THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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103 posts categorized "Greek"

15 November 2017

Call for papers: the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting

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Following the first three successful meetings at the British Museum and last year at Cambridge University Library, the British Library is pleased to host the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting. This meeting will take place on 21–22 June 2018 at the British Library Centre for Conservation.

Papyrus 113 (15c)
Illustrated copy of the Life of Secundus the Silent Philosopher – Egypt, 6th century (Papyrus 113 (15c)

We are now inviting proposals for individual papers of 20 minutes or short communications of 10 minutes on subjects related to:

  • Conservation and Preservation
  • Cataloguing
  • Digitisation
  • Ongoing and Completed Projects
  • Funding Opportunities


Papyrus 488
Plato’s Phaedo from 3rd century BCE – one of the earliest papyri in the British Library (Papyrus 488)

Please submit your proposals of no more than 100 words by email to papyrusmeeting.proposals2018@gmail.com by 31 January 2018. Successful submissions will be announced early in the New Year with a full programme to follow.

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Magic ring from a 4th-century Greek handbook on magic (Papyrus 46, f. 5)

Limited travel bursaries are available for delegates who would otherwise face financial barriers to attending, as part of the British Museum’s national knowledge-sharing programmes generously supported by the Vivmar Foundation. If you would like to apply for a bursary, please contact UK Partnerships Co-ordinator Georgia Mallin at gmallin@britishmuseum.org, explaining how your attendance will support your work/organisation and why the bursary is needed.

 

The Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting

21–22 June 2018

The British Library

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 November 2017

Canon tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels now on display

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As a text, the canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of scripture. Over many centuries copies of the Gospels in Latin, Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Gothic, Syriac, Georgian or Slavonic begin with these tables. Devised and created in Greek by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, these tables formed a unifying gateway to the fundamental, but multiple narratives of the Evangelists Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As Eusebius explained in a prefatory letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

Canon 1 lists passages common to all four Gospels, Canons 2-9 different combinations of two or three Gospels and Canon 10 those passages found only in one Gospel. Building on a system of dividing up the text of the Gospels into verses that he attributed to Ammonius of Alexandria, Eusebius assigned consecutive numbers to sections in each Gospel and used these numbers within his tables to correlate related passages. By this means he adduced the unity of the four narratives without attempting to harmonise them into a single text.

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Codex Sinaiticus, the folio currently on display at the British Library: Add MS 43725, f. 201r

The earliest known evidence for the use of the tables occurs in Codex Sinaiticus, an extraordinary 4th-century Greek manuscript that is also the earliest surviving complete New Testament. In Codex Sinaiticus the tables themselves do not survive, but the Ammonian section numbers are included throughout the Gospels. These can be seen in the Gospel of St Matthew currently on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, or viewed in detail on our Digitised Manuscripts website. In Codex Sinaiticus, the section numbers (in Greek characters) are added on the left-hand side of each column in red ink, with the number of the canon table that needs to be consulted for parallel texts of that section.

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Section 16, canon 5: a note in the Gospel of St Matthew, a detail from Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f. 201r column 2)

For example, in the right-hand page on display in the Gallery, the third number in the second column (in the account of one of Christ’s temptations) is marked as section 16, in Canon 5. Further information about the manuscript is available on the Codex Sinaiticus website, including a full transcription and translation, and in this previous blogpost.

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The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th–7th century (Add MS 5111/1)

One of most splendid illuminated examples of the Canon Tables in Greek are the leaves now known as the Golden Canon Tables, because they are written on parchment previously painted entirely with gold. Made in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, the tables are now fragmentary but nevertheless betray a very sophisticated artistic style. They are a rare witness of an early version of these tables.

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The pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels currently on display at the British Library: Cotton MS Nero D IV, ff. 14v–15r

Canon tables are also included in the Latin copy of the Gospels known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, which was probably made on the island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in around 700. The fifth canon, which lists texts that are common in the two Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, is now on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery. This is the same canon as that referred to in Codex Sinaiticus, several centuries earlier. The canons in the Lindisfarne Gospels are surrounded by intricately designed micro-architectural decoration, with wonderful intertwined biting birds. You can view them in more detail with the zoom function on the Digitised Manuscripts website, or visit the Treasures Gallery in the coming months.

26 October 2017

The gladiator saint

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Gladiatorial games were spectacular shows in the ancient world. In theatres built across the Mediterranean, from the Middle East to the site of the Guildhall in London, professional fighters did battle to entertain the public. The origins of these combats went back to the early Roman Republic, when they probably had magical functions. As part of the funerary rituals, they were sacrifices to the netherworld or played a role in war-magic with gladiators bearing the enemy’s names being gloriously defeated by Roman-looking gladiators to ensure their victory in real battles.

King's MS 24  f. 88
Miniature of a wrestling game from a 15th-century illustrated copy of Virgil’s Aeneid: 
King's MS 24, f. 88

From the mid-3rd century, however, gladiatorial games became an integral part of city entertainment and political propaganda. Should anyone like to be a successful politician, all he needed to do was to organise a lavish spectacle of games, lasting for several days, accompanied by banquets and scenic performances, and success would be guaranteed. No wonder then that such combats were especially popular in imperial times. Later Roman emperors were constantly trying to outbid their predecessors by funding more and more luxurious games. They recruited gladiators from all over the empire and purchased exotic animals — elephants, lions and bears — to populate their amazing theatres that could even host miniature sea battles. 

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Fragment of a 3rd-century representation of an arena-scene from Oxyrhynchus:
Papyrus 3053

Gladiators, by these times, were professional combatants, some of them fighting as slaves but also for money or fame or simply revenge, not unlike Maximus in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film, Gladiator. From the 1st century CE onwards, a new aspect appeared: Christians, arrested for their faith, started to appear on the stage to serve as mass victims to the slayers.

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Details of illustrations showing martyrs tortured in the arena, from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066:
 Add MS 19352, f. 55r

However, we also hear about the opposite: gladiators, warriors and their slayers coould also become saints. In a 14th-century Greek manuscript held by the British Library we find a story about Nestor, a 3rd-century Greek gladiator.

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Lection for 26 October from a 14th-century collection of saints lives: 
Harley MS 5069, f. 178v

On the afternoon of 26 October, so the story relates, the emperor organised luxurious games to celebrate his arrival in Thessalonica. The highlight of the event was when his favourite gladiator, a giant 'barbarian' called Lyaeus, boasted of his numerous victories all over the Empire and challenged the Christians of the city, calling them to fight and defeat him in single combat. The rules were strict: the emperor built a special stage for Lyaeus’s battles, similar to a threshing floor on pillars. Spears, points upward, were planted beneath this platform. When Lyaeus defeated someone in wrestling, he would throw him from the platform onto the forest of spears. No one could beat him in this special combat.

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Nestor fighting Lyaeus in the arena before the Emperor Maximianus from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: 
Add MS 19352, f. 125v

Nestor accepted this challenge. Jumping onto the stage, he knocked down Lyaeus and threw him onto the sharp spears. According to the story, this made him a champion not only of Christianity but also of Hellenism and civilisation. Although Nestor was put to death immediately by the furious emperor for the murder of his favourite wrestler, Nestor's reputation outlived him. He became renowned as the first holy gladiator, celebrated from Greece to England every 26 October.

Arundel MS 91  f. 107r
Nestor slaying Lyaeus from a 12th-century English lectionary: Arundel MS 91, f. 107r

Nestor's story, whatever historical truth might be in it, offers an account of a special type of gladiatorial games. His story also showed how the memory of gladiatorial games was perpetuated in art, texts and the imagination of later generations who — had the old manuscripts not preserved the story — would know little about these ancient games.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

08 July 2017

The Mystery of Sappho

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This weekend is part of the Pride Festival in London, which made us reflect on Sappho. Sappho was one of the first known female poets, and the first woman known to write poems in Greek. Very few fragments of her work survive, and it has sometimes been suggested that they were suppressed on account of her sexuality: but to what extent is that really true?

Here at the British Library we have a real connection to Sappho. The earliest extant records describe her as a woman from the island of Lesbos, who lived and worked in the 7th century BCE. She is believed to have composed over 10,000 lines of lyrical poetry and to have invented a special type of musical verse that still bears her name. This extraordinary legacy meant she was very highly esteemed in Antiquity: some even regarded her as the 'tenth muse'. Despite this long-standing fame, most of Sappho's poems are lost. Only a couple of fragments and some other lines survive; one of those precious fragments is preserved at the British Library (Papyrus 739), and is available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site. But what was the cause of this devastating loss?

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Fragment of a poem by Sappho concerning her brother Charaxus, 3rd century CE, Papyrus 739

There has been much speculation as to why a fraction of Sappho's poetry survives. Some have suggested this can be attributed to Sappho’s sexuality. Sappho wrote several love poems apparently about other women. An early and very short biography found on a papyrus from the 3rd century was one of the earliest surviving sources to mention her as a 'woman-lover', although the writer claimed that this was only an 'accusation'. 16th-century humanist scholars claimed that 4th-century Greek and Latin Church authorities had arranged for the systematic destruction of Sappho’s poems as a result. Her sexuality is also one of the primary features for which she is remembered today: the modern terms 'Lesbian' and 'sapphic' are references to Sappho, and her name was adopted by a gay rights magazine (on show in the British Library's current exhibition, Gay UK).

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Miniature of Sappho and her companions, from a Dutch translation of Christine de Pizan’s Livre de la Cité des Dames, Bruges, 1475, Add MS 20698, f. 73r

Sappho's famous love life is only a part of her complicated life story and the later reception of her work. Despite 16th-century claims, Sappho and her work remained admired in the Middle Ages, even as much of her poetry was also lost. Her poetic fragments were quoted by Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the 4th-century churchmen who allegedly opposed her writings. Later, the loss of Sappho's poems was painfully lamented by the 12th-century Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes. In the 14th century, Boccacio and Christine de Pizan still celebrated Sappho as a woman of incomparable beauty and erudition in both natural sciences and poetry.

Several scholars now think there is a simpler explanation for the failure of medieval copyists' failure to preserve Sappho's poetry — they couldn't understand it! She wrote in an ancient and old-fashioned Greek which was not widely understood in the early Middle Ages. This is not to say that later writers approved of her affairs. The 3rd-century BCE biography frames the first stories about her attraction to women as rumours, while later Christian writers used the example of Sappho to argue against pagan lasciviousness. In other cases, Sappho was not always understood to be a homosexual by later writers. She was regularly portrayed in Athenian comedies as a voracious heterosexual, and there were  other stories about her  love affairs with men: some of them speak about her marriage and possibly even record the name of her daughter, while a later anecdote claims she committed suicide because of a young man called Phaon.

The British Library has a unique 3rd-century CE fragment that lets us go beyond these layers of later tradition and leads us back to one of Sappho’s original works (Papyrus 739). This papyrus, found in Egypt, preserves a poetic fragment in Sappho’s characteristic metre which was proved to come from the lost first volume of her collected poetry. She prays for her brother’s return from Egypt 'with many supplications, that he may come here steering his ship unharmed and find us women safe and sound.' Surrendering to fate, she goes on 'and the rest, let’s entrust it all to the gods, for calm suddenly follows great storms.'

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The entry for Sapphos’ brother Charaxos in a 15th century copy of a Byzantine encyclopedia (suidas), Add MS 11893, f. 359v

In the last couple of years, several new fragments of Sappho’s poems discovered. Some of them even complement the British Library’s fragmentary papyrus, creating an almost complete poem. So, after almost 3000 years of 'great storms' of controversy in Sappho’s posthumous reputation, there might now be some calm to regain more of the lost poetry of this iconic female writer.

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Girl with a lyre of the sort Sappho may have played, from the Theodore Psalter (Constantinople, 1066), Add MS 19352, f. 191r

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

26 May 2017

Slave, scholar, stoic

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‘Some things are in our control and others are not … the latter should be nothing to you.’ This wise statement begins the Enchiridion of Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher. Epictetus had some experience of hardships being out of his control: he spent part of his life as a slave.

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Detail of the opening lines of Epictetus's Enchiridion, copied in the 2nd half of the 16th century, Add MS 11887, f. 1r

Much of what is known about Epictetus’s life comes from a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopaedia, the Suda. The British Library has a rare complete copy of this text, now Add MS 11892/3. According to the Suda, Epictetus was born in Hierapolis, Phrygia, in the first century CE and became a slave to a cruel master in Rome. On top of that, his mobility was impaired, perhaps from an illness or from mistreatment. The early Christian theologian Origen (d. 253/4) claimed that Epictetus’s owner broke his leg, a situation Epictetus reportedly handled with logic and wit: ‘[W]hen [Epictetus's] master was twisting his leg, Epictetus said, smiling and unmoved, “You will break my leg.” When it was broken, he added, “I told you so.”’

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Opening page from the Suda, copied 15 June 1402, Add MS 11892, f. 2r

Despite Epictetus’s challenges, he was later liberated and started teaching philosophy in Rome. There were still more twists and turns to his career, however. Around AD 93, Domitian chased out all philosophers from Rome, so Epictetus fled to Greece, where he started a school.

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Opening page of Simplicius's Commentary on Epictetus's Enchiridion, copied 15 November 1469, Add MS 10064, f. 1r 

Given Epictetus’s pithy sayings and his dramatic life, stories about him continued to be told and retold. St John Chrysostom (d. 407) wrote about him, claiming that when Epictetus was asked by his master, ‘Do you want me to let you loose?’, Epictetus answered: ‘Why? Am I in any way bound?’ Manuscripts of his works and commentaries on his works continued to be copied into the 16th century. Epictetus continues to influence a wide variety of figures to this day, from philosophers to playwrights to the psychotherapist Albert Ellis, whose school of therapy claims to owe more to Epictetus’s ideas than Sigmund Freud’s. Epictetus’s teachings still resonate today. ‘It is difficulties that show what men are’, according to his Discourses. In the Enchiridion, he noted that ‘These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you; therefore I am better.” “I am more eloquent than you; therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you; therefore my property is greater than yours.” “I am more eloquent than you; therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.’

You can find out more about this subject by consulting the British Library's Greek Manuscripts webspace. Available online are articles such as Greek manuscripts in the 16th century, descriptions of our collection items and videos. We hope you have fun exploring the site!

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 May 2017

An ideal woman

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What's your definition of the ideal woman? For centuries, the model woman of some Greek writers was pious, virtuous … and good at maths.

Burney 275 f. 293
Detail of an historiated intial with Geometry portrayed as a woman, from the works of Priscian, Cicero, Aristotle and others, translated by Gerard of Cremona, Paris, 1309–1316, Burney MS 275, f. 293r

For them, the ideal woman was Theano, a philosopher and mathematician who is said to have lived in the 6th century BCE. According to some of these later writers, she was a student and later the wife of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher, musician and mathematician. As with most ancient figures, the details of her life is somewhat obscure: modern scholars debate who she was, or whether there were even two Theanos in Pythagoras’s circle.

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The entry for Theano in a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopaedia (Suda Lexicon Additional MS 11892, f. 278r, copied in 1402 in Florence by Georgios Baiophoros)

Whoever she was (or they were), Theano seems to have been an important thinker in her own right. Later writers reported that she wrote tracts on virtue, piety, the golden mean and Pythagoras’s doctrines, and they attributed some witty aphorisms to her. In one of her commentaries on Pythagoras’s writings, she was said to have remarked that, ‘if the soul were not immortal, death would be a blessing to us all.’ Elsewhere, it was said that Theano's arm was accidentally revealed in the market and someone noted ‘how beautiful your arm is’, to which she replied ‘maybe, but it’s not public.’

Sadly, none of Theano’s texts survive. A 14th-century manuscript in the British Library preserves a unique collection of seven epistles attributed to her. These letters promote the education of Greek women and critical thinking. The author of the letters addresses mostly women advising them on childcare, marriage and various household affairs. She wrote, ‘It is better to ride a horse without reins than to be an unreflective woman’.

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Copy of a letter purporting to be written by Theano, Harley MS 5610, f. 7v

In the first letter, the author addresses a mother called Euboule to criticize her for bringing up her children in luxury, noting that, ‘The mark of a good mother is not her concern for the children’s enjoyment, but rather an education towards moderation. Be careful: don’t be an indulgent mother rather than a loving one.’

For centuries, Greek writers considered Theano to be the ideal wife and mother. Although this did not lead to any of the treatises attributed to her being preserved, Theano’s long-lasting fame as an educator of mothers and wives has made the letters associated with her a popular read for generations.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 April 2017

Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks Spring 2017

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From ancient papyri to a manuscript given by the future Queen Elizabeth I to King Henry VIII for New Year's Day, from books written entirely in gold to Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, there is a wealth of material on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. At the time of writing, you can view on Digitised Manuscripts no fewer than 1,783 manuscripts made in Europe before 1600, and more are being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this file: Download PDF of Digitised MSS Spring 2017. This is also available in the form of a spreadsheet (although this format can not be downloaded on all web browsers): Download Spreadsheet of Digitised MSS Spring 2017 .

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Image of St Æthelwold, King Edgar and St Dunstan, at the beginning of a copy of the Regularis Concordia, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 2v

If you are looking for something more specific, there are separate lists of Greek manuscripts, pre-1200 manuscripts digitised thanks to funding from the Polonsky Foundation and manuscripts written or owned in England before 1066.

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Image of the patron, Lord Lovell, and possibly the artist, John Siferwas, from the Lovell Lectionary, Southern England (Glastonbury?), c. 1400–1410, Harley MS 7026/1, f. 4v

If you'd like to know how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts, we highly recommend this blogpost. Downloadable images of portions of our manuscripts can also be found on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (which allows for searches by image content, origin, scribe, etc) and on the British Library's Collection Items pages, which includes the only known playscript to contain William Shakespeare's handwriting and the burnt copy of Magna Carta

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The Anastasis, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), c. 1131–1140, Egerton MS 1139, f. 9v  

Please follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, to get the latest news about our digitisation projects, exhibitions and events. 

10 March 2017

Magic in the British Library's Papyri

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10 March 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the first episode of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some members of the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team of the British Library are big fans of the series, which is set in a library and whose characters routinely have to decipher manuscripts in ancient languages in order to defeat the forces of evil. Indeed, we are currently in the process of digitising several papyri  which mention some of the figures whom Buffy battles.

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A handbook of magic: Egypt (Thebes), 4th century, Papyrus 46, f. 2v

The British Library's collection of papyri includes different sorts of texts, from speeches to letters about vineyard management, from the constitution of Athens to fragments of plays, from wills to part of the Iliad. The papyri also include some magical texts: charms, recipes, curses and prayers. Love spells were discussed in our 2017 Valentine's Day post. There are also some demon-summoning spells that sound just like the sort of text that could kick off one of Buffy's, Xander's, Willow's and the librarian Mr Giles's adventures.

Papyrus 123, a fragment from the late 4th century, preserves a special charm to summon demons against others: 'I bring into subjection, put to silence, and enslave every race of people, both men and women, with their fits of wrath, and those who are under the earth, beneath my feet, but especially and now say their names.'

Papyrus 123

Looks familiar? Images of demons, from a magical incantation, Egypt, late 4th century, Papyrus 123

Papyrus 122, a sheet from the early 5th century, contains a spell to request a visit from the netherworld by the demon Besa. (Besa was  originally based on an ancient Egyptian god called Bes.) The text says:

'On your left hand draw Besa in the way shown here with an ink made of blood from a crow and a dove. Put around your hand a black cloth . Go to sleep on a rush mat, having an unbaked brick beside your head — and he’ll come to you in a vision to tell you what you are interested in.'

Below these instructions there is even a sinister image of the demon to be drawn “on your hand”.


Papyrus 122
Detail from a collection of magical spells, Papyrus 122, Egypt (Hermopolis), 5th century

So if you are interested in knowing the future, you could try drawing this image on your hand, but please note you will also need the accompanying spell. For further details, please see our Digitised Manuscripts site. However, if you do not have a vampire slayer to protect you, we don't recommend trying this at home!

Peter Toth and Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval