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Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

27 September 2014

The life and death of Pompey the Great

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Even by the standards of Rome in the first century BC, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus  had an eventful life. The son of Strabo, a man so loathed by the Romans that his body was dragged from its bier during his funeral, Pomey quickly made his own mark on the world and moved beyond the shadow of his infamous father. Plutarch tells us he was helped in this in no small way by the fact that he was quite good-looking, a fact that the illuminator of this historiated initial, in a Latin translation of Plutarch, seems to have taken on board:

 Harley 3485, f190r

Detail of Harley MS 3485, f 190r (Florence, 1470)

A string of military successes ensured Pompey’s accelerated promotion to the consulship at the unusually early age of thirty-five. Shortly after this, he took on the daunting task of ridding the Mediterranean of pirates, who at the time were causing havoc to trade routes across Rome's sphere of influence. Here is a picture of Pompey subduing the pirates:

 

Royal 20 D I f358r
Detail of Royal MS 20 D I, f 358r (Naples, 2nd quarter of the 14th century)

Some time later, Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus formed the First Triumvirate, a political alliance designed to benefit all three. But this alliance was not fated to last, and after the death of Crassus in Parthia in 53 BC, conflict between Pompey and Caesar seemed inevitable.

The story of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar was hugely popular in the middle ages, best known through vernacular accounts of Roman history such as the French Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César  (well represented in the British Library’s collections) and the Irish In Cath Catharda. These draw in part on the epic poem of Lucan, as well as on late antique epitomes of Roman historical works. In a number of medieval accounts, Caesar and Pompey are depicted fighting at close quarters:

 Royal 16 G VII f 339r

Detail of Royal MS 16 G VII, f 339r (Paris, last quarter of the 14th century)

Though a man of outstanding abilities, Pompey was for a bad end. Like many doomed ancient heroes, he had a vision of what was to come in a dream. The ghost of his former wife Julia (the daughter of Julius Caesar) appeared to him and warned him of impending disaster. Here are two images of this dream:

 Royal 20 C I f130v

Detail of Royal MS 20 C I, f 130v (France, 1st quarter of the 15th century)

 

 

Royal16 G VII f305v
Detail of Royal MS 16 G VII, f 305v (Paris, last quarter of the 14th century)

Pompey’s death itself was a sorry affair. After the catastrophic defeat to Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, he made for Egypt. The then king of Egypt, Ptolemy XIII, was persuaded by his advisor Pothinus that Pompey should be executed in order to curry favour with Caesar. In Plutarch’s vivid account of the event, Pompey sailed to shore in a tiny skiff. Just as he reached the shore, and in full view of his men and his wife Cornelia, he was murdered by those in the boat with him:

 Royal17 F II f271r

Detail of Royal MS 17 F II, f 271r (Bruges, 1479)

Plutarch and Lucan tell us that as he was executed he pulled his toga up over his head, something shown in the following picture:

 Royal16 G VIII f310v

Detail of Royal MS 16 G VII, f 310v (Paris, last quarter of the 14th century)

His assassins dumped his body on the shore and took his head away to be presented to Caesar.

 Royal14 E V f318v

Detail of Royal MS 14 E v, f 318v (Bruges, c1479-1480)

-Cillian O'Hogan

23 September 2014

Guess the Manuscript XV

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Roll up, roll up! It's time to try your luck at another Guess the Manuscript, back by popular demand. As always, the rules are straightforward: the image comes from a manuscript that can be found somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts website, and is part of our medieval collections. Leave guesses in the comments below, or via Twitter @BLMedieval. We'll update this post with an answer on Friday, Sep 26.

Image

Update, 25 September: Many congratulations to @yorkherald, who correctly identified this image as the fore-edge from Add MS 27861, a 14th-century Greek Gospel book. You can view it in full on Digitised Manuscripts.

- Cillian O'Hogan

this image comes from a manuscript that is located somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and is part of our medieval collections.  You can leave your guesses in the comments below, or via Twitter @BLMedieval.  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/07/guess-the-manuscript-xiv.html#sthash.85jnxkjw.dpuf
this image comes from a manuscript that is located somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and is part of our medieval collections.  You can leave your guesses in the comments below, or via Twitter @BLMedieval.  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/07/guess-the-manuscript-xiv.html#sthash.85jnxkjw.dpuf

21 September 2014

Virgil's Countryside

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On September 21, 19 BC, Publius Vergilius Maro died of a fever at Brundisium. Though Virgil's birthday, on the Ides of October, is more traditionally the day on which the poet is remembered, we at Medieval Manuscripts can never pass up the opportunity to talk about the man from Mantua.

The finest and most influential of all the Latin poets, it should come as no surprise that his works are well represented in the collections of the British Library. The Libarry's holdings include some eighty-three manuscripts and a single papyrus (Papyrus 2723) – not to mention the many manuscripts containing works about Virgil or translations of his verse.

With such a large collection to choose from, there is a limit to what we can reasonably cover in a single blog post! Many of the Library’s manuscripts of the Eclogues (a collection of pastoral poems) and the Georgics (a didactic poem on farming) are adorned with depictions of country life. An excellent example is Burney 272, created in Germany or Austria c 1473. It opens with a very fine pair of miniatures of Virgil (in the historiated initial ‘T’) and a shepherd (Tityrus?) in the border, at the beginning of the first Eclogue:

Burney MS 272, f 4 detail

Opening of Virgil's Eclogues, detail of Burney MS 272, f 4r.

In this manuscript, the illuminator seems particularly to have been taken by the opportunity to adorn the Georgics: here is an image of a man picking grapes, accompanying the Second Georgic:

Burney 272 f 26 detail

Detail of Burney MS 272, f 26r.

And here is a very modern-looking beehive, on f 43v, accompanying the Fourth Georgic:

Burney MS 272, f  43 detail

Detail of Burney MS 272, f 43v.

Unsurprisingly, the beginning of the Eclogues tends to get a lot of attention. Here is an ink drawing from the mid-14th century of two shepherds, at the beginning of the First Eclogue: the ink has faded so that it is rather difficult to make thm out:

Harley MS 3754, f 1r detail

Detail of Harley MS 3754, f 1r.

Compare this to the majestic ‘King’s Virgil’, Kings MS 24, created in Rome between 1483 and 1485:

Kings MS 24, f 1r

Kings MS 24, f 1r.

Once again, the bee-keeping section of the Georgics is the occasion for a fine illumination:

Kings MS 24, f 47v detail

Detail of Kings MS 24, f 47v.

Even initials provide an opportunity for some thematic illumination: in this early 15th-century Italian manuscript, the opening Q of the Georgics contains a man entangled in some vines:

Harley MS 3963, f 16v detail

Detail of Harley MS 3963, f 16v.

We end with another portrait of the author, hidden in another Q at the beginning of the Georgics:

Sloane MS 2510, f 2r detail

Detail of Sloane MS 2510, f 2r.

- Cillian O'Hogan