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Medieval manuscripts blog

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

21 August 2017

Total eclipse of the Sun

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On 21 August 2017, American readers of our Blog have the exciting opportunity to witness a full solar eclipse (some of them may even be able to hear Bonnie Tyler singing 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' at the very same time: what more could you want?). Of course, solar and lunar eclipses have been a source of wonder across the centuries, with or without Bonnie Tyler. Since Antiquity, astronomers and astrologers have had a clear understanding of how and why eclipses occur, and they were able to predict their arrival using diagrams and tables. Eclipses were also described by medieval chroniclers, who often interpreted them as an omen.

Our first historical example of an eclipse is found in this 15th-century French manuscript of the History of Alexander the Great. The scene it depicts is not a contemporary one, rather it shows the lunar eclipse which occurred during the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, when Alexander the Great’s army met the Persian army of Darius III. Alexander is shown consulting his astrologers about the eclipse's meaning: the soldiers perhaps interpreted it as a bad omen.

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Miniature of Alexander the Great consulting his astrologers about an eclipse of the sun after the battle of Arbela: British Library Burney MS 169, f. 69r

Early medieval scholars knew that a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Sun and Earth. One of our favourite medieval writers, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede (d. 735), explained this phenomenon in his scientific texts entitled De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things), composed around 703. In the chapter headed 'On the eclipse of the sun and the moon', Bede described how a solar eclipse occurs when the Sun is hidden by the intervention of the Moon, and a lunar eclipse when the Sun, Earth and moon are aligned with Earth in the centre.

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Extract from an 11th-century copy of Bede’s De natura rerum: British Library Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 18r

In some medieval manuscripts, astrological texts are accompanied by diagrams illustrating an eclipse. For example, this diagram, found in  a 14th-century compilation of mathematical and astronomical texts, illustrates the Sun's position in relation to the Earth and Moon.

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Diagram of a solar eclipse: British Library Royal MS 12 C XVII, f. 32r

Elsewhere, we sometimes find diagrams showing the different stages of the Sun's visibility during an eclipse.

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Series of diagrams of solar eclipses: British Library Additional MS 10628, f. 28r

Diagrams of lunar and solar eclipses could also be included in almanacs, alongside calendars and other astrological material. Almanacs were used to predict the movement of the stars and the tides, often during medical consultations. A special kind of folding almanac, favoured by medical practitioners, could be hung from its owner's belt. This folding almanac, produced in the 15th century, contains a series of diagrams of the solar eclipse, based on the Kalendarium of John Somer.

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Diagrams of solar and lunar eclipses: British Library Harley MS 937, f. 8r

For those with no astronomical knowledge, the darkening of the sky during a solar eclipse may have been particularly ominous. People would have heard or read about such events from the Old Testament story of the Plagues of Egypt, describing a darkness that lasted for three days. According to the Gospel of St Matthew, a period of darkness lasting for three hours, accompanied by earthquakes and the raising of the dead, followed the Crucifixion of Christ. These apocalyptic associations were supported by other medieval accounts. For instance, the Middle English copy of The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday found in British Library Harley MS 913, explained that the first sign of the approaching Apocalypse is that the ‘Sun will give no light and will be cast down to Earth – while you now see it [the Sun] as pleasing and bright, it will become as black as coal.'

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The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday: British Library Harley MS 913, f. 20v

You may wish to muse on this as you observe or read about this August's solar eclipse (with or without Bonnie Tyler on your headphones, obviously!). 

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God creating the Sun and the Moon: British Library Additional MS 18856, f. 5v

Becky Lawton and Clarck Drieshen

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20 August 2017

Guess the song 3

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We're on a bit of a (rock and) roll now with our Guess the song competition. But we've decided that the previous ones haven't been devious enough, so this week we are making it ever so slightly trickier.

There are no prizes, just smug satisfaction when you get it right. Simply guess the name of the popular song from the clues provided by these medieval manuscripts. You can send us your suggestions via Twitter or using the comments field below this post. Good luck!

 

Update 21 August: Did you work it out? See below for the answer!

 

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Image 1, from Boccaccio’s Des cleres et nobles femmes 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal 20 C V, f. 54r

 

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Image 2, from Christine de Pizan, Collected works (‘The Book of the Queen’), c. 1410–c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 259v

 

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Image 3, from Boccaccio’s De Claris mulieribus, c. 1440, Royal MS 16 G V, f. 80r

 

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Image 4, from the Alphonso Psalter, c. 1284–1316, Add MS 24686, f. 2r

 

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Image 5, from the Golf Book, c. 1540, Add MS 24098, f. 21v

 

Answer

 

1. Helen of Troy 2. Christine de Pizan teaching 3. Jaia with sculptor's tools 4. St Martin 5. Couple courting

She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge, she studied sculpture at St Martin's College, that's where I caught her eye

= Pulp, 'Common People'!

 

19 August 2017

The Art of the Bible at Edinburgh

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Next Thursday, 24 August, Dr Scot McKendrick (Head of Western Heritage Collections at the British Library) and Dr Kathleen Doyle (Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts) will be speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about their recent publication, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (Thames & Hudson and British Library Publications, 2016). 

Bibles cover

For two millennia the Bible has inspired the creation of art. Within this legacy of remarkable art and beauty, illuminated manuscripts of the Bible offer some of the best evidence for our understanding of early Christian painting and artistic interpretations of the Bible. Scot and Kathleen's book examines 45 illuminated manuscripts from the British Library, ranging from the exquisite Golden Canon Tables, made in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, to a 17th-century Ethiopian Octateuch and Gospels.

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Two decorated arches with a bust portrait, enclosing Canons 8-10 of Eusebius’s canon tables: British Library Additional MS 5111/1, f. 11r

Richly illustrated itself, The Art of the Bible seeks to immerse the reader in the world of illuminated manuscripts of the Bible. Each of the manuscripts featured is a treasure in its own right.

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Jonah is cast overboard from a ship into the mouth of a whale, and disgorged on the shore outside a city, at the beginning of the book of Jonah: British Library Royal MS 1 E IX, f. 232v

Scot and Kathleen will give a short presentation of several highlights from the book, followed by a discussion about it and the Library’s collection of illuminated biblical manuscripts, chaired by Rosemary Burnett.

Tickets and information are available here

 

Kathleen Doyle & Scot McKendrick, 'A Divine Art Collection'

Edinburgh International Book Festival

24 August, 14.15–15.15 (Garden Theatre)

 

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