THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

14 posts categorized "Writing"

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')

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f170r

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.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f170r wynn thorn copy

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’). 

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f170r + ethel

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.

Seax

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

31 May 2019

What does a wheelbarrow have to do with Aristotle?

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Visitors to the British Library exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, will no doubt stop to admire a copy of Aristotle’s works on natural sciences, probably made for a medieval student at Oxford University. The careful layout and the perfectly formed gothic handwriting in different styles is impressive, but what will they make of the images on the page?

The page on display shows a decorated letter containing, logically enough, a seated philosopher examining a book and pointing to the heavens. But in the margin there is a man pushing a naked figure in a wheelbarrow, similar to the figures sometimes used to illustrate the fool of Psalm 52, “The fool (insipiens) said in his heart: There is no God” (e.g. in the Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925). What does this scene have to do with Aristotle?

Harley_ms_3487_f022v
Harley_ms_3487_f022v

A philosopher and a man pushing a fool in a wheelbarrow, Aristotle’s Libri naturales, England (Oxford?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Harley MS 3487, f. 22v  

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle were translated into Latin and completely transformed ideas on philosophy and natural science in Western Europe. A number of manuscripts containing works by Aristotle or attributed to him have been digitised in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200 and are referenced in this article https://www.bl.uk/medieval-english-french-manuscripts/articles/medieval-science-and-mathematics.

Despite Church disapproval of the study of ‘pagan’ writings that contradicted its teachings, and the subsequent banning of Aristotle’s works in Paris, they soon became key texts in medieval universities. This book contains a collection of the required reading on the Oxford curriculum, complete with glosses and commentaries in the margins and between the lines of text to provide detailed explanations. But it is the decoration that makes this manuscript unique: it is exceptional for a volume of Aristotle’s works to be so elaborately illustrated at this time. There are 29 historiated initials, one at the beginning of each book or chapter, each representing the text that is to follow. Because there was no earlier tradition of illustrating Aristotle’s texts, the artists had to be innovative. Sometimes they adapted subjects from other genres, and sometimes they invented new ones.

Harley_ms_3487_f004r
Harley_ms_3487_f004r

Books being burned before a king, a friar and others, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 4r

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the initials is the first in the manuscript, on the opening page of Physics. The decorated letter on this page depicts a small child throwing books onto a fire before a king, a friar and other figures.  Scholars have suggested that this scene represents the burning of books of Aristotle’s works in Paris in 1210, while the friar represents the role played by the Franciscans and other preaching orders in teaching Aristotle.

Harley_ms_3487_f161r
Harley_ms_3487_f161r

A windmill and a bird, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 161r

The most well-known image in this manuscript is one of the earliest depictions of a windmill. This is found at the beginning of the book Meteorologica, which includes early accounts of weather phenomena. Here a man is adjusting the direction of a windmill to catch the wind. Beneath, a bird holds a twig in its beak, perhaps referring to the way that birds use the wind in flight.

Now, let’s return to the illustration of a philosopher star-gazing and a fool riding in a wheelbarrow on the page on display in the exhibition. It appears at the beginning of book IV of Physics, which studies the Heavens. A possible interpretation for this image is that it juxtaposes knowledge and foolishness. The seated philosopher inside the letter is looking up at the stars, but above him the fool could be a reminder that too much knowledge leads to madness. But as with many of the marginal images in the manuscript, there are no definite explanations.

Harley_ms_3487_f216r
Harley_ms_3487_f216r

A coat of arms, possibly of a son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford, with one man blowing a horn and another eating, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 216r

This manuscript is an example of the skills that came together in 13th-century Oxford to produce a work that is both educational and entertaining. The thoughtful explanations and interpretations of the text, the remarkable planning and layout, and the innovative decoration and illustration, make it easy and delightful to use. The owner must have been one lucky student, and indeed a likely candidate would be the son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford (fl. c. 1256), member of one of the richest and most powerful families in England at the time.

 

Chantry Westwell

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25 May 2019

How to name a mummy

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The British Library’s landmark exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opened recently. Many unique objects are on display, revealing the uses and ways of writing from the ancient to the modern world. Among them is one small piece encapsulating the story of an entire life.

The item in question is one of the numerous mummy labels housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, who have kindly loaned it to our exhibition.

Mummy1

The mummy label on loan to our Writing exhibition: UC 28078 © Petrie Museum

The tag, written in Ancient Greek between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the current era, reads ‘Bobastous to the gate of Thermouthiakes of the metropolis of the Arsinoite (district)’. It is the name of a person (Bobastous) and an address in Arsinoe, the capital of a district in Graeco-Roman Egypt, which corresponds to the modern Medinet el-Fayum, in Middle Egypt, on the western side of the Nile. This little wooden label was attached to the mummified corpse of Bobastous, in order to identify the body and to ensure that, after mummification, it was delivered to the right address for burial.

Mummy2

‘View of Medinet El-Fayoum’ (1868-1870) by Jean-Léon Gérôme: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Mummy labels are well known from Roman Egypt. They were usually made out of various types of wood, but other materials like faience and stone were also used. The tags could have different shapes, ranging from a tiny stela to a little tablet with one or two ‘ears’ (‘tabula ansata’). Standard forms such as the rectangle are also attested, such as the tag from the Petrie Museum in our exhibition.

The labels usually had one or more holes, through which a string was passed to append the tag to the mummy's neck or feet: the label on display in Writing: Making Your Mark even preserves the original cord.

The tag could bear writing on one or both sides, and two languages — usually Greek and Egyptian (Demotic) — were often employed on the same object. The text was normally drawn in black ink, but it could also be carved. In some cases, red ink was used.

Mummy 4

This tag from the Petrie Museum (UC 45635), a tabula ansata with one ansa, belonged to a certain Didyme: the text is carved and also drawn with ink © Petrie Museum

Mummy 5

A tag on limestone from the Petrie Museum (UC 34473) in Demotic script, written in red ink © Petrie Museum

Each label recorded details of the deceased for the purpose of identification. Alongside the personal name, additional information such as the names of the father and mother, the deceased's place of origin, their profession, and sometimes the age at the time of the death, could also be recorded. In rare occurrences, even the cause of death is stated. For example, one tag now held in Berlin (SB I 1209) reads: ‘Apollonius, son of Eusebes and Tamis, died because of a scorpion’s bite’.

Mummy labels served an important function. It was essential to be able to identify the embalmed corpse, because the body had to be transported to the cemetery or returned to the home village of the deceased (if they had passed away elsewhere). Papyri sometimes shed further light on how mummies were transported. For example, in the British Library's collection is a letter from a man complaining that the recipients had failed to collect the body of the deceased (possibly their brother), and that they did not pay for the funeral expenses (520 drachmas) (Papyrus 717). However, they did take his belongings …

Papyrus_717_f001r

A papyrus describing funeral expenses: Papyrus 717 (P.Nekr. 18)

Besides providing identification and instructions as to the transport and shipping of the body, mummy labels sometimes bear drawings such as the dog Anubis (guardian dog of the cemeteries) and symbols like the ankh (life) or, in a Christian environment, the cross. In other cases, wishes for prosperity, phrases of encouragement and condolence, and maxims (such as ‘nobody is immortal’) were added as a means of commemoration and farewell.

Mummy 6

Anubis holding the key (kleidouchos) to the Underworld and a burning torch in a mummy tag from the Liverpool Museum

Mummy 7

A Petrie Museum label (UC 45656) for Socrate, daughter of Cyrillus, featuring the ankh, the symbol of life © Petrie Museum

The majority of mummy labels published to the present day are collected in a database with the wonderful name Death on the Nile. If you want to see one of them in person, we'd love you to visit our exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, which is open at the British Library until 27 August.

 

Federica Micucci

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