27 February 2018
Every child knows that the humble broom is the transport medium of choice for wizards and witches. They use it to fly to the Witches’ Sabbath, although other magical forms of transport are used, too. Why has the image of a witch on a broom taken such a firm hold in our culture? Why a broom and not a bread peel, or a cooking pot, or a pig, or even a cat?
According to art historian Renilde Vervoort two engravings by Pieter Bruegel The Elder were instrumental in imprinting the image of the witch on a broomstick (and her cauldron and black cat) in our collective imaginations.
Images of witchcraft in the 15th-century Low Countries were rare, which may go some way as to explaining their impact. Vervoort lists seven major works with such images produced in the Low Countries between 1420 and 1560. One example of a work that influenced Bruegel greatly is a pen-and ink drawing by the 15th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch, owned by Bruegel who greatly admired Bosch.
The drawing (now in The Louvre) depicts nine women playing around with sticks and brooms and other household utensils. Bosch clearly pokes fun at the silly old women, who are jumping and running about, trying very hard to get airborne, not succeeding very well. The striking thing about this drawing is that there is not a broom in sight, apart from one very short one, held over the shoulder by one of the women.
Hieronymus Bosch, Nine Witches, drawing in ink (Paris, Musée du Louvre). Reproduced in Renilde Vevoort, Vrouwen op den besem en derghelijck ghespoock (Nijmegen, 2012) YF.2012.a.4427
As an aside, this could also point to the belief that witches did not so much use broomsticks, or other sticks for that matter, to fly to the Sabbath, but to conjure up spirits and demons who would take them there. This belief might explain at least in part the origins of the wand.
Enter Bruegel. His engravings ‘St. James Encounters Hermogenes’ (1565) and ‘The Fall of the Magician Hermogenes’, copies of which are held in Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, make a lasting impression on anyone who sees them. They are full of weird and wonderful creatures, very ‘Bosch-like’.
Both engravings have the legend of St. James’s encounter with the magician Hermogenes as subject, a story that was well-known in the Middle Ages. However, nowhere in the story is there any mention of witches, therefore no earlier representations depict any. Bruegel’s does.
‘St. James Encounters Hermogenes’ shows witches on broomsticks, flying up into the air via the chimney, where they join two other witches fighting each other.
‘The Fall of the Magician Hermogenes’. shows only one witch who flies away on a broomstick, which she holds upside down.
It is unclear where Bruegel found his inspiration for the way he represented the legend of St. Jerome and Hermogenes. It may have come from a performance of the Three Apostolic Plays, by the Antwerp Chamber of Rhetoric ‘The Violets’, which showed witches and magicians. What we do know is that his fellow artist, engraver and printer Hieronymus Cock (1518-1570) commissioned the works, most likely also providing the framework for them. Cock must have expected to find a market for the prints. He was right and it is also probably due to the high reputation of both men that the prints spread rapidly, thus establishing the fairly new concept of a witch on a broom.
This concept remains a standard feature in depicting witches and witchcraft to this day.
Witch trials more or less ceased altogether in the Low Countries around 1600, although people from surrounding areas would sometimes find their way to the small town of Oudewater, to be cleared of any accusations in their own countries.
That, however, is a topic for another post.
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
23 February 2018
The current British Library exhibition Harry Potter, a History of Magic features a pack of divination cards produced in the mid-18th century, which include a variety of characters ranging from Proserpina to Copernicus and Dr Faustus to Merlin, the magician and prophet of the British.
Divination playing cards, London, 1750s (British Museum, Dept of Prints and Drawings 1896,0501.942.1-54.+)
Merlin first appeared alongside King Arthur in Latin sources, in particular the Vita Merlini and the Historia Regum Britanniae by the 12th-century writer and chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth. The French Roman de Merlin, written around 1200, which draws on the Historia, considerably develops the story of Merlin. Born as an anti-Christ, the son of a devil, Merlin is gifted with supernatural powers, including shape-shifting. However, his gift of prophecy is of divine inspiration, and despite his troubling origins, Merlin chooses to serve the kings of Britain for the accomplishment of the divine plan.
Merlin (right) and his master Blaise, from L'estoire de Merlin (Saint-Omer, Tournai or Ghent, 1316) Add. MS 10292-94
The British Library collections hold many important manuscripts of the French prose Merlin tradition, including the extensively illuminated 14th-century BL Add. 10292-94, a complete set of the Lancelot-Grail cycle or BL Add. 38117, another illustrated manuscript produced in Northern France which holds the Post-Vulgate version of Merlin’s Sequel.
Merlin as a child prodigy with Kings Uther and Pendragon, from Le Livre de Merlin (Laon or Saint-Quentin, c. 1310 ) Add. MS 38117
Much less known are the illuminations in Antoine Vérard’s 1498 printed edition on vellum of the Livre de Merlin. The first and second volume, illustrated with woodcuts, hold the prose Merlin and its Sequel, and the third holds Merlin’s Prophecies. The later is a French prose text attributed to ‘Master Richard of Ireland’ and written by a Franciscan friar in Venice in the last third of the 13th century. It mixes romance material and political or polemical prophecies in an Italian context.
Antoine Vérard was a prolific Parisian publisher in the late 15th and early 16th century who edited many French texts, including mediaeval romances of chivalry like Lancelot or Tristan. Vérard is well known for the production of deluxe copies printed on vellum and illuminated for royal and aristocratic patrons such as King Charles VIII of France. After the death of Caxton, he became the main provider of French printed books for the developing library of Henry VII of England. This is the origin of the British Library’s exceptional collection of Vérard’s editions on vellum, including the 1498 illuminated Livre de Merlin, in three parts, bound in red velvet (C.22.c.6-8).
Frontispiece from Vérard’s 1498 edition of Merlin on paper. Reproduced in Merlin: 1498, ed. Cedric Pickford (London 1975), vol. 1. X.981/20014
In the paper copies, the illustration of the first and second part of the 1498 Merlin consists of woodcuts re-used from editions of other texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the frontispiece, Jacques Millet’s Destruction de Troye la Grant or the epic Les Quatre fils Aymon: the images are not specifically adapted to Merlin.
However, in the copies of Merlin on vellum, the miniatures created in the workshop of the Master of Jacques de Besançon, though often rather generic, are designed for a closer relationship to the narrative. This customisation appears in the opening illustration which displays the conception of Merlin. Inside a room, a horned devil with animal traits appears in bed with a naked woman and places his hand on her body in a possessing gesture. The background features another aspect of the demonic persecution: winged devils massacre the herds of Merlin’s family.
Merlin features in another illumination in the second volume, when in a side-story he goes to Rome in the shape of a stag. There, he interprets the dream of the emperor Julius Caesar (!) who is both betrayed by his lustful wife and faithfully served by a maiden in disguise (who he eventually marries). The miniature shows Merlin bounding happily through the forests towards the walls of the city.
Merlin as a stag (C.22.c.7; f. 23v)
Interestingly for a work which bears his name, this is the only miniature (out of 22 in the two illuminated volumes) representing the character of Merlin. The illuminations do not depict recurrent scenes from the manuscript tradition like Merlin dictating his story to the hermit Blaise or leading Arthur’s troops on the battlefield. The other images display King Arthur or his nephews led by Gawain, and the different battles they fight against the Saxons or rebelled British barons.
Battle of Clarence (C.22.c.7; f.36v)
This is in line with the text of Merlin’s Sequel, which presents Merlin on the side of Arthur, but also focuses heavily on the heroic deeds of the young king who stands in a duel against the giant Saxon king Rion. Although Arthur is victorious and chases his opponent, the miniature emphasises the size and aggressiveness of Rion.
In the story, Arthur appears in a completely positive light, engaged in a courteous and reciprocal love relationship with Guinevere. A miniature shows the celebration of their betrothal. Two squires bring dishes and drinks to the couple at the ceremonial banquet table. In the romance of Merlin, nothing foreshadows, in the early days of Arthur's reign, the adulterous love of Guinevere and (the as yet unborn) Lancelot.
Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, Curator, Romance collections
Vérard’s 1493 La Bible des poetes, Methamorphoze, along with other BL incunabula and manuscripts, will be on display in Bruges from 1 March - 3 June 2018 at the exhibition Haute Lecture by Colard Mansion
Paul Durrieu, Jacques de Besançon et son œuvre, un grand enlumineur parisien au xve siècle (Paris, 1892). Ac.6883/12.
Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, ‘Les imprimés sur vélin d’Antoine Vérard: d’Ogier le Danois au Merlin de la bibliothèque d’Henry VII enluminé par le maître de Jacques de Besançon (1498)’, Mémoires du livre / Studies in Book Culture, 7 (2015)
Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, ‘Du manuscrit à l'imprimé: les remplois de bois gravés dans l'illustration du Merlin et de sa suite dans l'édition d'Antoine Vérard (1498)’, Viator, 48 (1), 2017 9232.230000
Le livre du Graal. I, Joseph d’Arimathie, Merlin, Les premiers faits du roi Arthur, D. Poirion and P. Walter (dir.). Pléiade, 476. (Paris, 2001) YF.2006.a.5747
John MacFarlane, Antoine Vérard (London, 1900) 2719.x.12601
Merlin: 1498, Cedric Pickford (ed.) (London, 1975) [facsimile of Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, CG 110-112]. X.981/20014
Le Moyen Français, 69 (2011) [Issue devoted to Antoine Vérard]
Les prophecies de Merlin. Edited from Ms. 593 in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Rennes by Lucy A. Paton (New York, 1926). Ac.2683/3.
Jane H. M. Taylor, Rewriting Arthurian Romance in Renaissance France, from Manuscript to Printed Book (Cambridge, 2014). YC.2014.a.12660
Mary Beth Winn, Anthoine Vérard, Parisian Publisher, 1485-1512. Travaux d’humanisme et Renaissance; no. 313. (Geneva, 1997). WP.A.31/313
07 December 2017
The medieval archives of the Crown of Aragon are generally said to be richer than those of neighbouring Castile. They’re an invaluable source for scholars of all aspects of cultural history, including the history of the book.
And of weird stuff.
In the inventory of the goods of Martin I (1356-1410) we find the following treasures: the arm of St George (p. 461); ditto St Barbara (461); and he must have had over 100 pieces of church vestments.
He had the Cid’s sword:
item una spasa ab son pom de jaspi apellada ne tisona sens fouro bo (p. 524)
[Item a sword with a jasper pommel called The Tizona without a good scabbard]
He had a piece of cloth decorated with the magical sign or seal or knot of Solomon:
primo una tovallola de lens prim brodada de fil d aur e de sede de diverses colors ab .IIII. baboyns de fil d or e de sede en mig VII. senyals salamons squinsada (p. 507)
[first, a fine linen cloth embroidered with gold thread and silk in various colours with four baboons in gold thread in the middle of seven signs of Solomon, torn]
A version of the seal of Solomon from Pertus de Abano, Claviculae Salomonis, seu Philosophia pneumatica … (Bifingen, 1974). X.529/17795
Even these apparently harmless references to items showing the Armed Man turn out, as explained by Joan Evans, in her study, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance particularly in England, to be amulets: “in many instances those [stones] that include figures of armed men confer courage and victory in battle” (p. 49), “for alectorias, for instance, the sigil of an armed knight and consecration by nine masses is prescribed” (p. 71):
item una bossa de vellut carmesi dins la qual ha Ia empremte o ymatge pocha de I. hom qui te una spasa en la ma e un cap tellat en l altre ab un cordo de seda vermeya (p. 491)
[item a bag of carmine velvet in which is a small impression or image of a man with a sword in one hand and a detached head in the other with a red cord]
Carved gems for use as amulets, from, Johann Martin von Ebermayer, Capita Deorum et illustrium hominum ... nec non Hieroglyphica, Abraxea et Amuleta quædam, in gemmis antiqua partim, partim recenti manu, affabre incisa (Frankfurt, 1721). 139.g.11.
There are nine or so references to “serpents’ teeth”. These were actually prehistoric arrow heads or fossils, and were used to test food for poison. Martin had some mounted on a branching piece of coral, to form what in English we call by the French name of languier:
item diversos trosos de branchas d coral ab algunes lengues de serps encastades en argent (p. 528)
[item various pieces of coral branches with some serpent’s teeth set in silver]
Coral was used as a teething ring, because it too was thought to have protective powers:
item una brancha de coral ab una virolla d argent per a portar a infants (p. 490)
[item a coral branch with a golden ring for children to wear]
And how could he fail to have:
item .I. tros de unicorn encastat en .I.a virolla d aur ab son cordo vermey (p. 541)
[item a piece of unicorn set in a gold ring with its red cord]
As Roca tells us, citing a letter of 1379, unicorn horn too was proof against poison : “la qual val contra verí” (p. 54).
Unicorns, from Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux (Paris, 1694) 37.h.7.
Martin wasn’t some dark-age wizard who crammed his palace with superstitious rubbish, although he might have been unduly afraid of poisoning. He was also a patron of medical schools in the modern sense, and it’s likely many of these gewgaws were family heirlooms, as they also appear in the inventory of James II (1267-1327), his great grandfather. And these old beliefs died hard and in the 1720s the existence of the unicorn was still a matter of debate.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies
J. Massó Torrents, ‘Inventari del bens del rey Martí d’Aragó’, Revue Hispanique, 12 (1905), 413-590. PP.4331.aea
J. M. Roca, La medicina catalana en temps del Rey Martí (Barcelona, 1919) YA.1990.a 16394
Joan Evans, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance particularly in England (Oxford, 1922) W2/7263
You can discover many more magical artefacts in our current exhibition Harry Potter: a History of Magic, which runs until 28 February 2018
13 November 2017
Did you have to hand in your wand when you came to the British Library to see Harry Potter: A History of Magic? There’s a reason for that.
When Arnau de Cabrera entered judicial combat with Bernat de Centelles in Barcelona in 1274, both parties had to declare before King Jaume I “I swear I am carrying no magical weapons” [quod non deferebant aliquid quod haberet virtutem].
Mediaeval knights in combat from Jean d'Arras, Roman de Mélusine, c. 1450. MS Harley 4418, f. 56.
Arnau de Cabrera however denounced his opponent for bearing the sword of Vilardell: no-one who bore it could be defeated or killed [“portavit ensem de Villardello, qui quidem ensis habet virtutem ut nullus subcumbere vel superari possit qui illum in bello detulerit”]. It also had the quality that if it was put point down it righted itself.
Apparently, Bernat’s father, like any good parent, had bought the sword for him for 500 maravedis. He had also asked the Prior of St Paul’s in Barcelona for a shirt which again prevented its owner from being vanquished in battle.
And what’s more Bernat was wearing an iron cap which contained a precious stone called diamas, supplied by his brother Gilabert: the bearer’s bones could not be broken.
The king found for Arnau.
The Sword of Vilardell acquired its powers because it was forged at a particularly propitious astrological conjunction.
Relief from Barcelona Cathedral showing Vilardell fighting a griffin with his magical sword. (Photograph by Pere López from Wikimedia Commons.
The sword’s original owner, Vilardell, went out one day with an ordinary sword to cut wood. He did a kind deed for a poor man who replaced his old sword with a new one and then disappeared. Vilardell tested the new sword by splitting a rock with it (still to be seen) and then slayed a dragon. So in the early accounts it was a holy weapon not a magic one.
The sword eventually found its way to the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, where you can see it.
Virtually nobody in the Middle Ages doubted the existence of magic, or its efficacy. What the Church for instance objected to was the use of magic for evil ends.
Modern-day surveillance equipment will (hopefully) pick up any concealed weapons, but magic ones (and I don’t want to alarm you) might be beyond its reach.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies
Martí de Riquer, Llegendes històriques catalanes (Barcelona, 2000) YA.2001.a.38498
Robert Bartlett, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Oxford, 1988) YC.1988.a.7138