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224 posts categorized "Featured manuscripts"

01 July 2014

A Calendar Page for July 2014

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For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

The aristocratic pleasures of April and May have been left far behind in these pages for the month of July.  Set amongst a riot of red flowers (perhaps characteristic of this month) is a roundel in which two peasants are kneeling and harvesting the wheat crop.  Behind them is a peasant’s hut and what may be a cathedral in the background, while overhead, lightning strikes as a summer storm rolls in.   On the next folio, beneath the continuation of saints’ days for June, is a roundel containing a bushy-tailed lion, for the zodiac sign Leo, within a frame of similarly-threatening clouds.  Below him is a shepherd, standing in a rather downcast manner among his flock (he is not as unlucky as our April shepherd, however), which his dog relaxes in the foreground.

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Calendar page for July, with a roundel miniature of people working in the fields, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 7v

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Calendar page for July, with a roundel miniature of a shepherd with his flock, with the zodiac sign Leo, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 8r

- Sarah J Biggs

28 June 2014

Art and Alchemy

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Attention all budding alchemists!  Four of the British Library’s ‘Ripley Scrolls’ (Add MS 5025) are the latest additions to our Digitised Manuscripts website. They are currently on loan to the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf as part of an exhibition on ‘Art and Alchemy: The Mystery of Transformation’ until 10 August, starring alongside works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens and many others.

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Detail of a man (?George Ripley) in rustic dress, bearing a staff with a horse’s hoof, from the Ripley Scrolls, late 16th/early 17th century,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

Based on The Compound of Alchemy of George Ripley (d. c. 1490) and other pseudo-scientific texts, these scrolls are intriguing, bizarre and perplexing in equal measure.  They date from around the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the seventeenth century, however their origins are unknown.  An inscription on the second scroll records that ‘This long Rolle was Dra[ur]ne for me in Cullers at Lubeck in Germany  Anno 1588’ – however, two other scrolls bear a similar note, so neither the date nor the location may be established with any certainty.

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Detail of a hermetic illustrating stages in the alchemical process and the revelation of alchemical wisdom,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

The scrolls illustrate stages in the alchemical process of preparing the philosopher’s stone, which was needed to turn base metals into gold.  The scrolls give visual form to the furnaces, flasks and other paraphernalia its practitioners were supposed to use.  They also contain emblematic imagery whose meaning remains obscure to scholars as well as more familiar symbols, such as the zodiac.

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Detail of a zodiac diagram enclosing two dragons, a sun and a moon,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

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Detail of an alchemist, probably Hermes Trismegistus, holding a hermetic flask,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

The large figure at the top of the second, third and fourth scrolls probably represents Hermes Trismegistus, the ancient and likely mythical author of hermetic texts that later formed the basis of alchemical experimentation in the medieval and early modern periods. Alchemists (often holding flasks or overseeing experiments) are depicted throughout the scrolls, alongside symbolic figures of unknown significance. Labels on some of these figures suggest they represent the elements that alchemists sought to transpose during their experiments.

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Detail of alchemists holding flasks,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

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Detail of symbolic men and a woman surrounded by flasks, within an enclosure decorated with a dragon vomiting a frog,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

Alongside them is an array of fantastical and grotesque anthropomorphic creatures: a woman with the tail of a dragon, a Bird of Hermes (a bird with the head and torso of a human), and a winged dragon with female features (perhaps representing Satan). There are also real and mythical creatures worthy of any medieval bestiary: toads and frogs, dragons aplenty, lions, and a cockatrice.

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Detail of a Bird of Hermes,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

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Detail of a dragon with a cockatrice perched on its head,
Add MS 5025, f. 1r.

George Ripley was an Augustinian canon of Bridlington. He claimed to have studied at the University of Louvain, and there is evidence to indicate connections with Edward IV beyond Ripley’s dedication of The Compound to the king. Another British Library manuscript, Cotton MS Vitellius E X, contains a drawing of Ripley’s tomb at Bridlington, upon which alchemical symbols feature prominently, indicating the integration of alchemy with medieval Christianity.

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Detail of an alchemical distillation furnace,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

Seventeen other Ripley scrolls are known to survive, scattered across institutional collections in Britain and the United States. Recent studies have concentrated on comparative study of the different designs found on these scrolls. The four that make up Add MS 5025 represent each of the three main designs – and their availability on Digitised Manuscripts constitutes an important scholarly resource for the study of alchemy in the late medieval and early modern periods. There are two further Ripley Scrolls held at the British Library: Add MS 32621 and Sloane MS 2524A.

- James Freeman

26 June 2014

A Well-Travelled Medieval Map

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In a blog post back in January (An Even Older View of the New World) we mentioned the Map Psalter, one of our manuscripts that had travelled all the way to Australia for an exhibition of maps in Canberra.  The exhibition, Mapping our World: Terra Incognita to Australia, is now over and we are happy to say that the Psalter, Add MS 28681 (and the other manuscripts that went with it) has returned safely to it shelf in the manuscripts storage at the British Library. And it is now fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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Psalter World Map, England, c. 1265, Add MS 28681, f. 9r

The Map Psalter gets its name from a very detailed map of the world on the first page, dating from the mid-13th century, one of the most important maps to survive from this period.  The world is represented as a flat circle, with Jerusalem in the middle.  The upper part of the circle is occupied by Asia, and the lower half divided into two quarters for Europe and Africa. Beneath Jerusalem it is quite easy to make out the names Roma, Grecia,  Dalmatia, Burgundia, etc.  The countries of the British Isles are discernable in the lower left quadrant, and despite the very limited space available one can make out rivers such as the Thames and Severn, and London is marked with a gold dot.

So, while the map is not accurate in our sense, it shows the places that were of interest to the people using it, and of course, most importantly, the earth is presided over by Christ and two angels: it is very much God’s creation.

There are indications that this manuscript was made in London and it has been suggested that the map may even be a miniature version of one that is known to have been painted on the wall of King Henry III’s bed-chamber in the Palace of Westminster.

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Psalter World Diagram, England, c. 1265, Add MS 28681, f. 9v

On the verso of the world map is this diagram of Christ with angels, holding a globe divided into the three continents containing the names of the principal kingdoms and cities of Asia, Europe, and Africa.

The two diagrams are followed by a table and then the calendar, which allows us to date the manuscript to after 1262, the year in which Richard of Chichester was made a saint, as he appears among the saints in the calendar page for June. Other saints in the calendar, for example the relatively obscure St Erkenwald, a seventh-century Bishop of London, added to the style of the decoration, seem to indicate that the book was probably made in or near that city.

 The Psalms are decorated with historiated initials at the major divisions, including this image of Jonah at the beginning of Psalm 68.  He must have known he was going swimming as he has taken off all his clothes, and yet he clutches vainly at a tree while the whale has him by the foot – poor Jonah!

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Jonah and the Whale, England, c. 1265, Add MS 28681, f. 82v

At the beginning of Psalm 97, the initial ‘C’ of ‘Cantate’ contains these three monks, who seem to be singing with great gusto, thoroughly enjoying themselves:

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Monks singing, England, c. 1265, Add MS 28681, f. 116v

Following the Psalter-proper are petitions and collects, and then the Psalter of the Virgin or Ave Psalter, preceded by this full page image of the Virgin and Christ enthroned, with the Virgin’s feet resting on a lion. The Christ-child is in a curiously contorted pose, playing with his mother’s hair:

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Virgin and Christ enthroned, England, c. 1265, Add MS 28681, f. 190v

There follow a series of prayers to the Cross in Anglo-Norman French (ff. 212-217), whereas the rest of the Psalter is in Latin. At this time French was still the language of the English court.

A series of 6 full page miniatures on a gold background of scenes from the New Testament were added to the front of the Psalter.  They are different in style to the decoration within the Psalter, but date from the same period, or slightly later.  This one shows the Nativity with Christ in a chalice-shaped manger.

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The Nativity, England, 1275-1300 Add MS 28681, f. 4r

Welcome back to the Map Psalter!

- Chantry Westwell

24 June 2014

A Greek New Testament Reunited

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The third phase of the British Library Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project began in April of this year. Over the next twelve months we will be adding over 300 more Greek items to Digitised Manuscripts. While the first batch will go live at the end of June, today we thought we’d give you an early glimpse at the project. We have just uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts two very special manuscripts of the New Testament, Add MS 28815 and Egerton MS 3145. These items are a fitting place to start our project since they were once part of the same manuscript (Gregory-Aland 699).

The manuscript itself was created in the mid-10th century, probably in Constantinople. It originally contained portraits of the four Evangelists, one before each Gospel, but now only the portraits of Luke and John survive (along with another bonus portrait of Luke placed before the Acts of the Apostles):

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Miniature of Luke, from a New Testament (imperfect), Constantinople, mid-10th century, Add MS 28815, f. 76v

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Miniature of John, Add MS 28815, f. 126v

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Miniature of Luke, Add MS 28815, f. 162v

In addition, it seems as though the manuscript originally contained chapter titles written in gold on purple parchment. These leaves were mostly torn out, but two stubs remain between f. 75 and f. 76, and traces of the chapter titles can still be seen. Unfortunately, for conservation reasons it was only possible to image the first of these two stubs.

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Detail of a stub of purple parchment, Add MS 28815, f. 75*r

Both manuscripts are also blessed with interesting bindings: Egerton MS 3145, when it arrived at the British Museum, was housed in a binding of stamped brown leather over beech boards, covered with green velvet (now kept as Egerton MS 3145/1). This binding however seems to have been made for a larger manuscript.

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Binding previously attached to Egerton MS 3145, Egerton MS 3145/1

The cover of Add MS 28815, however, has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly attention. Affixed to the binding are silver-gilt plates worked with figures. While these are post-Byzantine, they probably were based on a 14th-century template. In the centre is a gilt plate with the figures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. The plates at the top and the bottom depict the four Evangelists and Peter and Paul. The plates on the side have proven more controversial: it was long believed that they depicted the overthrow of the heretics Nestorius and Noetus. In a recent article, however, Andreas Rhoby has argued that they actually depict scenes from the life of St Demetrius. As always, you can find out more on the British Library catalogue entry, with further bibliography.

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Binding of Add MS 28815

We can’t end without giving some background as to how these two manuscripts came to be in the British Library. Add MS 28815-28830 were acquired from Ivor Guest, 1st Baron Wimborne, in 1871. While the exact provenance of Guest’s manuscripts is not entirely clear, two (Add MS 28817 and Add MS 28821) can be located in the general region of Epirus, while the iconography and binding of Add MS 28820 and to a lesser extent Add MS 28819 may point to origins in that same area. It is quite likely that the entire collection was acquired in Epirus, probably in Janina.

Egerton MS 3145 was formerly in the possession of Angelina, Baroness Burdett-Coutts, who acquired a large quantity of manuscripts at around the same time through the intermediary of the Reverend Reginald Barnes, from a dealer in Janina. After the death of Burdett-Coutts’ husband, about two-thirds of the manuscripts were sold at Sotheby’s in 1922 (at which time the British Museum acquired Add MS 40655 and 40656). Twenty-seven manuscripts were given to Sir Roger Cholmeley’s School at Highgate, and these were deposited in the British Museum in 1938. At this time the Museum purchased two of the manuscripts – Egerton MS 3145 and Egerton MS 3154. (There are also two other Greek manuscripts formerly owned by Burdett-Coutts in the British Library – Add MS 64797 and Egerton MS 3157).

It may well be that the dealer from whom Burdett-Coutts acquired her manuscripts was the same person who sold manuscripts to Guest, and further research in this area could tell us quite a bit more about the prior history of these two manuscripts. We can be thankful, at least, that they have been reunited in the same institution for the past seventy-six years, and that they can now be viewed online on Digitised Manuscripts.

- Cillian O'Hogan

21 June 2014

English Fourteenth-Century Illuminated Manuscripts in the British Library: a Conference

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The British Library is pleased to announce an AMARC conference to celebrate the launch of Lucy Freeman Sandler’s book Illuminators and Patrons in Fourteenth-Century England: The Psalter 'Hours of Humphrey de Bohun and the Manuscripts of the Bohun Family.  Details are as follows:

English Fourteenth-Century Illuminated Manuscripts in the British Library

Monday, 1 December 2014

British Library Conference Centre

Bohun Hours
British Library, Egerton MS 3277, f. 46v (detail)

Speakers:  Paul Binski, Alixe Bovey, Julian Luxford, Nigel Morgan, Kathryn Smith, and Lucy Freeman Sandler 

Evening book launch and reception hosted by Sam Fogg, at the Sam Fogg Gallery 

Registration fees: £20 general, £15 for AMARC members, £10 for students.  Lunch provided.

To register, send a cheque made out to AMARC to Kathleen Doyle, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB.  Foreign delegates may register and pay on the day.  Places limited to 80.

 

17 June 2014

Weird and Wonderful Creatures of the Bestiary

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Those of you who follow our blog regularly will surely have noticed our deep and abiding love for medieval animals and bestiaries; in the past we’ve done posts about dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers, owls, and more.  But today we thought we would have a look at a few of the more fantastic creatures that are featured in medieval bestiaries, many of which are scarcely known today. 

The amphivena

The name of this beast is variously given as anphivena, amphisbaena, amfivena, and many other variations.  But the true spelling of its name is not the least of its mysteries; the exact nature of the amphivena’s form was also a source of considerable uncertainty. 

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Detail of a miniature of an amphivena, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 62r

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two amphivenas, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London?), 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 138v

The bestiary text tells us that this animal is so called because it has two heads, one in the ‘normal position’ and one at the end of its tail, and that its body forms a round shape.  Isidore of Seville says that the amphivena can ‘move in the direction of either head with a circular motion’, which seems, understandably, to have been confusing to some bestiary artists.  Pliny characterises it as a violent, poisonous beast, which might account for many of the depictions of it in the act of doubly attacking itself.

The manticore

The manticore is a fearsome beast indeed, and one that is also apparently vulnerable to the whims of the various artists attempting to portray it.  Bartholomaeus Angelicus describes this animal by saying that ‘among all the beasts of the earth is none found more cruel, nor of more wonderly shape’.

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Detail of a miniature of a leonine manticore, Harley MS 3244, f. 43v

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Detail of a miniature of a manticore from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 29v

 This wonderly shape is essentially a composite one; the manticore is said to have a lion’s body – ‘blood-red in colour’ - the face of a man, a triple row of teeth, and the tail of a scorpion.  It is extremely swift, can jump great distances, and, according to the bestiary, ‘delights in eating human flesh.’

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Detail of a miniature of a manticore from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24v

The bonnacon

The bonnacon is reported by the bestiary to be found simply somewhere ‘in Asia’, and has a deceptively normal appearance.  In general, it looks like a bull, but has horns that curl backwards so that if someone were to fall on them, they would be uninjured. 

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Detail of a miniature of a bonnacon repelling pursuit, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 16r

Banish any thoughts that the bonnacon is a considerate and gentle animal, however!  This creature’s true claim to fame is its unique defense mechanism; when threatened, we are told, a bonnacon will spray its attacker with poisonous dung.  This excrement ‘produces such a stench over an area of two acres that its heat singes everything it touches’, and needless to say, it is extremely effective at ending a pursuit.  For obvious reasons, bestiary artists were fond of depicting this sort of scene, but some, perhaps moved by delicacy, have declined to illustrate it.

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Detail of miniature of a lioness, a crocote, and a bonnacon, Harley MS 3244, f. 41r

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Detail of a miniature of hunters pursuing a bonnacon with a very long lance and strategic shield, from a bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

The leucrota

Another composite animal, the leucrota, takes its place in the bestiary just before the section on reptiles. 

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Detail of a miniature of a leucrota, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 37v

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Detail of a miniature of a leucrota, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 23r

The leucrota is somewhat confusingly described as having the rear parts of a stag, and the chest and legs of a lion, but with cloven hooves.  Its most distinctive characteristic is its charming wide-mouthed grin, which stretches across its head.  Its teeth are single, continuous pieces of bone, and it is capable of imitating the sound of a human voice.

The basilisk

The basilisk is included among the reptiles in the bestiary.  We are told that its alternate name – regulus – is particularly apt, as a basilisk is the ‘king of creeping things’.  A basilisk is an exceedingly dangerous animal, as its scent can annihilate almost anything, and its gaze is terrible enough to cause the death of any man foolish enough to look at it. 

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Detail of a basilisk wearing a crown, Harley MS 4751, f. 59r

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Detail of a basilisk killing a man with its gaze and being attacked by a weasel, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

It is, however, vulnerable to the weasel, which can pursue the basilisk into its hiding hole and kill it.  In the bestiary text, much is made of the example of the basilisk; the writer takes the opportunity to expound on the nature of evil embodied in this horrible creature.  He assures us that no matter how frightening an animal might be, ‘the creator of all has made nothing for which there is not an antidote’.  So take heart, and keep your weasels close!

We’ll have a look at some more of our bestiary favourites in the months to come (of course we will!), and please send along some of your finds to us on Twitter @BLMedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs

14 June 2014

Tales of Brave Ulysses

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Every June 16, devotees of James Joyce in Dublin and around the world celebrate the anniversary of the events described in the novel Ulysses. While a book set in 1904 and first published in 1922 is a little bit beyond the scope of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, it marks the culmination of the long journey of the Homeric character Odysseus (Ulixes in Latin, hence Ulysses) through many different roles in art and literature. Most medieval depictions of Ulysses do not come in manuscripts of Homer, however, but in accounts of the Trojan war and its aftermath.

In the Iliad, Odysseus is given a prominent supporting role: he is a brave and fearsome warrior, as well as a clever strategist. Here he is with Nestor and Diomedes attempting to persuade Achilles to return to the fray: the Embassy scene told first in Iliad 9, but here accompanying the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César in the mid-14th-century Royal MS 20 D I:

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Detail of a miniature of Odysseus, Nestor, Diomedes, and Achilles, from the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, Italy (Naples), c. 1330 – c. 1340, Royal MS 20 D I, f. 131v

In the Odyssey, he gets top billing, and as the hero, is depicted in a largely positive light. In perhaps his most famous adventure, he blinds the Cyclops: here the illumination is found in Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa, in a French manuscript of the 1410s:

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Detail of a miniature of Odysseus blinding the Cyclops, from Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410 – c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 105r

Shortly after the Homeric era, however, the Odyssean backlash begins, and he becomes something of a stage villain, before being described in Book Two of Virgil’s Aeneid as scelerumque inuentor (the inventor of wicked deeds) and dirus Ulixes (terrifying Ulysses), who played a key role in the tragic fall of Troy. Here is a picture of the Trojan Horse from a late 15th-century manuscript of Virgil:

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Detail of a miniature of the Trojan Horse, from a manuscript of Virgil & Pseudo-Ovid, Italy (Rome), between 1483 and 1485, King’s MS 24, f. 73v

In the medieval era, the figure of Ulysses is largely based on that portrayed in the late antique epitomes of the Trojan saga – the De Excidio Troiae attributed to Dares Phrygius, and the Ephemeris Belli Troiani attributed to Dictys of Crete. In the latter work, in particular, Ulysses is not depicted in a favourable light. Given the fact that these two works were key sources for the medieval tales of Troy, this had an impact on how Ulysses was portrayed.

One addition made by Dictys was the account of a recurring dream had by Ulysses, in which a figure of great beauty keeps appearing to him, before a signum is thrown at him. Here is a depiction of that dream, from a late 15th-century manuscript containing a French version of the Trojan matter (Le recoeil des histoires de Troyes):

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Detail of a miniature of Ulysses’ dream, from Raoul Lefèvre’s Le recoeil des histoires de Troyes, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1475 – c. 1483, Royal MS 17 E II, f. 372v

There are of course many other accounts of Ulysses and his adventures to be found in British Library collections. But since we began with Joyce, it is fitting to end with another Irish account of Ulysses (though it is not, sadly, to be found amongst our holdings). The Early Irish tale Merugud Uilix Maicc Leirtis (“The Wanderings of Ulysses son of Laertes”) was found in a Stowe manuscript now in the Royal Irish Academy Library in Dublin. You can read the Irish original on the excellent CELT website. Unlike in many other medieval traditions, here Ulysses is depicted in a positive light, and special prominence is given to his faithful dog Argos (who in the Irish account is female), who joyfully recognises Ulysses and confirms who he is (a scene very different from the Homeric original!) Unfortunately we could not find any pictures of Ulysses and his dog. There is, however, a friendly and rather shaggy-looking dog in this picture, who almost appears to be greeting the Greek soldier climbing out of the Trojan Horse. Perhaps this is a nod to the story of Ulysses and Argos?

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Detail of the Trojan Horse at the gates of Troy, from John Lydgate’s Troy Book, England (probably London), 1457 – c. 1530, Royal MS 18 D II, f. 75r

- Cillian O'Hogan

12 June 2014

The Poetry of Fragments

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In a previous blog post we talked about the Constitution of Athens, one of the most spectacular papyrus rolls preserved from antiquity. But the truth is that most papyrus fragments are much smaller, and often preserve only part of the text they originally contained. Even the Constitution of Athens papyrus is incomplete, after all!

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Fragment of the Aristotelian Constitution of Athens (Ἀθηναίων Πολιτεία), Papyrus 131, roll 1 verso

While this can be frustrating, it also presents an exciting challenge to papyrologists. Sometimes fragmentary texts can be reconstructed based on attestations of the same work in other papyri or in the manuscript tradition. If it is a literary text, or a formulaic legal document, some educated guesswork can help figure out what the wider context might be. Particularly exciting are those instances where a scholar can reunite parts of the same original document, now scattered across the world. An excellent example of this is the recent article by Antonia Sarri in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, who shows that a papyrus in the British Library (Papyrus 2553) and one in Columbia University Library (P. Col. VIII 211) are two halves of the same letter.

A great deal of Greek poetry has only been preserved in papyrus fragments. In the case of some authors, such as Archilochus, Simonides, and Sappho, discoveries even in the last few decades have added greatly to what we know of their works, and in some cases have caused scholars to have to rethink some long-held beliefs about the nature of early Greek poetry. The British Library has only a single fragment of Sappho, a very early arrival from the great collection of papyri found at Oxyrhynchus (P. Oxy. I 7).

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Fragment of a poem by Sappho concerning her brother Charaxus, Papyrus 739

But as fragments of Sappho go, it’s a pretty good one – we can be fairly sure of the text of two stanzas, and have a decent chunk of three more. In the poem, Sappho prays for the safe return for her brother and hopes that they can be reconciled. This is presumably Charaxos, whose falling-out with his sister is described by Herodotus (2.134-5), and who is named in the new Sappho poem published earlier this year.

While the text is exciting in itself, there is something very special about viewing the original papyrus, which helps to give a sense of just how serendipitous our knowledge of Sappho’s poetry is. Sappho joins Homer and Sophocles on our Digitised Manuscripts roster of poets on papyrus: we hope to add many more in the future.

- Cillian O'Hogan