11 January 2022
Reach for the stars
Marcus Tullius Cicero (b. 106 BC) is one of the best-known ancient Roman authors. A formidable speaker at court trials and political debates as well as a prolific theorist of rhetoric and philosophy, he influenced generations of scholars and students. It is less known, however, that through his striking and often beautifully illustrated work the Aratea, he was also responsible for introducing many a medieval and early modern reader to the Classical constellations.
In addition to his many prose works, Cicero was also a poet. However, his reputation as a poet was tarnished somewhat by an infamous work he wrote about his own political genius, The history of my own consulate, which is now lost. Nevertheless, other examples of his poetic texts are preserved, including his translation of an epic poem by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus.
Aratus was asked by the Macedonian king Antigonus Gonatas (320 – 239 BC) to compile a handbook on stars and constellations. The resulting work, entitled Phaenomena (Appearances on the Sky) is in hexametric verse and presents an overview of the entire astronomical knowledge of Aratus’s time in polished poetic language. It was highly esteemed, and survives in many copies, often with commentaries. An early example is a fragment of a 4th-century papyrus codex that contained the poem with notes on the right-hand margin.
The popularity of this work is also demonstrated by the fact that the Phaenomena is the only pagan poetic text that is explicitly referred to in the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul speaks to the Athenians on the Areopagus, his speech begins with a quotation from ‘one of the poets’ of the Greeks. The unnamed poet was in fact Aratus. Paul cites from line 5 of his Phaenomena claiming that ‘we are all offspring’ of a supreme God (Acts 17: 28).
It was perhaps this wide-reaching popularity of Aratus’s poem that attracted Cicero to translate it into Latin at the very beginning of his career. His translation became known as the Aratea, after the original Greek poet. Unfortunately, Cicero’s translation does not survive in its entirety; the prologue and several other portions of the work are now lost and less than half of the original text has eventually come down to us. However, what the manuscripts did preserve is the illustrative tradition of the text, which may date from Late Antiquity.
One of the earliest and fullest copies of Cicero’s Latin translation of Aratus’s poem is a manuscript made in the early 9th century (Harley MS 647). The manuscript preserves a carefully edited text: Cicero’s Latin verses are arranged in blocks copied on the lower half of the page in Caroline minuscule. Above, there are lavish coloured illustrations, which contain explanatory notes written in old-fashioned Roman rustic capitals inside the images. The work, therefore, is both useful and beautiful, as is apparent in the section on the constellation Cygnus the swan.
This early layout comprising text, illustration and commentary proved very successful. It had a long afterlife surviving in a number of later manuscripts, such as a deluxe copy produced at a Benedictine abbey in Peterborough around 1122. This adaptation of Cicero’s Aratea shows a similar layout to the manuscript 300 years earlier but the illustrations are now drawn in pen, without colours except for red dots marking the stars of the constellation.
Manuscript copies of Cicero’s Aratea were produced up until the end of the 15th century when they were replaced by printed copies retaining the illustrative tradition of the earliest manuscripts on the printed pages. This longstanding history of the textual and illustrative tradition of the Aratea shows not only the success of Cicero’s poetical skills in translating Aratus but also the wide-reaching influence of ancient literature and scientific thought on the evolution of science through the manuscripts and their illustrations. You can read more about medieval astronomical manuscripts in our article Medieval science and mathematics on the Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website.
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
04 December 2020
Ancient steam engines
Steam engines are heat-operated devices which use the force of steam pressure to generate rotational force. The importance of steam-generated energy for human history can hardly be overestimated. Without steam engines and the machines, trains and ships they powered, industrialisation, globalisation and economic growth would all have taken radically different shape.
The invention of the steam engine is usually ascribed to British engineers of the 17th and 18th centuries. James Watt (d. 1819) is best known for inventing an especially efficient type of the engine in 1786, which was applied first to trains and then in the early 19th century to ships. It is much less known that the engine was invented in the 1st century AD by Greek engineers of Alexandria, more than 1,500 years before Watt. The British Library holds a remarkable collection of Greek manuscripts that describe and illustrate these early steam engines in great detail. More information can be found in Ian Ruffell's article, Greek mechanical texts.
The most important authority in mechanics from Antiquity was Hero of Alexandria, who lived in the 1st century AD. Relying on the work of earlier scientists, Hero compiled a number of treatises on mechanics, physics and war machinery, which were often richly illustrated.
The title-page of a copy of Hero’s Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)
One of Hero's works, entitled Pneumatics after the Greek word (pneuma) for air and gases, contains descriptions of a number of machines and automata that made use of gases and steam in various ways. One of these was a construction that fulfilled exactly how a steam engine should convert steam pressure to rotational force. Fortunately, the manuscripts contain illustrations of the machine Heron described, so we have a reliable image of what this Greek scientist may have had in mind.
Hero’s steam engine from his Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Harley MS 5589, f. 12v (detail)
Hero’s device was very simple. It consisted of a cauldron under which a fire was ignited. The cauldron contained water and was covered by a lid with two bent tubes (marked ξ and μ on the illustration) connecting to a ball (λ), which had two nozzles (θ and κ) pointing in opposite directions. Once heated underneath, the steam went through the pipes into the hollow ball and exited through the two nozzles in opposite directions, resulting in a rotational movement of the ball in order to achieve a steady speed. Hero’s description was so accurate that it has been possible today to recreate a fully operational version.
A modern replica of Hero’s steam engine (credit Wikimedia Commons)
Surprisingly, the ancient scientists do not seem to have recognised the revolutionary potential of their invention. The machine, along with a number of similar constructions preserved in these manuscripts, seems to have served very unpractical purposes. Many of these automata were designed only to entertain and surprise the guests at banquets and feasts, having figures of animals or mythical figures that moved around and had water flowing through them.
Hero’s installation for animating birds in fountains, from a collection of mechanical texts (Venice, 16th century): Burney MS 108, f. 42v (detail)
Hero used some of his automata for cultic and religious purposes. He constructed a special system to open temple doors without any human interaction. In one construction he even designed trumpets to be sounded at the opening of the gates. There were sacrificial pyres that lit up at the sound of the trumpet to praise the power of the gods. Rather than machines to help the production of goods and sustain economic growth, ancient engineers explicitly considered their inventions only as devices which, as the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote in the first century AD, 'show the mighty and wonderful laws of heavens and Nature'.
The design of an animated model of a sanctuary from a copy of Hero's Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 20r (detail)
Hidden in this context, Hero’s designs and illustrations were forgotten and barely copied for centuries until the Renaissance. It was only with the arrival of Greek intellectuals to Florence that manuscripts of Hero’s works, with their rich illustrative tradition, reached Europe, where humanists were amazed by their scientific content.
Marginal annotations in Latin to one of Hero’s designs, comparing it to other ancient scientific sources, from a copy of the Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)
Around this time there arose a great demand for copies of Hero’s works. 15th- and 16th-century illustrated manuscripts of his treatises abound and were soon dispersed across Europe. Hero’s texts were translated into Latin and Italian and printed several times. His designs, originally intended for entertainment and worship, had now become practical guides for further experiments and new discoveries. In the hands of the engineers of the 17th and 18th century, they became the blueprints for a more elaborate and effective steam engine that could be used in factories, trains and ships.
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09 November 2020
Lewis of Caerleon manuscript saved for the nation
In August 1485, as the Battle of Bosworth raged and King Richard III was toppled from the throne of England, an astronomer lay imprisoned at the Tower of London. Lewis of Caerleon, the personal physician to Elizabeth Woodville (wife of King Edward IV) and Lady Margaret Beaufort (mother of King Henry VII), had incurred Richard's wrath by his loyalty to the Tudor cause. Lewis owed his life ultimately to Henry's victory at Bosworth, enabling him to continue his study of eclipses, equinoxes and other astronomical observations.
The opening page of the manuscript: Add MS 89442, p. 1
Following the intervention of the Culture Secretary, on the recommendation of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, the most significant manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon has recently been acquired by the British Library. Made in the 1480s–90s, and possibly begun while Lewis was held at the Tower, this manuscript has been in private hands for the last 500 years. It contains the most complete collection of his works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, and is a lavish presentation copy, presumably designed as a gift for an important patron or institution. The manuscript retains its original binding, in near-pristine condition, and contains an unparalleled series of astronomical tables. Its acquisition will allow scholars of medieval astronomy and science — many of whose predecessors were unaware of the manuscript's existence — to identify Lewis's sources, to verify his calculations, and to gain new insight into the significance of his research.
The contemporary, blind-stamped binding of the manuscript: Add MS 89442
Lewis of Caerleon (d. in or after 1495) was born in Wales, before studying medicine at the University of Cambridge and possibly also at Oxford. It has long been recognised that he bridged the gap between medieval Oxford astronomers, such as Simon Bredon (d. 1372) and Richard Wallingford (d. 1336), both fellows of Merton College, and his early modern English successors. It is equally notable that Lewis of Caerleon drew upon the work of Arabic astronomers such as Al-Battānī (d. 929), Jabir ibn Aflah (d. c. 1160), and Abū Ishāq Ibrāhīm al-Zarqālī (d. 1087), all of whom are named in this compilation (‘Albategni’, ‘Geber’, ‘Arzachel’). But Lewis did not merely copy the works of previous astronomers, since he actively improved and expanded upon their observations using his own calculations.
An astronomical table attributed to Lewis of Caerleon, entitled: ‘Tabula equacionis dierum in motu et in tempore per me Lodowycum Caerlyon noviter facta anno domino .1485. in turre Londoniarum’: Add MS 89442, p. 121
Now that this manuscript is publicly accessible online, we anticipate that more will be discovered about the circumstances of its manufacture and its early ownership. There are indications that it was made under Lewis's own supervision, since there are numerous self-references (‘per me Lodowycum’) and annotations throughout the manuscript, while his signature (‘Lewys’) is found in many places. The first recorded owner was the historian and antiquary Sir Henry Spelman (d. 1641), who bought the manuscript on 11 April 1606. It then passed by descent through his family, until being listed as lot 3 in the sale catalogue of Spelman's library by the London bookseller John Harding, auctioned on 28 November 1709. Our manuscript next appears in the sale of the library of Walter Clavell (d. by 1740), before ending up in the library of the Earls of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire. There it remained until the manuscripts of the 9th Earl of Macclesfield were auctioned, with some exceptions including the present volume, at Sotheby’s, London, in 2004–05.
One of astronomical diagrams in the manuscript: Add MS 89442, p. 31
More recently, after leaving the Macclesfield collection, this manuscript had been sold to an overseas purchaser. After the Culture Secretary's intervention, its export was deferred temporarily to allow a UK-based institution to raise the matching funds to buy it. This was especially challenging due to the difficult circumstances brought about by Covid-19, but the British Library was finally able to raise the funds to purchase this manuscript in August 2020. We are extremely grateful to the following for generously supporting the acquisition of this manuscript: the Shaw Fund, the T. S. Blakeney Fund, the Bernard H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library, the British Library Collections Trust, the Friends of the National Libraries, and those who wish to remain anonymous.
An eclipse table attributed to Richard Wallingford and expanded by Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, p. 65
The newly-acquired manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon has been assigned the shelfmark Add MS 89442. It can be viewed in its entirety on the Library's Universal Viewer, and in due course (once Covid restrictions are lifted) it can be consulted by researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room. By acquiring the manuscript for the nation, the British Library hopes to encourage more research into the writings of this important medieval astronomer and physician, his relationship to the royal court, and his influence upon later scientists. This manuscript is a remarkable witness to the work of Lewis of Caerleon, and we are delighted that it will now be available for study by future generations.
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11 June 2020
Did Henry VIII believe in unicorns?
Did King Henry VIII believe in unicorns? That is perhaps the conclusion to be drawn from a manuscript that reveals intimate details of the final years of Henry's life (1481–1547). We also learn from the same manuscript that he was partial to dragon's blood, and that he prescribed a cure for his fourth wife's ‘colde and wyndie causses’.
Henry suffered from poor health in his later years. In 1536, in a jousting accident at Greenwich Palace, his legs were crushed under a fully-armoured horse, as a result of which he developed chronic ulcers. These were lanced by his physicians with red-hot pokers, but our manuscript shows that they also used more subtle methods and applied medicines made from natural ingredients. Made in the 1540s, Sloane MS 1047 contains a series of elaborate medical recipes, some of which were devised by Henry himself. It is interesting to observe in this particular manuscript the king's own endeavours as an amateur medical practitioner.
Detail of King Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1543 (The Worshipful Company of Barbers)
Many of the treatments in this collection are attributed to his four principal royal physicians: Walter Cromer (d. c. 1547); the Venetian Augustin de Angustinius (fl. 1520s–1540s); William Butts (c. 1486–1545); and John Chambre (1470–1549). The latter two are famously depicted next to the king on Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons. Henry’s physicians worked separately or collaboratively to create many of the more than 100 plasters, spasmadraps (dipped plasters), ointments, balms, waters, lotions, decoctions and cataplasms (poultices) that make up the contents of Sloane MS 1047. An account book for the years 1543–1544 indicates that they were rewarded well for their services.
Henry VIII’s payments to ‘doctor’ John Chambre, Augustin de Angustinius, and William Butts ‘phisicioun’ (England, 1543–1544): Add MS 59900, ff. 70v and 92v
Remarkably, more than thirty of the treatments are attributed to Henry himself. His recipes identify several of his royal palaces, including Fotheringhay Castle, Greenwich Palace and Hampton Court, as well as Cawood Castle in North Yorkshire, as the locations where he wrote and tested his recipes, suggesting that he took his apothecary equipment on his travels. A typical introduction to his recipes reads as follows:
‘An Oyntement devised by the Kinges Maiestie made at Westminster and devised at Grenewich to take awaye Inflammations, and to cease payne, and heale ulcers, called the gray plaster’
Henry VIII’s ‘Grey Plaster’ for leg ulcers (England, c. 1540–c. 1545): Sloane MS 1047, f. 44r
Henry’s treatments use numerous plant-based ingredients: fruits and flowers for making pulp of apples (‘pulpe of appulls’), water of strawberries (‘water of Strawe beries’), wine of pomegranates (‘wyne of pomegranate’), oil of lilies (‘oyle of lyllies’), powder of red damask rose leaves (‘pouldre of redde damaske rose leaves’), and water of honeysuckle flowers (‘water of honye suckle flowres’); a wide range of plant leaves with sedative properties, such as henbane (‘henbayne’), mandragora (‘mandrake’), black poppy (‘blacke poppie’), and the poisonous nightshade; wood of guaiacum that was imported from the ‘New World’ (tropical America) and referred to as ‘wood of life’ (lignum vitae) for its purported healing properties, and the red resin of the dragon blood tree that was known as dragon’s blood (sanguis draconis).
The Dragon Blood Tree in an Italian herbal (Salerno, c. 1280–c. 1310): Egerton 747, f. 89r
Henry and his physicians also made ample use of medicinal waters, metals, minerals and stones. Their recipes included aqua mirabilis (‘miracle water’), a water mixed with spirit-infused spices; ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar that was a popular cosmetic skin whitener in 16th-century England; Armenian bole, a medicinal red clay from Armenia; terra sigillata, sealed cakes of mineral-rich earth associated with the Greek isle of Lemnos; and lapis lazuli, a blue stone that was highly sought after by illuminators and painters for making the pigment ultramarine, but that was also used for medicinal purposes and already recommended by the Greek physician Dioscorides (c. 49–90) for treating ulcers.
Lapis lazuli in an Italian herbal (Salerno, c. 1280–c. 1310): Egerton 747, f. 51v
Unicorn horn may be the most surprising ingredient in Henry’s treatments. The legendary animal’s single horn was ascribed great cleansing and healing powers in the late Middle Ages. The demand for it created a trade in which narwhal tusk and walrus ivory were sold off as unicorn horn. English kings and queens were regular buyers: Elizabeth I drank from a unicorn horn cup, and James I used a unicorn horn potion for his ailing son. No less than ten of Henry’s recipes require ‘cornu unicornu’ or ‘unicornis horne’. One of these is the ‘Plaster of Horns’.
Plaster of Horns:
Take 4 ounces of finely powdered litharge of gold [a mineral mixed with lead oxide], 2 ounces of ceruse, unicorn’s horn, hartshorn, oyster shell, red coral, and burn them all up. Take half a pint of oil of roses, and 2 ounces of white vinegar of roses. Put them all in a clean pan on a gentle fire, boiling them while constantly stirring, until it is like a plaster, and then prepare rolls out of them and keep them for your use.
(‘Emplastrum de cornubus:
Take lytherge of golde fynely pouldered iiij unces, ceruse ij unces, unicornes horne, hartes horne, oyster shelles, redd corall, all thiese combusted, and well preparated of eche of them one unce, take half a pynte of oyle of rosys, and ij unces of white vineacre of roses. Putt them all in a fair basyn over a softe fyre, boyling and styrring them styll, tyll yt be plaster wyse, and then make it upp in rolles and kepe it to your use’)
A plaster with unicorn’s horn: Sloane MS 1047, f. 20v
The unicorn in the Historia Animalium (Italy, 1595): Add MS 82955, f. 191r
Henry also used his knowledge to provide medical advice to others. One recipe in Sloane MS 1047 is addressed to his fourth wife Anne of Cleves, queen consort from 6 January to 9 July 1540, and claims to ‘mollifie, and resolve, conforte and cease payne of colde and wyndie causses’.
‘A plaster for my ladye Anne of Cleve’: Sloane MS 1047, f. 30v
We do not know how successful Henry’s treatments were, but sources suggest that his medical advice was much valued. Sloane MS 4 contains a recipe for ‘A Medycyn for the pestylence’ that is attributed to Henry (‘Kyng Henry the Eight’) and claims that it ‘hath helpyd dyvers persons’. Moreover, in a letter to Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Brian Tuke (d. 1545), Henry’s secretary, stated that the king gave him ‘remedies as any learned physician in England could do’ [‘remedyes as any connyng phisician in England coude do'].
Sir Brian Tuke likens Henry VIII to a ‘connyng phisician’ (Hunsdon, 1528): Cotton MS Titus B I, f. 305v
In turning the pages of Sloane MS 1047, one can imagine Henry discussing new medical treatments with his royal physicians, learning from them and sharing his own experiences as both a practitioner and patient. Although Henry is often remembered for his tyranny, our manuscript reminds us that he was highly educated, greatly interested in medicine, and continued to learn and apply his knowledge until the end of his life.
You can now explore Henry VIII’s treatments — and spot all his unicorn recipes — on our Digitised Manuscripts site.
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31 January 2020
The Trees of the Sun and the Moon
In modern times, ‘Moon Trees’ are trees that grew from the seeds that were taken into the Moon’s orbit by Apollo 14, which launched for the third manned mission to the Moon on 31 January in 1971. Medieval people, in contrast, would have associated ‘Moon Trees’ with an entirely different undertaking: the campaign begun in 326 BC by Alexander the Great (353–323 BC), king of the Greek empire of Macedon, with a view to conquering the world. The fictional 4th-century Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem (Letter of Alexander to Aristotle) tells that Alexander, during his expedition to India, visited a grove with two holy trees. Inside the grove, he met a high priest of more than ten feet tall who explained that one tree was male, could speak the Indian language, and foretold one’s future at the rising of the Sun; the other tree was female, could speak Greek, and foretold one’s future at the rising of the Moon. After Alexander prayed at the feet of the holy trees, they answered him that he would conquer the world but die from poisoning in Babylon before he could return home.
Alexander and his followers praying at the Trees of the Sun and the Moon guided by a high priest (England, 1333–c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 32r
The oracle trees feature in several Alexander narratives. One of these is the Roman d'Alexandre en prose, a French translation of a 10th-century Latin version of a Greek Alexander romance, spuriously attributed to the historian Callisthenes (c. 360–c. 327 BC). In illustrated copies of this narrative, the oracle trees are sometimes conflated with the ‘Dry Tree’, another tree that Alexander visited and in whose branches he found the phoenix, a legendary self-resurrecting bird.
The Trees of the Sun and the Moon and the Dry Tree (Rouen, 1444–1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 18v
The oracle trees were well-known to medieval encyclopaedists and chroniclers. In the 13th-century L’Image du monde (Mirror of the World), Gautier de Metz referred to them as reference points. In the 13th-century Speculum Historiale (Mirror of History), Vincent of Beauvais stated that the balm of the trees allowed the priests at the grove to live for 300 years. The 14th-century Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden attributed their longevity to the trees’ apples. A unique Middle English translation of the Polychronicon in Harley MS 2261 (f. 25v) describes the trees as follows:
‘The Trees of the Sun and the Moon are in India, and by their apples priests live for 500 years’
[‘The trees of the sonne and of the moone be in ynde, by the apples of whom prestes lyffede by vc yeres’]
John Mandeville, the supposed author of a fictional travel memoir describing the wonders of the Holy Land, Africa, and Asia, located the ‘Trees of the Sun and the Moon that spoke to King Alexander’ (‘tres of þe sunne and of þe monne þat spak to kyng alysaundre’) in a desert beyond the unidentified river ‘Beaumare’, but noted that he was unable to visit the trees because of the dangerous animals in the desert, such as dragons, serpents, lions and elephants.
Dangerous animals surrounding the grove of the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, in Mandeville’s Travels (England: 1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 3954, f. 64r
The Trees of the Sun and the Moon were also included on medieval world maps (mappaemundi). The Higden map (Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v), for example, marks the spot where ‘Alexander prayed for an answer from the trees’ (‘hic alexander petebat responsum ab arboribus’). Other mappaemundi, such as the 12th-century Tournai Map of Asia (Add MS 10049, f. 64v) and the 13th-century Psalter world map (Add MS 28681, f. 9r), also illustrate the oracle trees.
The Trees of the Sun and the Moon (Arbor Solis and Arbor Lunae) close to the Garden of Eden on the Psalter world map (London, 1262–1300): Add MS 28681, f. 9r
The ‘Oracle of the Sun and the Moon’ (Oraculum solis et lunae) next to the Red Sea (Rubrum Mare) on the Tournai Map of Asia (possibly Tournai, 12th century): Add MS 10049, f. 64v
With increasing expeditions into Asia, mapmakers began to prefer Africa as the location of legendary sites. It is for this reason that the Harleian Mappemonde (Add MS 5413), which was produced around 1540, does not locate the oracle trees in India but in sub-Saharan Africa. Their name has been changed as well, and they are now simply referred to as ‘The Trees of the Moon’ (‘Les arbres de la lune’). These changes suggest that the mapmaker conflated these trees with the equally legendary ‘Mountains of the Moon’. According to the Greek geographer Ptolemy (c. AD 100–c. 170)’ in his Geographia, these mountains were the source of the river Nile. A certain merchant named Diogenes who was crossing East Africa discovered them and observed that their snow-melt created two lakes from which the Nile originates. On the Harleian Mappemonde, the Trees of the Moon are placed exactly below the Mountains of the Moon.
The Trees of the Moon on the Harleian Mappemonde (possibly Dieppe, c. 1540): Add MS 5413
The Mountains of the Moon in Ptolemy’s Geographia (Florence, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley 7182, f. 85r
As people continued to explore the world , belief in the existence of the Trees of the Sun and the Moon waned. Ironically, it is because of continued explorations — namely, the Apollo 14 mission, which gave us the Moon Trees — that their name continues to this day.
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13 September 2019
Gardeners' Question Time
Today's episode of BBC Radio 4' popular Gardeners' Question Time (repeated on Sunday at 14:00) was recorded here at the British Library.
If you listen carefully, as well as hearing Bob Flowerdew, Anne Swithinbank and James Wong discussing the size of someone's melons, you may catch our curators Julian Harrison and Maddie Smith introducing some of the nation's favourite herbals. Julian showed presenter Matt Biggs pages from the Old English illustrated herbal (Cotton MS Vitellius C III). Sadly, this manuscript was badly damaged by fire in 1731, but Matt and Julian discussed how it contains an important record of early plant lore. Some of the plants it illustrates were not native to early medieval England, indicating that this book was based on earlier texts compiled around the Mediterranean. Matt was fascinated in particular with the accuracy of the drawings: he recognized this depiction of brassica without being able to read the original Old English text.
A plant of the brassica family in the Old English illustrated herbal: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 56v
Julian also showed Matt this early 16th-century German herbal (Harley MS 3736), which has a series of idiosyncratic illustrations. You may have come across the manuscript before as it was open (on the mandrake page) in our exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic. The page shown here depicts what was once thought to be the Emperor Charlemagne (died 814) kneeling in front of a plant pierced by an arrow. The plant is named 'Carlina' and the caption explains that an angel advised him to eat it in order to be purged of poison. Since the recording, we have realised that the genus 'Carlina' was actually named in honour of Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519–1556), and this helps us to date the manuscript with more accuracy.
The Emperor Charles and 'Carlina' in Giovanni Cadamasto's herbal: Harley MS 3736, f. 20r
Maddie presented the story of Elizabeth Blackwell's A Curious Herbal, made in the 1730s in order to fund her husband's release from a debtors' prison. You can read more about the story of Elizabeth Blackwell on our Treasures pages.
Gardener's Question Time is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, 13 September (15:00), repeated on Sunday, 15 September.
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20 July 2019
Art and science in Renaissance Italy
Here at the British Library we’re big fans of Renaissance art and science. It’s the subject of our current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), and we also have a display about it in our permanent free exhibition space, The Treasures Gallery. Here’s a sneak peek of some of the beauties you can see in the Treasures display.
Early Renaissance Italy witnessed a remarkable flowering of the arts and sciences. Humanist scholars looked to medieval libraries to discover works from the past, which they copied, studied and developed in new ways. They were particularly interested in discovering classical works of ancient Greek and Roman culture, building on the movement to recover classical texts that had been taking place since the 12th century. But they were also stimulated by works of medieval science, both from the Latin and Arabic traditions.
The increased study of plants during the Renaissance lead towards the development of the modern field of botany. In medieval Europe, knowledge about plants and their medicinal properties was transmitted in illustrated manuscripts known as herbals. They were based on ancient Latin and Greek sources, compiled and updated by medieval scholars. In the Renaissance, people started to revise herbals based on first-hand examinations of plants. This manuscript, known as the Codex Bellunensis, is largely an adaptation of the ancient work on medicinal plants, De Materia Medica by the Greek physician Dioscorides. But it also includes observations of local flora, in this case from the lower Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy. On the left is the earliest known representation of the plant edelweiss, shown alongside eupatorium, agrimony and valerian.
Renaissance scholars also looked to the Arabic world as a source of knowledge. This manuscript contains De aspectibus, a Latin translation of Kitāb al-Manāẓir (Book of Optics) by the 11th-century Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, known in Latin as Alhazen. This work was the first to systematically demonstrate that vision is the result of light reflecting off objects and entering the eye. The book also includes ‘Alhazen's problem’, a mathematical problem concerning the reflection of light from spherical mirrors that was not solved algebraically until 1965. Translated into Latin around 1200, the work was carefully studied by western thinkers such as Roger Bacon (c.1219/20–c.1292) and Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519). The pages shown here examine the subject of binocular vision, with the diagrams illustrating how the visual axes of the two eyes, labelled ‘a’ and ‘g’, intersect.
The Aratea is a poem about the ancient constellations and their mythological origins. It was originally written in Greek by the ancient poet Aratus in the 3rd century BC. This particular Latin translation was made in around AD 14–19 by the Roman general Germanicus, who was the nephew of the emperor Tiberius, the father of Caligula and the grandfather of Nero, no less. The poem was an important source for the study of astronomy throughout the Middle Ages, but the humanist interest in rediscovering authentic classical texts led to a surge in its popularity in 15th-century Italy. This copy belonged to Francesco Sassetti of Florence (1421–90), a prominent banker for the Medici family. The pages on display describe and illustrate the constellations closest to the north celestial pole, Ursa Major (the Great Bear), Ursa Minor (the Lesser Bear), and Draco.
To see these manuscripts in person, come and visit the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. To learn even more about Renaissance achievements in art and science, don’t miss our current exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion at the British Library from 7 June until 8 September 2019.
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06 July 2019
Medieval cures for lung disease, gout and vertigo
Even after the Normans conquered England, Old English (the oldest form of the vernacular) continued to be spoken throughout the country. It continued to be used in books produced in monasteries there for at least a century after William the Conqueror’s invasion.
One excellent example of this is found in the Old English Illustrated Herbal. Originally made in Canterbury in the early 11th century, this manuscript contains Old English translations of a collection of Latin remedies, illustrated with numerous paintings of plants and animals. You can read more about its history in Taylor McCall’s article on Medical knowledge in the early medieval period, as well as in this earlier blogpost.
Illustrations of a lion, a bull, a monkey, a bear and a dog alongside Old English medical recipes, in the Old English Illustrated Herbal (Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 11th century): Cotton MS Vitellius C III, ff. 81v–82r
To judge by its additions and annotations, this manuscript continued to be read for many years after its production. During the 12th century, scribes at Canterbury were still adding new recipes to it, which were also written in the vernacular.
One added remedy is a cure for lung disease (Wið lungen adle), made from a mixture of herbs with warm ale. Another claims to be seo seleste eahsalf wið ehpærce (the best eye salve for eye pain). There is even a medical treatment for gout, entitled Wið fot adle (Against foot disease).
A page of Old English medical recipes added in the 12th century, including a treatment for gout (column 2, lines 1–15): Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 83r
This remedy describes a recipe for a drink — a mixture of wine, leeks, cumin and laurel berries — that a patient should take every day until the disease is cured:
Wið fot adle 7 wið þone dropan nim datulus þa wyrt oðer nama titulosa þæt is on ure geþeoda þæt greata crauleac nim þes leaces heafda 7 dryg swiðe 7 nim ðer of þriddan healves penincges gewihte 7 peretreo 7 romanisce rinda 7 cymen 7 feorðan del lauwerberian 7 þera oðera wyrta ælces healves penincges gewihta 7 vi piper corn unwegen 7 grind ealle to duste 7 do win tra aeg faille fulle þis is foð læcæcræft fyle þan men drincan oþ ðæt he hal fy.
('Against foot rot (gout) and against wrist-drop: take the wort hermodactylus, known by another name titulosa that in our own language is called the ‘great crow leek’. Take the heads of this leek and dry them thoroughly, and take a weight amounting to two and a half pennies, and pyrethrum and Roman rinds and cumin and one fourth as much laurel berries, and of the other worts, each by weight of a half penny and six pepper corns, unweighed, and grind them all to dust. And add two egg shells full of wine: this is a true leechcraft. Give it to the man to drink till he is whole again.')
These 12th-century additions occur throughout the herbal. On one occasion, two medical recipes were added to a previously blank page, opposite a large illustration of a man and a centaur presenting a book in a landscape surrounded by animals. The image is captioned Escolapius Plato Centaurus.
Old English medical recipes added in the 12th century, facing a representation of a man and a centaur presenting a book: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, ff. 18v–19r
One of these added recipes purports to be a remedy for vertigo or giddiness. It instructs the reader to:
Nim betonica 7 wæll swyðe on win oþþa on ald ealað 7 wæse þæt heafod mid þam wose 7 leg fiððen þæt wyrt swa wærm abutan þæt heafod 7 wrið mid claðe 7 læt swab eon ealla niht.
('Take betony and boil it thoroughly in wine or in old ale, and wash the head with the infusion, and then lay the wort, so warm, about the head, and wreathe with it a cloth, and leave it there all night.')
While it is hard to determine the effectiveness of such cures, this addition to an older Anglo-Saxon book does reveal the continued use of English a century after William's victory at the Battle of Hastings. If you'd like to know more about writing in the vernacular in the 12th century, why not take a look at this article featured on our website.
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