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65 posts categorized "Science"

13 September 2019

Gardeners' Question Time

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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 page from the Old English herbal, showing brassica on the right

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 kneeling before a plant

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

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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.

medieval manuscript with pictures of brightly coloured plants and annotations.
Codex Bellunensis, North-East Italy, early 15th century: Add MS 41623, ff. 35v–36r

 

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.

A medieval manuscript showing a text page with geometric diagrams in the lower margin.
De aspectibus, a Latin translation of Ibn al-Haytham’s Kitāb al-Manāẓir, Italy, late 14th century: Royal MS 12 G VII, ff. 36v–37r

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.

 

Medieval manuscript showing a text page with a picture of two bears on either side of a snake, with dots of gold representing stars
Aratea, a Latin translation by Germanicus of Aratus’ Phaenomena, Florence, 1465–1475: Add MS 15819, ff. 5v–6r

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.

Eleanor Jackson

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06 July 2019

Medieval cures for lung disease, gout and vertigo

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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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16 June 2019

Explore Leonardo's notebooks

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Our major new exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, is open now at the British Library. It features highlights from three of the Reniassance thinker's extraordinary notebooks: the Codex Forster II, on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum; the Codex Leicester, owned by Bill Gates; and the Library's Codex Arundel. The exhibition is on until 8 September, and tickets for adults cost £7 (members and children under 11 enter for free and other concessions are available).

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Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion marks the 500th anniversary of his death

Our exhibition takes the opportunity to to explore the inner workings of Leonardo's complex mind and his fascination with motion — which he considered to be ‘the cause of all life’. Visitors will be able to marvel at his detailed studies of natural phenomena, and to see studies for his painting The Virgin of the Rocks.

You can explore Leonardo's Codex Arundel for yourself on the Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Leonardo described this notebook on the opening page as a 'a collection without order, drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place according to the subjects of which they treat'. It contains pages datable between 1478 and 1518 (though mostly to 1508), and written variously at Florence, Milan, Rome and Amboise in France. Tthis notebook is named after an early owner, Thomas Howard (1585–1646), 2nd earl of Arundel, 4th earl of Surrey, and 1st earl of Norfolk. It was presented by Henry Howard (d. 1684), 6th duke of Norfolk, to the Royal Society in 1667, from whom it was purchased by the British Museum in 1831.

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This image from Codex Arundel, taken using UV light, shows Leonardo da Vinci's studies of limbs from different viewpoints

Our Events programme contains a number of talks connected to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, including Waterways (17 June), Leonardo da Vinci’s Scientific Impact with Domenico Laurenza (2 July), and a curator talk by Juliana Barone (15 July). You can book tickets for all these on our Events pages, and for the exhibition here.

 

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07 June 2019

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion

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On 7 June an exciting new exhibition opens at the British Library. Marking 500 years since his death, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion showcases Leonardo’s manuscript legacy by displaying together — for the first time in the UK — highlights from one of the British Library’s finest treasures, the Codex Arundel, alongside Codex Forster II from the V&A, and a selection of sheets from the Codex Leicester, widely considered to be one of Leonardo’s most important scientific journals and now owned by Bill Gates.

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Observations on the course of the River Arno: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 149r 

Studies for a perpetual motion wheel  Codex Forster II  ff. 90v (c) Victoria and Albert Museum  London Studies for a perpetual motion wheel  Codex Forster II  ff. 91r (c) Victoria and Albert Museum  London
Studies for a perpetual motion wheel: Codex Forster II, ff. 90v–91r © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Studies on the use of obstacles... Seattle  Bill Gates Collection  Codex Leicester  13B (ff. 13v-24r) © bgC3

Studies on the use of obstacles: Seattle, Bill Gates Collection, Codex Leicester, 13B (ff. 13v–24r) © bgC3

The exhibition explores Leonardo’s fascination with motion, which he considered to be ‘the cause of all life’. It reveals the major role he ascribed to motion in his quest to understand the natural world and discover the rigorous laws which govern nature. In particular, it follows his life-long study of water, which for Leonardo was the driving force of nature.

Leonardo’s remarkable notebooks, written in his distinctive mirror writing, are used in the exhibition to illustrate how his detailed studies of natural phenomena — and in particular of water — influenced his work both as an artist and an inventor. With intricate drawings and diagrams crowding every page, visitors will be able to follow Leonardo in his tireless pursuit of knowledge, track his thoughts and experiments, and marvel at his insights into subjects as varied as the formation of waves and air bubbles, river flow, bird flight, and the nature of light and shadow.

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Underwater breathing apparatus: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion is on at the British Library from 7 June to 8 September 2019. The exhibition is in partnership with Automobili Pininfarina and tickets can be purchased here. The exhibition is accompanied by a series of events inspired by the exhibition, including a range of adult learning courses, free family workshops and an audio-description tour for blind and partially sighted visitors. An exhibition book edited by Dr Juliana Barone, associate curator, is available from the British Library shop.

 

 

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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

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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

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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.

Sloane_ms_1621_f052v

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

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