Medieval manuscripts blog

17 posts categorized "Writing"

23 July 2019

Reading the runes in Beowulf (so seaxy)

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

31 May 2019

What does a wheelbarrow have to do with Aristotle?

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

25 May 2019

How to name a mummy

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

12 May 2019

Homer in London

Currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library are these two images of Hercules, one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. They are found in manuscripts of the Histoire Universelle, a medieval history in French of the ancient world from Genesis to the Romans. The Histoire also features the legends of Ulysses and the Trojan wars, which were very popular in the Middle Ages and were widely adapted, translated and illustrated for medieval audiences. (You can read more about this subject in our previous blogpost about the legend of Troy.)

A manuscript page showing, in the bottom margin, a meeting between Hercules and the Amazons

Meeting between Hercules and the Queen of the Amazons, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Naples, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 D I, f. 25v

A manuscript showing a battle between Hercules and Antaeus

Battle between Hercules and Antaeus, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Acre, 1275–1291): Add MS 15268, f. 104v

Our Greek manuscripts website includes this video of Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Kings College London, talking about the importance of the Iliad and the Odyssey from Antiquity to the early modern era. The works of Homer are also the focus of two courses being held in London this July, one at the British Library and the other at University College London. Both courses will use digitised manuscripts of Homer’s works to explore how classical works were  transmitted during the Middle Ages.

Writing the Greek Classics at the British Library: 19 June, 26 June and 3 July, 10 July, 17 July (14.00–16.00)

This five-week course will examine the long-documented history of the Greek language and its writing systems, and of Greek classical texts including Homer, which have been part of the education and literary production of the West for centuries.

A page in the Townley Homer

A text page with marginal annotations, in the ‘Townley Homer’: Burney MS 86, f. 3r

The British Library has 11 manuscripts of the Iliad (see our previous blogpost, Hooray for Homer). They include the Townley Homer, an 11th-century copy of the Iliad with extensive marginal and interlinear notations or scholia, which show how earlier scholars studied and interpreted the text. The manuscript's former owner, Charles Townley (1737–1805), even had an engraving of a bust of Homer (as well as one of himself) inserted at the beginning of the manuscript.

 

UCL Summer School in Homer 2019: 22–26 July 2019

A palaeography course, introducing the history of Latin scripts from ancient Rome to the invention of printing, will be taught as one of the modules of the University College London’s summer school on Homeric language and literature. Classical texts, especially Homer and related works like Virgil’s Aeneid will be used for transcription.

The British Library has one of only 15 surviving manuscripts of the Ilias Latina, a short Latin summary of the Illiad, attributed to one Publius Baebius Italicus in the time of the emperor Nero. This work, which omits or elaborates many of the Homeric episodes, became part of the medieval school curriculum and had a significant impact on the history and transmission of the Trojan story.  

A manuscript page with a diagram of the Wheel of Fortune

A diagram of the Wheel of Fortune illustrating Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, in a collection of works from late Antiquity that includes the Ilias Latina: Add MS 15601, f. 49v 

This copy of the Ilias Latina, from the late 10th or early 11th century, is written in Caroline minuscule. It was owned in the 15th century by the wealthy and prestigious monastery of the Celestines in Avignon.

A much later Greek copy of the Odyssey, the 15th-century Harley MS 5673, has marginal translations and annotations in Latin on some of its pages. This manuscript was bought by Edward Harley, the Georgian collector, for his magnificent library, described by Samuel Johnson as ‘excelling any’, and it entered the British Library as part of the Harley manuscript collection.

The Odyssey with marginal notes in Greek and Latin

The Odyssey with marginal notes in Greek and Latin: Harley MS 5673, f. 8r

You may also like to know that a variety of ancient scripts, including manuscripts of the classical authors, Aristotle and Cicero, are on display in our new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, open throughout the summer, until 27 August, 2019.

 

                                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 May 2019

How many alphabets?

The exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, exploring 5,000 years of writing across the globe, is on at the British Library until 27 August. But how many different ways of writing were there?

The manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project were mostly written in medieval Latin, English and French, and in the Roman alphabet; but we have found all kinds of alphabets and sign systems among their leaves, including ciphers, monastic sign language, and many more.

Many Christian scholars in early medieval western Europe might not have been able to read Greek and Hebrew, but they were aware of their importance as the original languages of the Bible. (You can read more about their understanding of Hebrew.) Certain scribes attempted to copy out these alphabets. One such example is found in an 11th-century compilation of scientific works by writers such as Hrabanus Maurus and Isidore of Seville. The scribe copied approximations of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, with the letter names in Latin, but apparently didn’t understand them, as the two alphabets are mixed up with each other.

A version of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets

A version of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets from Salisbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 45r

Another, somewhat more accurate, example is found in a collection called Scutum Bede, compiled by Geoffrey of Ufford in the 12th century, and made up of historical and grammatical treatises, including lists of kings, a biblical world history, and a trilingual list of animals, plants and stones. This page gives the Hebrew and Greek alphabets together with their names in Latin.

The Hebrew and Greek alphabets

The Hebrew and Greek alphabets in the Scutum Bede collection of historical and grammatical works, perhaps from Peterborough, c. 1154: Stowe MS 57, f. 3r

Biblical knowledge was not the only source of alternative alphabets. Before Latin literacy was common in England, the runic alphabet was sometimes used for writing inscriptions. The runic letters þ (th) and ƿ (w) were subsequently added to the Roman alphabet, as they were necessary for writing the sounds of English. The 11th-century scientific compilation already mentioned includes three different versions of a runic alphabet, followed by the words ‘pax vobiscum et salus pax’ ('peace and health be with you, peace').

Three runic alphabets

Three runic alphabets, in a manuscript from Salisbury: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 65r.

Another ancient alphabet is Ogham, used for inscribing stone monuments, usually in Old Irish. The scribe of the Scutum Bede had a go at this: each sign is shown alongside runic letters.

Ogham-style signs and runic letters

Ogham-style signs and runic letters, perhaps from Peterborough: Stowe MS 57, f. 3v.

Another writing system was specifically designed for the manuscript page. Tironian notes were attributed to Tiro, the slave and personal secretary to Cicero, and were a kind of shorthand for representing different Latin letters and words. Some of these symbols ended up being used in place of common words in Latin: for example, the symbol ‘7’ was adopted in Old English to mean ‘and’. But there were entire lexicons full of Tironian symbols, including these two manuscripts digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

A page of Tironian notes

A lexicon of Tironian notes from western France, 10th century: Add MS 21164, f. 3r.

A page of Tironian notes

Another lexicon of Tironian notes from central France, 9th century: Add MS 37518, f. 27r

If a scribe had enough knowledge of Tironian notes, they could copy out the entire Psalter in them. This image is from the opening of Psalm 50, ‘Miserere mei Deus’ (‘Have mercy on me, O God’), which, as the rubric in the Roman alphabet explains, was attributed to David after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba. You can see the manuscript in Writing: Making Your Mark.

A Psalter written in Tironian notes

A Psalter written in Tironian notes, from north-eastern France, 4th quarter of the 9th century:  Add MS 9046, f. 24v.

Finally, there is the list of symbols found in the Cosmographia, an 8th-century work supposedly by  Aethicus Ister, which describes a journey around the world. One 12th-century copy of the text ends with an alphabet attributed to Aethicus Ister, but it is not one which is known to have been used. So even an entirely fictional alphabet can be found in a manuscript from medieval England.

The alphabet of Aethicus Ister

The alphabet of Aethicus Ister, with the letter names written out in the Roman alphabet, England, mid-12th century: Cotton MS Appendix LVI, f. 90r.

 

Kate Thomas

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

Bibliotheque nationale de France logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

08 May 2019

Keep taking the (wax) tablets

The British Library's new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, celebrates all forms of writing over the last 5,000 years. It focuses not only on the very outcome of the act of writing, the written document itself, but more broadly on the various tools used to create the written word.

Image of a writing desk

Image of a writing desk from a Byzantine gospel book (Constantinople, 12th century): Burney MS 19, f. 1v

Besides the various types of pens, quills and pencils, one of the earliest and most popular writing tools, used for more than five millennia, is the stylus. The name comes from the Latin word stilus, meaning 'a stake'. It refers to a small, pointed instrument made of metal, wood or bone, used by the Romans for writing upon wax tablets.

Tablets of the Ten Commandments

Tablets of the Ten Commandments in Laurent d'Orléans, La Somme le Roi (Paris, c. 1295): Add MS 54180, f. 5v

The term 'tablet' can cover a variety of writing materials. One perhaps thinks of a stone with writing carved onto it, such as the two tablets of the Ten Commandments said to have been carved by God. However, it was not only iconic pieces of inscribed stones that were employed in this way in Antiquity, since tablets made of wood or wax were more commonly in use.

Zachariah writing on a tablet

Zachariah writing on a tablet in the Benedictional of Æthelwold (England, 963–984): Add MS 49598, f. 92v

The earliest surviving wooden writing tablet was recovered from a 3,500-year-old shipwreck near Kaş, in modern Turkey, in 1986. They were not in common use until about 715BC with the Neo-Assyrians in Mesopotamia. In the 7th century BC, the Greeks set up a community in Egypt from where the next oldest tablet was found, although it does not appear that the Egyptians themselves actually used such tablets. They became more common in the Roman Empire, surviving in considerable quantities from Egypt to Britain. Wooden tablets would have been written on with pen and ink, similar to a sheet of papyrus or a page of parchment.

The alphabet in a teacher's notebook

The alphabet in a teacher’s notebook (Egypt, 2nd century AD): Add MS 37533 (4)

Documents on wooden tablets were usually ephemeral in nature. Pieces written for or at school are the most common survivors, such as teachers' notebooks, children's homework or private letters (such as the famous Vindolanda tablets excavated from Hadrian’s Wall).

A student's Greek shorthand notes

A student’s Greek shorthand notes in wax (Egypt, 2nd century): Add MS 33270

The earliest documented use of wax tablets dates from Italy in the 7th century BC. The Etruscans used them not only for writing but also as amulets. Their wider use started with the Greeks, who were great beekeepers and had plenty of beeswax at their disposal. For a short period, there was a ban on the export of papyrus from Egypt, meaning that wax tablets were in regular use. Styluses would have been employed to scratch letters in the smooth wax.

Most tablets were made from the sandarac tree (Tetraclinis articulata, a member of the cypress family) or from boxwood. A flat, rectangular block would have been hollowed out and filled with wax, often black or natural or with a sooty coating, so that the lighter colour showed through when written on.

A Greek writing exercise from Egypt

A Greek writing exercise from Egypt, 2nd century AD: Add MS 34186

Wax tablets were used in similar contexts as their wooden counterparts. Cheap and easy to re-use, wax tablets were ideal for teaching children to write. The item shown here, approximately the size of a modern iPad, is a homework-book used about 1,800 years ago at a Greek school in Egypt. The teacher wrote out two lines of a maxim on the top of the tablet, which were to be copied out by the child at home. The pupil tried their best but made several mistakes: the first letter in the first line ('C') was missed out twice, the last letter of the line ran over the margin, and the last line became compressed.

A Roman bronze stylus

A Roman stylus (the shaft is modern)

A Roman bronze stylus

(1) A Roman bronze stylus found in the River Fleet; (2) a Roman stylus with a separate greenstone writing point and bronze eraser (the wooden shaft is modern); (3) a Roman bronze stylus with five gold bands found in the Roman Senate in the mid-19th century (photos courtesy of the Museum of Writing Research Collection, University of London)

Thanks to a generous loan from the Museum of Writing Research Collection of the University of London Senate House, Writing: Making Your Mark displays the tools children may have used to do their homework 2,000 years ago. The sharp end of an iron stylus was used to write, while the blunt end was heated over a flame and used to erase mistakes or smooth the wax for reuse. The styluses were often stored with the tablets themselves: the last part of a set of tablets often contained a little groove in which to store the stylus.

A set of wax tablets with a groove to hold the stylus

The last part of a set of bound wax tablets with a groove to store the stylus (Egypt, 2nd century): Add MS 33270 (9)

How would words be erased from a wax tablet? Alan Cole, the consultant of the Museum of Writing Research Collection, has experimented as follows: 'I used original, Roman metal styli and an original Roman lamp. I held the stylus in my thumb and forefinger about a centimetre and a quarter from the flat end and held it in the tip of the flame until I began to feel the warmth.  It was then at the optimum temperature to erase a few characters. This worked for iron and bronze. Not advisable for silver, gold, wood or bone! To erase a whole tablet of characters, hold the tablet upside-down, just above the tip of the flame, and gently move the wax over it until the surface is about at melting point and then remove it from the flame and with the tablet wax side up either move the tablet in a slight see-saw movement or gently go over the surface with a warmed stylus. Personally, I use a blow-torch!'

On 20 May the British Library is hosting a one-day conference featuring the latest research on our tablets and the different kinds of things people wrote on wood, wax and metal, from homework to charms and letters.

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

 

Peter Toth and Alan E. Cole (Hon Consultant, Museum of Writing Research Collection, University of London)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

25 April 2019

Writing the story of writing: a new exhibition

On 26 April a new landmark exhibition opens at the British Library. Its theme is broad but it is also personal and intimate: Writing: Making Your Mark traces the incredible story of how we write.

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of the Evangelist St Luke sitting and writing at a desk.

Writing on a page: a portrait of St Luke the Evangelist from a 12th-century Byzantine gospel-book: Add MS 5112/1

Jotting notes, sending texts, typing emails — all are part of our daily lives. Writing surrounds us. It lets us communicate with people we don’t see and may never meet. It allows our great-grandparents to talk to us from the past through their handwritten letters and postcards. Through it, we can leave messages to future generations which they may or may not read. We take all this for granted without necessarily being aware that, with every single letter we put down, we are part of the 5000-year story of writing.

The reverse of a papyrus, showing a text written in hieroglyphs.

Hieroglyphs from the back of a 2nd or 3rd-century Greek papyrus: Papyrus 2

Writing: Making your Mark is an opportunity to think about this amazing human invention and the incredible journey made by writing worldwide in the last 5 millennia. From ancient cuneiform tablets, carved hieroglyphs, long papyrus scrolls and gold-blazed parchment leaves to printed and typewritten pages or computer screens, we reflect on how writing has changed they ways we think, feel and see the world.

A figure of a sphinx made from sandstone, with writing inscribed on the base.

One of the oldest attestations of an alphabetic system survives on the base of this sphinx, with the ancestors of our letter 'M' (as water on the right) and 'a' (as the ox-head) next to it (Sinai, 1800 BCE): British Museum EA 41748 (courtesy of the British Museum)

Writing: Making Your Mark is a remarkable opportunity to display some of our ancient and medieval treasures in a new light and in a global context, surrounded by examples from other periods and cultures.

A 2nd-century wax tablet, inscribed with lines of Greek text.

A Greek wax tablet with a child’s homework, written in Egypt in the 2nd century AD: Add MS 34186(1)

A 2,000-year old Greek homework-book illustrates the humble beginnings of a career in writing. A prosaic document, recording the sale of only a twelfth part of a land and house in Ravenna, is the longest intact papyrus in the British Library. Its script, written at times rather carelessly by a notary called John, shows letter-forms developed by the Roman imperial administration, which mark the beginnings of our lower-case letters and are direct predecessors of the characteristic insular script of early medieval England.

A detail from a papyrus, showing writing in Latin.

Detail from the Ravenna Papyrus, AD 572, with the scribe recording his name ('scribsi ego Johannis') using the 'lower-case' letters of the New Roman cursive: Add MS 5412

One of the earliest examples of the new script developed in the court of Charlemagne in the late 8th century shows us the roots of the New Roman typeface, that went on to the printed page in the early 16th century and then on to our screens as Times New Roman.

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing the text of a theological treatise written in Latin.

An example of Carolingian minuscule from a manuscript of Theodulf of Orléans's De Spiritu Sancto, made between 809 and 816: Harley MS 3024, f. 33r

The exhibition concludes by looking at the future of writing, asking how humankind will make its mark in the coming years. Come and join us on this amazing journey.

Writing: Making Your Mark will be open at the British Library from 26 April to 27 August 2019.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 April 2019

Fortune-telling the ancient way

Will I have a long life? Am I going to find the person I want? Am I to become successful? If you’ve asked these questions about your future, keep on reading, as we might have the answer for you, from ancient times.

The reverse of a papyrus, showing a text written in Ancient Greek.

The ‘Oracles of Astrampsychus’ (Sortes Astrampsychi): Papyrus 2461 verso

The British Library's collections include a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt, that contains part of the so-called ‘Oracles of Astrampsychus’ (Sortes Astrampsychi) (Papyrus 2461 verso). This is an oracle book that provides answers to a fixed set of questions of a personal nature. Among the questions preserved in our papyrus are the following:

‘Am I to find what is lost?’

‘Am I to recover from my illness?’

‘Will I come to terms with my masters?’

‘Shall I have a baby?’

‘Am I to profit from the affair?’

‘Will I become a senator?’

‘Have I been poisoned?’

‘Shall I be a fugitive?’ (and, if so) ‘Will my flight be undetected?’

‘Am I to be separated from my wife?’

This text originated in the 2nd century AD and comprises 92 questions (numbered from 12 to 103) and 103 sets of ten answers (decades). By adding the number of the chosen question to a number between one and ten, randomly given by the customer — clearly divinely inspired — the fortune-teller would look up a table of correspondences. This would lead to a specific decade, and the random number provided by the inquirer would then identify the final response. This papyrus does not preserve any of the decades of responses, but other papyri do, such as P.Oxy. LXVII 4581.

Another fortune-telling practice attested in Roman Egypt relied on the so-called Homeromanteion (‘Homer oracle’) or ‘Scimitar’, a name attested in another papyrus from Oxyrhynchus (P.Oxy. LVI 3831). This same papyrus also provides instructions on how to use the oracle.

‘First, you must know the days on which to use the Oracle; second, you must pray and speak the incantation of the god and pray inwardly for what you want; third, you must take the dice and throw it three times.’ (translated by P. J. Parsons)

The sequence of the three numbers obtained allows one to identify a corresponding Homeric verse, which would be introduced by the same sequence. For example, if one gets 4, 6, 3, the sequence 463 corresponds to Odyssey XX 18:

Have courage, heart. You have endured far worse.

A detail from a Greek papyrus, showing a broken line of text.

Broken line from Papyrus 121, with Od. XX 18 introduced by the sequence 463

The British Library holds one of the three papyri that preserve this text: Papyrus 121 is a magical handbook written on a roll over two metres long, with the Homeromanteion placed at the beginning.

A column of a Greek text, written on a papyrus.

Last column of the Homeromanteion from Papyrus 121

If you want to dispel your doubts, we suggest you either do it the old-fashioned way — by casting the dice three times, identifying the sequence of numbers, and reading the corresponding Homeric verse in Papyrus 121 — or, if you have no dice to hand, there is also an online simulator.

If you are eager to learn more about the use of writing in relation to divination, don’t miss the British Library's major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, which opens on 26 April.

 

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs