THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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

20 January 2017

The Psychomachia: An Early Medieval Comic Book

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What do Captain America, Wonder Woman and a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript have in common? The answer may be more surprising than you think. The Psychomachia, or ‘War of the Soul’, was composed by the Late Antique poet Prudentius in the 5th century and depicts an action-packed battle between the Virtues and Vices for possession of the human soul. This allegory of good versus evil was hugely popular in the medieval period with about 300 surviving copies of the work, 20 of which were illuminated. Two illuminated Anglo-Saxon copies are held at the British Library (now Additional MS 24199 and Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII) and their illustrations can be compared to our comic books today.

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No need for utility belts: Pride rides down Humility and Hope, with Latin and Old English captions in Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 15v

These two manuscripts of the Psychomachia were produced in England in the 10th and 11th centuries, and like comics they feature illuminations in bordered frames, frequently accompanied by captions to summarise the often fast-paced plotline. The seven virtues are portrayed as seven female champions of the Christian faith against seven female pagan idolaters, who ultimately claim victory on the battlefield in front of a thousand cheering martyrs. The deaths of each vice are comically violent: Faith beheads Idolatry, Chastity slays Lust with her sword, and Sobriety uses the cross of the Lord to sabotage Indulgence’s chariot before striking her with a flint stone.

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Is it a plane? Sobriety defeating Indulgence as depicted in Additional MS 24199, f. 20r

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Kerpow! Anger’s sword breaks when used against Patience in Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 12r

Both manuscripts were probably used as classroom aids by Anglo-Saxon monks. Cleopatra C VIII was written at the abbey in Christ Church, Canterbury, and Additional MS 24199 may later have been owned by the abbey at Bury St Edmunds. These copies of the Psychomachia contain numerous glosses, or commentary writings, that are often present in schoolbooks of monastic communities.

Why would monks and their students study such a graphic text? Although monks lived in a warrior society, they could not take up arms against others and were encouraged to fight a spiritual battle instead. Alcuin wrote a letter to Bishop Higbald and the Lindisfarne community after the 793 Viking attack telling them to ‘be a model of all goodness to all who can see you, a herald of salvation to all who hear you’. Later, the New Minster Refoundation Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), probably written by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester in 966, noted that just as the king fought visible enemies, so too did monks protect the realm by fighting spiritual battles with invisible enemies. Similarly, the Psychomachia conveyed a message to monastic communities that moral combat against spiritual enemies was just as heroic as facing physical opponents in war.

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It’s Clobberin’ Time: Patience undaunted by the vices in Additional MS 24199, f. 8r

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Spiritual combat: Cuthbert of Lindisfarne extinguishing a fire set by a demon, from Chapter 13 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert in Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 30r

 

La Psychomachia fut composĂ©e au 5Ăšme siĂšcle par le poĂšte Prudence. Ce poĂšme Ă©pique met en scĂšne la bataille allĂ©gorique des vices et vertus, dont l’enjeu principal est le contrĂŽle de l’ñme humaine. Ce “Combat de l’ñme” fut largement diffusĂ© tout au long du Moyen Age puisqu’on compte plus de 300 manuscrits subsistants.

Deux d’entre eux sont aujourd’hui conservĂ©s Ă  la British Library: Add MS 24199 et Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII. Ils furent copiĂ©s en Angleterre, respectivement aux 10Ăšme et 11Ăšme siĂšcles, et prĂ©sentent une dĂ©coration comparable Ă  celles des bandes dessinĂ©es actuelles. Chaque scĂšne encadrĂ©e illustre l’intrigue, en regard du texte. La vocation pĂ©dagogique de ces illustrations suggĂšre que ces manuscrits furent probablement utilisĂ©s dans les Ă©coles monastiques. AprĂšs l’attaque de Lindisfarne (793), le message dĂ©livrĂ© n’en devenait que plus clair pour les communautĂ©s monastiques: le combat spirituel et moral doit l’emporter sur le glaive.

Alison Ray

Laure Miolo (French summary)

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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Polonsky Credit

 

19 January 2017

Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

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The British Library is delighted to be a participant in this year's ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. Throughout the Festival, from 19 to 23 January, a facsimile of one of the four original Magna Carta documents from 1215, now held at the British Library in London, will be on display at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur. The Festival itself was inaugurated by Chief Minister of Rajasthan Smt. Vasundhara Raje, who was one of the first to view the facsimile.

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Children viewing the facsimile of Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

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Claire Breay (The British Library) showing the facsimile of Magna Carta to Chief Minister of Rajasthan Smt. Vasundhara Raje

Then, on Saturday 21 January, the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival is holding a panel discussion entitled ‘Magna Carta: Spirit of Justice’. The five speakers — writer and lawyer Chintan Chandrachud, historian David Carpenter, barrister Helena Kennedy, biographer and historian Patrick French and curator Claire Breay — will explore the history, impact and global legacy of the 4,000 words of Latin issued by King John at Runnymede in 1215. The British Library is represented at the Festival by Claire Breay (Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts), who will be discussing with Professor David Carpenter (King's College London) the medieval history of Magna Carta, and how the Library's major 2015 exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, explored both the medieval story of Magna Carta and how it came to be such a famous international symbol of rights and liberties.

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The crowd at the inauguration ceremony of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

The loan of the Magna Carta facsimile is part of an ambitious British Library programme of engagement with India, which will also see the loan of one of the Library’s copies of the First Folio of William Shakespeare, to CSMVS Museum in Mumbai from 20 January to 8 March. The programme also includes a major project to digitise thousands of Indian printed books held by the Library: the first phase of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ aims to digitise and make available online 4,000 printed books in Bengali, unlocking their riches to researchers and a wider public than ever before.

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Outside the room where the facsimile of Magna Carta is on display at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

Claire Breay

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13 January 2017

New PhD Placements: Greek Papyri in the British Library

The British Library is offering a PhD placement opportunity for a student working on Greek papyri. This three-month placement will allow someone studying various aspects of Greek literature, papyrology, Late Antique history and religion to have first-hand experience with the ancient sources preserved in one of the world’s most renowned collections of papyri.

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Fragments from a papyrus scroll containing Sophocles’ play ‘The Trackers’ (Ichneutae), 2nd half of the 2nd century, Egypt (Papyrus 2068)

The British Library houses one of the most important collections of Greek papyri in the world, comprising unique witnesses of Greek classical literature, early biblical and Christian fragments and a large corpus of Greek documentary papyri. This collection of more than 3000 Greek papyri will now be digitised and then published online with new catalogue entries over the next few years. The PhD placement student will contribute towards the cataloguing associated with this digitisation project, enabling the digitised images to be described and published in the Library’s online catalogue and viewer. The placement student will also contribute to the Medieval Manuscripts Blog and Twitter feed and to Library events in order to promote the papyrus collection and its international importance for the study of Antiquity.

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The Bear Papyrus, Fragment of an illuminated papyrus, Egypt, 3rd–6th century (Papyrus 3053)

In addition to the fascinating challenges of dealing with world-famous treasures (such as Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians or the Egerton Gospel) or hitherto unpublished fragments, the placement student will get an insight into the daily life of the British Library’s collection. He or she will assist in the selection and delivery of the material, liaising with colleagues in the Library’s conservation and imaging studios, and checking image quality.

View a full placement profile.

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Fragment from the Anonymus Londiniensis Papyrus, one of the most important medical papyri surviving from Antiquity, Egypt, 1st century (Papyrus 137)

Funding

This is an unpaid professional development opportunity, which is open to current PhD researchers as part of the Library’s PhD placement scheme. To apply, applicants need to have the support of their PhD supervisor and their department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent senior academic manager). The British Library PhD placement scheme has been developed in consultation with Higher Education partners and stakeholders to provide opportunities for PhD students to develop and apply their research skills outside the university sector. Please note that the Library itself is not able to provide payment to placement students, nor can it provide costs for daily commuting or relocation to the site of the placement. Students applying for a placement at the Library are expected to consult their HEI or Doctoral Training Partnership/Doctoral Training Centre to ascertain what funding is available to support them. The Library strongly recommends to HEIs that a PhD student given approval to undertake a placement is in receipt of a stipend for the duration of the placement.

Application guidelines

For full application guidelines and profiles of the other placement opportunities being offered under this scheme, visit the Library’s Research Collaboration webpages.

The application deadline is 20 February 2017.

For any queries about this placement opportunity, please contact Research.Development@bl.uk