THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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16 posts categorized "Writing"

14 July 2020

Spreading the word: a tribute to ancient teachers

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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

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30 April 2020

A history of the book in seven objects

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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

23 August 2019

Ancient recycling: writing on potsherds

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There are only a few days left to visit the British Library's major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark. Recently, we dedicated a blogpost to one of the exhibits that has undoubtedly captured our visitors’ attention for its length, beauty and interest: the so-called Ravenna papyrus.

Another object on display, quite different from the Latin papyrus in terms of its size, nature and content, has also raised considerable public interest. It is a small potsherd, measuring 6.7 x 10 x 0.7 cm, whose outside (convex) side was used to host writing (Ostracon 13993). It is just one of the almost 4,200 potsherds, written in Ancient Greek, which form part of the British Library collections. They are known as ostraca (singular ostracon). You may not be immediately familiar with this term, but a modern English verb is derived from it. In Athens, in the 5th century BC, names of political figures who were believed to represent a threat to democracy were scratched onto the surface of potsherds, which were then deposited in urns. If a certain number of votes was reached, the person was expelled, that is, ostracised, for a period of ten years.

An ostracon issued for a sex-worker in ancient Egypt
The ostracon on display in Writing: Making Your Mark, dated 7 October 110 (Ostracon 13993)

Writing on pottery was common in the ancient world, and served different purposes. Containers of various types and shapes could be inscribed with information as to their contents, origi, or destination, especially for trade. Such labels, called ‘tituli picti’ or ‘dipinti’, were generally executed on the neck or shoulders of the amphora in red or black ink. However, these painted inscriptions are not considered to be ‘ostraca’, even when they are preserved in fragmentary form.

In contrast, shards of broken pots were commonly recycled and used as a writing material. For example, in Graeco-Roman Egypt ostraca were widely employed for writing many kinds of text, despite their disadvantages. Their smaller surface could only host short texts; they were heavier than a sheet of papyrus; and they could not be sealed. On the other hand, such shards were not only easy to source, such as in households and rubbish heaps, but they were also free of charge. Writing was usually traced on them in ink using the calamus, a reed pen employed for writing Greek and Latin texts on papyrus, or the reed brush for Egyptian writing. In Writing: Making Your Mark, our visitors have the opportunity to view an example of a reed pen in Arabic style, with the nib cut left oblique in order to favour writing from right to left.

As a result of their widespread use, ostraca from Egypt bear a wide variety of Greek texts. These include everyday documents such as tax receipts, lists, accounts and letters, as well as writing exercises and literary texts. At times, it can be difficult to tell whether these literary works were themselves being copied as writing exercises. One of the most famous examples of ostraca preserving a literary text is a Ptolemaic ostracon now held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (PSI XIII 1300). This contains an ode by Sappho, of which only a few words are quoted by other ancient authors.

The island of Elephantine
Elephantine Island (source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephantine)

The ostracon on display in our exhibition dates from over 1,900 years ago, and it contains a type of permit which is only rarely attested in our sources. In it, two tax collectors authorised a woman named Thinabdella to perform her activity as a sex-worker on a specific day. The ostracon is one of a handful of such permits to survive from Elephantine, an island off Aswan in Upper Egypt. The text on our ostracon reads:

Pelaias and Sokraton, tax farmers, to the ‘hetaira’ Thinabdella, greetings. We grant you permission to have intercourse with whomever you wish in this place on the day written below.

The date then follows, corresponding to 7 October 110, alongside the subscription of Sokraton, penned in a different hand. Why the permit was granted for a single day has been a matter of debate. Did Thinabdella come to the town for a short stay, or on a specific occasion, such as a festival?

There are just a few days left to see the ostracon in person at Writing: Making Your Mark: the exhibition closes on 27 August. If you would like to see more ostraca, you can check them out on Digitised Manuscripts, where you will currently find over 145 ostraca originating from Elephantine, with more yet to come!

The exhibition catalogue, in both paperback and hardback, is available from the British Library Shop.

9780712352536 Writing Making Your Mark

 

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16 August 2019

The longest papyrus

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There are lots of fabulous things to see in our exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, ranging from an early homework book (on a wax tablet) to an entire manuscript written in Tironian notes. One of our star exhibits is also one of the largest, namely the Ravenna Papyrus, the longest intact papyrus held at the British Library.

Detail of the Ravenna Papyrus
Detail of the Ravenna Papyrus: Add MS 5412

Measuring 224 cm (long) by 20 cm (wide), the Ravenna Papyrus (Add MS 5412) records a sale of land in the 7th year of the reign of Justin II the Younger (AD 572) by Domninus, a hayward (agellarius) from Cesena, to a court officer named Deusdedit. Domninus agreed to sell five-twelfths of a small estate called Custinis and two-twelfths of a farmhouse called Bassianum, for the price of five gold solidi. Five witnesses signed the deed, that is, Pascalis, Eugenius, Moderatus, Andreas and Vitalis, while the notary (forensis) was named Flavius Iohannis. The document can be viewed in its glorious entirety on the Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

One significant feature of this papyrus, aside from its great length, is its handwriting. Flavius Iohannis, the notary, wrote a professional and rapid form of the script known as New Roman Cursive. This was the administrative script of Late Antiquity, first attested in the late 3rd century, and characterised by the introduction of lower-case forms and time-saving devices such as loops. The five witnesses also wrote in the same script: the handwriting of Pascalis and Moderatus is upright and slow in execution, while that of Eugenius is more rapid and rounded. Andreas’s hand is equally rapid but inclined to the right; Vitalis used a more rough form of this script.

The handwriting of the Ravenna Papyrus
The Ravenna Papyrus bears witness to the handwriting of several scribes, all of whom wrote differing forms of New Roman Cursive

In the Middle Ages this document was held in the archbishop’s archive at Ravenna. At the beginning of the 18th century it came into the hands of Giusto Fontanini of Rome (d. 1736), and after his death it passed to Ludovico Zucconi of Venice from whom it was bought for the Pinelli Library in Venice. On the occasion of the sale of the Pinelli library on 2 March 1789, it was acquired for the British Museum Library. We are delighted that so many visitors have been able to examine it in person this summer in Writing: Making Your Mark, and we hope that you also enjoy the opportunity to view it online.

 

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August 2019.

The Ravenna Papyrus (Add MS 5412) is available in full on Digitised Manuscripts.

12 August 2019

Note-worthy connections: antique shorthand in Carolingian books

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How do you find connections between contemporaneous manuscripts produced in different places? Sometimes the distinctive hand of a particular scribe is found in more than one manuscript, or the illustrations are likely to have been made by the same artist. At other times the makers of the manuscripts are unlikely to have been the same individuals, and yet their overall aspects and layout are strikingly similar—so similar that they are likely to be copies of the same exemplar. A connection of this last type between two 9th-century manuscripts – one in the British Library and one in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany – has recently been highlighted as a result of their digitisation.

A page from a medieval manuscript showing decorated symbols
Opening of the Commentaries on Tironian notes (Paris, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, 1st quarter of the 9th century): British Library, Add MS 37518, f. 1r

 

A page from a medieval manuscript showing decorated symbols
Opening of the Commentaries on Tironian notes (Saint-Amand, first half of the 9th century): Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug.4°, f. 1r

Both manuscripts are copies of the late antique text Commentarii notarum tironianarum (Commentaries on Tironian notes). Tironian notes were an ancient Roman system of shorthand which get their name from their attribution to Tiro (b. 94, d. 4 BC), the slave and personal secretary of Cicero (b. 106, d. 43 BC). They are called notes after the Latin nota, but like the shorthand systems still in use today, they consist of abstract symbols which stand for words and syllables.

The British Library’s early-9th-century copy of this text (Add MS 37518) is one of the 800 manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. As increasing numbers of manuscripts become available online, it is easier than ever to compare their pages side by side. This is what happened when Joanna Story (Professor of Early Medieval History at University of Leicester and collaborator on the Library’s recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms-exhibition) recently researched this manuscript. She recognised the layout of its opening page from elsewhere, namely the near-contemporary manuscript, Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug. 4°.

Two pages from medieval manuscripts side by side, showing the same layout of symbols
Comparison of the opening pages of the Commentaries: British Library, Add MS 37518, f. 1r, and Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug.4°, f. 1r

In the opening pages of both manuscripts, the decorated Tironian symbols and their abbreviations are arranged in the same positions in relation to one another. This makes it clear that they follow the same layout, despite the opening page of Add MS 37518 being left unfinished with only the dagger-shaped symbol for ab heavily outlined in black. At least 20 other early medieval guides to Tironian notes survive, but they rarely have this striking arrangement of the first three symbols. An example of a copy of this text with a different layout, included in a recent blogpost on writing systems, has also recently been digitised (Add MS 21164).

A page from a medieval manuscript showing Tironian symbols
'Purpura' section of the Tironian lexicon: Add MS 37518, f. 27r
A page from a medieval manuscript, showing Tironian symbols
'Purpura' section of the Tironian lexicon: Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug.4°, f. 28r


The commentaries contain a lexicon, or list of symbols and their meanings. This part of the text divides the symbols according to either topic or shape. The divisions are signalled by the writing of the first word of a group in capital script. These different groupings tend to begin in almost the same place in both the British Library and Herzog August Library copies (which are of a similar size), which further strengthens the impression that they were copied from a common, or very similar, exemplar.

Despite their roots in Classical antiquity, no antique manuscript examples of the commentaries on Tironian notes or of texts written in Tironian notes survive. Instead, the vast majority of evidence is found in Carolingian manuscripts. The Carolingian dynasty ruled over the territories of the Franks (roughly modern-day France, Belgium, Netherlands and Western Germany) from the mid-8th century, but gradually lost control over these territories throughout the late 9th and 10th centuries.

A winged man holding an open book inscribed with symbols
The Evangelist symbol for St Matthew, holding his Gospel text written in Tironian notes, detail from the Apocalypse miniature in the Moutier-Grandval Bible (Tours, c.830-840): Add MS 10546, f. 499r

The Carolingian interest in shorthand was part and parcel of the revival of learning, art, and book production often known as the Carolingian Renaissance. In the Admonitio generalis (General admonition), an important collection of legislation issued in 789, the most famous Carolingian ruler, Charlemagne (r. 768-814), implored that schools be established for the learning of not only the Psalms, chant, and grammar, but also notae, or ‘written signs’.

Based on the surviving manuscript evidence, certain Carolingian monastic schools took a particular interest in Tironian notes. The scriptorium at Tours seems to have been one of the earliest centres to master this shorthand system, even including it in its famous illustrated pandect Bibles, such as the Moutier-Grandval Bible. Occasionally an entire book might be written in Tironian notes, such as this late 9th-century copy of the Psalms (Add MS 9046), which you can see in the British Library’s current exhibition, Writing: Making your Mark.

A page from a medieval manuscript filled with Tironian notes
Psalm 103 in a Psalter written in Tironian notes (Northeastern France, 4th quarter of the 9th century): Add MS 9046, f. 60v

The schools that produced our two connected manuscripts – Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, and Saint-Amand, in north-eastern France – are c. 200 km apart. That they nonetheless seem to share a common exemplar demonstrates how closely connected Carolingian scholarly communities were.         

Emilia Henderson, with thanks to Joanna Story

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07 August 2019

Holiday reading matter

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Are you looking for something to read over the holiday season? Then look no further than some of the books which have accompanied our major exhibitions, ranging from Writing: Making Your Mark to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.

Writing

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August. The book, featuring contributions by the exhibition curators and other experts, is available from the Library shop (hardback £30). 

Leo

The exhibition book for Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, edited by guest curator Juliana Barone, is also available from our shop (£20), and is written by leading Leonardo scholars from across Italy, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Ask

The catalogue for our stupendous Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition (which ended earlier this year), edited by Claire Breay and Jo Story, is still available in paperback (£25).

Hpbook

Finally, if Harry Potter is your thing, why not indulge yourself in a copy of the book written especially for Harry Potter: A History of Magic? Published by Bloomsbury in association with the British Library, the version designed especially for younger audiences can be purchased here (£9.99).

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August 2019.

The run of Leonardo: A Mind in Motion extends until 8 September 2019.

 

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03 August 2019

One Library, two exhibitions

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This summer, unusually, we have not one but two major exhibitions open at the British Library. Writing: Making Your Mark and Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion both have on display items cared for by the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team, alongside star objects loaned by other institutions and owners. They're definitely both worth a visit, before 27 August in the case of Writing, while Leonardo continues until 8 September.

Leonardo-da-vinci-a-mind-in-motion

In Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, three of the great Renaissance thinker's notebooks are shown together for the first time. Alongside the Library's own Codex Arundel (Arundel MS 263) is the Codex Forster II, on loan from the V&A, and the Codex Leicester, owned by Bill Gates. These manuscripts reveal Leonardo's observations on subjects such as water in motion, since he considered motion to be 'the cause of all life'.

Writing-making-your-mark-oldest-item-tony-antoniou

Writing: Making Your Mark examines the evolution of writing, one of mankind's greatest achievements, from hieroglyphs to emojis. The roll-call of the objects and books on display is astonishing, from a Mayan monument (AD 647) to the Gutenberg indulgence (c. 1454) and the longest intact papyri in the Library's collections (AD 572). We have previously blogged about some of our favourite items, such as the labels used to identify Egyptian mummies and a schoolchild's homework preserved on a wax tablet.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion is on at the British Library in London until 8 September. Writing: Making Your Mark closes on 27 August.

 

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23 July 2019

Reading the runes in Beowulf (so seaxy)

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Students of the Old English epic poem Beowulf (which survives uniquely in Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) may be familiar with the fight between our hero and Grendel’s monstrous mother, and the part played in that encounter by a marvellous sword. As the pair tussle, Beowulf stumbles and falls to the floor. His opponent stabs him with a knife, and he is only saved by his chain mail. Beowulf then sees a sweord eotenisc (a sword of giants, l. 1558), which he grabs and uses to kill Grendel’s mother. Seeing Grendel’s corpse, Beowulf uses the same sword to cut the monster’s head from his body. As soon as Grendel’s blood touches it, the blade melts away like ice and only the hilt is left intact.

Later, when Beowulf returns to Heorot — the hall of the Geatish people — the sword hilt is examined by Hrothgar, their king:

Hroðgar maðelode,   hylt sceawode,

Ealde lafe, on ðæm wæs or writen

fyrngewinnes,   syðþan flod ofsloh,

gifen geotende,   giganta cyn  (ll. 1687–90)

('Hrothgar spoke, the hilt he examined,
— the ancient relic — where was written
of that primordial war, when the flood slew,
with raging waves, the race of giants')

A page from the Beowulf Manuscript, showing a passage from the poem that describes a marvellous sword.

A page from Beowulf describing the marvellous sword: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 170r

The poet goes on to describe this strange sword in more detail.

Swa wæs on ðæm scennum sciran goldes

Þurh runstafas rihte gemearcod,

            geseted ond gesæd hwam þæt sweord geworht,

            irena cyst,   ærest wære,

            wreoþenhilt ond wyrmfah.     (ll. 1694–98a)

('On those guards of shining gold
were runic staves, rightly marked

Their set-down shapes told a tale: for whom that sword was wrought,
best of irons, in bygone days,
with twisted hilt and serpent patterns.')

Beowulf is not easy to translate, but there are examples of ‘hypermetric lines’ in many Old English poems, including at ll. 1705–07 of Beowulf. What is important is that the sword is described as gemearcod (marked) with runstafas (runic staves). These markings gesetod ond gesæd, literally ‘set-down and said’ or ‘established and told’, the story of the sword’s original commissioner. This is quite a sword! It tells the story of the flood that killed the giants — usually thought to be a reference to the Biblical flood — and also the story, in snaking patterns and runic staves, of its own creation.

What kind of sword was the poet imagining? What was the significance of runes for the poet? What, indeed, are runes? The runic alphabet was used to write Germanic languages before the Latin alphabet arrived along with Christian missionaries. Runes are generally straight sided, hard-lined beasts. There are no round shapes in the letters as traditionally formed, probably because this made them easier to carve into wood and stone. The runic alphabet and the Latin alphabet were used in tandem in Anglo-Saxon England, and they were on friendly terms — two runic letters routinely appeared in Old English texts written in the Latin alphabet. The first was Þ (lowercase þ), which makes a ‘th’ sound. Runic letters also have names — this one is called thorn, which means ‘thorn’ in Modern English. The second runic letter was Ƿ (lowercase ƿ), which equates to a modern ‘w’. Its name is wynn, which means ‘joy’ (whence we get Modern English ‘winsome’).  

These two runes appear most commonly in Old English texts written in the Latin alphabet (although the ƿ is often changed to ‘w’ in modern editions). But they weren’t the only runes that made their way into texts written in the Latin alphabet. In fact, runes crop up quite frequently in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The poet Cynewulf (one of the very few named poets from the Anglo-Saxon period) embedded runic signatures in his works, some of the riddles of the Exeter Book contain runes, and they also appear in the Beowulf manuscript, on the very same folio where Grendel’s sword hilt is described.

A page from the Beowulf Manuscript, with runic letters highlighted in different colours.

Runes in the Beowulf manuscript: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 170r

On this folio you can see an abundance of the commonly occurring runic letters, ƿ and þ, but 8 lines from the bottom, on the tattered, right-hand edge of the folio, you can see something quite unusual in this manuscript — ᛟ the ethel rune. Ethel means estate or homeland and here the scribe used it as an abbreviation for the first element in the compound ethelweard, meaning guardian of the homeland (weard means ‘guardian’ giving us Modern English ‘warden’). 

A text page from the Beowulf Manuscript, with the word runstafas and a runic letter highlighted.

Runstafas and the ethel rune: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 170r

Why did the scribe chose the runic abbreviation at this point? Were they prompted by the reference to runstafas a few lines earlier? This brings us back to the sweord eotenisc, the sword of giants. In considering what kind of sword the poet was imagining, archaeology provides some clues. Those of you lucky enough to visit our recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition may remember the Seax of Beagnoth, also known as the Thames Scramasax, a 10th-century Anglo Saxon seax (a long, single-edged knife) on loan from the British Museum. On its blade the seax boasts the only complete carved Anglo-Saxon futhorc, or runic alphabet, as well as the name ‘Beagnoþ’ ᛒᛠᚷᚾᚩᚦ, who is assumed to be its commissioner or creator.

A long, single-edged knife made in the 10th century, inscribed with runic letters.

The Seax of Beagnoth: British Museum 1857,0623.1

This seax does not contain a narrative of the kind described in Beowulf. As yet, no weapons have been discovered that have a narrative inscribed on them, and it’s hard to imagine one having enough space to tell such a story. Perhaps, in describing these runstafas, the poet was not imagining a written text as we would know it today. Perhaps the runes on the sword hilt weren’t meant to be read, but more to prompt the recollection of a particular story. Maybe the runes made by giants were more than just letters — they conveyed something powerful. Maybe the first scribe of Beowulf (only the first of the text’s two scribes used the ethel rune) echoed that power as only a scribe could, by including their own runic abbreviation just a few lines later.

If you’re intrigued by any of these questions, then why not book a place on the Library’s Adult Learning course: Writing in Medieval England, 3–4 August. There are only a few places left, so get your ticket now! Meantime, don’t forget to visit our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, which closes on 27 August.

 

Mary Wellesley