are zedoaria and galinga/galangal respectively. For more on exotic ingredients in Anglo-Saxon medicine, have a look at the illustrated Old English Herbal.

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Lacnunga, remedy 30, To wensealfe (To [make] a wen-salve) with sideware and gallengar four lines down on the right, England, c. 975–1025: Harley MS 585, ff. 138r–v

What is so significant about the addition of recipes mentioning sugar in Sloane MS 1621, at a monastery in England, is the specific time at which it occurred. The closing decades of the 11th century witnessed exciting new developments in the history of medicine in Europe. The earliest translations of Arabic medical texts into Latin were made in central and southern Italy in the last quarter of the 11th century. It was through Arabic textual sources, as opposed to trade, that knowledge of sugar seemingly reached Europe. A key figure in this process may have been Constantine the African (d. c. 1087). Originally from Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia), he had moved to Italy and entered the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino by 1077.

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Beginning on line 12, Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum: Sloane MS 1621, f. 52r.

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Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum, beginning on line 12 of the recto, and with the list of ingredients on the verso including ten drams each of zuccari and penidi (rock candy): Sloane MS 1621, ff. 52r–52v.

Unfortunately, Constantine did not reference his Arabic sources, so it is hard to know exactly to which works he had access. Yet descriptions of sugar by Arabic writers, such as Ibn Māsawayh (d. 875) and Al-Rāzī (d. 925 or 935), closely parallel the way sugar is used in the recipes of Sloane MS 1621. In Arabic texts, sugar is described as having warming effects and being beneficial for the stomach and intestines. The recipe on ff. 52r–v opens with Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum ('A remedy to make the stomach warm'). It also claims to be efficient against a painful stomach and for ‘anyone who cannot digest’.

Whether Abbot Baldwin and the monks of Bury St Edmunds had stomach troubles or merely a sweet tooth, it is clear that they had acquired the latest medical texts available in Europe, only decades after they had first been translated. Indeed, they might have gained knowledge of sugar before the saccharine substance itself had made it to England.

Thanks to funding from The Polonsky Foundation, and in conjunction with our partners at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, you can now see the whole of Sloane MS 1621 on our new viewer, using International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology. This enables you to compare manuscripts side-by-side, to annotate images or to share them on social media, and to download them either as an individual image or as a PDF of an entire manuscript. You may also like to read Taylor McCall's article, Medical knowledge in the early medieval period, which discusses this and other manuscripts.

 

Emilia Henderson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #PolonskyPre1200

 

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14 August 2018

A costume fit for a centaur

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Among the many intricate designs compiled in the 15th-century sketchbook of an unknown Italian engineer (Add MS 34113), a centaur costume has an irresistible appeal. It is amusing to think that someone devoted their technical and artistic skills to designing something so wonderfully impractical. Yet, while we may smile wryly at it today, the centaur costume reflects a Renaissance passion for artistic creativity, scientific enquiry and classical antiquity.

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Design for a centaur costume (Siena?, 2nd half of the 15th century): Add MS 34113, f. 176v

The design for the centaur costume consists of a replica of the back and hindquarters of a horse that fastens around the wearer’s waist. Inside, an articulated structure with straps attaching to the wearer’s legs is intended to make the rear legs of the horse ‘walk’ with him. The man wearing the costume holds a rod that apparently connects to the internal structure, perhaps designed to help him manipulate the rear legs. Platform shoes imitating the appearance of hooves complete the look. We sense that the design lacks enough joints and linkages to work in practice, but it demonstrates experimentation with the challenge of mechanically transmitting movement.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for diving apparatus (Italy, 1st quarter of the 16th century): Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

The manuscript occupies an important place in 15th-century developments in mechanical engineering. Some of its designs for hoists seem to be indebted to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), the engineer who famously solved the challenge of building the colossal dome of Florence Cathedral. Others seem to have roused the interest of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), whose designs for diving equipment and parachutes appear to be improved versions of those contained here. The manuscript reveals a culture in which engineers were compiling textbooks, sharing mechanical designs and modifying each other’s ideas in a more systematic and scholarly way than ever before.

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Design for diving equipment: Add MS 34113, f. 180v

Like Brunelleschi and Leonardo, the creator of this manuscript was an accomplished engineer as well as an artist. The manuscript’s elegant drawing style reveals a draftsman versed in quattrocento artistic developments. In the centaur design, the technical challenge of replicating movement is linked inextricably to the artistic challenge of representing a creature both naturalistically and gracefully. Such aesthetic and practical skills were necessary in an age when creative individuals were commissioned to produce everything that their elite patrons required — from paintings and sculptures, to props and banners for festivities, to works of engineering and architecture.

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Dante and Vergil encounter centaurs in the Inferno (Siena?, 1st half of the 15th century): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 21v

The theoretical approach that transformed the arts and sciences in this period was informed by an enthusiasm for classical learning. As a fantastical creature from classical mythology, the centaur fits easily into this context. In art and literature, centaurs symbolise the bestial and irrational side of Antique culture, characterised as wild and dangerous. For example, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the centaurs that patrol the first ring of the circle of violence represent the psychology of madness, with their physical duality reflecting a split mind (Inferno, Canto 12). In Botticelli’s painting Pallas and the Centaur (c. 1482), the woman subduing the centaur is an allegory for the triumph of rationality over chaos.

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Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

These elements of sophisticated engineering, artistic achievement and classical imagery all came together in the spectacle of public entertainments, which provide the most likely motivation for the design of the articulated centaur costume. The most celebrated artists and engineers of the age were employed to construct awe-inspiring devices for such events. The biographer and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) tells us that, for the 1439 Annunciation festival at the Church of San Felice in Florence, Brunelleschi created a mechanical paradise that was ‘truly marvellous and demonstrated the talent and skill of the man who invented it, for on high a Heaven full of living and moving figures could be seen, as well as countless lights, flashing on and off like lightning’.

From the mid-15th century, the entertainments at tournaments and pageants began to incorporate classical imagery, sometimes including centaurs. For example, at a tournament held in 1481, centaurs, the Cyclops, Ganymede, Vulcan, Neptune, Hercules, Mars and Jupiter rode through Treviso on triumphal cars. During his stay in Trent in January 1549, King Philip II of Spain was entertained by a mock battle with pyrotechnics between an army of men bearing the badge of Hercules and an army of centaurs, giants and ‘Turks’. It is tempting to suppose that the centaur costume was intended as a theatrical device for just such an event.

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The constellation Centaurus (Rome, c. 1480): Egerton MS 1050, f. 41v

Despite its apparent eccentricity, the design for a centaur costume is a fitting testament to the ideals of its age, in which science, art, classicism and entertainment were inseparably connected.

 

Eleanor Jackson

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27 June 2018

Networks of Knowledge: Insular manuscripts and digital potential

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In the early Middle Ages, ‘Insular’ missionaries, reformers, pilgrims and intellectuals from Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England ventured onto the Continent, leaving their distinctive mark on European culture. They founded monasteries that became centres for learning and formed institutional networks that extended across Europe. They brought manuscripts from the ‘isles’ and established new libraries and scriptoria to transmit and expand knowledge. Their efforts are evident today in the considerable number of manuscripts with distinctive Insular script, decoration, texts and techniques of production that are still found in European libraries. Around 75% of all surviving Insular manuscripts are housed in continental European collections, with most of these in Insular missionary areas. Almost 50% now have a digital presence online, which represents a tipping point for digital scholarship on these books.

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‘Britain, an island of the ocean, which once was called Albion, lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, France and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe’ — in the first words of his Ecclesiastical History, Bede sets Britain firmly in its European context: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

Members of the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts section recently participated in a workshop in Dublin and Galway (19–22 June 2018), organised by Joanna Story (University of Leicester), as part of the project ‘Insular Manuscripts AD 650-850: Networks of Knowledge’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. It followed the first workshop in the series, hosted by the British Library in April 2017. The final workshop will take place next year in Vienna.

This most recent event focused on the topic of ‘Networks of knowledge then and now: digital potential’. Its purpose was to bring together curators, digital specialists and academics to discuss the new possibilities offered by digital technology for promoting and researching Insular manuscripts. In particular, we examined how digitised manuscripts provide a large accessible dataset which can be searched, mapped and interrogated to help us trace early medieval cultural networks across Europe. Like the Insular networks of knowledge, our research network was fundamentally international in its scope, and aimed to deepen connections between scholars based in libraries and in universities.

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Workshop participants examine fragments of Codex Usserianus Primus (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 55). Photo credit Joanna Story.

During the workshop, we heard presentations from those who have curated projects to digitise and promote manuscripts. Rachel Moss (Trinity College Dublin) reflected on ‘The Bank of America Merrill Lynch-TCD Gospel Books Project’, which conserved and digitised four early medieval Irish manuscripts from the collections of Trinity College Dublin. Charlotte Denöel (Bibliothèque nationale de France) gave us an overview of The Polonsky Project — the collaborative project between the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France to digitise 800 early medieval manuscripts and present and interpret them on our shared websites. We learned about the Insular manuscripts digitised by the e-Codices website from Brigitte Roux (e-Codices: Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland, University of Fribourg), as well as the potential for digitally reassembling fragments with the new project Fragmentarium. Karin Zimmerman (University of Heidelberg) told us about her work virtually reconstructing the historical libraries of Lorsch Abbey and the Palatine Library. We were reminded of the scale of the task of digitisation by Claire Breay (The British Library), and of the possibility of losing a sense of the scale and materiality of the manuscripts as objects.

We also learned about the software and techniques being developed to provide new ways of working with digitised manuscripts. Ben Albritton’s (Stanford University) tutorial on the IIIF image viewer Mirador had us comparing, annotating and sharing digitised manuscripts from different libraries and websites using the same interface. Stewart Brookes (University of Cambridge) showed us how to use the software Archetype as a palaeographical or art-historical tool for digital annotation, comparison and searching of manuscripts. We were deeply impressed by Christina Duffy’s (The British Library) examples of how multispectral imaging can recover details of manuscripts otherwise obscured by damage.

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A fragment of decrees from the Council of Clofesho (747), damaged in the Cotton Library fire, before and after Christina Duffy processed it through multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Otho A I, f. 1r

Additionally, researchers told us about the ways in which they are employing digital tools in their own projects. We heard from Immo Warntjes (Trinity College Dublin) about his new project, funded by the Irish Research Council, to develop an 'Object Based Catalogue' of medieval scientific texts using the data from digitised manuscripts, to trace the transmission of Irish ideas and reconstruct the continental networks of Irish thought. Máirín MacCarron (National University of Ireland Galway) showed us how she is using social network analysis tools in a new project funded by the Leverhulme Trust to better understand the dynamic social relationships presented in early medieval texts. The use of digital tools to measure Insular influence in continental manuscripts was demonstrated by Ursula Kundert (University of Würzburg), through her analysis of ‘diminuendo’ lettering.

The event has left us feeling inspired by the work that everyone is doing and excited to be working with manuscripts at such a pivotal time. We are grateful to all the participants for sharing their ideas, to Bernard Meehan (Trinity College Dublin) and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (National University of Ireland, Galway) for being our hosts and guides, and to the National University of Ireland, Galway; Trinity College, Dublin; the Royal Irish Academy and the National Museum of Ireland for their hospitality. We would also like to thank the Leverhulme Trust for their funding, and Joanna Story and Jessica Hodgkinson for organising the workshop.

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Workshop participants examine fragments of Codex Usserianus Primus (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 55). Photo credit Joanna Story.

Don’t miss the chance to see many highlights of Insular manuscript production in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, opening at the British Library on 19 October 2018.

 

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24 May 2018

‘The Earth is, in fact, round’

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It’s a major peeve of many medieval historians: the popular belief that people who lived before Christopher Columbus thought that the world was flat. It is actually rare to find groups in the classical, Late Antique and medieval eras who believed in the flat Earth. On the contrary, numerous ancient thinkers, navigators and artists observed that the Earth was round.

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Miniature of the Earth in a circle, with personifications of the four cardinal points, made in England in the 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Egerton MS 843, f. 23r 

The first recorded, unambiguous European references to a spherical Earth are found in the work of ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle. By the time the Roman writer Pliny the Elder was writing the first part of his Natural History around AD 77, the fact that the Earth is a sphere was treated as common knowledge: ‘We all agree on the earth’s shape. For surely we always speak of the round ball of the Earth’ (Pliny, Natural History, II.64).

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Opening page of a much later copy of Pliny’s Historia naturalis, made in Rome in 1457 or 1458: Harley MS 2677, f. 1r

These views continued into the medieval period, since even the changing hours of daylight throughout the year made it evident that the Earth was round. Around 723 or 725, the monk Bede explained to his students:

‘The reason why the same days are of unequal length is the roundness of the Earth, for not without reason is it called ‘‘the orb of the world’’ on the pages of Holy Scripture and of ordinary literature. It is, in fact, a sphere set in the middle of the whole universe. It is not merely circular like a shield [or] spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions ...’ (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, translated by Faith Wallis (Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 91).

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Explanation of the Earth as a sphere, from a copy of Bede, De Temporum Ratione, made in England or Normandy, late 11th or early 12th century: Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 62r  

This belief was also reflected in many medieval maps. Round diagrams of the Earth were included in the works of Isidore of Seville. Meanwhile, a map that was often circulated with the work of the 5th-century writer Macrobius showed the climate zones of Earth divided into northern and southern hemispheres.

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Diagram of the habitable zones of the Earth, from Macrobius, Commentarii in Ciceronis Somnium Scipionis, France or England: Add MS 11943, f. 38v
 

The idea that the Earth was round was not limited to tracts on science and natural history. Much medieval art also depicted the Earth as a sphere. For this reason, depictions of God the Creator often show him holding a compass, a tool used to draw round objects.

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Depiction of God creating the Earth with a compass and scales, from the Tiberius Psalter, Winchester, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 7v

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Depiction of God the Creator holding a compass, from a Bible historiale made in Paris and Clairefontaine, 1411: Royal MS 19 D III, f. 3r

Many writers also assumed the Earth was a sphere. Dante’s Divine Comedy even discussed how the shape of the world created different time zones, and how different stars were visible in the southern and northern hemispheres.

Of course, even though earlier thinkers knew the world was round, they did not fully understand how it worked. Without a theory of gravity, Pliny struggled to understand how people who lived in the southern hemisphere did not fall off the world, while Bede denied that anyone lived in the southern hemisphere at all. (Bede was wrong, as you can see in the British Library’s summer 2018 exhibition, James Cook: The Voyages.) 

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Diagrams using human figures to show the round shape of Earth, from a copy of Gossuin de Metz’s ‘L’Image du Monde’ made in Bruges, 1464: Royal MS 19 A IX, f. 42r 

Nevertheless, there is one thing on which most human thinkers, for most of history, have agreed — as Bede put it, 'the Earth is, in fact, a sphere'.

Alison Hudson

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20 March 2018

Call the medieval midwife

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Tucked away in a 14th-century encyclopaedia and bestiary is an oath written alongside a black cross. The person who made it had borrowed the book, and identified themselves as ‘abestetrix', echoing the Latin ‘obstetrix’, meaning ‘midwife’. (Another hand has glossed this as 'heifmoeder’.) Midwifery was as vital in the medieval world as it is today. Medieval manuscripts can provide a variety of evidence for the hardships, mysteries and triumphs of this historic profession.

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Detail of an oath written by a midwife: Add MS 11390, f. 94v

Accounts of famous births from history are often accompanied by illustrations of the birthing chamber, depicting midwives and their female companions. This image accompanies the account of the birth of St Edmund in John Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund. The new mother lies in bed, tended by her companions, while the baby is warmed before the fire.

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Miniature of the birth of St Edmund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434–1439: Harley MS 2278, f. 13v

The caesarean birth of Julius Caesar is frequently illustrated in medieval accounts of his life. Many of these illustrations depict men performing the caesarean, most likely because of the more surgical nature of the procedure. However, it may not have been uncommon for midwives to perform a caesarean themselves. These two illustrations of Caesar's birth depicts a midwife pulling the baby from the mother, accompanied by a female attendant, and the same birth, with a man playing the midwife's role.

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Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a female midwife: Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 219r

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Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a man performing the caesarean: Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r

Information on pregnancy and childbirth was also included in medical treatises. Copied into one 15th-century manuscript is a gynaecological text taken from Gilbertus Anglicus’ Compendium of Medicine. The text is accompanied by illustrations of foetuses in the womb, depicted in a variety of unusual positions. It is difficult to determine whether this work would ever have been consulted by a woman. The manuscript's first known owner was Richard Ferris, sergeant surgeon to Elizabeth I, the queen who famously never married or had children. 

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Roundels showing various foetal presentations: Sloane MS 2463, f. 218v

Books may not have been an unusual sight in the birthing chamber, as women were known to have had texts read aloud to them while they were in labour. The Passio of St Margaret was a popular choice. St Margaret is thought to have emerged from a dragon's womb ‘unharmed and without any pain’, and came to be widely regarded as the patron saint of women in childbirth. Many manuscripts of the Passio of St Margaret are accompanied by instructions to bless the expectant mother with a copy of the Passio to secure the safe delivery of her child.

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Miniature of a woman lying in a bed screened by a curtain, with a swaddled infant held by a midwife (the miniature has been smudged by kissing): Egerton MS 877, f. 12r

In the 14th century, relics of St Margaret’s girdle were often used as birthing aids. One 15th-century amulet roll (Harley Ch 43 A 14), which is thought to have been used as a birth girdle, contains a text in Middle English invoking the protection of the Cross, specifically referencing childbirth. This invocation was likely read aloud, perhaps by the midwife, as the girdle was worn by the expectant mother. Invocations to aid pregnancy and childbirth were also used in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English Lacnunga contains a charm to be used by women who struggled to carry a child to term. The text includes a set of prose introductions and a series of short poems intended to be recited aloud in a ritual process: 

Se wífman, se hire cild áfédan ne mæg, gange tó gewitenes mannes birgenne and stæppe þonne þríwa ofer þá byrgenne and cweþe þonne þríwa þás word:
þis mé tó bóte þǽre láþan lætbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte þǽre swǽran swǽrbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte þǽre láðan lambyrde.

'Let that woman who cannot nourish her child walk to the grave of a departed person and then step three times over the burial, and then say these words three times:
this as my remedy for the hateful late birth, this as my remedy for the oppressive heavy birth, this as my remedy for the hateful lame birth.'

(translated by Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: A Collective Edition (New York, 1942))

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A charm for ‘delayed birth’ in Lacnunga: Harley MS 585, f. 185r

It is difficult to prove that midwives were literate or regularly consulted texts in the medieval period. However, many medical manuscripts often included information regarding childbirth and the written word was certainly not out of place in the birthing chamber. The midwife who made the oath to return the book may not have been the only member of her profession to be borrowing books in the 14th century.

 

Becky Lawton

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16 January 2018

Leonardo da Vinci on the Moon

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One of the great thrills of curating our blockbuster exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, has been choosing the exhibits and revisiting some of our favourite manuscripts. When we were planning the show, I often used to impress people by mentioning certain of the books and objects we were intending to display: medieval manuscripts, Chinese oracle bones and, oh yes, something written by somebody called Leonardo da Vinci, "you may have heard of him?" At this point heads always turned, and I knew we'd captured everyone's attention.

So what exactly was I talking about, when I mentioned that Leonardo's writings would be featured in the exhibition? You may be aware that Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), the great inventor, scientist and artist, made copious notes throughout his career. These were gathered into a series of notebooks, one of which is today preserved at the British Library in London, where it is known as the ‘Codex Arundel’ (after a former owner, the Earl of Arundel): its shelfmark is Arundel MS 263 and it can be viewed in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The notes are written in Italian, and if you examine the writing closely, you immediately recognise that they are in Leonardo's characteristic mirror handwriting, reading from right to left.

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Leonardo da Vinci's notebook (Italy, c. 1506-08): Arundel MS 263, f. 104r

One page from Leonardo's notebook seemed particularly appropriate to show in the Astronomy room of Harry Potter: A History of Magic, alongside objects such as an Arabic astrolabe and the oldest surviving manuscript which charts the night sky (made in China around the year AD 700). The diagram shown here describes the reflection of light, according to the alignments of the Sun, Moon and Earth. Leonardo da Vinci’s illustration shows the Sun and Moon revolving round the Earth, accepting the theory popularised by the Greek astronomer, Ptolemy (d. c. AD 170), that the Earth occupied the centre of the universe. Leonardo was writing, of course, approximately 100 years before the invention of the telescope.

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A detail of Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, showing the reflection of light: Arundel MS 263, f. 104r

On the right-hand side of this page are two diagrams showing the Earth and Moon. The second of these supports Leonardo's belief that the Moon was covered with water, and that its surface would operate like a convex mirror, reflecting light. We may no longer believe this to be true (everyone knows that the Moon is made of cream cheese) but it's always fascinating to get a first-hand insight into the mind of a genius such as Leonardo da Vinci. Placing his notebook on display in our Harry Potter exhibition has enabled more of our visitors to come face-to-face with this intriguing document. Maybe we will have inspired some of the astronomers and scientists of the future, who have been coming to see the exhibition in their thousands.

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The Earth and Moon in Leonardo da Vinci's notebook: Arundel MS 263, f. 104r

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on show at the British Library in London until 28 February 2018. There has been a huge demand for tickets, so we strongly urge you to book in advance of your visit.

 

Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)