Medieval manuscripts blog

80 posts categorized "Greek"

08 August 2016

True Colours

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Our friends at the Fitzwilliam Museum have recently opened a spectacular new exhibition, called Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. This exhibition showcases some of the Fitzwilliam's greatest manuscript treasures, integrated with scientific and art historical research into medieval painting materials and techniques.

The British Library is delighted to have been able to loan four of our own manuscripts to this show, which is open until 30 December 2016. We highly recommend that you make a special journey to Cambridge to view the exhibition, and to take in all these manuscripts in their breath-taking glory.


Add MS 5112, f. 134r: St John the Evangelist, from a gospel book (Byzantium, late 12th century)

This astonishingly beautiful miniature depicts St John the Evangelist, about to sharpen his quill with a knife while a blank codex rests on his lap. This is a particularly fine example of painting with gold leaf; the vermilion red and ultramarine blue of the drapery make a sharp contrast with the gold leaf, and help to distinguish between the gold background and the yellow building in the lower half of the portrait. The miniature itself was not created for the volume in which it was found, and the high quality of the materials and the painting technique strongly suggests a Constantinopolitan origin.


St John the Evangelist, from a gospel book (Byzantium, late 12th century): Add MS 5112, f. 134r


Harley MS 3915: Theophilus, De diversis artibus (NW Germany?, late 12th or early 13th century)

This medieval craft treatise contains instructions for painting, glassmaking and metalworking, as well as pigment recipes and painting instructions for manuscript illumination. The pages shown below describe the manufacture of 'salt green' followed by 'Spanish green', both of which are types of verdigris; next come the production methods for lead white (cerosa) and red lead (minium). Harley 3915 is the most complete and one of the oldest surviving copies of this treatise, the script and ornament of which suggest that it was made somewhere in North-West Germany. We had it digitised a few years ago as part of our Harley Science Project.

Harley_ms_3915_f018v   Harley_ms_3915_f019r

Making green, white and red pigments, in Theophilus, De diversis artibus (NW Germany?, late 12th or early 13th century): Harley MS 3915, ff. 18v–19r 


Sloane MS 1975: A medical and herbal collection (France or England, late 12th century)

This medical treatise concludes with a series of illustrations of medical procedures. The spots represent cautery points, showing doctors where to apply hot irons to treat patients suffering from ailments such as toothache, fever and kidney disease. On the second page shown here, not for the squeamish, are operations to excise haemorrhoids, a nasal growth and cataracts. This manuscript belonged to the Cistercian monastery of Ourscamp in the 14th century, and it later entered the collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753).

Sloane_ms_1975_f092v   Sloane_ms_1975_f093r
Cautery points, in a medical collection (France or England, late 12th century): Sloane MS 1975, ff. 92v–93r)


Harley MS 4336: Boethius, De consolatio philosophiae (Bourges, 1476)

Produced in Bourges in 1476, this manuscript of Boethius's famous treatise, De consolatio philosophiae, is displayed open with this allegorical figure of Fortune, identifiable by the gold letters f emblazoned on her garment. The figures that surround her may represent two different families, one blessed and one cursed by Fortune, or a once prosperous household that has fallen on hard times.

Harley MS 4336 f. 1v

Personification of Fortune, in Boethius, De consolatio philosophiae (Bourges, 1476): Harley MS 4336, f. 1v

Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts is on at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 30 December 2016.


03 August 2016

The Olympic Games at the British Library

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No, we won’t be competing at the Rio Olympics and there won’t be any games or races at the British Library either! We just wanted to join in the growing anticipation as the 2016 Summer Olympics are about to begin by offering a fresh look at what our manuscripts tell us about the Olympic Games of the ancient world.

It is common knowledge that the Olympic Games are an ancient Greek tradition. But how close were these original games to what will be happening over the coming weeks in Rio? Our evidence for the ancient Olympics is scattered in various fragments, notes and remarks, many of which are held at the British Library.

The Greeks always had a special fascination with games and contests: they celebrated their gods, weddings and even funerals by organising athletic games.


Representation of a game in a circus from the 11th-century Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: Add MS 19352, f. 127r

Every ancient Greek city, such as Delphi, Nemea and Isthmus, had their own festal games to honour their local gods, so those held at Olympia, first recorded in 776 BCE, were part of that tradition. The significance of the Olympia games increased with the fame of the local shrine of Zeus, which was honoured and celebrated by the races held there. The Games in Olympia were held every fourth year until AD 395, when the Emperor Theodosius issued an edict abolishing these last remnants of paganism.

Olympic winners held immense respect, receiving statues, coins and inscriptions dedicated in their names, besides being the recipients of plaudits by the leading poets of the time. Some victors and the sports in which they competed are recorded. It was Pindar (died 438 BCE), one of the most acclaimed Greek poets, who left us the most extensive Olympic poetry celebrating victorious runners, charioteers and wrestlers. However, it is not his subtle poetry but rather the marginal notes on his poems that convey the most precious details about the actual events at the ancient games.


Note on Pindar’s 12th Olympic Ode, 15th century: Harley MS 1752, f. 126r

This little note on Pindar’s 12th Olympic Ode is a short biography of a Cretan runner called Ergoteles. Ergoteles won his event at the 76th Olympics in 472 BCE but, due to some obscure political treachery, he was forced to leave Crete. Re-patriated by the Sicilians, he won another Olympic title in 464 BCE.

In addition to such marginal notes, we also know of several ancient histories and novels that recorded and analysed the history of the games. These writings, like the two-volume history of the Olympic Games by a certain Phlegon or a summary by Aristotle himself, have not survived. Among the British Library's papyri, however, is an exceptional fragment that contains a portion from a similar text.


List of Olympic champions, Egypt, 3rd century CE: Papyrus 1185

This papyrus is an administrative document from Egypt containing a financial account from the 2nd century CE. On the back is a unique list of Olympic winners copied slightly later. We have no idea why this list was added to this papyrus, but it records the names of 80 Olympic champions between 480 BCE and 438 BCE. The names are listed in the rank-order of ancient Olympic sports, according to the sequence when they were added to the Olympic repertoire.

  • running (sprint (c. 200m), mid-distance (c. 400m), long-distance (2000m)
  • pentathlon (comprising the sprint, wrestling, long jump, javelin and discus)
  • wrestling
  • boxing
  • pancration (‘all-force’ combat: a deadly combination of wrestling and boxing)

It is intriguing to find the name of the re-patriated Ergoteles in this list as the long-distance running champion at the 76th Olympics, just as the note in our Pindar-manuscript describes him.


Detail of Papyrus 1185 with details of Ergoteles ('[Ergo]teles of Himera in dolichos (=long distance running')

Even more fascinating, perhaps, is to observe how the list of traditional Olympic contests expands when armoured combat, the four-horse-chariot race and horse-riding suddenly appeared at the 78th Olympics in 468 BCE, which must have been tremendous innovations at that time.


A “four-horse-chariot” (tethrippon) from Add MS 19352, f. 85r

Although many of these ancient Olympic sports, such as pancration and chariot-racing, are not part of the modern Games, it is surprising to see how much is unchanged since Ergoteles won his first title in 472 BCE. Not only are running, the pentathlon, throwing the javelin and discus, boxing and wrestling part of the modern Olympic Games, but glory and failure, political intrigue and intense media attention continue to be enduring themes. The British Library is delighted to be custodians of such surprisingly rich ancient Olympic material, much of which can be viewed online on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Peter Toth


30 June 2016

Greek Manuscripts in the British Library: Conference and Public Lecture in September

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To mark the completion of the third phase of the Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project and the launch of the Greek Manuscripts Online web resource, the British Library is hosting a one-day conference devoted to Greek Manuscripts on 19 September, 2016. Confirmed participants include Sebastian Brock (Oxford), Charalambos Dendrinos (Royal Holloway), Elizabeth Jeffreys (Oxford), Charlotte Roueché (King’s College London), Maria Georgopoulou (Gennadius Library, Athens) and Giorgi Parpulov (Plovdiv, Bulgaria). Speakers will discuss a variety of topics related to the Library’s digitised Greek collections, such as Greek-Syriac palimpsests, Byzantine illuminated manuscripts, Greek written culture and the digital humanities and the cultural interactions between Greece and Britain.

Page from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, February 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 36r

The conference will be accompanied by an evening lecture by Michael Wood on ‘The Wisdom of the Greeks’. Michael will be looking at how the legacy of Greece and Byzantium in science, religion and literature was transmitted to the Latin West. Fascinating stories about texts and ideas, scribes and scholars will come to life in the course of this illustrated talk that will include Anglo-Saxon kings, Crusader knights and Renaissance humanists - and even a well-known Elizabethan dramatist!

Please book your place in advance and register online at . The full programme can be found here:  Download British Library Greek Conference Schedule.

~Peter Toth

21 November 2015

New to the Treasures Gallery

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As frequent visitors to the British Library will know, we regularly make changes to the items displayed to the public in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, also known as our Treasures Gallery.  We are pleased to announce that the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section has placed a number of new manuscripts on display.  Most of these manuscripts are fully digitised and can be found online at Digitised Manuscripts, so if you’re not able to make it to the Gallery here in London, there’ s no need for you to miss out!

Painting of Mont Saint Michel burning,
from 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel', France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 45v

The ‘Literature’ section sees the addition of Add MS 10289, 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel' (the Romance of Mont Saint-Michel), a late 13th century miscellany of romances, moralistic and religious texts, and medical recipes written in Anglo-Norman.   The folio displayed shows the burning of the monastery in the year 922; much more about this fabulous manuscript can be found in our post The Romance of Mont Saint-Michel.

Miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer, from Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, England (London or Westminster), c. 1411 – c. 1420, Harley MS 4866, f. 88r

Also in this section is one of the earliest copies of Thomas Hoccleve’s The Regiment of Princes, which was created c. 1411 – c. 1420, possibly under the supervision of Hoccleve himself.  This manuscript (Harley MS 4866) includes the famous portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and wearing a pen-case on a string around his neck

Miniature of Homer in a landscape listening to his Muse, from a copy of Homer’s Iliad, Italy (Florence), 1466, Harley MS 5600, f. 15v

Three manuscripts featuring the works of classical authors have been added to the ‘Art of the Book’ section.  A 15th century Greek manuscript, copied in Florence in 1466 by Ioannes Rhosos of Crete, contains a gorgeous miniature of Homer surrounded by Muses, in a typical Florentine style (Harley MS 5600).  This Homer is joined by the works of two more Roman authors who were also hugely popular in Renaissance Italy: a late 15th century copy of the works of Cicero (Burney MS 157), and a Virgil copied in Rome between 1483 and 1485 (Kings MS 24).

Drawing of a ‘stout woman’ from a notebook by Albrecht
Dürer, Germany, c. 1500, Add MS 5231, f. 5r

Manuscripts in another section contain material from two of the great artists of the Renaissance: Albrecht Dürer and Michaelangelo.  Dürer’s interest in anatomy are reflected in four sketchbooks now owned by the British Library, one of which includes a sketch of a ‘stout woman’ accompanied by detailed notes on how to correctly construct a human figure (Add MS 5231).  Alongside Dürer’s volume is one composed of a series of letters exchanged by Michaelangelo Buonarroti and his family.  On display is a letter Michaelangelo wrote to his nephew from Rome in 1550, offering some genial advice on the best way to select a wife (Add MS 23142).

Text page with musical neumes, Spain (Silos), c. 1050, Add MS 30845, f. 13r

We have also updated the ‘Early Music’ section with two of our best-known musical manuscripts.  Dating from c. 1050, Add MS 30845 is a liturgical manuscript with musical notation, created in the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in northern Spain.  This notation consists of graphic signs that indicate the direction of the melody; as the pitch is lacking, however, the original melody is now impossible to recover.  Accompanying the Silos manuscript is one containing perhaps the most famous piece of English secular medieval music, ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, which is known only from this manuscript. 

Page with ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, from a miscellany, England (Reading Abbey), c. 1260, Harley MS 978, f. 11v

If you’re interested in more information on this wonderful piece of music (from Harley MS 978), please see our post Sumer is Icumen In.  And whether your visit is in person here in St Pancras, or virtual amongst our digitised manuscripts, we hope you enjoy yourselves!

-  Sarah J Biggs

29 October 2015

Codex Sinaiticus: Both British Library Volumes On Display in London

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The two volumes of Codex Sinaiticus held in the British Library's collections are together one of its greatest treasures. Produced around the middle of the 4th century, Codex Sinaiticus is the earliest manuscript of the complete New Testament and the best witness for some books of the Old Testament. The text of both volumes was heavily annotated by a series of early correctors, and the significance of Codex Sinaiticus for the reconstruction of the text of the Bible, the history of the Bible and the history of western book-making is immense.


The New Testament volume of Codex Sinaiticus open at John, chapter 5

From today, there is a very rare opportunity to see both volumes of Codex Sinaiticus on display in London. One volume of the manuscript is usually exhibited at the British Library and this week the Old Testament volume has been put on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, alongside other major highlights of the collection, including Codex Alexandrinus, the 5th-century manuscript of the Bible in Greek. This gallery is open for 7 days a week in the British Library building at St Pancras.


Codex Sinaiticus, Isaiah 66:12 to Jeremiah 1:7, on display at the British Library from this week (British Library Add MS 43725, f. 68r)

For the next few months, you can also see the New Testament volume of Codex Sinaiticus in London. The Library has loaned the manuscript for the first time to the British Museum for its new exhibition, Egypt: faith after the pharaohs, which runs from 29 October 2015 until 7 February 2016. As well as Codex Sinaiticus, the Library has loaned eleven other manuscripts to the exhibition, including the papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Thomas, a leaf from the Cotton Genesis and the First Gaster Bible. These loans are part of a major collaboration between the British Library and the British Museum which brings together in the exhibition some of the Library’s most important treasures, key items from the Museum’s own collection and a wide range of loans from other institutions, including a copy of the Qur’an on loan from the Bodleian Library.


Codex Sinaiticus, Luke 3:21-4:18, on display at the British Museum from 29 October 2015 to 7 February 2016 (British Library Add MS 43725, f. 230v)

Codex Sinaiticus originally contained the whole of the Bible in Greek, and is named after the monastery of St Catherine near the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt, where it had been preserved until the middle of the 19th century. The principal surviving portion of the Codex is the two volumes, comprising 347 leaves, now held by the British Library. A further 43 leaves are kept at the University Library in Leipzig, parts of 6 leaves are held at the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg, and further portions remain at Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

Cotton Otho B VI, f. 26v

A leaf of the Cotton Genesis, on loan from the British Library to the British Museum (British Library Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 26v)

On 9 March 2005, representatives of the four institutions holding parts of Codex Sinaiticus signed a partnership agreement for the conservation, photography, transcription and publication online of all surviving pages and fragments of the Codex. The principal outputs of the project were published online in full on the Codex Sinaiticus website in July 2009. This website includes a record of the detailed new conservation work undertaken, new photography of the whole manuscript and a full electronic transcription of the text of the manuscript in which every word in each image is linked to the corresponding word in the transcription. The work on the transcription was led by Professor David Parker at the University of Birmingham and was funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Other aspects of the project were generously funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the A. G. Leventis Foundation, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and a number of other donors.


Detail showing repaired split on Add MS 43725, f. 8r, 1 Chronicles, chapter 9

As part of the collaboration between the British Library, Leipzig University Library, the National Library of Russia and Saint Catherine’s Monastery, all four partners also worked together to undertake research into the history of the Codex and to commission an objective historical narrative based on the results of the research. That account was published on the Codex Sinaiticus website in 2009.

Other outputs of the Codex Sinaiticus Project include a new book by David Parker, Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible (London, 2010), a full printed facsimile of the manuscript published in 2011, and the papers from the international conference held by the project in 2009, Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript, ed. Scot McKendrick et al. (London, 2015). 

The volumes of Codex Sinaiticus held at the British Library (Add MS 43725) are also available on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

We hope that as many people as possible will visit the British Museum and the British Library this autumn to experience these great manuscript treasures.

Claire Breay
Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts


20 August 2015

The Constitution of the Athenians and the History of Athenian Democracy

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Building the Ancient City: Athens and Rome begins tonight on BBC2. The first episode includes footage and discussion of the Constitution of the Athenians (Papyrus 131).

While a great many important texts have survived from antiquity, many others have been lost to us. These we know only from sporadic quotations and mentions in extant works, leaving us to wonder what they might have been able to teach us about the ancient world.

For many centuries, Aristotle’s Constitutions, and in particular the Constitution of the Athenians, was numbered amongst the most important of these. According to Diogenes Laertius, Aristotle and his school collected the constitutions of 158 Greek city-states and wrote commentaries on each of them. Of these 158 commentaries, 68 are mentioned by name in other sources, clearly marking the Constitutions as a significant work in antiquity. In addition, the Constitution of the Athenians itself was known from 90 separate quotations, setting it apart from the others in terms of its importance to philosophers, historians, and other scholars in antiquity. Aristotle himself gave us evidence for the existence of the Constitutions, stating at the end of his Nicomachean Ethics that his Politics would be based in part on the “collected constitutions”.

The beginning of the surviving portion of the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 1v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

In light of this, the discovery of nearly the whole text of the Constitution of the Athenians at the end of the nineteenth century was monumental. In 1879, two leaves of a papyrus codex, dating from the fourth century, were acquired by the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin. These contain fragments of the Constitution of the Athenians with marginalia. Then, in 1889, three papyrus rolls, dating from the late first century, were found in Egypt by E. A. Wallis Budge, an assistant at the British Museum. These were sent back to London and accessioned as Papyrus 131. A fourth roll followed in 1890, but unfortunately, this was far more damaged than the other three. Frederic Kenyon, later Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, but then a young assistant in the Department of Manuscripts, was able to identify the text of the papyrus as the Constitution of the Athenians. Unfortunately, the papyrus lacks the opening sections of the work, which are believed to have dealt with legendary figures such as Ion and Theseus. Kenyon’s first edition was published in 1891, along with an English translation.

The second surviving roll of the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 3v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

The importance of this text for our understanding of the development, nature, and challenges of Athenian democracy cannot be overstated, and it has remained an object of scholarly study since its discovery. It recounts the history of Athenian legal and political institutions down to 403 BC and analyses their form and quality in the 330’s and 320’s – it should be noted that it does not declare or create these institutions, as a modern reader may imagine given the title ‘Constitution.’ Instead, along with other Classical texts, particular those by Herodotus, Xenophon (who also has a Constitution of the Athenians credited to his name), and Thucydides, the work gives us a clearer picture of Athenian history and government.

The fragmentary fourth roll containing the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 5v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

It should be noted that since the work’s publication, its attribution to Aristotle himself has been debated – not least because the style of the work is quite different from that found elsewhere in Aristotle. The fact that the work is in a different genre from the rest of Aristotle’s works may, however, be enough to explain the stylistic variance. Certainly, the ancient sources unanimously credit the work to him. Whether written by Aristotle himself or not, the text remains a significant primary source for Classical Athens, and a treasured piece of cultural history.

-          Andrew St. Thomas

19 August 2015

Handlist of Greek Manuscripts in the British Library

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The completion of the third phase of the Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project is as good a time as any to release to this world a handy spreadsheet containing details of the Greek manuscripts held by the British Library. The spreadsheet includes a brief description of the content and links to Digitised Manuscripts and to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts where the material has been digitised; it also notes which printed catalogue (Richard’s Inventaire or the 1999 Summary Catalogue) describes the item. Almost all the items listed are described in full on the main British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. Items in bold in the handlist are cared for by our colleagues in Asian and African Collections. Finally, links are included to the relevant entry on Pinakes, the important database for Greek manuscripts run by the IRHT in Paris.

- Cillian O'Hogan

The most recent manuscript to be acquired by the British Library, Add MS 82957, f 1r. Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), 2nd half of the 11th century

06 August 2015

Greek and Latin papyri acquired since 1956

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Papyrus 3053. Drawing of a bear in the arena. Found at Oxyrhynchus among documents dating from the third century.

Details of newly-acquired papyri were historically recorded in the Catalogue of Additions published at periodic intervals over the years. The existing Catalogue of Additions series only includes papyri acquired before 1956. It had been intended to detail the later acquisitions in a future volume of the Catalogue of Additions, but as these are no longer published, the papyri (Papyrus 2923-3136, and Egerton Papyrus 37) have not been as widely known as they perhaps might be. In an effort to bring them to greater attention, we have compiled a short Register of Papyri Acquired since 1956, which can be downloaded here as an Excel file. This gives details of British Library inventory number, details of publication where that is known, a Trismegistos number if extant, notes of any other papyri that originally formed part of the same document or book, source and date of acqusition, and a brief description of contents. All items are in Greek unless noted otherwise: this list does not include any papyri in other languages that may have been acquired by Asian and African Collections. Demotic and hieroglyphic papyri are cared for by the Department of Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum.

Only one item has been digitised, Papyrus 3053 (P. Oxy. 2470, pictured above), but all these papyri would be included in any future digitisation project.

The bulk of the acquisitions are known to scholars, forming a large portion of the Hibeh Papyri (Papyrus 2943-3035), Volume 27 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (Papyrus 3036-3063), and many of the Michaelides papyri (Papyrus 3100-3132), though not all of the latter have been edited. In addition, other acquisitions, or items incorporated from “limbo” or transferred from other departments in the British Museum or British Library, are mostly fragmentary, but would certainly benefit from further study.

We are not aware of any current research being carried out on the items in this list, but always welcome details of editions, and offprints, where possible, which can be sent in the first instance to the Manuscripts and Maps Reference Team.

- Cillian O’Hogan