Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

23 posts categorized "Writing"

25 October 2023

Chaucer’s works go online

Geoffrey Chaucer (b. c. 1340s, d. 1400): poet, courtier, diplomat, Member of Parliament and royal administrator, and often called the ‘father of English poetry’. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is one of the greatest works of medieval literature. This Middle English poem has transfixed generations of readers, who have delighted in its poetic beauty, its larger-than-life characters, and its combination of poignant tragedy and tongue-in-cheek humour. But Chaucer was a prolific writer who composed many other works, which continue to be read long after his death. Among them are his Trojan epic Troilus and Criseyde, the dream vision The Legend of Good Women, his translations of the Roman de la Rose and The Consolation of Philosophy, his instructional manual on the astrolabe, and a whole host of minor poems.

The British Library holds the world’s largest surviving collection of Chaucer manuscripts, and this year we have reached a major milestone. Thanks to generous funding provided by The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library, we have completed the digitisation of all of our pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works, over 60 collection items in total. We have digitised not only complete copies of Chaucer’s poems, but also unique survivals, including fragmentary texts found in Middle English anthologies or inscribed in printed editions and incunabula.

A 16th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a stylus and rosary.

A 16th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and stylus: Add MS 5141, f. 1r

You can download the full list of pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works here, together with accompanying links to the digitised versions on our Universal Viewer. There you can view the manuscripts in full, study them in detail, and download the images for your own use. Thanks to the IIIF-compatible viewer, you can also view these manuscripts side-by-side in digital form, allowing close comparison between the volumes, their texts, and scribal hands:

PDF: Download Chaucer_digitised_vols_Oct_2023

Excel: Download Chaucer_digitised_vols_Oct_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all browsers).

Here are some of the works you can find in our digitised collection of Chaucer manuscripts:

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales comprises a collection of stories presented in the form of a storytelling contest by a group of memorable characters on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, among their number the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve, the Wife of Bath and the Prioress.

We hold 23 manuscripts of Chaucer’s most famous poem at the British Library, the earliest of which (Lansdowne MS 851) was written only a few years after the author’s death. This particular copy opens with his portrait, showing Chaucer writing with an open book in hand, framed within the initial ‘W’ at the start of the General Prologue.

The opening of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, showing a portrait of Chaucer.

The opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with a portrait of the author: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r

In addition to the surviving manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, the British Library also houses some of the earliest printed versions of Chaucer’s poem. These include rare copies of the 1476 and 1483 editions of the text made by William Caxton (d. c. 1491), the 1491/1492 edition by Richard Pynson (d. c. 1529), and the 1498 edition printed by Wynkyn de Worde (d. c. 1534).

A page from Caxton's 1483 printed edition of the Canterbury Tales, showing a woodcut of the pilgrims around a table.

A woodcut of the pilgrims from William Caxton’s 1483 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: G.11586, f. 20 c4

Almost a century after these editions of The Canterbury Tales were published, the English schoolmaster and editor Thomas Speght (d. 1621) produced his own collection of all of Chaucer’s works (1598), together with a glossary and biography of the author. One surviving copy of Speght’s printed edition (Add MS 42518) notably features handwritten notes by the scholar and writer Gabriel Harvey (d. 1631), infamous for his feud with the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe (b. c. 1601). Harvey’s notes in the manuscript include one of the earliest known references to Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet (on f. 422v).

A page from Thomas Speght's Collected Works of Chaucer, showing a woodcut of the Knight.

 The opening of ‘The Knight’s Tale’, from Thomas Speght’s 1598 edition of the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 29r

A page from Speght's Collected Works of Chaucer, showing autograph notes by Gabriel Harvey.

Gabriel Harvey’s autograph notes, including one of the earliest references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, added to Speght’s collected works of Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 422v

Troilus and Criseyde

Alongside The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote another significant Middle English epic called Troilus and Criseyde. Set during the Trojan War, it tells the tragic love story of Troilus, a Trojan prince, and Criseyde, the daughter of the seer Calchas, who is separated from her love when her father defects to the Greek army. Like Chaucer’s other major works, Troilus continued to be read after the poet’s lifetime and would go on to influence other English authors, most notably the poet Thomas Hoccleve (d. 1426) for his Testament of Cresseid and William Shakespeare (d. 1616) for his play Troilus and Cressida.

The opening of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, showing a decorated foliate initial.

The opening of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde: Harley MS 1239, f. 1r

The Legend of Good Women

The Legend of Good Women is one of Chaucer’s four poetic dream visions (the others are The House of Fame, The Parlement of Foules and The Book of the Duchess). In the prologue to this poem, the dreaming narrator is scolded by Queen Alceste, the goddess of love, for the depiction of women in his writing and is commanded by her to author a poem about the virtues and good deeds of women instead.

Chaucer then recounts the often-tragic stories of ten female figures, derived from Classical history, legend and mythology. They include the Egyptian queen Cleopatra; the Babylonian lover Thisbe of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the sorceress Medea; Queen Phyllis, abandoned by her lover Demophon; Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos; Ariadne, saviour of the Greek hero Theseus in Minos’ Labyrinth; the Roman noblewoman Lucretia; Philomela, who suffers terribly at the hands of Tereus; Hypermenestra, daughter of Egiste; and Dido, Queen of Carthage. The British Library is home to three manuscripts of the poem, including one copy that is interspersed with printed leaves of the same text (Add MS 9832).

The opening of Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, showing a printed leaf and the handwritten text.

The opening of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, showing printed and handwritten versions of the text side-by-side: Add MS 9832, ff. 3v-4r

Boece

In addition to writing his own original compositions, Chaucer was also a translator. His Boece is a Middle English prose translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman philosopher Boethius (d. 524). Boethius’ text, itself an example of a dream vision, was hugely popular during the medieval period and had a great influence on Chaucer’s own writing. The British Library holds one of the earliest copies of Chaucer’s translation of the work (Add MS 10340), written in the 1st quarter of the 15th century, only a decade or so after Chaucer’s death.

The opening of Chaucer's Boece, showing a decorative puzzle initial.

The opening of Chaucer’s Boece, a translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy: Add MS 10340, f. 3v

Anelida and Arcite

Anelida and Arcite is one of Chaucer’s shorter and lesser-known poetic works, telling the story of Anelida, Queen of Armenia, and her courtship by Arcite, a man from the city of Thebes in Greece. One of the British Library’s copies of the poem is found in an anthology of Middle English poetry written by Chaucer and his contemporary John Lydgate (d. c. 1451). The volume is one of the earliest compilations of John Shirley (d. 1439), a prolific scribe and translator who served as a secretary to Richard Beauchamp (d. 1439), 13th Earl of Warwick, and who was responsible for writing many surviving manuscripts of Chaucer and Lydgate’s works.

The text of Chaucer's Anelida and Arcite, from a Middle English anthology.

A copy of Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite, in a volume written by the scribe John Shirley: Add MS 16165, f. 243r

Minor Works

Like Shirley’s poetic compilation, other surviving anthologies at the British Library also feature copies of Chaucer’s shorter poems. One such collection (Add MS 34360) was written by a professional London-based scribe, named the ‘Hammond Scribe’ after the Chaucerian scholar Eleanor Hammond (d. 1933), who first identified his hand. Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ is a notable example of one of these minor works, a witty plea for money from his employer, disguised as a love poem:

To yow, my purse, and to noon other wight
Complaine I, for ye be my lady dere.
I am so sory now that ye be light,
For certes but if ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd upon my bere,
For which unto your mercy thus I crye
Beth hevy ageyn or ells mot I dye.

The text of Chaucer's Complaynt to his Empty Purse, from a Middle English anthology.

Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ from an anthology of Middle English poetry: Add MS 34360, f. 19r

Other minor works by Chaucer also now digitised include his ‘Gentilesse’, ‘Lak of Steadfastnesse’, ‘Truth’, ‘The Complaynt unto Pity’ and the ‘Balade of Good Fortune’.

The Treatise on the Astrolabe

While Chaucer is now known principally as a poet, he was also responsible for an important medieval instructional manual, called ‘A Treatise on the Astrolabe’, which like his poetry, was written in Middle English rather than Latin. Astrolabes had been in use for hundreds of years by Chaucer’s lifetime and had a wide variety of functions, but their principal purpose was as astronomical and navigational instruments, helping to determine different latitudes by day and night.

An astronomical instrument in brass called an astrolabe.

An example of one of the earliest known European astrolabes, made in 1326: British Museum, 1909,0617.1

In one of the British Library’s medieval copies of the text (Egerton MS 2622), preserved in its original binding, Chaucer’s work appears as part of a collection of treatises on arithmetic, geometry, horticulture and astronomy. 

A collection of scientific treatises with a medieval clasped leather binding.

A copy of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’ in a collection of scientific treatises with its own original medieval clasped binding: Egerton MS 2622

Chaucer’s treatise continued to be read during the Early Modern period. A notable 16th-century manuscript contains a revised edition of the ‘Astrolabe’, undertaken by an otherwise unknown editor called Walter Stevins. Stevins made his own corrections throughout Chaucer’s text, and prefaced it with his own address to the reader and a dedication to Edward Courtenay (d. 1556), 1st Earl of Devon. His manuscript features numerous detailed drawings that accompany the text, illustrating the workings and uses of the astrolabe itself.

The title page of an edited version of Chaucer's 'Astrolabe', with a diagram of the instrument.

The opening of Walter Stevins’ revised edition of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’: Sloane MS 261, f. 1*r

Whether you are experienced scholars of Chaucer’s life and poetry, who know his words off by heart, or only just learning of his collected works for the first time, we hope you enjoy exploring the pages of these digitised manuscripts and engaging with the writing of one of the foundational figures in the history of English literature. We are grateful to The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library for their support of the project.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us @BLMedieval

09 October 2023

The largest Greek manuscript?

We are always pleased to announce the digitisation of our manuscripts but this blogpost marks a particularly special milestone. Thanks to generous support by Kimberley and David Martin and the Hellenic League, we have been able to digitise one of the largest (and heaviest!) Greek manuscripts in our collections.

A photograph of a very large manuscript of the Greek Octateuch, next to a pencil and pencil sharpener to show the scale.

One of the largest volumes in the British Library’s collection of Greek manuscripts: Add MS 35123

Add MS 35123 comprises more than 600 leaves, almost 1,300 larger-than-A4 pages, bound tightly between heavy medieval wooden boards that weigh almost 10 kilograms. This giant tome is a late-12th century Biblical manuscript, containing the first eight books of the Old Testament: the five from Moses appended by Joshua, Judges and Ruth.

So if this manuscript only contains part of the Bible, what makes it so enormous? A glance at just one of the volume’s pages will provide the answer: the biblical text in the manuscript is actually enclosed by an extensive commentary, which appears on three margins of every single leaf.

A page from a medieval manuscript of the Greek Octateuch with extensive commentary.

Octateuch with Catena: Add MS 35123, f. 84v

Translated from Hebrew in the 3rd century BC, the Greek text of the books of Moses and the other Old Testament scriptures, known as the Septuagint, was not an easy read for an ordinary Greek reader. Some help was needed to understand its grammar, which reflected the original Hebrew text, and, even more importantly, the unique vocabulary used by its translators. New commentaries were also required to highlight the complex relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Unsurprisingly, many of these commentaries were written by the most renowned and learned of the Church Fathers. By the 7th and 8th centuries, the volume of interpretative Biblical material had grown enough to fill entire libraries. Thankfully, an effective and ‘user-friendly’ way of navigating this material had  been invented many centuries before by ancient scholars working on the Greek classics, particularly the work of the poet Homer.

Burney_ms_86_f003v

Homer’s Iliad with marginal commentaries: the Towneley Homer, Burney MS 86, f. 3v

Scholars working in the library of Alexandria between the 3rd and 1st century BC established a way for students and readers to navigate the enormous amount of scholarship on Homer’s epics. They extracted the most important elements from these commentaries and placed them in the margins of the texts they interpreted. They also devised an elaborate system of symbols emphasising the connection between the main text written in the centre of each page and the commentary excerpts placed in the surrounding margins. The commentaries became very popular elements of school education, being named scholia (‘school material’) as a result.

A detail from the Towneley Homer, showing the system of signs used to link the text with the commentary.

Signs written in red ink connecting marginal commentaries to the main text: the Towneley Homer, Burney MS 86, f. 3v (detail)

Christian commentators adopted a  similar system. They placed the Biblical text in the centre of each page, written in larger, more prominent characters, adding the commentary around it in smaller letters, so that as much as possible could fit on the page. These Christian commentators also used symbols to connect a particular item in the marginal commentary with the relevant place or line in the Biblical text.

The source of each commentary was more important for Christian compilers than it had been for the ancients. They placed particular emphasis on recording the source of each extract, usually writing them at the beginning of each paragraph in red ink. This commentary, presented as a series of inter-connected extracts accompanying the Biblical text, was later called ’catena’, after the Latin word meaning ‘chain’.

A detail from a manuscript of the Greek Octateuch, showing numerical signs in red ink, connecting the text and commentary.

Numbers in red ink in the left margin connecting the commentary to the central text: Add MS 35123, f. 83v (detail)

Over time, many of the original texts used by these compilers were lost — in some cases they were condemned explicitly as heretical and were deliberately destroyed. The extracts found in the margins of these ‘Catena-Bibles’ have become increasingly valuable to modern biblical scholars. In many cases, they are the only witnesses for once-celebrated works, such as the Commentary on Genesis by Diodore of Tarsus (d. 394) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), both condemned as heretics in the 6th century, and the Commentary on Exodus by Gennadius of Constantinople (d. 471), which is also now lost.

Add_ms_35123_f084v_detail

Excerpts from the lost commentary of Diodorus (upper right-hand corner) and Gennadius of Constantinople (abbreviated in the lower right-hand corner): Add MS 35123, f. 84v (detail)

These are just a few of the many exciting sources preserved in this manuscript. A systematic survey of all Catena manuscripts has yet to be completed so there may be more to discover. We invite you to take a look at the online images. If you're lucky, you may be able to spot a new fragment of a lost text.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 May 2023

The Coronation Banquet of Henry VI

What was the food like at a medieval coronation banquet? As the coronation of King Charles III approaches, we look back over 500 years to an account of the coronation banquet served before the young Henry VI (r. 1422-1461, 1470-1471) on 5 November 1429 when he was only 7 years old.

The account is featured in an episode of The Food Programme that will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 7 May 2023 at 12.30pm, in which Jaega Wise and Head of the Eccles Centre and food historian Dr Polly Russell explore the history of coronation eating from the 1400s to the present day.

A pen-drawing of the Coronation of Henry VI in 1429.

The coronation of the child Henry VI as King of England at Westminster, from the Pageants of Richard Beauchamp: Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 23v

The details of Henry’s coronation banquet are recorded in a work by John Lydgate (d. c. 1451), a prolific writer of Middle English verse often seen as a successor to Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400). Lydgate was well connected at the royal court throughout his literary career, and in 1429 he was commissioned to write a number of works to mark the coronation of Henry VI, including a text now known as the ‘Soteltes for the coronation banquet of Henry VI’.

The text is a Middle English poem in three stanzas, designed to accompany each of the banquet’s courses as they arrived into the hall (probably Westminster Hall, the traditional venue for such occasions during this period). One surviving manuscript at the British Library (Egerton MS 1995) incorporates the poem as part of a medieval chronicle of the city of London. Most notably, the chronicle also preserves notes about the dishes served at the banquet itself.

An opening from a 15th-century manuscript, containing an account of the coronation feast of Henry VI.

The first and second courses of the coronation banquet feast of Henry VI, recorded in a medieval chronicle of London: Egerton MS 1995, ff. 176v-177r

The banquet was lavish in both its scale and the sheer variety of dishes served across its three courses. The dishes included:

  • All kinds of meat and fish, including roasted beef, mutton, pigs, rabbits, chickens, swan, heron stuffed with capons, quails, curlew, larks, partridge, carp, crab, chopped eels, pike.
  • Boars heads encased in pastry castles decorated with gold.
  • Slices of red jelly carved with white lions.
  • A ‘custade rooial’ (a type of pastry) enclosing a golden leopard.
  • A fritter shaped like a sun with a fleur-de-lis.
  • A fritter shaped like a leopard’s head with ostrich feathers.
  • A jelly sculpture containing a red antelope, wearing a crown around its neck with a golden chain.
  • A roasted peacock served in its plumage.
  • A ‘flampayne’, a pork pie ornamented with leopards and gold fleur-de-lis.
  • A cold ‘bakemete’, a meat pie shaped like the royal coat of arms.

The account of the third course of the coronation banquet of Henry VI.

The third course of the coronation banquet of Henry VI: Egerton MS 1995, f. 177v

At the heart of the banquet were its ‘subtleties’. A subtlety was a special type of medieval dish that served as theatrical tableside entertainment. Subtleties typically took the form of lavish tableau, with scenes and models depicting emblematic subjects, often made entirely out of confectionary, such as marzipan or other foodstuffs.

The account of the coronation banquet of Henry VI records that each course had its own subtlety that was brought in with the dishes. The subtleties and the accompanying verses were highly symbolic, emphasising Henry’s dual role as King of England and of France and the unity between the two countries, and this message was of immense political import. At the time the young king was crowned, the Hundred Years War was raging between England and France, as the two countries made opposing claims to the French throne.

The subtlety for the first course depicted St Edward the Confessor and St Louis of France wearing their coats of arms with Henry VI between them. The accompanying stanza written by Lydgate emphasises Henry’s role as heir to these two saintly kings:  

Loo here been ii kyngys right profytabylle and right goode
Holy Synt Edwarde and Synt Lowys
Also the braunche borne of hyr blode
Lyyvynge a monge Crystyn most soverayne of pryse
Enherytoure to the flowredelysse.
God graunte he may thoroughe grace of Cryste Jesu
The VIte Harry to raygne, and be as wyse
And hym resemble in kynghode and verte.

Look here are two kings beneficent and good
Holy St Edward and St Louis
As well as the descendants born of their blood
Living among Christendom most sovereign of princes  
Inheritor of the fleur-de-lis.
God grant that he may through the grace of Jesus Christ
The sixth Harry to reign and be as wise
And resemble him in kinghood and virtue.

The subtlety for the second course depicted the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund and Henry V, King of England, together holding aloft Henry VI, with Lydgate’s second stanza focusing on the military achievements of the two kings against rebellious factions in their respective kingdoms. The final subtlety, meanwhile, depicted the Virgin Mary and infant Christ in her lap holding a crown, with St George and St Denis presenting Henry to her. Lydgate’s closing stanza links the two patron saints of England and France explicitly to the king’s right to rule both countries:

O blessyd lady, Crystys modyr dyre
And Syn Gorge called hyr owne knight;
Hooly Syn Denys, O martyr, moste entere,
To the here vi Harry we present to the in youre syghte.
Schechythe youre grace on hym,
Thys tendyr and whythe vertu hym avaunce,
Borne by dyscent and tytylle of right
Justely to raygne in Ingelonde and yn Fraunce.

O blessed lady, Christ’s dear mother
And St George, called her own knight;
Holy St Denis, O martyr, most perfect
To you here Harry VI we present to you in your sight.
Showing your grace on him,
This tender (youth) and with virtue him advance,
Born by descent title of right
Justly to reign in England and in France.

This was not the only time St George would make an appearance at the feast. The London chronicle records that the King’s Champion, a man called Sir Philip Dymoke, rode into the banqueting hall dressed in full armour as the English patron saint, declaring to the crowd that the king was rightful heir to the throne.

The entrance of Sir Philip Dymoke to the banqueting hall.

The description of the entrance of Sir Philip Dymoke to the banqueting hall: Egerton MS 1995, f. 176v

The effect of the entrance of these tableaus and performances must have been striking to the assembled onlookers. Not only would they have contributed to the visual extravagance of the occasion alongside the numerous tables of food on display, they would also have impressed upon the king’s subjects the strength of his claim to the thrones of England and France, even as the ensuing political strife and the ongoing war loomed large on the continent.

Henry VI enthroned giving the Earl of Shrewsbury the sword as constable of France.

Henry VI enthroned in front of the joint arms of France and England, from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 405r

To learn more about Henry VI’s coronation feast, tune in to The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4, 7 May 2023 at 12.30pm, or listen on the BBC Sounds website afterwards!

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

29 April 2023

Lost and found: in praise of Cardinal Wolsey

We recently blogged about our exciting project to bring the burnt volumes of the Cotton collection back to life, following the extensive damage they sustained in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731. Thanks to generous funding from the Goldhammer Foundation, the British Library has used multi-spectral imaging to photograph a selection of the damaged manuscripts, making them available to our readers online for the first time.

One major benefit of multi-spectral imaging is that it has allowed us to read and identify many of the fire-damaged texts, making some incredible discoveries in the process. One of these discoveries is a Latin praise work (or ‘panegyric) addressed by John Leland (b. c. 1503, d. 1552) to his patron, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (b. 1470/71, d. 1530). We can now reveal that this text known as the ‘Panegyricon ad Cardinalem Eboracensem’, and for centuries believed to have been completely lost, has survived in Cotton MS Fragments XXIII.

A portrait of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, now at Trinity College, Cambridge

Portrait of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey: courtesy of Trinity College, Cambridge

Perhaps best known as the mastermind behind the restoration of Hampton Court Palace, Wolsey rose from the son of a butcher’s boy to become Archbishop of York and Chancellor of England. In 1515, he was appointed Cardinal by Pope Leo X (r. 1513–1521), giving him pre-eminence over the rest of the English clergy. He was a major figure in European political and religious life for much of the early decades of the 16th century, until his failure to secure the divorce of Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (b. 1485, d. 1536) in 1529, caused his downfall. Wolsey was subsequently arrested by the King for treason and travelled to London to await trial, but famously died on route, avoiding the more violent fates of other figures at Henry’s court, such as Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell.

Fundamental to Wolsey’s power and influence during his career was his role as a patron of culture and education. Wolsey was responsible for the patronage of many artists and writers at the Tudor court. One of these figures was John Leland, a poet and Humanist scholar, and one of the very first early modern antiquarians, an advocate for the gathering of knowledge. Leland is best known for his extensive travels around England in the 1530s, when he toured and examined the libraries of many of the country’s religious houses in the years leading up to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. During this time, he compiled numerous lists of significant or unusual books, many of which would subsequently become part of the Royal library. Unfortunately, his life ultimately ended in tragedy: Leland went mad following the death of Henry VIII in 1547 and never recovered.

A list of the religious houses of Wales, written in Leland's hands and with his annotations

A list of the religious houses of Wales, written in Leland’s hand: Add MS 38132, f. 39r

Leland was a prolific writer. In his early career, he cultivated a strong circle of literary friends, patrons, and sponsors throughout England and Renaissance Europe, with whom he frequently corresponded and for whom he would write Latin praise works as gifts. As one of his patrons, Wolsey was a particularly strong advocate for Leland at the Tudor Court, securing him a number of positions during this time. This support would continue until the Cardinal’s fall from favour in 1529, at which point Leland gained the patronage of Thomas Cromwell (b. 1485, d. 1540), Wolsey’s successor.

Leland’s work in praise of Wolsey is attested in an important volume of English literary history known as the Illustrium majoris Britanniae scriptorum. This text is a chronological catalogue of British authors, compiled by John Bale (b. 1495, d. 1563), a contemporary and correspondent of Leland. Leland is one of the authors represented in the second edition of the text, published in 1557-1558. Under a list of his recorded writings, Bale includes the following title and Latin incipit (the opening line of a particular work), as well as a note indicating that his source for this information was a copy of the text consulted in Leland’s own library:

Panegyricon ad Cardinalem,                        Lib. 1. Dicturo de tuis laudibus ampliss.

A page from Bale's Catalogue of British authors, showing his entry for John Leland.

The entry for John Leland and his ‘Panegyricon ad Cardinalem’ in John Bale’s Illustrium majoris Britanniae scriptorium, published in 1557-1558: C.28.m.6, p. 671

Another important piece of evidence for the text’s existence is presented by the 1542 inventory of the Royal Library at Westminster Palace. This inventory records a work known as the ‘Panegyricon ad Cardinalem’, which was identified by James Carley as a possible copy of Leland’s lost work in his edition and study of the inventory (H2. 243; The Libraries of Henry VIII (2000), p. 92). However, while many of Leland’s other recorded works have survived in numerous manuscripts and printed editions, until now, no copies of Leland’s panegyric to Cardinal Wolsey have ever been found. 

Cotton MS Fragments XXIII

We can now turn our attention to Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, a small volume that consists of twelve fragmentary parchment leaves. Like many of the volumes that were heavily burnt in the Ashburnham House fire, these leaves were subsequently mounted on paper guards and rebound.

The opening Leland's Panegyricus, damaged in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731.

The opening of Leland’s Panegyricon ad Cardinalem, burnt in 1731: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 2r

The main text in the manuscript is a Latin prose work, written in a neat italic hand, which begins on f. 2r and ends on f. 12v. The opening of the text features the title ‘PANEGYRICVS’, enclosed within a decorative red border. A blank space within a red frame has been left by the scribe, or potentially created because of the fire damage sustained by the manuscript, and would presumably have held a decorated initial. Much of the rest of the first line remains visible. Its opening words read ‘[D]icturo mihi de laudibus tuis…’ (I am about to speak your praises…), unmistakeably a variant closely resembling the opening line that Bale quotes in his catalogue of Leland’s writings.

Cotton_ms_fragments_xxiii_f002r_MSI_detail

The opening of the ‘Panegyricus’, photographed with multi-spectral imaging: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 2r

Additional evidence that this work was addressed to Cardinal Wolsey appears on the first leaf of the volume. The verso features a short Latin dedicatory poem, only nine lines long, written beneath a coat of arms decorated in colours and gold.  The coat of arms has been heavily warped because of the damage sustained in the 1731 fire, and is now barely visible to the naked eye. However, thanks to the multi-spectral imaging, the arms can now be identified as belonging to Wolsey himself.

Cotton_ms_fragments_xxiii_f001v_MSI

The coat of arms of Cardinal Wolsey above a Latin dedicatory poem: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 1v

Notably, the arms in the burnt manuscript show a number of similarities with a contemporary image of Wolsey’s arms painted at the beginning of a Latin encomium (another type of praise work), which is also dedicated to him (Harley MS 1197, ff. 402–413). In Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, most of the embellishments and decorative elements on this heraldic device have burned away, but the central features remain: red tassels descending from a cardinal’s hat now obscured at the top; a golden ‘chief’ (or band) below it; and the ends of two cross-staves emerging from a black shield. In the centre, the shield’s silver cross is still visible, with the faintest impression of the red lion and four blue leopard faces it once held.

The burnt arms of Cardinal Wolsey in Cotton MS Fragments XXIII

The burnt arms of Cardinal Wolsey: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 1v

The arms of Cardinal Wolsey painted in an Encomium dedicated to him.

The arms of Cardinal Wolsey, painted at the beginning of an Encomium dedicated to him: Harley MS 1197, f. 402r

The discovery of Leland’s lost praise poem for Wolsey highlights the tremendous power that the Cardinal wielded in England and across the Continent during this period. Most importantly, it reinforces how art and literary patronage was a significant part of his influence. By supporting and surrounding himself with a coterie of artists, writers, and scholars, he was reinforcing his position, controlling the dissemination of his image and ensuring his own legacy. The centrality of his role at the Tudor Court was reflected in the paintings, literary compositions, and (in the case of Hampton Court Palace) buildings created in his name. Although that legacy was ultimately tarnished by his fall from favour, his impact on the cultural life of England persisted.

There are many more questions to be asked about Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, its origins, the circumstances around its production and its text of Leland’s panegyric, but multi-spectral imaging means that for the first time in 500 years, we are in a position to uncover the answers.

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 April 2023

Lady Lumley’s literary endeavours

Over the past year, we’ve been digitising manuscripts that reflect the lives and achievements of medieval and early modern women. This blogpost looks at four surviving volumes that belonged to Jane Lumley (b. 1537, d. 1578), an English noblewoman, Renaissance scholar and translator. All four manuscripts have been digitised thanks to generous funding from Joanna and Graham Barker, and can now be read online for the first time.

Jane Lumley was the eldest child of Henry Fitzalan (b. 1512, d. 1580), 12th Earl of Arundel. FitzAlan was a prominent member of the Tudor court, serving under Henry VIII and all three of his children and successors. Fitzalan was especially interested in learning, and during his life collected one of largest libraries in Tudor England, housed at Nonsuch Palace in Surrey. He also invested considerably in the education of all his children, including his two daughters. Most notably, Jane and her younger sister, Mary, were both taught Latin and Greek and were able to make use of their father’s extensive collection. Jane produced her own original translations of Classical texts that still survive.

A portrait of Jane Lumley by the Flemish artist Steven van der Meulen

A portrait of Jane Lumley by the Flemish artist Steven van der Meulen made in 1563 (Wikimedia Commons)

Jane’s literary endeavours were also supported by her husband, John Lumley (b. c. 1533, d. 1609), 1st Baron Lumley, whom she married at some point between 1550 and 1553. Lumley was a friend of Jane’s brother and a book collector and bibliophile like her father. Together, the Lumleys amassed a collection of over 320 manuscripts and 2,400 printed books, which also incorporated the library at Nonsuch Palace following the death of Jane’s father in 1580. Upon his own death in 1609, John Lumley willed their library to Prince Henry Frederick (b. 1594, d. 1612), eldest son of James VI and I (r. 1603–1625), King of England and Scotland. It was subsequently added to the Old Royal Library, and centuries later became one of the British Museum Library’s foundation collections.

The Lumley Library housed at least three surviving works by Jane, made after she had married John Lumley. They include Jane’s commonplace book (Royal MS 15 A IX), written in her own hand and containing her own translations of a number of Classical works from their original Greek into Latin and English. The most notable of these is her English translation of Iphigenia at Aulis, the last of the surviving tragedies of the Greek playwright Euripides. The play focuses on the decision of the Greek general Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis and allow the Greeks to set sail for Troy and begin the Trojan War. This is the first known translation of one of Euripides’ plays into English by any hand, and it is also the first known dramatic work in English to be written by a named woman.

The opening of an English translation of Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, from Jane Lumley's commonplace book.

The opening of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, translated by Jane Lumley: Royal MS 15 A IX, f. 66r

Jane also used her commonplace book to write drafts of translations that she intended as gifts for her father. The first half of the volume focuses on her translations of the Orationes (Speeches) of the Ancient Greek rhetorician Isocrates (b. 436 BC, d. 338 BC), from Greek into Latin. Several of these texts feature dedicatory letters addressed to Jane’s father, which she signed, ‘filia tua tibi deditisimma Joanna Lumleya’ (your most dedicated daughter Jane Lumley).

A dedicatory letter to Henry Fitzalan, signed by Jane Lumley

A dedicatory letter to Henry Fitzalan, 14th Earl of Arundel, signed by Jane Lumley: Royal MS 15 A IX, f. 4v

Two presentation copies of Jane’s translations also survived as part of the Lumley Library (now Royal MS 15 A I and Royal MS 15 A II). Like the drafts found in her commonplace book, Jane probably intended these as gifts to be presented to her father on New Year’s Day, a period often associated with gift-giving. The first of these volumes contains her translation of Isocrates’ Archidamus; the other is a translation of his Evagoras, written in her own hand.

The opening of Jane Lumley's English translation of Isocrates' Archidamus

The opening of Jane Lumley’s translation of Archidamus: Royal MS 15 A I, f. 3r

The opening of Jane Lumley's English translation of Isocrates' Evagoras

The opening of Jane Lumley’s translation of Evagoras: Royal MS 15 A II, f. 4r

Two of the three surviving volumes containing Jane’s work also feature added inscriptions by her husband, John Lumley, who marks them explicitly as ‘The doinge of my Lady Lumley dowghter to my L. Therle of Arundell', a reflection of his own respect for and acknowledgement of his wife’s work and achievement.

The opening page of one of Jane's book of translation, inscribed by her husband John Lumley.

The inscription of John Lumley, Jane’s husband, in a copy of one of her translations: Royal MS 15 A I, f. 1A-r

In addition to writing her own translations of Classical texts, Jane also collected manuscripts in her own right. One item that she commissioned is a roll of English maxims on the subject of pride (Royal MS 14 B III), made during the third quarter of the 16th century. The roll is illuminated in colours and gold and features a monogram of her name JOANNA LVMLEIA at the beginning of its second membrane.

The second membrane of a roll of maxims on the subject of pride, made for Jane Lumley.

A roll of maxims on the subject of pride, including the monogram of Jane Lumley: Royal MS 14 B III, membrane 2

We hope you enjoy reading these manuscripts from the library of Jane Lumley and rediscovering her work as an important Renaissance scholar and early Humanist.

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

15 November 2020

Parchment in prison: imprisoned medieval writers

In 1484, Lewis of Caerleon (d. in or after 1495), a Welsh physician who served Lady Margaret Beaufort and her son (the future King Henry VII), was arrested at the order of King Richard III for his loyalty to the Tudors. Despite being incarcerated at the Tower of London, Lewis obtained writing materials and employed his scientific knowledge to compose several innovative astronomical works. In a newly-acquired collected volume of his scientific works that was finished in the decade after he was released and may have been written under his close supervision (Add MS 89442), Lewis states that he produced some of his astronomical tables — containing calculations for lunar eclipses and solar times — during his incarceration. Lewis is one of several medieval authors who composed original works in prison. On the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, we explore some of their most famous works.

An astronomical table with Arabic numerals in brown and red ink and an inscription above that notes that Lewis of Caerleon composed it at the Tower of London

Lewis of Caerleon’s table on solar times ‘newly made in the year of Our Lord 1484 in the Tower of London’ (London or Cambridge, 1485–c. 1495): Add MS 89442, f. 121r

Boethius (c. 480–524), a Roman statesman who had fallen out of grace with the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great, is famously known for writing The Consolation of Philosophy — a philosophical work touching on the subjects of free will, happiness, fate and fortune — while awaiting his trail and execution. His work presents a dream-vision in which Lady Philosophy consoles him by highlighting that wealth and power are merely transitory and only internal virtues and qualities can withstand the vicissitudes of fortune. As its central message corresponded with Christian ideas, Boethius’s work became one of the most influential and widely-read books of the Middle Ages.

Boethius, a bearded man lying in bed on the left, is visited by Lady Philosophy, a woman with a red cloak and wearing a crown. She points to a blind-folded woman inside a wheel, representing the Wheel of Fortune.

Boethius visited by Lady Philosophy (Northern France, c. 1425–1475): Add MS 10341, f. 31v

Undoubtedly inspired by Boethius, Thomas Usk (d. 1388), a scrivener and legal clerk of London, wrote his own dream-vision while he was imprisoned and awaiting execution for purported treason. His poem, known as The Testament of Love, sees him visited by Lady Love who, much like Lady Philosophy, discusses the transitory nature of worldly bliss and the superiority of true inner happiness, offering consolation to the author in his state of despair. No manuscript copies of his poem survive, but it gained a wide readership after William Thynne included it in the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer, late medieval England’s most renowned poet, that he first published in 1532.

The opening of Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love, printed in black ink in 1598.

The Testament of Love in Thomas Speght’s publication the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer (London, 1598): Add MS 42518, f. 317v

In 1534, Thomas More (1478–1535), former Lord Chancellor of England, followed Boethius’s example after King Henry VIII had imprisoned him at the Tower of London for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging Henry as head of the English Church. Apprehending a painful death, More wrote A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. The book offers consolation to those fearing physical torment: it argues that death by torture is no worse than a natural death and that one can entirely forget about one’s own physical pain by contemplating the suffering that Christ endured for mankind. After his execution, More’s book circulated in manuscript form before becoming widely available in printed publications of his collected works.

The opening of Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, written in black ink, beginning: ‘A dialogue of comfort against tribulation made by a Hungarian in Latin and translated out of Latin into French and out of French into English’.

Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation (England, c. 1550): Harley MS 1634, f. 1r

But imprisoned authors did not only write ‘books of consolation’. After he was captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Charles, Duke of Orléans (1394–1465), produced some of the most elegant medieval love poetry during his 25 year-long captivity in England. He is best known for his ‘Book of Love’, a sequence of lyrics presented within the narrative framework of two dreams in which an imprisoned lover pursues Lady Beauty at the court of the love of God; after she dies during his absence, he renounces love before wooing a second lady. The ‘Book of Love’ survives in both French and English versions. The latter, extant in Harley MS 682, contains more than 6500 lines of verse, and may have been composed by Charles himself, since he spoke English fluently.

A poem by Charles of Orléans written in brown ink in a Gothic cursive script

An English poem by Charles of Orléans, beginning ‘As for farewell farewell farewell farewell / And of farewell more than a thousand score’ (England, 1439–1440): Harley MS 682, f. 147r

The Italian romance writer Rustichello da Pisa (fl. late 13th century) also employed his literary skills when he found himself locked up with the Venetian merchant Marco Polo (1254–1354) at Genoa, then at war with the city-state of Venice. In their prison cell, he penned down the marvellous stories that Polo recounted about how he, together with his father and uncle, had followed the Silk Road deep into Asia to meet Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire, serving as his emissary to China for fifteen years before returning to Italy. Although the veracity of Polo’s account is debated, it provided the most detailed and accurate description of Asia that was available at the time. Spiced with marvellous elements, The Travels of Marco Polo became a medieval bestseller and survives in scores of manuscripts today.

Three scenes from the Travels of Marco Polo, showing two men before a king (upper left panel) and kneeling before a pope (upper right panel), and undertaking a journey in a boat (lower panel).

The Travels of Marco Polo (Paris, 1333–c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 58r

John of Rupescissa (c. 1310–1366x70), a Franciscan friar from Aurillac worked in entirely different genres. Spending much of his life in prison, Rupescissa believed that the many hardships that he had endured there — he contracted the plague and was nearly killed by a fellow prisoner — had prepared him to receive supernatural insights about the world. In a visionary dream, he believed to have seen an infant Antichrist who had been recently born and would soon herald the end of times. He also believed that mankind could protect itself from the upcoming apocalyptic disasters and defeat Antichrist by harnessing the divine powers hidden inside nature through the art of alchemy. This prompted him to write both books about prophecies and ‘alchemical medicine’, such as the Liber de consideratione quintae essentiae omnium rerum (Book on the Consideration of the Quintessence of All Things). Although the papal court at Avignon had declared him mad, his reputation as a prophet helped his works gain wide circulation during the later Middle Ages. You can read more about him in Leah DeVun's Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time: John of Rupecissa in the Late Middle Ages (New York, 2009).

A Middle English translation of Rupescissa’s book on Quintessence, written in black ink, beginning: ‘The first boke of the consideration of quintessence of all things’

A Middle English translation of Rupescissa’s book on Quintessence (England, 15th century): Sloane MS 353, f. 2r

The works of the medieval authors discussed here were in most cases deeply informed by their experiences of imprisonment. To some degree, this influenced their popularity. Their insights gained and expressed in extreme hardship gave them a credibility and authority that few other authors could claim in speaking about the nature of the world and the human condition.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

14 July 2020

Spreading the word: a tribute to ancient teachers

The Greek and Latin papyri, ostraca and tablets of the British Library provide incomparably rich sources for learning about ordinary people, whose lives and words remained otherwise unrecorded for many centuries. One of the most intriguing perspectives these sources reveal is on families and children. We have recently published an article surveying documents that illustrate aspects of the lives of children in Egypt between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD, from their infancy and early school years to their marriage and first jobs.

An especially well-documented phase of the life of children is their schooling from primary to secondary or higher education. There is another aspect of school documents, however, which is just as important and fascinating as that of the children – the teachers.

Manuscript illumination of Alexander the Great in school instructed by his teacher Aristotle
Alexander the Great in school instructed by his teacher Aristotle, from a 15th century copy of the French Alexander Romance (France, c. 1420), Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 10v (detail)

Notes, methods and even names of teachers survive in surprisingly large numbers in our collection of papyri and writing tablets. These give us intriguing details about how the foundations of literacy and numeracy were laid down thousands of years ago.

The first stage was learning to read. The way to achieve this was simple but not very easy. Similar to modern-day school education, children were first taught to recognise syllables and read them one by one to form the words. The difference between current and ancient practice, however, was that in ancient schools the texts used for this purpose were not easy reads as nowadays, but samples taken from classical authors.

Back of a wooden tablet preserving five lines from Homer’s Iliad
Back of a wooden tablet preserving five lines from Homer’s Iliad (Book 3, lines 273-277) with syllable marks above the lines (Egypt, 3rd century), Add MS 33293 verso

Written with black ink on a whitened board, this 1800-year-old wooden tablet contains 5 lines from Book 3 of Homer’s Iliad copied in the neat hand of a teacher. Compared to the economic layout of texts in contemporary manuscripts where there were usually no spaces left between the words, on this tablet Homer’s words are neatly divided to make it easier to read. Moreover, the teacher placed strokes above the lines to mark the end of the syllables in each word. This practice, unknown in manuscripts designed for advanced readers, shows that the board was probably used to teach children to recognise and read in syllables.

The larger size of the wooden board – about the same as our A4 instead of the more standard A5 format of waxed school tablets – suggests that it was used for demonstration purposes. It may have served either as a blackboard in a classroom or a sample circulated in class. It is not hard to imagine the children holding and studying it, trying to decipher and read out the lines from Homer’s Iliad, ‘Sun, who be-hold-est all things and hear-est all’ (Iliad iii, 276).

Psalms 12-15 on a fragment from a papyrus roll
Psalms 12-15 on a fragment from a papyrus roll (Egypt, 3rd century), Papyrus 230 recto

Another, slightly different, reading exercise survives on a late 3rd-century papyrus roll that contains the text of Psalms 12-15. The layout of the text on the papyrus is the same as it would be in a standard manuscript with the text arranged in two columns with no space left between the words.

However, the large, circle-shaped marks above the lines, neatly arranged over each of the syllables of the words, suggest that the papyrus roll was also used in school education. It may have been designed for more advanced readers who no longer needed spaces between the words but who would still need some help to recognise syllables to ease reading of the rather complicated text of the Psalms.

Detail of Psalm 13:3 on a papyrus fragment
Psalm 13: 3, ‘the way of peace they have not known: there is no fear of God before their eyes’, with syllable marks above the letters (Egypt, 3rd century) Papyrus 230 verso

Interestingly, the other side of the roll contains a classical text from the 4th-century BC rhetorician Isocrates, which has also been supplied with syllable marks. This shows how classical ‘pagan’ and Judaeo-Christian texts were used together in primary education of the late 3rd to early 4th century.

An ancient wax tablet showing the handwriting of a teacher and pupil
Teacher’s handwriting in the first two lines of a wax tablet followed by the pupil’s copy of the same (Egypt, 2nd century) Add MS 34186 (1)

Another 2nd-century document shows how writing was taught in ancient schools. This little wax tablet, consisting of two parts to be folded up as a booklet, was a star item of the British Library’s recent exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark. Scratched in the upper part of the waxed surface are two lines of a maxim, ‘Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours’, in the beautifully tidy hand of a teacher. The pupil copied it out below, with mistakes and irregularities that are detailed in a separate article.

Wax tablets were perfect for use in schools. Writing in wax was easy to correct because you could erase the words by smoothing the wax with the other end of the stylus. Additionally, the child could place their stylus in the teacher’s deeply scratched lines and follow the letter shapes to learn how to imitate the script. The tablet shows very clearly how the individual hand of a teacher could influence the handwriting of generations in the future.

First part of a set of 8 wooden tablets preserving a teacher’s notebook
First part of a set of 8 wooden tablets preserving a teacher’s notebook with the teacher’s name, 'Epaphroditos', in the upper left corner, followed by columns of phrasal verbs (Egypt, 3rd century), Add MS 37533 (1)r

In addition to actual teaching aids used in class, there are unique survivals of teachers’ private notes. This set of eight little wooden tablets from about 1800 years ago preserves the handy notebook of a teacher who put his name, 'Epaphroditos', on the first tablet to mark his possession. The eight wooden boards would have been fastened together by cords passed through two holes in one of the longer sides of each of the tablets. Each side of the eight boards was neatly numbered on the left to facilitate orientation.

Teachers notes on part 4 of a set of wooden tablets
Teachers notes on part 4 of a set of wooden tablets, in three columns, first two with explanations of the alphabet, third with a set of riddles in questions (Egypt, 3rd century), Add MS 37533 (4)r

The texts are recorded in the rapid and practised cursive hand of a teacher, neatly organised into units for teaching probably at an elementary school. The left-hand side of page 8, for example, shows the letters of the alphabet with notes placed next to each clarifying whether the letter is a vowel (long or short or both), or a simple (such as K) or compound (such as X) consonant. On the right-hand side there is a list of short riddles in the form of questions and answers such as ‘what makes life sweet – happiness’. These may have been used as writing samples for wax-tablet homework-books like the one above.

The unique collections of papyri and tablets in the British Library show not only the labour of the children learning to read and write but also pay tribute to the generations of teachers, whose tireless educational work ensured that classical and Christian Greek and Latin texts came down to us.

You can find out more about the lives and education of children in Egypt between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD in our article on the Greek webspace.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

30 April 2020

A history of the book in seven objects

Books surround us. We have them in our homes, kitchens, beds and bathrooms. Supplied by bookstores and libraries, we can even read them on our kindles and phones or listen to them through earphones. What we may not realise, however, is that whenever we open a book, we are taking part in a history stretching back millennia.

On the first anniversary of the opening of our Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition, we are exploring seven objects that represent some of the key stages in the development of the book in the ancient era, leading to the form of book as we know it.

Roman fresco showing ancient writing materials
Roman fresco from Pompeii showing ancient writing materials, a scraper, booklet of wax tablets, inkpot and pen, and papyrus roll: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Inventory number 4676

1.) Books carved in stone

It is with stone inscriptions that the evolution of writing started in many cultures and, together with it, the story of the book. This inscription, carved on a limestone plaque in Egypt about 3600 years ago, is the earliest “book” in the British Library. It was discovered recently and displayed for the first time at the Library’s Writing: Making your Mark exhibition. The stone preserves a hymn written in hieroglyphs to praise Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld and king of the dead.

Ancient Egyptian inscribed stone tablet
Limestone stela bearing a hymn to the god Osiris written in classical hieroglyphs 3,600 years ago: Talbot Stela 6 (Egypt, Abydos ca. 1600 BC)

2.) Books inked on pottery

A major step in the transition from stone to page was a new invention which has become the material manifestation of writing for thousands of years: ink. Using ink made writing easier and faster. As a result, more people started to write and with writing’s spread the format of books also changed. Ink was first applied on stone but people soon realised that it could be used on smoother, smaller and more manageable surfaces. From the 3rd century BC, fragments of broken dishes were used for writing short and perishable texts, such as receipts, drafts and notes.

Broken potsherd bearing three lines of Greek text written with ink to testify that Pamyt has paid for fishing tax in 255BC
Broken potsherd bearing three lines of Greek text written with ink to testify that Pamyt has paid for fishing tax in 255BC: Ostracon 12634 (Egypt, 255 BC)

This little pottery shard contains a fishing permit written with ink by an Egyptian clerk for a man called Pamyt about 2250 years ago, allowing him to fish in the Nile. This kind of handy, ink-inscribed document made writing widely available throughout society.

3.) Books written on scrolls

Writing on stone, pottery or even bone was very efficient, but these items were not big enough to record longer texts. The solution was provided by papyrus rolls. Papyrus is named after the papyrus reed, growing in the marshes of Egypt. The fibres of this plant were soaked and pressed together to create sheets of approximately our A4-A3 format, which were pasted together to form a roll. These rolls were of varying sizes and could even reach 30 metres in length, capable of containing thousands of lines of text.

Portions from Book 24 of Homer’s Iliad in a deluxe papyrus scroll of about 230cm long
Portions from Book 24 of Homer’s Iliad in a deluxe papyrus scroll of about 230cm long: Papyrus 114 (Egypt, 2nd century CE)

One of the British Library’s longest undivided papyrus scrolls is a beautiful deluxe copy of a portion from Homer’s Iliad which is over 230cm long. The scroll provides an excellent example of the standard layout of Greek and Latin texts for more than a millennium. Written in parallel columns across the sheets, a papyrus scroll would usually contain one large unit (“a book”, in Greek biblion) of a work. In ancient libraries, scrolls were stored rolled up on a shelf with a leather label (sillybos) identifying the title of the book, which functioned in the same way as titles printed on the spines of our books today.

The papyrus scroll was the default format of book across the Mediterranean for more than two millennia, recording texts not only in Greek and Latin but also in Egyptian or Hebrew. However, there was a new invention in the making that would revolutionize the book’s history – and that was the codex.

4.) Booklets of tablets

It all started with wooden tablets. Coated with smooth beeswax, these wooden boards were often used to record everyday texts that were not important enough to be put on the expensive papyrus rolls. Letters were scratched in the wax with a metal stylus and could be easily erased using the other, flat end of the stylus. Due to this efficient reusability, wax tablets were especially popular in schools.

A set of two wax tablets once bound together containing the homework book of a child in Greek
A set of two wax tablets once bound together containing the homework book of a child in Greek: Add MS 34186 (Egypt, 2nd century CE)

In this little homework-book from about 2000 years ago, which was one of our favourite objects of the Writing exhibition, the teacher wrote literacy and numeracy homework on two tablets. They would have been carried home by the children and back to school to present the completed homework to the teacher. The two wooden tablets were bound together with string, producing a booklet with pages which was often called a codex after the Latin word caudex (wood-block). This little booklet not only preserves the Greek homework of a pupil from 2000 years ago, but also foreshadows a future format that would swiftly take over from scrolls.

5.) A composite: booklets of papyri

It was probably the arrival of Christianity that prompted the next major change in the history of the book. With its strong emphasis on textual interpretation, Christianity required books that allowed for easy and accurate navigation of the texts of the Old and New Testaments.

A leaf from a papyrus codex containing the Gospel of John
A leaf from a papyrus codex containing the Gospel of John: Papyrus 2484 (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 2nd century) 

Although the earliest copies of the Old and New Testament were handed down in the traditional format of a papyrus scroll, from the early 2nd century a new composite format was developed to hold the books of the scriptures: a little booklet of bound papyrus leaves. These papyrus books, called codices after the bound wax tablets, were usually small and contained only selected portions of the Old or New Testament either for personal or liturgical use, and not the entire Bible as we know it from our printed copies.

Bringing all the books of the Old and New Testament together as one authoritative new book, called the Bible (Biblia) containing all the books (ta biblia in Greek) of the Scriptures, was way beyond the capacities of a simple papyrus booklet. A new writing support was needed to accommodate all these texts in one bound volume – and that was animal skin.

6.) Parchment

Legend has it that when Egypt placed an embargo on its export of papyrus in 197BC, the librarians of the city of Pergamon (in present day Turkey) started to use animal skin to copy their books, which they called pergamen (i.e. parchment) after their own city. It was this more expensive but more durable material that was to replace the fragile papyrus leaves of the early booklets to create the direct predecessor of the books on our shelves.

Fragment of a parchment manuscript, containing a fragment from a historical work, written in Roman literary cursive
Fragment of a parchment manuscript, containing a historical work written in Roman literary cursive: Papyrus 745 (Italy, 1st century AD)

7.) The book

The iconic manifestation of this long process is one of the world’s earliest Bibles, Codex Sinaiticus. Copied possibly in Palestine in the early 4th century, it is the earliest surviving manuscript to contain the complete New Testament and the oldest and best witness for some of the books of the Greek version of the Old Testament. The Codex originally contained the entire Bible in Greek. Its name (‘the book from Sinai’) refers to the monastery of St Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai where it was preserved until the middle of the 19th century. Beside its utmost importance for the textual history of the Bible, Codex Sinaiticus is a milestone in the history of the book.

Codex Sinaiticus, one of the world’s oldest biblical manuscripts and the oldest surviving manuscript to contain the complete New Testament
Codex Sinaiticus, one of the world’s oldest biblical manuscripts and the oldest surviving manuscript to contain the complete New Testament: Add MS 43725 (Palestine, early 4th century)

Codex Sinaiticus is an iconic monument in the history of the book, marking the shift to the format of book that has predominated for the last 1700 years. The manuscript still shows its roots in the culture of papyrus scrolls. For example, the eight parallel columns of text on each double-page opening correspond to the portion of text that was opened for reading on a papyrus scroll. However, when complete, Codex Sinaiticus probably had at least 730 parchment leaves, carefully prepared from the skins of about 365 sheep. With hundreds of leaves, once bound between two heavy wooden covers, Codex Sinaiticus was revolutionary. It shows all the major benefits of a codex book over the ancient format of the scroll. The clear pages of the volume allow for easy navigation of both the Old and New Testament. The texts are neatly prepared and numbered. It may have even contained a detailed index, called canon in Greek, to the gospels.

In addition to the New Testament and substantial parts of the Old Testament now held in the British Library, parts of Codex Sinaiticus are also held in Leipzig University Library, St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, and the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg. The manuscript is now fully digitised and transcribed, and available at an interpretative website produced as a collaboration between the four institutions.

Codex Sinaiticus represents the close of the era of papyrus rolls and the opening of a whole new chapter in human history which, after the invention of paper and printing, eventually takes us to the bound book you may have next to you right now. Opening it in your bed tonight, remember the long history of your familiar companion, going back through handwritten parchment codices, papyrus booklets, wax tablets and stone inscriptions. This is a history of which you are now a part.

To discover more about the history of the book and the British Library's amazing ancient collections, explore our Greek manuscripts and A history of writing webspaces.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs